I usually beat the temptation to link to Letters of Note, but you really need to read this.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to an amateur writer is thoughtful and precise. Like all great writing, this letter communicates more than it says.
You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
As an amateur fiction writer, this makes great sense. All of my early stories were expressions of emotion, with plots forced upon them for context. The novel’s plot is more direct, though, and I think I’ve been hoping that the emotion will simply condense like dew on the structure. Fitzgerald has me worried, though, that I’m not yet good enough to make the actions and dialogue affect the reader.
It takes a special and practiced power to communicate more than the words you write. Three of my favourite lines from The Great Gatsby are,
The younger of the two was a stranger to me. She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless and with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.
At any rate Miss Baker’s lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly and then quickly tipped her head back again–the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright.
I glanced at Daisy, who was staring terrified between Gatsby and her husband, and at Jordan, who had begun to balance an invisible but absorbing object on the tip of her chin.
The first two are from chapter one, and the third is from chapter seven. This is how the character of Jordan Baker is described. How clear that description is. We are shown, not just how she holds her chin, but how she holds herself. We both see and understand her, all from a detail.
It takes a long, long time to learn to write that well. So when I rewrite the novel it will be with a more focused eye on emotion.