This week the Roundtable team disappears into Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and comes back with a verdict of Psychological Thriller, with an extra dose of disturbing.
Nick discovers that his wife is missing and cooperates with police in the investigation. However, when it’s revealed that Amy was pregnant at the time of her disappearance, Nick becomes a suspect in the case and refuses to talk to police further without a lawyer. Nick, knowing his wife never wanted children, wonders whether the pregnancy story is true.
The police find Amy’s false diary and use it as a key piece of evidence in the case against Nick. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that Amy is still alive and has planned the entire scenario. However, her plan goes awry when she is robbed and forced to call an old boyfriend (Desi) for help. Realizing that she’s trapped, Amy devises a new plan and murders Desi.
Amy returns home saying that Desi was behind the abduction and that she killed him in self defence. Nick doesn’t believe her story, but realizing she is pregnant (for real this time), decides to stay married. Amy and Nick live unhappily ever after.
The Editor’s Six Core Questions
Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.
1.What’s the Global Genre? Psychological Thriller – Anne
It’s a Thriller, subgenre psychological. Thriller subgenres are usually determined by the setting, such as medical thrillers in hospitals, journalism thrillers in newsrooms, military thrillers in a war zone, and so on. This story is closely tied to a house and a marriage and involves the mental manipulations of a husband and wife.
I’m tempted to class Nick Dunne’s internal arc as Morality Testing with a surrender outcome—where a once-strong character is tested by a loss he can’t recover from, and he just surrenders. But then Nick is never very strong to begin with—except in his own unreliable self narration.
Still, there’s a cunning quality to him, and that leads me to think of the Morality/Punitive subgenre, in which a despicable protagonist with repugnant goals deploys some cunning or smarts, but winds up justly punished.
A lot depends on how you, the audience, view him. Is his goal of getting free from his wife repugnant or understandable? Is his affair with a student repugnant or understandable? We all get to look into a moral mirror watching him go through his ordeal.
As to Amy, I’m going to go out on a limb here and ask, “Do psychopaths ever have an internal arc?” and theorize that no, they don’t.
There’s a secondary external genre of a marriage love story that also ends negatively, with hatred masquerading as love. We might want to argue a little about whether this is actually the primary genre.
2. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? – Valerie
Beginning Hook – Nick discovers that his wife is missing and cooperates with police in the investigation. However, when it’s revealed that Amy was pregnant at the time of her disappearance, Nick becomes a suspect in the case and refuses to talk to police further without a lawyer. Nick, knowing his wife never wanted children, wonders whether the pregnancy story is true.
- Inciting incident: Nick arrives home to discover that his house has been ransacked and his wife has gone missing.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Nick is having an affair with one of his students, even while his pregnant wife is still missing.
- Crisis Question: When Nick realizes that he’s a suspect in Amy’s disappearance, does he continue to help the police in their investigation (and hopefully find Amy faster) or does he refuse to cooperate further (protecting himself, but slowing the investigation)?
- Climax: Nick refuses to cooperate further and will not talk to the police without a lawyer.
- Resolution: Nick tells Margo that Amy never wanted children. Nick and Margo fight.
Middle Build – The police find Amy’s false diary and use it as a key piece of evidence in the case against Nick. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that Amy is still alive and has planned the entire scenario. However, her plan goes awry when she is robbed and forced to call an old boyfriend (Desi) for help. Realizing that she’s trapped, Amy devises a new plan and murders Desi.
- Inciting incident: Boney and Gilpin find Amy’s diary.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Amy is alive and has staged her disappearance to frame Nick. She plans to kill herself so that Nick will be convicted of her murder and will face the death penalty. However, once Amy has been robbed, she must contact Desi for help.
- Crisis Question: Realizing that Desi’s lake house is covered with surveillance cameras, and that he wants to rekindle his relationship with her, Amy must decide whether she’ll stay with Desi (and be trapped in a life she doesn’t want) or if she’ll try to get away from him (and risk being exposed as the mastermind behind her disappearance).
- Climax: Amy dreams up a new scheme for freedom. (Framing Desi for her disappearance)
- Resolution: Amy murders Desi.
Ending Payoff – Amy returns home saying that Desi was behind the abduction and that she killed him in self defence. Nick doesn’t believe her story, but realizing she is pregnant (for real this time), decides to stay married. Amy and Nick live unhappily ever after.
- Inciting incident: Amy returns home covered in blood.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Amy admits that she murdered Desi, but there’s nothing the local police can do. Amy is pregnant (for real this time)
- Crisis Question: Knowing that Amy is pregnant with his child, Nick can either continue with the divorce (and lose access to his child) or he can stay married (and live in hell, but keep his child safe).
- Climax: Nick decides to stay married to Amy.
- Resolution: Nick and Amy look like the loving couple in public, but in private the relationship is uneasy (at best).
