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What makes the opening of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 Psychological Thriller, Gone Girl, so compelling? On the Story Grid Writer’s Room podcast this week, we analyze the beginning hook to find out.
The Story Grid Writer’s Room is a show dedicated to offering a practical approach to the Story Grid method so you can put it to work. This season Valerie and Leslie will spend six episodes analyzing Gone Girl to help you understand how to apply Story Grid’s macro tools to masterworks and your own story.
Beginning Hook Summary: When Nick’s wife, Amy, goes missing on their fifth anniversary, Nick must decide whether he’ll provide truthful details to the police so they can find her as quickly as possible, or whether he’ll keep certain things to himself. Nick decides to lie and withhold information, and as a result, the police take him in for informal questioning.
Five Commandments of the Beginning Hook:
Inciting Incident: It’s Nick and Amy’s 5th anniversary.
Turning Point: Amy is gone.
Crisis: Does Nick tell the truth (about their relationship, anniversary plans, his whereabouts etc) to police so they can help find Amy?
Climax: Nick lies. Five lies already.
Resolution: Nick is taken in for questioning.
Leslie: How does Flynn set up the Narrative Device and Point of View?
- Flynn uses an overt narrative device—we know Nick and Amy are telling their side of the story–using first person point of view (mostly in past tense, but there is a passage in the very beginning that is present tense).
- Why would you draw attention to the narrative device? In other words, under what circumstances do you choose to let the reader in on the narrative situation? When it illustrates something important about the protagonist or when it would be a cheat.
- If Flynn used a third person limited or selective omniscient narration, we’d have an interesting objective view of Nick. But we need his perspective. We need to hear who he is from the inside, and it needs to be filtered through his perspective after the fact. Flynn trusts we can see through the narrative. Nick chooses what to tell his audience (Amy and his peers) carefully. The events and details he chooses and the way he writes about them is all evidence of who he is.
- What do I mean by cheating? Third person limited/selective omniscient objective point of view is personal, but it’s also objective. You can’t hide things (unless the character isn’t aware of them). We need that first person/telling point of view that allows Nick to withhold certain facts. For example, Nick gets up, smells the crepes, and gets ready to face Amy and their anniversary. Then there is a gap in the telling until he shows up at the bar.
- So everything in Nick’s narration in beginning hook has to support what we believe at first and what we come to believe later, once we have more of the facts. In this way, Flynn makes us think he’s innocent, then suspect he’s guilty, then realize Amy has set him up. Notice, this is how Amy set up her diary too.
- Even if you’re not writing a psychological thriller, pay attention to the way she’s crafting her scenes and sentences.
- When you choose an overt narrative device or situation that becomes part of the story, and the narration needs to reveal something important about the character. Notice that Nick’s adjectives say more about him and who he is than about the people or circumstances he’s describing.
- Flynn employs macro “telling” points of view for Nick and Amy. If you do a micro analysis of the paragraphs and sentences, it is a bit “tell heavy,” (in the usual sense of telling). But Flynn is showing us who Nick and Amy are using their own voices.
- There’s a great passage when Nick uses bare adjectives to describe his father. He offers his conclusion with no evidence. That’s not good writing, right? It is here. Flynn gets away with this because of the concrete details woven into the narrative as Nick tells it.
- Realize that black-and-white rules are meant to help beginning writers with pitfalls, but as you grow, you can try bolder moves. The point is to understand what your words communicate and choose them with care.
- One of the ways Flynn shows even with a macro telling point of view is to engage in comparison: Go is a functional adult, and Nick struggles with adulting. Once you nail down the macro and scene structure, pay attention to these fine details.
- I wholeheartedly agree with Valerie’s conclusion that the true narrative device, or the effect that’s created is that of an advocate making a case to a jury of their peers.
- Notice the structure: A Marriage story dropped into a Thriller. And a Psychological Thriller makes sense because of the focus on mundane situations that are intensified with life-and-death stakes.
Why study a masterwork? To discover how master storytellers have approached certain aspects of story. Study toward a purpose. In Gone Girl, I’m specifically studying three key areas:
- Story Structure: How does Flynn make a non-linear timeline work? How does she make a nested story work? How does she telegraph the ending in the opening chapter(s)?
- Psychological Elements: How does Flynn show the reader that Amy is a sociopath? How does she show Nick’s state of mind? How does she destabilize the reader so the reader is constantly wondering what’s real and what’s not real?
- Narrative Drive: How does Flynn keep the reader turning pages? What is the central dramatic question? What form(s) of narrative drive is used primarily?
Five Commandments and the Units of Story:
- Amy’s disappearance is the Inciting Incident of the global story (the book), but it’s not the Inciting Incident of this act. It’s the Turning Point of the beginning hook. This is why it’s so important to articulate the 5Cs at each unit of story.
Beginning Hook and Ending Payoff Rhyme:
- Nick has the first word, but Amy has the last word
- repeat of the description of Amy’s head/skull and what she’s thinking
Non-linear Timeline with Nested Story: why and how does it work?
- the bottom line is that the non-linear timeline works because the nested story is done in such a way as to raise questions in the reader’s mind. These two elements are working together to create narrative drive. They complement one another, they don’t compete.
- note the problem with flashbacks (info dumps)
- note the problem with nested stories and multiple storylines (difficult to retain a reader’s attention because just as she gets into one storyline, the narrative switches)
- immediately the reader is wondering what the real story is here. This is a he said, she said story and the reader doesn’t know which version of the story to believe
- Amy’s diary gives the impression
- I’m continuing my deep dive into narrative drive (work begun on the RT podcast)
- my hypothesis/big idea: that ND isn’t a storytelling tool in and of itself, but rather, is the effect of other tools working together.
- obvious tools here are non-linear and nested stories
- BH is primarily suspense: Reader doesn’t know where Amy has gone any more than Nick does. HOWEVER, dramatic irony is also at play because the reader knows about Amy’s diary and Nick doesn’t. Mystery is also at play because Nick has secrets; he knows things (like the fact he’s having an affair) that the reader doesn’t.
Leslie: Flynn makes it look easy, and it is not. If you want to write a story about this, be prepared to put in long hours studying and writing.
Valerie: Even if Gone Girl (or psychological thrillers) aren’t your cup of tea, Gillian Flynn’s craft is at such a high level that writers of all genres have something to learn. This is an excellent example of why reading widely, deeply and actively is so important for someone who is serious about levelling up their craft.
Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.
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