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.

3 lessons gone girl teaches writers about suspense

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?

PRACTICE

Choose a dramatic question. Write for fifteen minutes with that dramatic question in mind, but feel free to take liberties with that dramatic question.

Post your practice in the comments, and if you choose to post, be sure to leave a few notes for your fellow practicers.

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.

  • Logan Mathis

    this is a very good article. I agree completely with what you say about sacrificing plot to try to get a good plot ending. In fact, I personally feel a lot of authors are trying to get this awesome one of a kind plot twist to grab readers. I don’t think it’s needed. If you are a great writer, have a strong story, and well-developed characters who have an absolute desire that they can’t walk away from, you have yourself a story. I ALWAYS focus on my characters and their desires.

  • The Cody

    Here’s the beginning of a short story where I play with voice and try to get a dramatic question out early:

    Norbert cut the blue car off trying to get to work on time. He didn’t remember the make and model. That would have edged on cool, and let me give you an idea how “cool” Norbert was: he once told a date he’d prefer to be werewolf over human. I liked the guy—he had an amazing heart buried under eighty fat layers of weirdness—but Norbert didn’t date much. Poor dude. Even his name screams dork. Too bad he didn’t notice anything about the car. It would have saved a ton of trouble later.

    Why was Norbert running late? Simple: he was addicted to WOW. Played all night until the sun poured through his plastic Venetian blinds. Consequently, the folks at Software Idiom wanted him gone. Not because he was lazy or incompetent. Norbert rocked out some amazing applications; guy could turn my 200 lines of spaghetti code into a 30 line masterpiece. The company hated him because he had trouble relating to his coworkers. They found him “difficult”.

    However, being difficult was not a good enough reason to fire someone. Talk about the ultimate in subjectivity. That’s the stuff lawsuits are born from. Constant tardiness, on the other hand, is recordable and non-negotiable. The company wanted a scapegoat and Norbert unknowingly said, “Baa.” A lot.

    Software Idiom’s ulterior motive led to Norbert’s cutting off the blue car.

    Tires screeched behind him and the driver blared his horn like a drum solo. Not that Norbert really cared. He was in his own world, too busy panting, checking the clock, and muttering, “Dangit, dangit, dangit,” to himself. The blue car was already an afterthought.

    Next thing Norbert knew, the guy from the blue car was sitting next to him. Yes, the guy appeared next to him. From. Out. Of. Thin. Air. Seriously. Norbert claimed the guy somehow teleported from his car into Norbert’s passenger seat.

  • Avril

    It’s been over 20 years since the night my parents buried a body in the back yard, way in the back corner, under the massive cedar tree, and I still haven’t figured out who that was, or how they died.

    One night, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, something woke me up; a strange sound, some weird energy given off by frantic activity, or just a child’s gut feeling that she’s been left alone in the house. I looked out my bedroom window, into the yard. It was a dark night, very cloudy, and the only light outside was coming from our camping lanterns, which were hung around the tree and fence to light up that back corner. My parents were lowering a rolled up carpet into a hole in the ground, and I saw immediately that two feet were sticking out from the end of the roll. I didn’t dare go outside to ask questions, and I never asked them directly about this incident. They always treated me with loving kindness, yet I have always understood, that if I back them into a corner with questions, I’ll be the next one to fill a hole in our perfect lawn.

    My name is Brooke, and I live with my father and stepmother. They love me and spoil me, and from the outside looking in, I probably appear to have a perfect life. But I am troubled by, well of course, the fact that a body is buried by my house. Not to be totally selfish, but I have a personal wound as well. My father has explained to me that my biological mother died in childbirth, and that he met Christiana several years later, and married her.

    In the months after I saw Dad and Christiana (who I call “Mom”) bury the body, I was petrified and curious at the same time. I was too young to have a sense of bringing my parents to justice. I think I was just morbidly curious. Who was rolled up in that rug? I started looking around, trying to notice if anyone was missing from our circle of friends and acquaintances.

    A few weeks after I witnessed my parents complicity in what must have been a horrible crime, I noticed we hadn’t had any trouble lately with Mr. Livingston, the neighbor who lived behind us. He had been driving us crazy for months, as he’d apparently developed an infatuation with Christiana. She enjoyed sunbathing nude during the warm months, and somehow he found out about this. Nearly every time she went out, she would catch him spying on her through the knotholes in the old fence. He was so obvious, you could see his big, gawking blue eye right there in the big circle, which ringed his eye and emphasized his entranced expression. When I asked why he wasn’t bugging Mom anymore, my dad explained that he had been caught being a Peeping Tom all over the neighborhood, and the police were looking to pick him up. Dad claimed Mr. Livingston had heard the cops were looking for him, and split.