Jarie: The midpoint shift happens at 1:06 when Amy admits she feels so much better being “dead.”
3. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Thriller genre?
Conventions – Jarie
Hero, Victim, Villain
- Hero: Detective Rhonda Boney starting out to find Amy then at 52:06, it’s Tanner Bolt. You don’t know this at that point but it builds to it. Then it’s Nick since he finally figures it out.
- Victim: Amy in the beginning. Desi and Nick towards the end.
- Villain: It starts out as Nick Dunne, but clearly moves to Amy once she explains how she does it. She is a master criminal and so evil. Amy wants to be known for herself and not as Amazing Amy. So Amy is really both a victim and villain. A victim of her childhood and lashing out in adulthood to find her way.
The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim: Detective Boney wants to find Amy and clearly starts to think that Nick is the villain but has her doubts. Tanner Bolt then wants to save Nick but not as much as Nick wants to save himself.
The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large: Amy is one step ahead of Nick and the police. She is the puppet master and has skillfully placed all the clues. She has had time to plan this all out and no one suspects her—just Nick. The whole town and the nation suspects Nick since most women that go missing are because of the men who love them.
Speech in Praise of the Villain: At 42:02, Amy talks about disappearing since she feels like Nick just “packed her by mistake.” She also wanted him to “ask her to go to Missouri.” This is the first part of the speech. At 1:06:49 Amy tells how she will “fake” a murder. It’s simply brilliant. It shows her true brilliance and evil.
MacGuffin: Amy. Where is she?
Investigative Red Herrings
- Clues One, Two, and Three that Amy left for the police to find.
- Brown House: Nick lies about it. Goes to his Dad’s house but it’s blue.
- Noelle Hawthorn: Amy’s best friend whom Nick knows nothing about.
- Diary: The entries Amy fabricated paint Nick as a total monster, and the diary is made to look like someone tried to burn it.
- Gun: Amy seeks a gun from a drug dealer and acts as if she’s terrified.
- Blood in the Kitchen: Amy draws a bucket of blood, spills it all over the kitchen, and then cleans it (in a shodd way, how Nick would have done it).
- Pregnancy #1
- Credit Card Charges: Lots of stuff Nick did not buy. $120k
- Life Insurance increased shortly before Any’s disappearance: Nick filed the paperwork.
Making it Personal: Amy is just so pissed that Nick cheated on her that she does the entire scheme is designed to get back at him. It’s personal and she is hurt to the point where she plans this whole thing.
Clock: I can’t really find a clock element in all this. Nothing “life and death” will happen on a time frame. There is the whole death penalty, but that timeline is not critical. The timeline does get accelerated when Amy gets robbed. So for Amy, she needs to find money. That’s when she calls Desi.
Anne: In some ways, the Villain throughout the middle build is something like television, publicity, the public gaze of society. It ferrets out scandalous tidbits, leaps to conclusions, acts as judge, jury, and social executioner, and plays on Nick’s many weaknesses. Boney is a hero to the extent there is one, and she would totally be in that role if this were a crime story. She is the most “heroic” figure, except within the sick minds of the protagonists, who each think they’re the hero of their own story and the other is the villain.
Jarie: Nick’s sister, Go, is perfect in the role as herald.
Obligatory Scenes – Leslie
An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. Nick returns home to find his cat outside, the living room in disarray, and Amy missing.
Speech in Praise of the Villain: This is a speech by a character or a revelation that praises the cunning of the villain. Amy recounts how she set Nick up.
The Hero-Protagonist becomes the Victim. I’m of two minds about this. Technically, Nick isn’t a victim until he’s arrested (after police confront him with Amy’s diary, the Punch and Judy puppets, and the handle to one of the puppets that appears to be the murder weapon). That is, he’s not in real danger of death until that point. But he becomes the victim of Amy’s crime almost immediately, and it became personal for her when she saw him with his girlfriend, which Amy reveals to Greta at the motel.
The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. This scene is the Core event, the one the audience member is waiting for. It’s when the life value shifts at the height of the Core Emotion. Technically, Nick is at Amy’s mercy from the beginning, but it’s when she shows up again at home, pretending to love him and that Desi had attacked her that Nick’s life value shifts from potential death to life. But when she tells him he can’t leave her and reveals that she is pregnant, he realizes he’s at her mercy for the foreseeable future, which shifts the value from life to damnation.
It’s interesting that the scene that is the most emotionally intense is when Amy kills Desi while they’re having sex. The life value in the scene shifts from life to death there. But Desi isn’t the hero, so that’s not the Core Event. The intensity of the scene seems out of place with the rest of the movie.
False Ending (there must be two endings). (1) Amy returns home, and Nick can’t be convicted of killing Amy. (2) Interview airs revealing that Amy is pregnant, scene cuts to Nick explaining to his sister, Margo, why he must stay with Amy.
