Gone Girl – Editor’s Six Core Questions

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Ever since the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast started three years ago, we’ve been asked to apply the Story Grid method to a novel. Well, this is it!  This season we’re doing a full macro analysis of Gone Girl, the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, and today we’re taking a look at the Editor’s Six Core Questions

Valerie chose Gone Girl because it’s had a major impact on contemporary literature, has a story embedded within the story (Amy’s diary) , and is the same global genre as her current work in progress.


Also available on YouTube.


Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis


1. What’s the genre? Psychological Thriller

Core Need: Safety “How does the sovereign individual survive?”
Core Value: Damnation to Life
Core Emotion: Excitement

Thrillers concern “the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. The external becomes internal, forcing the protagonist to make fundamental choices to unleash critical gifts.”

  • The global genre is Psychological Thriller (Nick’s narration), but the Marriage Story that Amy tells provides context and complications. It feels like Fight Club meets Pride and Prejudice
  • Subplots include a Marriage Love Story (Amy’s narration of Nick and Amy’s relationship), Obsession Love Story (Nick and Andie), Obsession Love Story (Desi and Amy), Crime with worldview (Amy with Greta and Jeff).
  • The Marriage Story–the story from Amy’s point of view would be a great model for any story from the antagonist’s point of view, even if you don’t include it in the final version you publish. We need to understand what the force of antagonism is doing at all times even if it’s not on the page. 
  • The macro Worldview component of the story is complicated! There are moments of all four subgenres: Disillusionment, Revelation, Maturation, and Education. Nick comes to understand marriage isn’t what he thought it would be, realizes he doesn’t know his wife at all, understands he’s must take responsibility for his life, and must find purpose and meaning. 
  • Many different genres are represented in the micro, for example, when Nick and friends play at war invading the mall to fight the “Blue Book Boys” and when Nick has a big performance on Sharon’s show. 


2. What are the conventions and obligatory moments?




US post-Great Recession, North Carthage, MO and New York City; St. Louis, MO. The setting really comes alive in the story, and we can see how it gives rise to both the characters and the circumstances that cause conflict. 


A Thriller requires a Hero, Victim, and Villain. These global roles move from character to character within individual scenes, but Nick is the global luminary agent and victim (as well as Desi and the child), and Amy is the shadow agent. 


McGuffin (villain’s object of desire, which they can only obtain/attain through the protagonist): Amy wants Nick to show up in their marriage, to play the part. 

Red Herrings: False clues: Diary, Punch and Judy puppets, Amy’s purse in Hannibal, the woodshed full of items Nick seems to have purchased.

Making it personal: Nick realizes it’s personal when he discovers the woodshed full of items he supposedly purchased (7 Days Gone).

Clock: If Nick doesn’t find Amy before trial, he could be convicted and executed.


Obligatory Moments

Inciting crime indicative of a master villain: Amy fakes her own kidnapping/death.

Speech in praise of the villain: Several examples: Amy on “Day of” when she explains how she set Nick up. Tommy O’Hara (9 Days Gone) “Amy likes to play Old Testament God when she’s not happy.” Desi and Nick also reference how “amazing” Amy is; she’s beautiful, clever, excels at special skills (cooking etc). She’s a formidable player in any domain. At the end of the novel, Nick even comments that, were he to marry another “regular” woman, she would pale in comparison to Amy.

Protagonist becomes victim: Nick becomes the victim when Amy learns he’s cheating on her.

Hero at the mercy of the villain: The whole novel seems to be HATMOTV writ large, but the specific moment when she truly has him is when she tells him she’s truly pregnant. 

False ending: In the first ending, Nick works with Tanner and Boney to bring Amy to justice. However, when Amy announces (and proves) that she’s pregnant with Nick’s child, he abandons that idea and chooses to remain with Amy and be the husband and father she wants him to be. 


3. What is the point of view / narrative device?


Point of View: First person past tense (with the exception of a couple of passages), two vantage points.

Narrative Device: Diary and memoirs two main story lines that move chronologically, but there are several flashbacks in the middle of present events. Amy’s diary feels more like a performance piece, which it is. Who is telling the story, to whom, and why? Nick/Amy make their cases to a jury of their peers to defend their actions.

Note: Flynn uses “epic” pacing in a Thriller. The story is just shy of 168K words  (For perspective: The Fellowship of the Ring is about 173K). 



4. What are the objects of desire?


  • External (conscious want): To avoid execution and damnation 
  • Internal (sub-conscious need): To understand that in order to avoid becoming like his father (i.e., avoid damnation), he needs to stay with Amy and protect their child.




Both Nick and Amy want to be seen and understood. Amy creates the treasure hunt so that Nick can prove how well he knows her. Of course, he doesn’t know her at all and that’s why he can’t figure out the clues. Once he understands the game she’s playing and addresses her directly (through the media), Amy is thrilled. She believes that he finally knows her. He understands that he’s supposed to tell her what she wants to hear and Amy is thrilled. 

Nick: What I said, that was just me saying what you wanted to hear. 

Amy: I know—that’s how well you know me!

Likewise, Nick is thrilled that Amy understands him. 

“I’d detect a nib of admiration, and more than that, fondness for my wife, right in the middle of me, right in the gut. To know exactly what I wanted to hear in those notes, to woo me back to her, even to predict all my wrong moves…the woman knew me cold. Better than anyone in the world, she knew me. All this time I’d thought we were strangers, and it turned out we knew each other intuitively, in our bones, in our blood.

“It was kind of romantic. Catastrophically romantic.” 

5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?


Damnation prevails when the hero fails to unleash his gift. His gift is his charm, his ability to “manage” and manipulate Amy – to keep her shadow agency at bay.

Damnation is a fate worse than death – Nick’s fate worse than death is to be like his father.

At first we concluded that the best Nick can hope for is “damnation with purpose,” which is a hair better than damnation without purpose. But we later concluded that Nick reaches salvation because he uses his gifts to protect his child. 


6. What are the beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff?


Beginning Hook: 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. 

Middle Build: The police and Nick investigate Amy’s disappearance separately and are operating under different assumptions; the police believe Nick is involved or possibly responsible while Nick believes Amy is framing him. When the police charge Nick with Amy’s murder, he must decide whether he’ll focus on his defence strategy, or keep trying to lure Amy out of hiding to prove that she’s the mastermind behind the crime. He keeps trying to lure her out of hiding and she eventually returns home.

Ending Payoff: Amy eventually returns home so the charges against Nick are dropped. When Amy announces that she’s pregnant, Nick must decide whether he’ll continue trying to prove that she’s a sociopath or become the idyllic husband and father she wants him to be. He decides to do what Amy demands, so he and Amy begin the rest of their life together; a future Nick describes as “one long frightening climax.”


Key Takeaways 


Leslie: Even with six episodes devoted to this story, we’ll just be scratching the surface. Just in the course of reviewing and preparing notes, I changed my mind about what the story means both objectively and subjectively. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but that is probably because it reflects truths of the current disturbing reality. I have to say the skill and attention to detail is mindblowing. All of that is to say, this is where we begin when we study what we call a Masterwork. 

Valerie: Gone Girl is an excellent example of a complex story form. It’s a non-linear, nested story, with multiple storylines and sub-plots. It’s really not for the faint of heart. Just analyzing it is hard enough, but writing something like this is wicked hard. Gillian Flynn’s craft is top drawer so it’s no surprise it got the attention it did. However, not all novels need to have such a complex story structure. There are many books with a single, linear storyline and they work beautifully. Beginning writers should master that form first, before tackling something like Gone Girl


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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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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