3 Writing Lessons from the Ending of “The Great Gatsby”

f scott fitzgeraldI’m in the middle of writing my WIP due out in June, but I knew what the ending would be long before I began writing the first words of chapter one.  Any writer worth their salt should do just the same, as the ending is probably the most important component to any good novel.  F. Scott Fitzgerald understood this technique when he wrote “The Great Gatsby”.  He re-wrote the final chapters several times, finally landing on the chapters we have today.  These final chapters are a blueprint that authors should study for the technique of the ending.

I used to struggle over the ending, mainly because I could come up with an awesome beginning and middle, had no problem with characterization or subplots, but I always found the ending to be forced.  It was as if the wild party I was having with the plot was just too much fun to end, and I would often end the novel without much closure.

Of course, now I’m writing a series of books and the endings have to be enough of a cliffhanger for the reader to want to read the next book, but not too much so that there is not a sufficient amount of closure.

Here are a few ideas about what endings should be:

  1. The Overarching Idea – The ending of any novel should not begin any new ideas at all, but like the conclusion of an essay, leave the reader thinking about what they just read.  It should make the reader think about the themes of the novel much like chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby sums up the life of Jay Gatsby and how it is a symbol of the deterioration of the American Dream.  Not all of us are F. Scott Fitzgerald (actually most of us are not) but if we plan our ending carefully we will be able to use it for the final note in the jazz number and not the downbeat for another unneeded trumpet solo.
  2. Be Spontaneous – Great endings are like a shock to the system.  The best endings surprise the reader and usually contain events that the reader doesn’t expect.  No one expected Jay Gatsby to be shot while lounging in his pool at the end of Fitzgerald’s novel.  The death of Gatsby reveals an entire layer to the novel that was not expected.  Even though we assume that most of the words spoken by the characters in the novel are lies, we are confronted with the lie of Gatsby in the ending in a way that is shocking and thought provoking.  If the ending can sneak up on a reader it will be that much more powerful and memorable.
  3. Rewind – The best endings make readers want to read the book again.  When I wrote Come Apart, I wrote the ending first and then wrote the entire novel around what would happen at the end.  By writing the novel in this manner I was able to drop red herrings, little hints as to the truth about the plot.  The hope was that if a reader wished to read the novel again they would find these little hints sprinkled throughout the novel.  We read The Great Gatsby again to figure out if Fitzgerald was dropping us hints about the truth from the beginning…and he is.

Above all, we should be very careful and conscious about the ending we devise for our novel.  A bad ending can ruin a novel, and a good one might be the fire that kindles a host of other readers when that one reader tells all of their friends.  Good writing is good writing.  If people read something that intrigues them, that makes them want more of the same, they will tell others about it.

Good endings are an integral part of any good novel.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

6 thoughts on “3 Writing Lessons from the Ending of “The Great Gatsby”

  1. Glad to hear someone else sometimes has trouble with endings – sometimes, I know exactly how a story should end. Other times, I struggle immensely with it.

    As for rewind, it’s a concept that transcends books alone – I can count on the number of hands the books I have wanted to immediately re-read, but those are all among my favorite books!

  2. Great post, Roger! I loved the end of The Great Gatsby, and you’re right about learning lessons from it. Endings aren’t always my strong point, so I’ll have to bookmark this and come back to it next time I’m stuck. 😀

  3. The ‘rewind’ idea is definitely interesting. I have been looking for a good way of coming up with red herrings and clues for the reader, and working backwards definitely makes sense. It’s nice to see someone talking about the ‘reread’ factor.

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