    There were so many things my parents didn’t want to talk about. I wanted to know about my real mother, even if she had died during childbirth. Who was she? What was she like? Did she have family I could meet? My dad’s answers were terse. He would only state that my mother had been very sick during her pregnancy, and that the doctors told him they could save the mother or the child, but not both, and he told them to save me. As for her family, he always emphatically stated a list: They were drug addicts and career criminals, they were all dead or totally zonked out of their gourds, and if they ever met me, they would steal me from my dad, and sell me to sex perverts to get drug money.

    When I was a little older. around 15, I realized there was another person who had been on the fringes of our lives when I was younger, who was no longer seen nor mentioned. That was a man who had been my dad’s business partner. I only remember his name was “Eli”. I asked, whatever happened to Eli, and that business you had with him? Again, dad was abrupt, as if the subject was still too hurtful to describe fully. He only said that Eli stole all the money and disappeared, and that he’d had to start all over again.

    All these questions have never gone away. They would lie low for awhile, when I was absorbed in kid stuff: soccer, chorus, boys, prom. But whenever I had a lull, and sat still for awhile, I would wonder, what was my mother like? Do I look like the people in her family? Would they understand my infatuation with white chocolate? Who is buried in the back yard? What role did my parents play in the death? Why do they act like such nice, normal people when I know for sure they must be monsters?

    A few weeks ago, I decided I am old enough to look for answers myself, at least about the question of my real biological family. I took a few weeks off from my job, and told my parents I was going to one of those all-expenses-paid-party-your-ass-off resorts in Mexico. I insinuated that they should not ask questions, as the less they knew of this hormone-fest, the better. In reality, I went on a little road trip, and drove to this little town in Oregon, the name of which is on my birth certificate.

    When I arrived in this town, I just parked on Main Street, and walked around. I had no plan, and felt lost. I needed to stretch my legs and find something to eat. I told myself I’d be able to develop a plan after that. As I walked around, people were friendly in that small town way (If I don’t know you, you’re just a friend I haven’t met yet.). I was a little put off my some of the senior citizens though. Several of them stared at me, and one even followed me for a few blocks. When I tried to speak with them, they turned away, and pretended to be looking at something else, like a tree, or a rock on the ground.

    Shrugging off the weirdness, I went into the coffee shop, and decided to eat a good lunch. The ancient waitress who approached me gasped when I put the menu down and looked up at her. “Marlene!” she whispered. I told her, no, my name is Brooke. “Ooooh, Brooke, I remember you. You are the spitting image of your mother, Marlene.” The waitress introduced herself as Candy, and said she had been my mom’s best friend. She told me where I could find the grave sites at the local cemetery, for my mother and her parents, who were long deceased. Candy invited me to meet her back at her house when her shift ended.

    I spent the afternoon at the cemetery, and put flowers on my mother’s grave, as well as each of her parents. They may have been drug addicts and criminals, but they were my real family. And I’d never really gotten over the guilt of the burden I had to carry always, that my mother died so I could live.

    That afternoon, I went to the address Candy had written on a To Go menu. She showed me many pictures of my mother, and told me many stories of how her family and mine had been close, and had gone camping together, and celebrated the holidays together. “Oh”, I blurted, “were some of your family members into drugs and financial scams the way my mom’s family were?”

    Candy, who had until then seemed soft and grandmotherly, changed. Her face and voice stayed calm and affable, while her eyes looked like they turned to bright marble carvings. She told me that my grandfather had been the town dentist, a kind man who was loved by everyone, and that my grandmother was a nurse and midwife, who never even had a speeding ticket.

    Confused , I just changed the subject, and asked Candy what it was like to have to say goodbye to her best friend, so that the baby could live. I wanted to know if she hated me for costing my mother her life. Candy did not answer my questions. Her eyes grew even more bright, and more like shiny stone. Her voice remained soft. She told me my mother did have some problems with childbirth, so my father was allowed to bring me home while she recuperated in the hospital. According to Candy, my father disappeared with me, and it took my mother years to find us.

    My mother had hired a private investigator, and when he finally located us in Oregon, she left immediately, to get me back. She was never seen nor heard from again.

