Straying from the Party Line: Starting in Their Heads Instead of With Dialogue in “Gone Girl”

As a general rule, you want to resist the urge to have characters tell us a lot about themselves before we get to hear them have an actual conversation out loud. This is because the audience knows to distrust whatever people say about their own personalities. Anyone can tell you about how nice and charming they are, but it’s only when we hear them engage in conversation with someone else that we get to judge that for ourselves, which is what readers want to do.

“Gone Girl” breaks this rule, but it does so for good reason: Neither of Flynn’s two heroes is very appealing in real life. This is a really brave thing to do, writing about people who are pretty, shallow, and clever-but-not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are. After all, shallow people are people too, and they too deserve books. So Flynn begins both Nick and Amy’s sections by letting them speak directly to us, giving us their versions of their lives. They’re trying to make themselves sound good, and not entirely succeeding.

Interestingly, she has one good chance to give us some dialogue, when they have breakfast together, and she doesn’t. Instead we just get this description:

  • Amy was in the kitchen, oblivious to my hesitation. She was humming something melancholy and familiar. I strained to make it out – a folk song? a lullabye? – and then realized it was the theme to M.A.S.H. Suicide is painless. I went downstairs.
  • I hovered in the doorway, watching my wife. Her yellow-butter hair was pulled up, the hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope, and she was sucking distractedly on a burnt fingertip, humming around it. She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botcher of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.’ And Amy crooned instead, ‘She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.’ When I asked her why she’d ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything.
  • There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.
  • Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell like berries and powdered sugar.
  • When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
  • Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
  • I was very late getting to work […]

This is the only modern day scene with the two of them together until the end of the book, and they don’t get any real dialogue. It’s a shocking decision. We do get a warm moment between the two here, but it’s his memory of a warm moment, not one in real time. We don’t hear what they’re actually saying other than one line.

Why not give us what we want here? Because Flynn wants us to spend the first half of the book unable to determine who’s right about their relationship, but if she gave them a substantial conversation here, we would have enough information to make a more informed decision about their personalities and relationship, and she doesn’t want that.

Straying from the Party Line: The Unreliable Narrator Fake-Out in “Gone Girl”

Another trend recently is the increase of unreliable narrators. In “Gone Girl”, Gillian Flynn takes advantage of this trend in a clever way: She plays with us by letting us assume that her narrator is more unreliable than he actually is. The fact that our narrator isn’t lying to us (much) turns out to be a big twist!

One of the most famous unreliable narrators of all time is to be found in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. At the beginning of that story, our narrator, Dr. Sheppard, tells us of the day of the murder, then about his experiences “assisting” Hercule Poirot is solving it. Only at the end, after Poirot has solved it, does Sheppard admit to the reader that he left out some key information: He committed the murder himself.

Flynn encourages us to treat her co-hero Nick as a modern-day Dr. Sheppard. We begin with the words “Nick Dunne, the Day of” then we get his first person tale of that day, but we instantly wonder if he’s just skipping over the part where he kills her.

Obviously, as an author, this is a very dangerous game. Usually, your whole job is to get us to fully bond with your hero, to share his POV, to know what he knows, to wonder about the same things he wonders about, to trust him to solve the challenge that we want him to solve.  Flynn is doing the opposite. She’s encouraging us to distrust our hero, to assume that he knows more than he’s saying. We suspect that he won’t really try to solve the mystery we want solved: What happened to his wife?

Flynn isn’t going to reveal until halfway through that Amy is still alive, so how does she fill our time with Nick while she’s encouraging us to suspect him? Amy has created a mystery for Nick to solve: a scavenger hunt. We suspect that he’s trying to solve it idly after killing her, rather than genuinely trying to solve it to look for clues to her disappearance, which is the truth.

By choosing to play this game, Flynn is limiting her own options. She can’t show us anything, or have him think anything, that would make it clear that he isn’t guilty. What a fiendish thing to do to herself! It’s amazing that she keeps it interesting. Cutting to Amy’s diary helps. We identify more with her than him, wondering along with her if he intends to (which is to say, already has) hurt her.

Flynn does gratify our suspicion that he’s an unreliable narrator a bit when he admits to us that he has been eliding part of the story: that he’s having an affair. Ironically, it’s when he admits this to us that we really begin to suspect that’s all he’s lying about.

What about you? Did you suspect Nick? When did you stop suspecting him? Do you think the trick was worth the effort it obviously took for Flynn to pull it off?