Jarie: For me, the Hero at the Mercy of the villain is when Nick is going to go on the interview show and his girlfriend goes public. It’s the perfect storm for him and a best bad choice. He must go on and trick Amy into coming back to him. It’s where he reveals his gift is knowing Amy well (her words: “in your marrow”). It’s also when she reveals she is pregnant. She is just so evil. The best bad choice for Nick: Stay or go.
4. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Anne
POV: This story is all about the POV and narrative device. It’s omniscient, with scenes from the POV of Nick, Amy, and Detective Boney, but the first-person voiceover narratives from both Nick’s and Amy’s POV makes it feel like alternating first person.
Narrative Device: The story is told in a series of alternating realtime scenes and flashbacks, with the epistolary device of the novel represented by closeups of Amy writing in her diary, with voiceover. Both narrators, Amy and Nick, are unreliable.
The narrative drive is supplied alternately by mystery and suspense, with a certain amount of dramatic irony. Suspense rules at first as neither we, nor Nick, nor the police know what’s going on. Little by little, mystery kicks in as we begin to suspect that Nick knows a few things. Dramatic irony collides with suspense as we witness Amy’s big escape plan—now we know she’s alive, but Nick and Boney don’t find that out till the ending payoff.
The whole movie is about mental and emotional manipulation, the holding and releasing of information, and it does to the audience very much what Nick and Amy do to each other.
Though I didn’t enjoy this movie at all, I will admit that it’s an excellent resource for studying how mystery, suspense and dramatic irony work together with narrative devices like non-linear storytelling and an epistolary device. The writer can control exactly how much the reader knows, and when, but has to be really sure of genre and overall arc in order to know when to reveal and when to conceal information.
5. What are the Objects of Desire or wants and needs? – Anne
Wants: Amy seems to want complete control over the men in her life. Nick seems to want to find his wife, but we quickly learn that he really wants to be free of her. He wants an easy life and no responsibility. Detective Boney wants to get at the truth.
Needs: They both need therapy, that’s for sure! Nick needs to find his moral center, but he never does. It’s ironic that he also needs to take responsibility for his life, and in the end, that turns out to be almost an excuse for not leaving his psychopath of a wife.
I’m not sure there’s any way to interpret the needs of a clear-cut psychopath like Amy. A long time ago, we might say she needed to feel loved and protected by her parents instead of manipulated and used, but by the time the story starts, it’s way too late for that.
Jarie: Amy needs to be in control of her life. The whole Amazing Amy series that’s “based on her life” totally stole that from her. She is a trust fund baby and literally has no identity. That just drove her over the edge. She really needs to feel like the hero of her own story.
6. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Anne
The thriller runs on an essential controlling idea of “Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes their special gift,” or on the negative side, “Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash their gift.”
This is clearly a negatively-ending thriller. The crime element is unresolved—Amy gets away with murder, justice isn’t done, and the victim, generally Nick, winds up at damnation because he fails to release his gift of moral courage. So—and this is back-of-envelope stuff because I really disliked watching this movie and found both characters abhorrent:
The protagonist who is victimized by the villain sinks to damnation when he lacks the moral courage to tell the truth about her and liberate himself.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
Valerie: Surprising yet inevitable ending. Audiences are primed for a positive ending (generally), so it’s surprising that Amy and Nick stay together. It’s also inevitable that the two would stay trapped in each others’ webs. However, while the ending is surprising and inevitable, unfortunately, it is not believable. There are just too many holes in Amy’s story and in the way the police and FBI behave. There is no way Amy would not be convicted for murder.
A great use of suspense (compare Carrie). Even when we know more than Nick (dramatic irony), we’re still wondering what will happen next.
Leslie: I found this movie hard to watch, though I can appreciate that the writer innovated a lot, and the execution is fairly solid. Characters don’t need to be likable for the audience to relate to them. But when the main characters are despicable, consider what you’re trying to accomplish and whether it’s worth the cost. Full disclosure: I’m not in the target audience for this particular story. I know that people like this exist in the world, but I don’t like to be reminded of it—and that’s more about my preference than the technical merits of the story. What I take away from this as a writer and editor is to be mindful of choices like this.
Anne: the music was designed to make the audience uncomfortable. It was the beginning of my dislike of the movie, even though I’m a Trent Reznor fan.
Jarie: I love how this starts off by Ben’s character wanting to “crack open his wife’s skull” to figure out how she thinks. Her look when he says that is just awesome. The montage of the town is eerie.
This reminds me of Wild Things with Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards. It’s got some great twists and turns.
The facts about women being abused are all true and alarming. Third leading cause of death for pregnant women is the man that “loves them” killing them. Amy nailed every single thing on the outrage machine. It’s a brilliant use of facts in the story. Amy even has a checklist where she is “checking things off.”
Join us again next time, when we explode a few conceptions of the War Genre with Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film The Hurt Locker. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?