  • Jennifer pulled up to the rusty gates of the abandoned amusement park and shut off the engine of her tan Isuzu Rodeo. She gazed through her windshield at the dark land. A derelict rollercoaster, with a couple cars frozen at the peak of a drop, was silhouetted against the moon. Her eyes trailed the forlorn ruin, noting the sections of missing track. She shook herself and glanced around outside her truck once more. There was no sign of her friend. ‘That’s odd. Danni is more punctual than this. I’m the late one to our meeting places.’ She pulled her phone out to check the text requesting the meeting here again.

    ‘Jen, meet me at the old FunZone Amusement park at 8pm. I have something you’ll want to see. It’s the break you’ve been waiting for.’

    The cell chirped, and the screen when dark. “Damn it. I forgot to charge. Grrr,” she said. She leaned over to the glove box and felt around. Her fingers slid over crumpled parking
    tickets, napkins, a dried out doughnut, and the cool metal of the handgun her friend Rob had given her. He’d called it a USP Tactical and said it was easy to conceal. She leaned over and attempted to look into the glove compartment, but it was too dark to see inside. She reached out and opened the passenger side door. The dome light came on as the sound of crickets entered. The gun blocked her view of the inside, so she pushed it aside. No charger. ‘Shit. I must have forgotten to grab it on my way out the door this morning.’

    Jennifer sighed, and pulled the passenger door shut. At the same time, she slammed the glove box shut. She got out and glanced around. The wind moved through the woods, shaking tree branches, and making shadows dance in the moonlight. Still no sign of her best friend. An owl hooted, making her jump. She leaned against the truck, her hand over her racing heart. A rhythmic squeaking caught her attention. When she glanced back to the interior of the amusement park, something darted by. The sudden movement in her peripheral vision caused her to turn to look, as her breath caught in her chest. Her gasp turned into a brief coughing fit.

    She regained control of her breathing, and opened her truck once more. She reached under the seat and grabbed the flashlight. As she turned it on, she registered what she’d done, and smacked herself on the forehead. ‘I could have used this when looking for my charger. Dummy.’ She shone the light in the direction of the movement, and became aware the crickets no longer made a sound. The flashlight swung in short, quick arcs, following the motion of her eyes. She took a slow step back. The crunch of gravel underfoot seemed like miniature explosions to her sharpened senses. A wolf howled. She screamed and dropped her light which flew apart on the ground.

    ‘Shit.’ She squatted, gathering the pieces in the moonlight. ‘Get a hold of yourself. If you can handle being attacked by a couple hood rats, you can handle a wolf howling in the distance.’

    The hood rats in question had been intending her to be their initiation into the local order of the Four-Nines, a ruthless gang of drug runners. She’d surprised the young girls by being more vicious than they, and as they put it, “Not fighting fair.” Two on one was fair game, though, it seemed. As Rob had taught, a quick knee to the groin of the closer girl had persuaded her to lose interest in continuing. A short jab to the voice box had made the other one lose interest as well, also as he’d instructed.

    Jennifer reassembled the flash, and flicked the switch. Nothing. ‘Did I put the batteries in right?’ She removed the top and reversed them. This time the flashlight came on. At the same time, something heavy thumped onto the roof of the truck.

    She whipped the light up to see what made the noise. The air left her lungs in
    a rush as an enormous black wolf was revealed. The animal’s eyes glowed yellow
    in the beam. The wolf’s upper lip curled up, showing gleaming fangs as it snarled at her. Woman and wolf stared at each other for an unknown amount of time. Their standoff ended when she took a slow step back. The sound of gravel being compacted under her foot caused the wolf to spring at her.

    She screamed, and threw her arms over her face, certain she was going to die.

    • Mike Stevens

      Please, continue…..

  • This is one of the best articles on Writepractice.

  • Am I the only one who didn’t enjoy “Gone Girl” – I may be guilty of judging a book by its movie, but from what I gathered its pretty close to the book. Anyway, Good article Liz, but for me, on a side note, seeing as Gone Girl is used here, I didn’t care much for the plot twists, because quite simply I didn’t care much for the characters. The only likeable character was Nick’s sister. I may be in the minority, but for me,if the audience isn’t unvested in the characters then how they be invested in the story. A good writer can make even a despicable character likeable/sympathetic, but I don’t feel that Flynn did this…
    Thanks for the handy article!

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