Stay tuned to discover the key takeaways from our deep study of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, Gone Girl. Find out what we’ve learned by applying Story Grid’s Editor’s Six Core Questions and breaking down each quadrant of this compelling Psychological Thriller.
This season we’ve done a full macro analysis of Gone Girl, the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, and today we’re reviewing takeaways from our macro studies.
Valerie chose Gone Girl because it’s had a major impact on contemporary literature and is the same global genre as the book she’s currently working on. It’s also got a story embedded within the story (Amy’s diary) and is a non-linear narrative; both things that are also in common with her current work in progress.
Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and 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”.
What surprised you the most about the story or our study?
Valerie: Narrative Drive – I’m not sure it’s a surprise exactly, but I was fascinated to see how well the narrative drive is developed. Gillian Flynn really played her readers well. She knows us as well as Amy knows Nick. She knew we’d buy into Amy’s diary without question. She knew we’d naturally suspect the husband, and even though she points it out to us (through Nick’s dialogue), we still question it. We’re not sure if it’s a statement we should trust or not.
All the questions that we’re asking ourselves flow naturally from the narrative. Nothing is forced here and that can give newer writers the impression that narrative drive is easy to pull off. To do it this well, you’ve got to have a firm handle on what the storytelling tools and techniques are, and how they work.
Genre Fiction, Entertainment and Literature – The other “trap” that’s easy to fall into is dividing stories into high brow literary works, and lower brow genre fiction. That’s the kind of thing that people who don’t really understand story—who don’t create stories professionally—do; critics, amateur writers, academics, etc. They discuss things like a plot-driven story v. a character-driven story because they don’t know any better.
Those of us who are serious about our craft understand that the first job of a novel is to entertain, because entertainment is the reason why people pick up the book in the first place. If a novel stops at entertainment, that’s ok. But it doesn’t have to. It’s possible for an entertaining story to have layers and depth to it. Not only is it possible, I believe it’s desirable. With Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has done it.
Leslie: What we’re talking about here is the definition of a Masterwork. Or more specifically, why certain stories appeal to a large number of people across time. Story Grid tools allow us to talk about why this happens. Unsurprisingly since we’re talking about humans, it’s all about emotions. So stories we think of as commercial or genre fiction have something in common with what we call literary fiction. They are obviously stories, but the useful thing for writers to note is that they focus on one or two particular threads of the macro components story rather than the four macro components that make a story a masterwork: Action (on-the-surface), Worldview (above-the-surface), and HJ2.0 (beyond the surface), and the global genre requirements.
A Masterwork appeals to a wide and diverse audience across time and culture because it evokes specific emotions in the audience as a result of integrating those four macro components. Shawn writes about this in the Masterwork guides for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit. Does the story answer the questions, how do we survive, thrive, and derive meaning while trying to express our unique gift and become empowered in a Performance Story, for example? The Performance component is the big problem the protagonist is trying to solve, but they also have to deal with life generally.
I think this is the difference between the way George R.R. Martin writes his A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the way the Game of Thrones show-runners executed the final season of the show. Once the show-runners were writing beyond the books, they lost focus on some of these components (particularly the above-the-surface and Heroic Journey 2.0 components), and I suspect that’s why so many people cried foul at the ending.
So getting back to Gone Girl, this is a story that incorporates all of these components with despicable characters—and Flynn throws in some biting social commentary as well.
And when I say “throws in” I mean “thoughtfully integrates.” Incorporating these components is really challenging. So really, the most surprising takeaway from this is how much I enjoyed studying it despite the fact that I spent so many hours with characters I don’t really like.
Valerie: Honestly, I think the biggest takeaway for me is that a storyline needs to be crystal clear. So often we try to create interest in our story by adding more plotlines, more characters, more points of view, etc. I think when we do that it’s a bit of a red flag. Sure, it has its place in a sweeping epic fantasy, but otherwise, it tends to be a sign that the core storyline isn’t fully developed.
Gone Girl doesn’t have a complicated plot. At its core, it’s quite simple: a wife is teaching her cheating husband a lesson. Yes, there are subplots (the affair with Andie, Desi’s obsession, etc) but they exist to serve the main story. Everything is in service of the main storyline. Everything.
