In addition to being one of the best known American authors ever, F. Scott Fitzgerald felt a strong need to contribute to the development of future writers. By that, I mean he enjoyed criticizing others’ work. However, his advice, as cutting as it may have been, often came with keen observations from which we can learn about the craft.
In a letter to Frances Turnbull, a student, Fitzgerald famously wrote these words: “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.”
While it may sound melodramatic, his point is well made. If we hope to move our readers, we can’t write about mundane, ordinary things. Whatever happens in our stories must have a violent emotional impact on our characters, and thereby our readers.
Fitzgerald often wrote about filthy rich, unhappy characters. More often than not, their unhappiness stemmed from unrequited or failed love—something that dramatically affected Fitzgerald himself. To begin with, he took the most emotionally scarring experiences of his life, and used them to fuel his characters motivations and tragedies.
However, this need not be dark and depressing. Our victories can be just as moving as our failures, but generally they only accomplish the violent emotional impact if they follow on the heels of a great failure.
What’s the central emotion of your story? Is it one with a violent emotional impact? If not, why are you writing about it? If you don’t feel the depth of emotion, you readers never will.
Once you’ve experienced that emotion, the next step is to find a way to conceptualize it, to use fiction as a medium to express it in a powerful and profound way. Carver has some ideas about that. We’ll look at them next week. Until then, good writing.