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation: Take Any Writing Job (And Two Rulebook Casefiles)

 Gillian Flynn doesn’t have an MFA. From a profile in Elle:
  • Knowing she wanted to be a writer but too practical—self-effacing, as well—to apply to an MFA program, the de rigueur move for an East or West Coaster with similar preoccupations, she applied to journalism school instead. Claiming novelist as your ambition sounded, in her words, "Mmm, yeah, a little…lofty." She thought she'd become a crime reporter, combine her love of words with her love of sex and death. Only, as it turned out, she had, of all things, a squeamish side, which effectively put the kibosh on a career covering the mean streets. So after graduating from Northwestern, she moved to New York and took a job with Entertainment Weekly. At EW she could be up to her eyeballs in kiss kiss bang bang, but kiss kiss bang bang at a remove, safely confined to the screen, dissipating once the credits rolled and the lights came up. She stayed on staff for 10 years, writing about movies and TV.
If you imagine yourself as a great novelist, then writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly (not even the New Yorker!) might seem like too much of a comedown, but for Flynn, it was the apprenticeship she needed. What’s a huge part of writing reviews? Coining unique adjectives and similes! You don’t want to say, “I liked it because it was good.” You want to say what it was like.

Every writing job gets you writing, and the more manipulation of words you do, the more facility you’ll have.  If you must get a graduate degree, do what Flynn did and get a journalism degree.  Unlike MFAs, journalists learn to write on deadline, listen to real speech, and crystalize it into just the most interesting bits.

This leads us to two Rulebook Casefiles: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself and Tap Into Real Life National Pain.

Of course, the problem with the advice I’m giving you is that these jobs are now much fewer and farther between than they used to be. But of course that change is a big part of this novel. Flynn has gifted her backstory to her character Nick, and by doing so, she’s tapped into a real source of national pain: the death of a huge sector of the economy due to the rise of the online space, culminating in a total wipeout with the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I learned a lot about writing by writing reviews but I was part of the problem: I gave away my reviews for free on this blog. I would have loved to have made the jump to writing paid reviews, but nobody was hiring because the magazines were failing because they couldn’t compete with free content like mine!

Flynn knew her pain was real, and widely shared, and that she could bestow it upon her character to make him real, and more meaningful. Giving your own life away is the greatest gift you can give your characters (And then, once you gift them your real past, you craft a present that is more interesting than your actual present. You don’t want to get too realistic.)

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Coin Unique Similes

People read “Gone Girl” for the crackerjack thriller plot, but there are dozens of clever thrillers published every year. Why did this become such a phenomenon? Because the actual writing is also pretty great. The book makes great use of language.

It’s hard to write unique similes. In our actual lives we fall back on familiar similes as much as possible, so it’s believable enough when your characters do that, but your readers don’t want to read that. Familiar similes are stultifying to readers. They’re a waste of space. Readers crave unique similes, even if it’s not entirely realistic that your narrator would be coining them.

  • Nick begins the book by rhapsodizing about Amy’s head, which is “Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil”
  • He says of Amy and his mother: “Their few meetings had left them both baffled. Amy would dissect the conversations for days after – ‘And what did she mean by …,’ – as if my mother were some ancient peasant tribeswoman arriving from the tundra with an armful of raw yak meat and some buttons for bartering, trying to get something from Amy that wasn’t on offer.”
  • He mentions “an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast”

Is it entirely believable that Nick would come up with such unique similes? He is, after all, a writer. Granted, he’s a retired “Entertainment Weekly” writer, but so is Flynn. If she can come up with these, so could he.

Last time, I praised how different their voices are, well here’s another example: Her similes aren’t as good. She was, after all, a personality quiz author, not a reviewer. She says things like “Like some sort of feral love jackal”. One of her better attempts is “adopted orphan smile”, but then she brags about how good it is, ruining the goodwill that she built up.

(The book also does a great job with unique adjectives, like “thick afternoon naps” and “fish-white feet”)

Rulebook Casefile: Different POVs with Different Voices in “Gone Girl”

I talked last time about how I’m not a fan of including lots of third-person POV characters, so it’ll be no surprise that I’m not generally a fan of multiple first-person POVs. You know that I’ve always been a fan of having one hero for the audience to totally bond with.

If Suzy is wondering what’s going on in Bob’s head, then I want to stay with Suzy and bond with her as she tries to figure Bob out, I don’t want to briefly jump into Bob’s head to find out what Suzy will never know.

