How can you keep readers turning pages through the middle build of your story? On the Story Grid Writer’s Room podcast this week, we find out by analyzing the middle build 1 quadrant of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
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.
Middle Build One
Entire Middle Build Summary: 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 lure her out of hiding and she eventually returns home.
In Action Story: The Primal Genre, Shawn discusses breaking the middle build down into two parts, which he calls middle build one (MB1) and middle build two (MB2). If you haven’t read that book yet, I recommend you get it. I also studied this concept in Season 7 of the Roundtable Podcast.
Basically, in MB1, the hero is a fish out of water. He’s trying to navigate the extraordinary world by using the knowledge, skills and beliefs that worked in his ordinary world (what Shawn calls the hero’s code 1.0). Of course, it doesn’t work and things get progressively worse for him until the midpoint of the story when he begins his descent into chaos (MB2).
Gone Girl offers a fabulous example of the hero using his 1.0 code. For example, Nick is used to getting a “free ride” in life because he’s so handsome. His winning smile usually works, but he’s in the extraordinary world now and it doesn’t work anymore. It gets him into further trouble.
Five Commandments of Middle Build One (MB1):
Inciting Incident: Nick is interviewed at the police station the night of Amy’s disappearance.
Turning Point: Noelle announces Amy’s pregnancy. [Note: it’s tempting to think the TP is when Nick becomes an official suspect, but this isn’t an unexpected event. In fact, Nick says from the beginning that it’s always the husband, and Marybeth telegraphs it as well]
Crisis: Does Nick believe that Amy was pregnant? Does he tell anyone that it couldn’t be true because she didn’t want to have children?
Climax: Nick tells Rand and Go that Amy didn’t want kids and that she couldn’t be pregnant.
Resolution: Amy’s pregnancy is confirmed. Nick realizes he was wrong and now he fears for the life of his unborn child.
- In the beginning hook, the protagonist is deciding whether to engage with the problem or opportunity that arises from the inciting incident. They think they understand the nature of the problem. They can’t solve it because they don’t understand it because they can’t really see it. Their worldview 1.0 won’t allow them to see it.
- The work of Middle Build 1 is a process that Shawn Coyne calls “Solve” or breaking down that insufficient worldview. So after the protagonist agrees, reluctantly, to engage with the problem, they apply their best practices. But the response from the other characters and the environment shows them all the ways they couldn’t be more wrong.
- By the end of Middle Build 1, they are dropped into chaos and finally make sense of that global inciting incident. In Gone Girl, it appears that Amy has been taken and may be dead, but Nick comes to learn that she has left and is setting him up for murder.
- So far Nick has relied on his good looks, sucking up, and being passive (there’s a great example of this in a line about having an interior monologue with words that never reach his lips). Basically he charms his way out of any difficult situation and allows other people to identify and metabolize problems for him. This and the fact that he doesn’t see what Amy’s disappearance really means (that Amy has set him up) causes him to fail to be honest with the police or request an attorney early on.
- What’s interesting to me is the way Gillian Flynn sets up Nick’s behavior. Given who he, there is no other way he could act until he’s pulled out of his habitual patterns. But where does it come from? Nick is a creature of his environment.
“The bankruptcy matched my psyche perfectly. For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense, blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative ). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time.”
- Remember we talked about conventions and about how you create a setting that gives rise to the characters and situations that create conflict? This passage reminds us of that world.
My three lines of inquiry when studying this masterwork are:
- 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?
I’ll look at two of them here:
Story Structure: Gone Girl is a non-linear nested story. In other words, it’s got the diary embedded within the main narrative (nested story), and the diary flashes back in time and gives the reader the history of their relationship. This is a complex story structure and it’s tough to pull off, so how does Flynn do it?
The danger with flashbacks (non-linear narrative) is that they become exposition and information dumps.
The danger with nested stories is that the reader can feel yanked between two stories. Just as one of the stories is getting interesting, the narrative switches to the other story.
Flynn uses one storyline to fuel the other. Here in MB1, Amy’s diary and the story of her disappearance are playing off one another. They’re working together to create narrative drive. For example:
Understanding Amy (Nick is a Jerk) – Amy Elliott Dunn, July 5, 2010: It’s their third anniversary and Nick blows it off in favour of drinking with his colleagues and charging rounds to a credit card tied to her trust fund. This whole entry establishes Nick as a complete jerk. He’s disrespectful and a heavy drinker. But she loves him and they apologize to one another. This passage establishes her as Understanding Amy.
Adoring Amy (Nick is the Love of Amy’s Life) – Nick Dunne, One Day Gone: In the very next passage, we have the first of Amy’s clues. It is loving, adoring and we see Nick as a great catch. She’s lucky to have him. He really is all that and a bag of chips.
So, Gillian Flynn has created Amy’s diary as a counterpoint to Nick’s story. Gone Girl is a he said, she said kind of story; that’s the structure of it. We’re getting two versions of their relationship so we don’t know which one is true, or even closer to the truth.
The entire MB1 is one huge setup/misdirection/red herring establishing Amy as a woman who is above reproach and Nick as a horrible husband.
Amy is a victim who never complains (not really, anyway) and who accepts her lot in life with grace. She even goes out of her way to create romantic situations for her husband to show how much she loves him.
Her parents have exploited her to get rich and then they take her trust fund to solve their own self-imposed financial problems. She’s a model wife, never blaming her husband or turning him into a dancing monkey. Yet, he takes advantage of her wealth (while she has it), drags her to Missouri (without asking), and doesn’t “see” or understand her (because he never figures out the anniversary clues).
Meanwhile, Nick is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Flynn states it outright, immediately and often. Nick says the husband is the suspect. Rand and Marybeth say it. The media says it. Go tells Nick that he looks guilty. But all this is, as we learn, a giant red herring.
Narrative Drive (Crime Story Elements of a Thriller): The main questions we’re wondering are, (a) where is Amy and (b) did Nick have anything to do with her disappearance?
Contradictory View of Nick: One of the ways Flynn keeps this question alive and interesting through the first half of the novel, is by constantly offering up contradictory views of who Nick is, and how he feels about his wife. We see Nick directly through his own eyes and through Amy’s eyes, but we also see him indirectly through the eyes of Go, Rand and Marybeth, and even Boney.
- Nick: He’s awkward in social situations, never knowing quite what to say. He’s emotionally stunted, so fearful of becoming his father that he acts in a way that makes him seem like a jerk. He’s a liar and a cheat, but he loves his sister and his mother. He loved Amy too but felt he was never quite good enough for her. He feels inferior to her family.
- Amy: Nick is a jerk, he drinks too much, he’s understandably depressed from losing his job, he’s disrespectful and needs third party validation. But he’s an adoring husband whom she loves, he’s brilliant and caring, he’s gorgeous and a catch.
- Rand and Marybeth: They go on at length about how they “know” he’d never hurt Amy but then they question his anniversary dinner reservations. They’re calling him out on one of the lies he told police in the beginning hook.
- Boney: Baby of the family
Multiple Suspects: Flynn also introduces new possibilities about what have happened to Amy. She’s had stalkers; Hilary Handy and Desi Collings are both introduced early in MB1. Desi lives nearby and went to the press conference.
Non-Linear Nested Story (as mentioned above).
Leslie: My key takeaway is how this story is such a clear example of the need to separate and be mindful of what we as writers are doing for to create an experience for the reader and what the characters are doing to pursue what they want and need.
Valerie: Studying MB1 is driving home the idea that the way to make multiple storylines work in a novel, is to have them inform one another in some way. There’s got to be some kind of connection between them, and they’ve got to play off one another in such a way that it creates narrative drive.