Wonder how to deliver a powerful and satisfying finish to your story? On the Story Grid Writer’s Room podcast this week, Valerie and Leslie analyze the ending payoff of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to unpack what makes this story work so well.
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 we take six episodes to analyze Gone Girl to help you understand how to apply Story Grid’s macro tools to masterworks and your own story.
Ending Payoff Summary: 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.
Five Commandments of the Ending Payoff:
Inciting Incident: Amy returns.
Turning Point Progressive Complication: Amy is pregnant (for real this time).
Crisis: Does Nick continue with his plan to make Amy pay, or does he leave it alone and become the husband and father Amy demands he be?
Climax: He decides to become the husband and father Amy demands.
Resolution: Nick and Amy begin the rest of their life together; a future Nick describes as “one long frightening climax”.
Leslie: What do you need to accomplish in the Ending Payoff of your story?
Let’s look at the first three quadrants again to create some context for what’s happening in the ending payoff in terms of the actions the protagonist takes based on their current worldview, and the response they get as a result. In the Beginning Hook, which Shawn calls the prima material, the protagonist is deciding whether to engage with the problem. They think they understand the nature of it. But they’re stuck in their worldview 1.0, which doesn’t include the capacity to see the problem for what it is. In Gone Girl, Nick learns that Amy is missing, and he assumes she’s been taken. What he sees leads him to this conclusion because let’s say, he’s wearing the wrong lenses in his glasses. So the actions he takes are based on his worldview 1.0. He ends up worse off than he was, and he doesn’t know why.
In the second quadrant, Middle Build 1, that old worldview is being broken down. Shawn calls this solve. The actions he’s taking really aren’t working, and here he’s using his best stuff. Let’s say Nick’s strategy is “turning on the charm,” which includes a fair bit of lying to himself and others. The response he gets from the environment, including the other characters, isn’t what usually happens for him. This creates a disconnect that makes him realize he’s not seeing the problem correctly. The clues are there, and in the moment in the woodshed he gets it. Amy is Gone, and she’s set him up for murder. So he is much worse off than he was before.
In the third quadrant, Middle Build 2, which Shawn calls heat, Nick’s old worldview is gone, and he has nothing to replace it with yet. Just after finding the woodshed, Nick still doesn’t know what the inciting incident really means or what he needs to do to solve the problem. The direct consequences of the actions he’s taken so far have second and third order consequences, so he’s got to try something. So here he tries telling the truth to some people, but he also does some investigating on his own. In the all is lost moment, he gets what the inciting incident really means in terms of his actions, and this gives rise to his worldview 2.0: he can defend himself or he can attempt to lure Amy out of hiding. This doesn’t go well at first because the police are turning up the heat, but he sticks with this new strategy, even though he has no idea whether it’s going to work or not. The result is that Amy returns.
In the fourth quadrant, which Shawn calls coagula, the protagonist is responding to events as they happen according to their new worldview 2.0. And what he realizes is he must confront the real problem that landed him in his current circumstances. His lack of engagement in the marriage and cheating caused Amy to set him up, but why did he wander when he had Amy?
Nick has a deep meaning deficit that mirrored his father’s—even as he spent his life trying to no be like his father. Here’s the moment when he realizes this.
I thought it would make me feel better to have the man vanished from the earth, but I actually felt a massive, frightening hollowness open up in my chest. I had spent my life comparing myself to my father, and now he was gone, and there was only Amy left to bat against. After the small, dusty, lonely service, I didn’t leave with Go, I went home with Amy, and I clutched her to me. That’s right, I went home with my wife.
His father couldn’t find joy and connection in being a father, in his work, or in anything, and he took revenge on his family. Nick was on that road too, becoming the very thing he feared most. He blames his lack of purpose and meaning on Amy, the economy, the culture … anything to avoid taking personal responsibility for the path of his life. He’s just playing the hand he was dealt, right? Instead of figuring out what he wanted and going after it, he was sleeping through his life without purpose. So Amy woke him up by putting his life at risk. She did what she did for her own selfish reasons, but in a way, she was saying, “If your life means nothing to you, you won’t mind if I take it.” Nick finds purpose at the last moment, not in killing Amy and getting revenge, but in protecting their child from her.