There’s nothing extra in Gone Girl. Yes, it’s 170,000 words (which is pretty big by modern standards) but it’s all necessary. There isn’t anything that can be cut, and there isn’t anything that needs to be added.
Leslie: The only way to pull this off is with a robust narrative device. And that comes from having a clear writer’s perspective. So as we break this down, if you want to write a story like this, you must understand explicitly or implicitly the point you’re trying to make because of your unique worldview. That determines the question you want the audience to focus on, which determines the primary form of narrative drive, which ought to determine your narrative device, which determines your point of view. The connection between narrative drive and the writer’s perspective was one of my favorite insights while studying this story.
On another note, I confirmed something from our film analysis for the Roundtable … The scene when Amy kills Desi in the film felt wrong when we analyzed it. It was the most intense scene but not the story’s Core event. It didn’t work for me, and the fact that Flynn didn’t do this in the book makes sense. It happens offstage and doesn’t overpower Amy’s final scenes with Nick.
What was most useful?
Valerie: Developing the Psychological Element of the Story – For my purposes, it was most useful for me to see how Gillian Flynn handled the psychological elements of the storytelling. Even though I’ve done work on psychological stories in the past (how they work, what (if any) are the conventions and obligatory scenes etc), but my previous study had been primarily in film, or in novels where the character is clearly unreliable (for example, Rachel in The Girl on the Train is an alcoholic).
Primal Fear (William Diehl) does a fantastic job with the psychological elements of a character, but that’s a very different story from the one I’m writing. Gone Girl is a much closer example.
My hypothesis was that either an author slowly reveals the character’s state of mind, or she reveals it quickly in one big scene. Flynn does both. In the midpoint shift, we suddenly learn that Amy is not the person we thought she was from the diary and it’s shocking! This revelation provides a massive boost to the narrative drive. If reader attention had been waning, Flynn wins it back quickly.
However, with Desi Collings, Flynn slowly reveals his true nature and that generates a very different emotion in the reader. We feel a slowly escalating feeling of dread and fear, as gradually we realize that he’s even crazier than Amy.
Leslie: What was most useful for me is the process. Reading the book, creating a loose spreadsheet of the story to answer the E6CQ, then rereading to break it down quadrant by quadrant to see how the macro components were working. We didn’t have time to discuss everything—and as it is before today this is five Writers’ Room episodes and five UP episodes!—but the process of studying the story for several weeks, rather than running through the global story like we did in the Roundtable episode was so valuable. Which is not to say the work on the Roundtable wasn’t valuable—it has been so useful. What I mean is that if you’ve been sampling a lot of stories but haven’t gone this deep, to read and reread and analyze a single story from different angles, you’re missing out!
What wasn’t as useful?
Valerie: Point of View and Narrative Device – Gillian Flynn does a phenomenal job with Point of View and Narrative Device, so I don’t want this to sound like a criticism of her work, because it certainly isn’t. However, since I’m studying Gone Girl to help me with my own work-in-progress, then I would have to say this was the least useful part of the study.
I learned an awful lot about these principles that I’m confident will help me with future writing projects, but the Narrative Device Flynn used won’t work for my story, nor will her Point of View choice. So, I’m going to other stories (films and novels) to help me with that.
I firmly believe that no study is wasted. So while I learned a lot from Flynn’s work here, it just doesn’t translate over to my project.
Leslie: I’m going out on a limb to say that Gone Girl is probably the “great American novel” of our time (or at least its time since so much has happened since it was published). It says so much about our culture and who we are as a people. The social commentary is hard to receive, but it’s not wrong.
I want to repeat that this process is incredibly valuable, and I’m looking forward to doing this with our next season and story.
Valerie: We’ve done six episodes about the novel, and many hours of independent study off air, but still we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s a real reason Gone Girl had the impact on the genre. There’s a reason it was made into a film. There’s a reason we’re still talking about it today, eight years after publication.
Because it spawned a whole crop of novels with the word “girl” in the title, it can be easy to roll our eyes at it or lump it into that group. But it isn’t “one of many” novels about a girl. It is the novel that innovated the genre. It’s the novel that started this whole trend. Anyone who is writing a modern thriller, whether it’s a psychological thriller or not, would be wise to study it.