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Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Writing Party Scenes, and The Great Gatsby

I never got The Great Gatsby.  Once, a writing teacher said the greatest party scene every written was in The Great Gatsby, and that I should study it if I wanted a perfect example of how to ‘show’ high society at play.  All I remembered from reading that party scene was a bunch of people ‘telling’ themselves, and us in the process, about how mysterious Gatsby was.  And so I didn’t think it was such a revealing scene after all.

I preferred Jane Austen for party scenes.  I liked the quiet gentility of the party at the Cole’s house in Emma, for example.  All the preparations that went into it, the timing of selected invitations (when Emma hadn’t received hers, though the Weston’s and Knightly’s had received theirs), the appropriateness of when guests arrived (during the afternoon, or only in time for dinner); the arrangements that went into comfort for old Mister Woodhouse.  Or the ball at Netherfields arranged by Mr. Bingley.

Austen gives us a party in which the gossip is about characters we already know.  We care, when Darcy and Bingley’s sisters show up, because we’ve seen them before.

This weekend I read a wonderful piece in the Word Craft section of The Wall Street Journal (Oct 2, 2010) by Blake Bailey on a ‘truly seeing eye.’ Bailey walks us through the Gatsby party scene again, with an eye for the revealing details that Fitzgerald used to make what might have been a still life into an action scene. 

Details about the caterers, and the manner in which the turkey was presented; the number of cars in the driveway, and the swimmers out on the beach, these all paint a quite different picture in that scene to me now.  The details also convey a sense of the 1920’s – the way the ladies lounged on the divans, or even that they would consider swimming at a summer party at all. The fact that one old gentleman was passed out in the driveway in a drunken stupor, and that another character had gambled away his fortune.

I’ve had a huge party scene in almost every book I’ve written, and struggled with crowd control, dialog, and the general throughput, in each one.  In real life, social ‘circles’ themselves, and how the dynamics of a social circle play out in the few hours of a party can be the stuff of drama. Each party has its little disappointments and triumphs – the kind of thing you and your girlfriends would go to a diner and hash out before going home and to bed after a great party.

The difference I suppose is that the party scene in Gatsby is supposed to reflect upon the character of Gatsby. While the party scenes of Austen were about the proprieties of life in the late 18th century, about country civilities and what those decorums said about the social status of the partiers.

I can see now, given these two examples, how one might construct a party scene, not by ‘showing’ all the details of the event, including the small talk and every little introduction, but ‘telling’ what a party and the social protocols signify in the context of one’s story.  Unless every character is already defined in the story (as with Austen), a party scene requires a narrator.  In Gatsby, the narrator was Nick Carraway (the reporter and friend, who makes the observant commentary that allows the reader to interpret all the details).

Parties, musical entertainment, elements of ‘style,’ – presenting one’s self to the world, and sporting events, these are the components of ‘living’ – the things that we enjoy about our lives (or maybe that I enjoy about my life).  So for me, writing a party scene is an important way of conveying the social lives of my characters.  But getting it right has always been tricky.

Thoughts?  Other Examples?

Next I’d like to discuss how to write about sports in a way that conveys sports’ essential fascination in real life (because of its unpredictable nature – the very opposite of what is true about sports in fiction).


  1. This is a comment from my friend Wendy Herrera: I may be too simplistic here....I've always thought that it tends to break down along gender lines. How many men do you know who have read Austen? How many men do you know who have read Fitzgerald? When I was in college, there was almost a clear divide along gender lines. The women who read "Gatsby" did so because it was required reading for a college class. Austen wasn't. Men and women view events differently because different things are important to us. Maybe it is as simple and as complicated as that.

  2. Wow! I Never thought of it like that. And I think you are right. A lot of female writers think of Austen like a goddess (including for example J.K. Rowling, who reads the Austen novels again every year), while most male writer's consider Fitzgerald essential reading.