Story Skeleton—The Great Gatsby
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
Carraway the Detective
I was recently discussing what I refer to as “passive protagonist syndrome” on Twitter. This is something developmental editors commonly encounter in manuscripts by new writers. A passive protagonist floats through a story, propelled by the actions and decisions of other characters, rather than providing the plot momentum that is so important to emotional draw—the quality of a narrative that keeps readers engaged, anticipatory, and turning pages.
One person pointed to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald as an example of a successful novel with a (supposedly) passive protagonist, as if that was proof enough that no new writers need concern themselves with active causality. However, there is nothing passive about Fitzgerald’s protagonist. While The Great Gatsby has at first glance an unusual narrative structure, it does not in fact break any craft fundamentals.
What does it mean for a protagonist to be active?
When we talk about action or activity in terms of narrative structure, we are not necessarily referring to fight scenes or car chases. Instead, activity is about causality. A protagonist is active when they make choices and take risks that in some way shape what will happen next. In other words, a protagonist needs a goal that is clear, specific, and relatable. This goal crystalizes in the inciting incident and is resolved one way or another in the climax. Rising action flows out of the protagonist’s efforts toward achieving this goal.
Nick Carraway is not the protagonist
Here’s where F. Scott Fitzgerald was doing something interesting with the narrative structure of this novel. The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, but the protagonist is Jay Gatsby. Carraway is the “view from a single window” that unearths Gatsby’s story in the present and the past.
As the narrator, it is not Carraway’s job to provide the plot momentum. That job belongs to Gatsby the protagonist. However, while there is a passive element to Carraway’s window onto these events, he is active in his own way—his quest is one of social investigation. He is a detective trying to figure out what the heck is going on with his cousin Daisy Buchanan, which in turn leads him to seek the truth behind Jay Gatsby’s past and his efforts to convince Daisy to leave her husband Tom Buchanan and marry Gatsby instead.
Carraway’s investigation mostly involves hanging out and talking to people, or listening, but he is actively making himself available such that he can discover these truths. Since Daisy’s old flame for Gatsby is part of the unhappiness in her marriage, the two plot questions become intertwined, especially once she begins her affair with Gatsby. Essentially, Carraway finds himself in the midst of someone else’s story, and what his investigation ultimately reveals is the first half of the tragic love affair between Gatsby and Daisy years earlier.
Bit by bit he unearths the story in reverse: Gatsby’s rising action (his efforts in pursuit of wealth, such that he might win Daisy back), Gatsby’s inciting incident, and finally Gatsby’s stasis and backstory. Indeed, Gatsby’s inciting incident and stasis ARE the mystery behind what drove Daisy and Tom apart, much of which is delivered at the end in a final conversation between Nick and Gatsby in a way very similar to the summary of a murder investigation that is delivered by the sleuth at the end of a detective novel. Classic mystery resolution.
Let’s zoom in to examine Gatsby’s plot in full.
Plot Points in The Great Gatsby
A story’s stasis can include anything leading up to the inciting incident. It is the protagonist’s normal life before he sets out on his quest. For Gatsby, this includes his youthful desire to be wealthy, to stake his claim on the American Dream. But it also includes his initial romance with Daisy. Young Gatsby and Daisy meet and fall in love when he is a soldier. The potential for marriage and lifelong love constitutes the stakes—that which Gatsby is desperate not to lose.
While Gatsby is deployed overseas, Daisy grows tired of waiting and marries Tom instead. This is the moment when Jay Gatsby is fuelled with a desire to win his love back. His narrative goal has crystallized. He always wanted to be rich—that is integral to his character. But now he has a clear, specific, and relatable reason to become wealthy. Gatsby believes that if he can ascend to Daisy’s socioeconomic standing, he will convince her to leave her husband and marry him instead.
Gatsby works hard to succeed in business. He wants to be on comparable economic footing with Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. He achieves this in part through some shady business relationships and selling bootleg liquor through pharmacies. Eventually, when he has amassed enough of a fortune, he moves to Long Island, across the bay from Daisy, and hosts frequent parties in the hopes that she will one day attend. It is at this point that Gatsby becomes stuck—he throws party after party, and while he makes the acquaintance of Jordan Baker, Daisy’s good friend, his love never shows up at his mansion.
A new opportunity arises for Gatsby when Nick Carraway rents a bungalow next door to Gatsby’s mansion. Jordan, who Nick is dating, informs Gatsby that Nick is Daisy’s cousin, and thus Gatsby makes a point of engaging Nick, getting to know him, and eventually arranging a reunion with Daisy at Nick’s bungalow.
In most narratives, this would be an “all is lost” moment. However, Gatsby’s romantic quest is a tragedy in the old dramatic sense. So it is at this point in the story that he seems closest to victory. He and Daisy have declared their love for each other, and the truth is soon to come out.
The affair between Daisy and Gatsby progresses until Tom starts to get suspicious, and then Gatsby and Tom argue in a Plaza Hotel suite. This is Gatsby’s opportunity to declare his love and pull Daisy once and for all away from Tom. However, Gatsby is overly insistent that Daisy declare she has never loved Tom, which isn’t the case, and Tom reveals that Gatsby’s wealth has come through shady connections and bootlegging. By the end of the conversation, Daisy’s opinion of Gatsby has soured. Tom, now cocksure that his wife will not leave him, asks Gatsby to drive Daisy home so they can talk it over. When they leave, Daisy insists on driving. And here is the tragedy’s final stroke—on the way, Daisy runs down and kills a pedestrian, then flees the scene. Gatsby accepts the blame.
Earlier, Tom had borrowed Gatsby’s distinctive yellow car, so when Gatsby and Daisy are on their way back from the Plaza Hotel, Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, sees the car and runs out to flag Tom down. They have all been drinking, and so Daisy loses control, hitting Myrtle and killing her. Later, when Tom visits the scene and talks to Myrtle’s husband George, he reveals that Gatsby owns the car, thereby implying that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover AND the cause of her death. This drives George into a rage in which he murders Gatsby and then kills himself.
In the climax, once Nick learns that Daisy was the one driving and that Gatsby will take the fall for her, he finally comes around to fully empathizing with the self-made millionaire. As such, after the murder-suicide, he dedicates himself to getting in touch with anyone who might attend Gatsby’s funeral. Eventually he meets Gatsby’s father and thus fills in the final pieces about the Great Jay Gatsby’s backstory.
Is The Great Gatsby an example of a novel with a passive protagonist? No, certainly not. Gatsby perfectly fits the bill of an active protagonist who drives the momentum of his own story, from beginning to tragic end. However, the structure is clearly unusual. Through Nick Carraway, we enter Gatsby’s story at the midpoint. The protagonist’s stasis, inciting incident, and half of his rising action all happen “off screen” and are therefore revealed as backstory. But the point is, all the foundational plot elements are here, even if they appear in an unconventional arrangement.
Keep in mind that story structure is more about convincing readers to keep turning pages than it is about how to write a novel. Within the dimensions of narrative structure, there are still limitless possibilities. As such, narrative structure is equivalent to a painter’s canvas. While the edges of the canvas are defined, an author still has full creative potential when it comes to what happens within that framework. Structure and how we play with it, how we use it to tell a story, is an integral part of the artform.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.