But if you have to do it, “Gone Girl” is a beautiful example of a multiple first-person POV novel done right:
  • It has a reason to exist: This is the story of a poisonous marriage, viewed though two radically different points of view with radically different facts. Either POV would be insufficient to tell this story. It’s richer for having both. This isn’t a case where we have the hero and an additional POV, the two are given equal weight. The interplay of the two POVs is more interesting than either on its own.
  • It’s careful to let us know exactly where we are at all times, beginning each chapter with the name of the narrator and where we are in the timeline.
  • It actually gives Nick and Amy genuinely different voices. The biggest risk in having multiple POVs is that the reader won’t be reading closely and miss the jump entirely. There’s no risk of that here. After six pages of his bitter, wistful, depressed, regretful, self-lacerating voice, looking back on their wreckage of a relationship, we jump to her chirpy, manic, needy, optimistic voice, looking forward to the sure-to-be-great relationship to come. Her first line is something he would never say “Tra and la!” 
  • And yet both voices are sympathetic, albeit in very different ways. We bond with both, to a certain extent, though we also look down on each (he for being a loser, her for being naïve)
Next we’ll talk about how even their similes are different...

    The Annotation Project: Gone Girl

    Alright, Harry Potter worked well, so let’s do an adult book this time. Obviously, I’m trying to stick to books everybody has read (or at least seen the movie). If you’ve done neither, be warned that I will spoil the story here. As usual, I’ll have a lot more to say about these pages over the next two weeks.  Once again, I apologize for the less than ideal presentation here, making you click on each of these (in a way that doesn't really work on phones).  It’s bizarre that Blogger doesn’t offer the option of images the same size as their column size.  Any ideas for a better way to present these?  (I offered a Word download last week.  Should I do that again?  Did anybody actually do that? UPDATE: Here it is.)


    Storyteller’s Rulebook: If You’re Going to Switch Voices, Make Sure to Switch Voices

    I’ve expressed concern about the screenplay-ization of movies, but now I’d like to express concern about a trend that very anti-cinematic: Cutting between multiple first-person narrators. I see this in about half of the manuscripts I read, but it’s very hard to pull off. I can see why it’s tempting: I’m tired of my hero’s POV, and I want to show things that she can’t see, so why not just jump into someone else’s head?
    • Of course, the biggest reason not to do it is because the number one job of a writer is to get a reader to bond with a hero. Obviously, jumping into another head breaks that bond.
    • The next biggest problem is that readers can easily get confused about whose voice they’re hearing. It demands close reading, and gatekeepers don’t read closely, which makes your book a hard sell.
    Nevertheless, it can be pulled off, and we can all cite many successful examples. You don’t have to resort to Faulkner here: A bestseller like “Gone Girl” gets great value from contrasting its narrators’ POVs.

    Here’s my biggest piece of advice for having different voices: Actually give them different voices. Don’t let us forget which voice we’re listening to, because it’s obvious from every line that we’re listening to one voice and not the other. Give them different sentence lengths, different metaphor families, different everything. Don’t cut away to a coroner who talks just like your hero but happens to work in the morgue you need to visit.

    And make sure that the POV jumps are not smooth. You don’t want us to miss the jump and get confused. You want us to stop and shift gears, so put a stop sign in our way. Begin each new POV with a one-sentence paragraph where the new person says something the other one wouldn’t say. If one has just been saying how discontent he is, cut the next POV saying, “I love my job.”

    The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 3: The Three Big Pregnancy Problems

    So let’s talk about three more big things that make no sense about “Gone Girl”, on either the page and the screen:
    1. Stealing a pregnant woman’s pee is fine if you want to fake a home-pregnancy test and fool your husband, but it would never fool an actual doctor. This is the 21st century and they no longer kill a rabbit. Your doctor instantly gives you a full physical, including a blood test that tell them a lot more than pee ever could.
    2. Likewise, you can’t secretly impregnate yourself with one specimen of frozen sperm. You’d have two options: Either do IVF, which is a long complicated surgical procedure with a high fail rate (but at least you get several shots off one sample) or you can attempt to self-thaw and then use the turkey baster method, which would have an astronomically high fail rate, and you’d only get one chance. Getting pregnant even with a fully-participating man is already quite unlikely on one try.
    3. Why does Nick stay with her for five weeks (it was longer in the book, iirc) after she comes home and before he finds out she’s pregnant? In the movie, she says that otherwise the press will turn on him, so he has to stay, but so what? Before, he was trying to win the press over to avoid being arrested, but why would he care now? It makes no sense. Of course, the real reason that he has to stay so long without a good motivation is to allow time for the impregnation storyline.
    The most annoying thing about these three story-killers is that they could so easily be fixed with one solution: Have her actually get pregnant.

