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Feeling stuck in the middle of your story? This week we analyze the middle build Two quadrant 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.
Middle Build Two
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).
Five Commandments of Middle Build Two (MB2)
Inciting Incident: (1) Revelation that Amy is the antagonist – she’s planned her escape to look like Nick murdered her (2) Nick discovers the puppets and realizes that Amy is framing him for murder.
Turning Point Progressive Complication: The police reveal that they have Judy’s handle covered in Amy’s blood.
Crisis: Does Nick focus on his defence strategy (I didn’t kill her) or continue to lure Amy out of hiding (Amy isn’t dead)? Which does he focus on?
Climax: Nick continues to lure Amy out of hiding
Resolution: Amy returns [also Ending Payoff Inciting Incident]
Leslie: What do you need to accomplish in the Middle Build 2 quadrant of your story?
- To understand this, let’s take a step back to see what has come before. In the Beginning Hook, the protagonist is trying to decide whether to engage with the problem that arises from the global inciting incident. They think they understand the nature of it, but they don’t really understand it because they can’t really see it. Their worldview 1.0 won’t allow them see it clearly. In Middle Build 1, their old worldview is being broken down in the process I mentioned last time, which Shawn calls “solve.” By the end of that quadrant, the point of no return, the protagonist makes sense of the inciting incident.
- How do we apply this in Gone Girl? In the global Inciting Incident, Amy is gone, and the assumption is that she’s been taken. This is based on what Nick thinks he knows about In the point of no return at the end of Middle Build 1, Nick learns that Amy wasn’t taken. She left and set him up for murder.
- Middle Build 2 is the “heat” to MB1’s “solve.” The protagonist learns what the inciting incident means. How is that different from making sense of the inciting incident? To “make sense of it” is to be able to see and understand, which the protagonist couldn’t do in the beginning, but to “know what it means” is to recognize the dilemma and from there, what they must do about it.
- How does Flynn turn up the heat on the Nick? She sets up Tanner’s three-part advice: find an alternative suspect, keep Amy’s parents friendly, and fix his public image. None of them are completely within Nick’s control, and circumstances that were already set in motion make it impossible for him to achieve any of those things. Andie is furious, the neighbors know about the argument before Amy left but not the reconciliation, they know something is at Nick’s father’s house but don’t know what it is, and Amy’s purse is found in Hannibal, and the police can put Nick there after Amy’s disappearance. Amy’s diary provides a narrative to help the police make sense of the clues in a way that is dangerous to Nick.
- In one way, Tanner’s advice includes mutually exclusive components. Amy is the responsible party, so she’s an “alternative suspect,” but Nick can’t prove that, and making the claim undermines the other two prongs of Tanner’s advice.
- The only way Nick can survive is if he changes, and there are some progressive complications that are useful to him on that score. From Tommy O’Hara, he learns that Amy is like an old testament god when angry. This helps Nick understand he must be conciliatory. From Hilary Handy, Nick learns that Amy hates other people to know and see her imperfections and that Nick’s behavior risked exposing their imperfect marriage.
- Nick has been operating under the belief that not being guilty means he can’t be found guilty and sent to death row. Now he knows he can and he will be found guilty unless he exerts himself.
- When a character is disengaged and their life seems to have no meaning, they are basically sleeping through life. It takes something like a cattle prod to get them to wake up and engage. And we have a serious jolt in that woodshed moment.
- Let’s think about this in terms of how the protagonist’s behavior changes. Nick’s old tactic was to suck up, seek approval, and do what people tell him to do. As I mentioned before, that’s a tactic that worked for him. His new tactic is to do the opposite of what Amy thinks he’ll do. He must engage in second order thinking–and not just his own thinking. He must anticipate what Amy thinks he’ll do because that’s the way she set him up. That’s a lot of work for a guy who is used to coasting through life!
Here are a couple of passages that show Nick coming to terms with reality.
- “Amy made me believe I was exceptional, that I was up to her level of play. That was both our making and undoing. Because I couldn’t handle the demands of greatness. I began craving ease and average-ness, and I hated myself for it, and ultimately, I realized, I punished her for it. I turned her into the brittle, prickly thing she became. I had pretended to be one kind of man and revealed myself to be quite another. Worse, I convinced myself our tragedy was entirely her making. I spent years working myself into the very thing I swore she was: a righteous ball of hate.”
- “My wife knew me: She knew I’d do almost anything to avoid dealing with confrontation. Amy was depending on me to be stupid, to let the relationship linger — and to ultimately be caught. I had to end it. But I had to do it perfectly. Make her believe that this was the decent thing.”
- A note about the narrative device: Why does the dueling narrative work so well? It’s like a court case, and as Valerie said, each “litigant” presents their case to a jury of their peers. We’re left to decide, whose fault is this and who is going to pay for it?
Valerie: Story Structure, Psychological Elements, and Narrative Drive
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?
Today I’ll focus on the psychological elements which a particular look at the opening and closing of middle build two.
During the opening, dramatic irony is in overdrive. I said I’d focus on the psychological elements but it’s impossible to separate the narrative drive. There are a couple of things I’d like to point out here:
- structurally, MB2 begins the same as the novel
- Amy Elliott Dunne the Day of: from the title, we’re expecting to see Amy’s day prior to the abduction, maybe the anniversary breakfast, hopefully a clue about who kidnapped her or what happened to her
- narrative drive kicks in with the first sentence
- para 1 – ends with an OMG moment
- para 2 – “The diary, yes! We’ll get to my brilliant diary.”
- para 3 – Who the heck is this woman? What/Who are we dealing with? Is she sane or not? A whole new set of questions has been raised.
- Amy demonstrates a complete lack of emotion in the telling of her tale
- Amy gives bizarre details about how she felt toward her parents when she was a child – she wanted all the attention
- what do we learn about Amy from the first few pages:
- socially aware
- a survivor
- nick was easy to manipulate from the very start
- Cool Girl: Antagonist needs to have a point and this is Amy’s. Just like Fletcher in Whiplash.
- Taken alone, opening doesn’t necessarily point to insanity. She sounds bitter and has valid points! Her parents have taken advantage of her. Nick has been a jerk/thick-headed. The Cool Girl identity really is a thing.
- The problem isn’t her frustration or hurt. The problem is how she handles it.
- All bets are off now. We know Nick is doomed. Will he figure out what’s happening?
Middle build two ending:
- Amy is caught in her own web/trap
- Desi is even crazier/more dangerous than Amy
- she’s a prisoner at the lakehouse
- Desi dictates everything: how she looks, what she eats, whether she has money, what she does
- he’s obsessed with her and has been for a long time
- wants to take her to Greece – completely trapped
- Nick starts to look good! (Amy Elliott Dunne 11 Days Gone)
- Amy defends Nick re manicure
Leslie: Progressive complications are vital to every story and particularly in MIddle Build 2. They make the make the turning point matter, which gives the protagonist a powerful global crisis.
Valerie: The more I study story, the more I believe that what they’re about, at their heart, is power. Who has the power, who wants it and how can they get it? Amy wants the power (she’s the antagonist). Nick tries to get it from her but fails. Desi does get it from her and therefore must die.
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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