What most interested me, though, were Fitzgerald’s short stories — the ones he wrote mainly for money and that appeared in the great magazines of his day: Collier’s, McCall’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire. They read like the newspaper stories I was trying to write, ones that could rise to Sunday 1A by making a universal point about lonely bachelors in Herman, Minnesota, or a town’s efforts to prepare for probable flooding from the Red River. The compressed form of the short story forced Fitzgerald to do something a lot of journalists have trouble doing: get to the point. And by writing them, Fitzgerald kept his writing chops well honed, much like writing dailies and weekenders helps reporters exercise the muscles they need to tackle multipart narrative or investigative series.
It’s a given that journalists can learn a lot about narrative, pacing and plot from studying fiction. But Fitzgerald’s short stories offer a good road map to journalistic writing. Think of him as national reporter whose beat was the Jazz Age, roaming the Midwest and the East Coast for stories about what it was like to live in America during a time of economic exuberance and the collapse that followed.
Some of Fitzgerald’s writing is too florid for today’s readers, and his complex sentences can get lost in themselves, but the great dialogue and on-point descriptions of people — the way they talk, dress and carry themselves — feel like they could be dropped into any online or print story and feel just as fresh today as they did a century ago. Aspiring writers who want to bring a sense of place, character and action to their journalistic work could do worse than to study Fitzgerald. Compelling ledes, strong nut grafs, sentences with good rhythm, memorable kickers, background information that appears at just the point that readers want to know more — it’s all there.
Nut grafs in fiction
Here’s an example from “A Woman With a Past,” one of several short stories Fitzgerald wrote while struggling to write “Tender is the Night,” his novel that followed “The Great Gatsby.” The main character, Josephine Perry, is a 17-year-old girl from a wealthy family. She’s used to being pursued by many young men and has acquired a bad reputation as a result. When her schoolmate, Adele, introduces her to her prom date, Josephine is instantly intrigued because he seems different from the boys who surround her. She sets out to catch him, with disastrous results.
The beginning of the story works as a lede that could top a weekend profile about a wealthy young Jazz Age woman, whose values clash with those of the adults around her:
Driving slowly through New Haven, two of the young girls became alert. Josephine and Lillian darted soft frank glances into strolling groups of three or four undergraduates, into larger groups on corners, which swung about as one man to stare at their receding heads. Believing that they recognized an acquaintance in a solitary loiterer, they waved wildly, whereupon the youth’s mouth fell open, and as they turned the next corner he made a dazed dilatory gesture with his hand. They laughed, “We’ll send him a post card when we get back to school tonight, to see if it really was him.”
That opening makes readers want to know more: Who are these girls? What do they want?
We find out five paragraphs down, in a long graf that contains much of the stuff needed in a nonfiction “nut” — a tether to time and place, context or relevant background, news significance or, in the case of narrative, a sense of the story’s heart or theme.
She was exactly seventeen and she was blasé. Already she had been a sensation and a scandal; she had driven mature men to a state of disequilibrium; she had, it was said, killed her grandfather, but as he was over eighty at the time perhaps he just died. Here and there in the Middle West were discouraged little spots which upon inspection turned out to be the youths who had once looked full into her green and wistful eyes. But her love affair of last summer had ruined her faith in the all-sufficiency of men. She had grown bored with the waning September days — and it seemed as though it had happened once too often. Christmas with its provocative shortness, its traveling glee clubs, had brought no one new. There remained only a persistent, a physical hope; hope in her stomach that there was someone whom she would love more than he loved her.
Like a good reporter, Fitzgerald sprinkles additional context throughout the story as he introduces each section, like mini nut grafs. This one sets up Josephine’s pursuit of her friend Adele’s boyfriend:
She was discomfited by the unfairness of it. A girl earned her popularity by being beautiful and charming. The more beautiful and charming she was, the more she could afford to disregard public opinion. It seemed absurd that simply because Adele had managed to attach a baseball captain, who mightn’t know anything about girls at all, or be able to judge their attractions, she should be thus elevated in spite of her thick ankles, her rather too pinkish face.
And the final nut that sets up the quote kicker:
One mustn’t run through people, and, for the sake of a romantic half-hour, trade a possibility that might develop — quite seriously — later, at the proper time. She did not know that this was the first mature thought that she had ever had in her life, but it was.
The kicker itself echoes the lede, with a final glimpse of Josephine’s boundary-pushing character:
Josephine knew without cogitation which sort of man he was — and the moon was bright even on the windows. So with a certain sense of relaxation she took his arm and they strolled out to the pleasant bower she had so lately quitted, and their faces turned toward each other, like little moons under the great white one which hovered high over the Blue Ridge; his arm dropped softly about her yielding shoulder.
“Well?” he whispered.