    If she’s so dedicated to her long-term revenge plan, then secretly going off the pill for a few months would not be so much of a stretch. This would give her enough chances to actually get pregnant, and allow her to actually prove her pregnancy to a doctor.

    In this version, she would enact her revenge long before her pregnancy showed, planning to abort the baby sometime later (or not, if we’re going with the kill herself version, which would also require an actual pregnancy). She could leave a clue for Nick in the woodshed that implies she aborted the baby, then reveal to Nick at the end that she never got around to it, which still allows you to have the shock-ending. This would also help explain Amy’s sudden change-of-heart and desire to return to Nick: Pregnancy is a hormonal roller-coaster, after all, and it tends to reset your priorities.

    And, most importantly, in this version, she could confront him the night of her return, or at least that week, rather than forcing him to stay in the house with a psychopath for no reason whatsoever.

    Why didn’t they do this simple fix? Because murder and rape are sexy and fun, but pregnancy is a turn-off and abortion is beyond the pale? Ugh. If Flynn was going to go there, she should have went there, and solved three huge problems with one quick fix.

    The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 2: Amy’s Nonsensical Plan

    Here’s something that makes no sense on page or screen: Amy’s plan. Amy’s frame-up is clever and fun, no doubt, but it falls apart when we find out about her plan for the future, or lack thereof.

    Amy quickly mentions in passing, in both the book and movie, that she intends watch Nick suffer for a while, then drown herself in the river to ensure a conviction. Huh? If she really wants to frame the guy, and she’s already put so much insane detail in to everything, and she’s ready to kill herself, why not just do it now, supreme in the knowledge that this will seal the deal?

    Besides, if Amy is really a psychopath, as subsequent events will strongly imply, then it’s very unlikely she would ever even consider suicide. Psychopaths are the world’s most self-serving people, and they’re happy to just move on to the next victim, confident that they can once again fulfill their needs and then avoid all consequences.

    And even if she’s planning on killing herself, why would she choose to stay at a cabin in the Ozarks in order to watch the coverage?? A big plot point is that she’s accustomed to luxury and can’t stand the indignity of her middle-class existence in Missouri. She has that big money belt, so why not go someplace nice? Does she not know that the rich have more anonymity and privacy than the poor?

    Killing herself should never have been part of her plan. Why not just withdraw a lot of cash from those secret credit cards and then move to a Gulf Coast island to enjoy a life of low-cost semi-luxury while watching the whole circus on TV and starting a new low-key life?

    You could still have her trashy neighbors bust in and steal her money (the rich and the beach-bums live next to each other on those islands, after all.) She could still flee to Desi when things went bad. It wouldn’t change much, but it would have made a lot more sense. As it is, the suicide plan creates a big motivation hole in the center of the story.  (And an empathy hole as well, because it’s hard to care about a character if you’re just waiting for her to kill herself.)

    But that still leave three huge plot holes, which we’ll get to (and easily fix) tomorrow...

    Gone Girl Meddler Week, Part 1: Where the Movie Blows It

    Okay folks, we’re going to do a three-part Meddler this week, then a four-part Meddler next week with a different movie before we get to the year-end countdown...
    Let me start by admitting that the movie was a lot better than I thought it would be. When I first heard the list of actors, I thought every role was miscast, but the movie proved me wrong about almost everybody (but that’s a big almost.)
    • Ben Affleck is amazingly good. His disingenuous flash of a smile at the press conference totally nails the character and makes all of the pathetic interior life of the character leap from the page to the screen. He’s brave enough to be unlikable and also has enough complex emotion behind his eyes to earn our pained empathy throughout, but just barely, which is how it should be.
    • I originally thought Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris should have switched roles, because Desi on the page was a hunkier, more intimidating guy than Nick. My big fear was that Fincher, in his rush to demonize Amy, would use NPH to make Desi into more of a sad sack victim. But no, I was happy to see that NPH was allowed to be totally creepy and become genuinely threatening. You do fear for Amy when he’s around.
    • Likewise Tyler Perry is a revelation: Funny, clever, and charming. Give that guy a spinoff.
    • A lot of other actors who I thought of as merely okay really stepped up to the plate with smart, funny big-screen-worthy performances, especially Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, and Carrie Coon.
    But of course, that leaves one big performance that fails: Amy. It’s hard to blame Rosamund Pike for this, given that she was totally miscast and then undercut by her director at every turn. Even when we’re seeing dramatized pages from her diary, which, you’ll recall, she’s fictionalized to make herself extremely sympathetic, she’s totally cold and repellent. In her first sex scene with Nick, she’s wearing black bra, panties, and leather boots as he kneels at the foot of the bed performing cunnilingus. That’s in her phony diary??

