I’ve just returned from a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, where I taught a workshop focusing on the novel. Six novelists sat in a room with me for two hours and fifteen minutes each day, and together we workshopped excerpts from their novels in progress. We also used The Great Gatsby to think a bit more deeply about everything from structure to characterization, detail, point of view, and language. We even found time for some corny jokes—okay, I found time for the jokes, all with a pedagogical purpose, of course.
A frog goes into a bank, and approaches a teller. The teller’s nameplate indicates that her name is Patricia Whack.
“Good morning, Miss Whack,” the frog says. “I’d like to have a loan. I’d like to borrow $5,000 so I can take cruise. And you should know my father is Mick Jagger.”
“Really,” says Miss Whack, with a good deal of skepticism. “I’m afraid we’d have to have some collateral. Do you have any collateral.”
“Of course,” the frog says and hands her a small ceramic elephant.
“This is extremely unusual,” Miss Whack says. “I’ll need to speak with my manager.”
“Good. He happens to know me.”
The teller goes to the manager’s office and says, “Excuse me, sir, but there’s a frog out there who wants to borrow $5,000. When I asked him for collateral, he gave me this.” Miss Whack showed the manager the ceramic elephant. “Now what in the heck is this?”
The manager says: “It’s a knick-knack, Patty Whack. Give the frog a loan; his old man’s a Rolling Stone.”
I know. Groan! But the point is how much mileage a writer can get out of a detail like a ceramic elephant.
Which leads me to the moment when Gatsby is showing Daisy and Nick his shirts, the glorious shirts that his man sends over from Europe each season.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” Daisy says. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”
If you’re like me, you might recall Mia Farrow playing Daisy in the 1974 film with Robert Redford as Gatsby. You might also consider her delivery of this line a bit melodramatic, but when I read it in the novel, it opens up Daisy’s character and her life in interesting ways. Those shirts contain so many complicated emotions—pride, perhaps, over what Gatsby has risen to; regret, perhaps, that she didn’t marry him when she had the chance; an awareness, perhaps, that no matter how much money he has, he’ll never be of her social class, and therefore, he’ll always be outside her grasp and she’ll be doomed to her life with Tom Buchannan.
Try it for yourself. Take a character who could use a bit more complexity. Put him or her in a situation where an object expresses a mixture of emotions. Let the object contain what the character can’t put into words. See how the dialogue in the scene can have a subtext that expresses something that the character can’t, or won’t, say directly.
Remember the moment when Nick is visiting Daisy and Tom for the first time, and she calls attention to her bruised finger:
“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it.”
We all looked – the knuckle was black and blue.
“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen of a—”
“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”
“Hulking,” insisted Daisy.
Her insistence on repeating the word, “hulking,” speaks volumes about how she feels about her husband. She doesn’t have the courage to say how she really feels, but she feels safe enough to talk about her bruised finger. That single detail brings her feelings to the surface.
Pay attention to the details when writing. Let them do the work the characters can’t.