Telling the story in scenes
Here’s another example from “Emotional Bankruptcy,” about Josephine Perry discovering, to her horror, that her taste for pursuing men seems to have worn off — until an American captain in the French army comes courting, and her interest in the chase resumes. Or has it? Here’s Fitzgerald the national reporter, setting the scene a few grafs in of young women on a train heading to a weekend of gaiety with the young men of Princeton, while other young men in far-off Europe are dying hideously in World War I:
This was in the fall of 1916, with the thunder of far-off guns already growing louder in the air. When the two girls started for the Princeton prom two days later, they carried with them the Poems of Alan Seeger, supplemented by copies of Smart Set and Snappy Stories, bought surreptitiously at the station news stand. When compared to a seventeen-year-old girl of today, Lillian Hammel was an innocent; Josephine Perry, however, belonged to the ages.
The story outlines Josephine’s growing disenchantment with young men, until the American captain briefly captures her fancy. But it doesn’t last, and their anguished exchange sets up the final nut graf and the kicker:
“You won’t help me,” she murmured abstractedly.
“How in the devil can I help you?” he answered impatiently. “You feel indifferent to me. You can’t change that, but neither can I. Good-by.”
She was very tired and lay face downward on the couch with that awful, awful realization that all the old things are true. One cannot both spend and have. The love of her life had come by, and looking in her empty basket, she had found not a flower left for him –not one. After a while she wept.
“Oh, what I have done to myself?” she wailed. “What have I done? What have I done?”
Reporting as the key to confident writing
In “Babylon Revisited,” perhaps his finest short story, Fitzgerald turns to Europe. We can see him as a national correspondent gone abroad after the economic crash (Fitzgerald wrote it in 1931) to try to make sense of expatriate Americans. “Babylon Revisited,” a sort of “letter from Europe” or “Paris dispatch,” is a notebook dump of impressions of a glittering city gone quiet and sober in the Great Depression.
Fitzgerald introduces us to Charlie Wales, a recovering alcoholic who has come to Paris to reclaim his young daughter, Honoria. Honoria has been living with his wife’s sister, Marion, and her husband, Lincoln, who took custody of the girl after the death of Charlie’s wife, Helen. Helen caught pneumonia after Charlie locked her out of their house one night after a quarrel; Marion blames Charlie for her death and disapproves of his and Helen’s lavish, Jazz Age lifestyle. She’s distrustful of his intentions and not sure his sobriety will last.
Fitzgerald begins the story with a bit of dialogue between Charlie and the bartender at the Ritz. Like a good reporter, he sets the tone early on: This is a dispatch about the aftermath of the stock-market crash and the worldwide effects of America’s Great Depression. You can see it accompanying a front-page story about European leaders’ efforts to shore up their economies, or a piece about Europe’s efforts to recover from World War I and the early stirrings of fascism:
He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more – he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it. It had gone back to France.
This section of great quotes sets up the fight that will drive the direction of the story: Charlie’s determination to get his daughter back, and Marion’s conviction that he’s too irresponsible to take care of her:
“How do you like being back in Paris?”
“It seems very funny to see so few Americans around.”
“I’m delighted,” Marion said vehemently. “Now at least you can go into a store without their assuming you’re a millionaire. We’ve suffered like everybody, but on the whole it’s a good deal pleasanter.”
“But it was nice while it lasted,” Charlie said. “We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us. In the bar this afternoon” – he stumbled, seeing his mistake – “there wasn’t a man I knew.”
She looked at him keenly. “I should think you’d have had enough of bars.”
Fitzgerald weaves historical context into his impressions. He’s secure enough in his interviews and his on-the-ground reporting to write with a point of view:
He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.
But it hadn’t been given for nothing.
It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember — his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.
Charlie’s plans for a new life with his daughter are upended when dissolute friends from his old life show up, drunk, at Lincoln and Marion’s apartment. Marion, horrified, flees into another room and her husband tells Charlie to leave. He heads straight for the Ritz, but orders only one drink — and starts talking to the bartender, Paul. Fitzgerald weaves historical context (backstory) into the dialogue between Charlie and Paul as a series of nut grafs. Paul starts:
“Are you back in the States?”
“No, I’m in business in Prague.”
“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”
“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
“Something like that.”
Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare — the people they had met travelling; then people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak in a coherent sentence. The little man Helen had consented to dance with at the ship’s party, who had insulted her ten feet from the table; the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places —
The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.
Suddenly impatient, Charlie calls Lincoln, who says that Marion is sick and that Charlie will have to wait at least six months before bringing up the issue of Honoria. Charlie, disheartened, realizes there’s nothing he can do but send presents to his daughter, and wait.
The dispatch ends on a wistful note that bridges Charlie’s wild past and sober present. It highlights the contrast between the Roaring Twenties and the new Depression years:
He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.
Spurned as a newspaper reporter
It’s perhaps no accident that Fitzgerald’s shorter works read like newspaper or magazine sketches. After Scribner’s turned down his first novel, he tried to get hired by several newspapers in New York. He was unsuccessful: “The office boys were not impressed,” he said in an interview with the New York Post. So, he took a job in advertising until “This Side of Paradise” was finally accepted for publication.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Maryland.