Valerie: Damnation, Rhyming, and the Double Ending
Damnation: In our episode on the Editor’s Six Core Questions, Leslie and I discussed the ending of this novel and whether, for Nick, it ended at salvation or damnation. My original reading was that Nick, Amy and the unborn child are all damned. There’s a sense of foreboding. As Go says, this is a nuclear family that will literally blow themselves up.
I still think the baby is damned. I mean, what hope could the child have with Amy and Nick as parents? However, to determine whether Nick is damned, we have to look at the situation from his perspective, not from ours. So, it’s not whether I think being trapped in a marriage with Amy is a fate worse than death, it’s whether Nick thinks that. And, he doesn’t.
For Nick, the fate worse than death is to end up like his father. As Amy points out, and as Nick agrees, without her, he will become just like his father. He needs her.
Amy Elliott Dunne – The Night of the Return: “You are a man,” I say. “You are an average, lazy, boring, cowardly, woman-fearing man. Without me, that’s what you would have kept on being, ad nauseum. But I made you into something. You were the best man you’ve ever been with me. And you know it. The only time in your life you’ve ever liked yourself was pretending to be someone I might like. Without me? You’re just your dad.”
Nick initially disagrees with this. In fact, this triggers his shadow side – the side that is like his father – and he begins to choke her.
Nick Dunne – The Night of the Return: As Nick strangles Amy, he realizes that she’s right. That’s stated twice in this chapter. He says that if he married a regular woman, as he said he wanted to, that he’d always find her lacking. She’d never be as amazing as Amy. He says, “I already knew part of me would be looking at her and thinking: You’ve never murdered for me. You’ve never framed me. You wouldn’t even know how to begin to do what Amy did. You could never possibly care that much. The indulged mamma’s boy in me wouldn’t be able to find peace with this normal woman, and pretty soon she wouldn’t just be normal, she’d be substandard, and then my father’s voice—dumb bitch—would rise up and take it from there.”
In terms of objects of desire, what both Amy and Nick need is to be seen. In the end, they understand that they know each other fully and completely and that realization bonds them together forever, for better or for worse.
Beginning and End Rhyme:
What does it mean that the beginning and the end (opening and close) rhyme? And how does Gone Girl achieve it?
- opening: Nick is talking about Amy’s head and what’s inside it.
- closing: the night of the return fantasizes about smashing in her head with a hammer, but then it ends with “Yes, I’m finally a match for Amy. The other morning I woke up next to her, and I studied the back of her skull…”
- opening: 5th anniversary, Nick has to psych self up to have breakfast with Amy. Nick can’t get away from her fast enough.
- ending: Amy and Nick “celebrating” the news of their son, he can’t bear to be without her – she’s forever his antagonist.
Double Ending of a Thriller:
- Nick is going to bring Amy to justice, Boney is onside and has seen Amy for what she is. Tanner is onside. Go is onside. Reader thinks this is how the story will end – with Amy finally being brought to justice and Nick being free of her.
- Amy announces she’s pregnant and ends the victor.
Leslie: Every story is a cautionary or prescriptive example. I wasn’t eager to do this story, but I have learned so much from it. Sometimes what you resist is exactly what you need. I don’t enjoy spending time with the characters here, but time with Gillian Flynn’s creation has been well worth the effort. When we’re reading as writers or editors it’s not always about what’s pleasurable on the surface.
Valerie: Keep pushing the narrative drive right to the very last page. The temptation is to phone it in and to use the ending payoff to simply tie up loose ends, but the better option is to find ways to keep moving the story forward, and keep hooking the reader.