3 Lessons Gone Girl Teaches Writers About Suspense
I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl way back in January after hearing that A. it was amazing, and B. it would be getting a theatrical release in October 2014. I loved the book, and as soon as I started seeing trailers for the movie, I got it into my head that I MUST SEE THIS FILM. The moody teaser, the dark score accompanying the scenes of a marriage unraveling, the mystery of whose story is the truth: the whole thing dragged me in. I saw the movie on Sunday, and it definitely did not disappoint, at least as far as I’m concerned. There’s a lot of debate around the plot, which I won’t go into here because pretty much anything I say would be a huge spoiler.
What I will go into here is Gillian Flynn’s (and, by extension, David Fincher’s) brilliant use of suspense in telling the story of the terrible couple at the center of Gone Girl.
Suspense in Gone Girl
Suspense, according to Merriam-Webster online, is “the feeling or state of nervousness or excitement caused by wondering what will happen.”
SUSPENSE. The feeling or state of nervousness or excitement caused by wondering what will happen.
Suspense is a part of all good literature and creative media because it’s what motivates the reader to keep going. It’s the little voice in your reader’s mind that asks the question, “And THEN what?”
It’s the invisible force that dares the viewer’s eyes to look away. It’s what keeps you up another twenty minutes past your intended bedtime as you promise yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter, and then you’ll put it down, but once you’ve put it down, your brain swirls for another twenty minutes before you can calm it enough to fall asleep.
How To Create Suspense, According to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
But how do you create suspense? There are a few ways to steer your writing in the right direction.
1. Ask Your Dramatic Question Early
Flynn does this with Gone Girl, when right in the beginning she makes Amy Dunne vanish under mysterious circumstances.
It’s important to introduce the dramatic question early in the narrative; otherwise your audience won’t care enough about the characters to get to the point in your work where the question is asked.
2. Take Liberties with Your Dramatic Question
There’s no rule that states the dramatic question has to stay the same throughout your work. While the dramatic question in Gone Girl initially is “What happened to Amy?” it very quickly becomes a story of a marriage under strife, and the question rapidly twists into “What is Nick’s involvement in his wife’s disappearance?”
Once the second part of the book takes off, the question is a completely different one, and it’s a race to get to the answer. The idea here is that once the reader thinks they’ve found an answer, the previous question is no longer relevant, and they’re racing off down the trail again.
3. Be Unpredictable
There’s a YouTube video that parodies the reaction of Gone Girl readers when they get to The Twist in the middle of the novel. I’m all for a good twist, but the key is that it has to be a good twist.
I’d subjectively say that Flynn hits the perfect note on the unexpected twist, but you have to remember that being unpredictable in our modern world (with the internet in our pockets and everyone knowing who Keyser Soze is already) is a challenge.
Stay away from tired old tropes in the realm of “the butler did it,” unless the butler did it and you got there in a more creative manner.
How To Ruin Suspense
A word of caution: never sacrifice plot development for the sake of a twist ending. Leave clues and notes of foreshadowing in your writing without completely giving away the grand reveal.
Otherwise you’re risking having an ending that’s labeled a deus ex machina, and your readers will resent you for it.
How about you? What did you learn about writing from Gone Girl?
About Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.