    As I mentioned before in the comments, Reese Witherspoon optioned this book when the galley first came out, intending to play Amy herself. I knew this when I read it, and it worked perfectly: After all, she excels at playing both “America’s Sweetheart” and disturbed sociopathic characters, which is exactly the duality this part required. But after Witherspoon hired Fincher, he turned right around and fired her, because he didn’t fit her conception for of the part.

    So instead he cast an honest-to-God Bond villain. Now I loved Pike’s pulpy performance as “Miranda Frost” in Die Another Day, and I thought she was even better in An Education as a dim-but-wise moll. She’s a great character actress. But both roles capitalized on her inherently frosty and opaque charm. She’s not even remotely “America’s Sweetheart,” as the Amy of the diary has to be.

    Allow me to tell a story I probably shouldn’t: An acquaintance of mine wrote a screenplay that became a hot Hollywood commodity, attracting several stars and big directors before it finally got made (you’ll probably guess who I’m talking about, but please don’t say so in the comments). He was telling me about how he managed to stay on as sole writer over the course of that long process, and said it involved doing a lot of unpleasant things.

    Specifically, he talked about the period when David Fincher was attached to direct, and demanded of the writer that he rewrite it as a “domestic abuse comedy”, in which the couple try to kill each other and then go to the hospital and force each other to tell the doctors that they just ran into doorknobs. The writer said that it disgusted him to write those scenes, but he felt like he had to because he didn’t want to be replaced on his own script. Besides, by that point he had already seen so many directors come and go that he felt he could make these changes and just hope that the script would revert after Fincher moved on, which was precisely what happened.

    I kept thinking about this story as I watched Gone Girl. Finally, I got to the point in the movie where the doctor asks Pike if she feels safe going home with her husband, and we cut to Affleck giving a little “fuck you” wave to her, which got a laugh from everyone in the room, including me. That was when I said to myself “Jesus, Fincher finally got the domestic abuse comedy he always wanted!”
    It didn’t have to be this way. Amy could and should have been much more sympathetic: a sweet-but-spoiled girl with a charmed life who marries a selfish jerk that takes her away from everything she ever loved, soaks up her dwindling money like a sponge, then brazenly cheats on her. Finally, she snaps more than any woman has ever snapped before, launching a truly deranged revenge plot. Then, when she gets robbed and realizes what true desperation is, she turns to her old boyfriend, who tries to turn her into his private sex slave, so she snaps even further, kills him, and, totally nutso at this point, uses a pregnancy to blackmail her husband into taking her back and resuming their sad mockery of a marriage.

    One thing that was so clever about the book was that Amy’s “phony” diary, despite her attempts to twist the narrative to her own advantage, actually gives us a compelling portrait of a woman scorned who snaps, revealing more about her true self than she ever intended.

    This worked so well that I was really disappointed (as well as disgusted) when Flynn revealed Amy’s history of false rape claims. Not only does this plot twist reflect a totally unrealistic (but all-too-common) misogynistic misperception of reality, it also undoes the subtle cleverness of the first half in favor of a straight-up villainous narrative. Instead of a somewhat shallow girl who becomes desperately deranged, she’s just, in her own words, “a cunt.” (By the way folks, real life women don’t serially fake rape or call themselves cunts. That’s not the way the world works.)

    When I heard they were turning it into a movie, I thought, “Great, just take that totally-extraneous part out and it would be a pretty good movie!” But of course Fincher kept it in, and twisted the rest of the story to fit that narrative, which makes Amy consistently repellent in every frame of the movie, which leaves us with weasely Nick as sole protagonist, which doesn’t work. So the movie fails. It’s a shame because Fincher nails every scene that Amy isn’t in, and even a few Amy scenes (like the robbery, and the early NPH scenes). If only Fincher hadn’t fired his boss, it all could have worked!