Saturday, December 1, 2012

Gone Girl and the Pitfalls of the Big Twist

The last book I read was a nail-biter, the kind of book that kept me up all night desperate to know how it ends. The answer was true to Amazon reviews: disappointingly. But don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending, because that would ruin the whole thing.

So I'll only spoil the middle.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, is a psychological suspense novel about a missing wife and a marriage that has gone horribly wrong. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t read the reviews that spoil the ending. Go out and buy it - I’m still 40th on our library waiting list- then read 219 pages and get back to me. (If you can’t tear yourself away from this post, then I assure you the spoilage will change how you read this book but not ruin it. It might even make you like it better. Or it might not. No money-back guarantees in the blogging business, my friends.)

Go on. I'll just hang out here and wait.
By Leyo (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-2.5-ch]via Wikimedia Commons

I'm betting you didn't stop at 219. Couldn't put it down, right? I assume it’s Tuesday and you’re checking back in. 

So you’ve started Part 2. For the first half of the book, the narrative has alternated between Nick’s POV in the present day and Amy’s diary entries beginning years earlier. On the day Nick's story began, Amy disappeared from the house, leaving traces of blood and signs of a struggle. Nick has been muddling through the police investigation while Amy's diary has reflected increasing strain between them.

Now we’ve gotten to know both Nick and Amy a bit, and we know something isn’t adding up. Their marriage is clearly troubled, and he is lying to the cops and might even be lying to us, the readers, because there’s something sketchy about Nick. And Amy seems oblivious sometimes, even as she seems to understand their dynamic so well.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen a little more of yourself in Amy than you’d like to admit. The way she tries so hard to be an easy wife, to not let his little guy habits get to her. The way she compares them with other couples while pretending not to. The way she seems to be trying to create a picture of happiness while not being entirely sure if she’s actually feeling it.

If you’re like me, you might have put the book down few chapters in, when you were starting to see how Amy might drive Nick insane, and said to your husband, “So, ah, promise not to murder me, okay?” And he might have frowned and said, “I already promised not to push you down the stairs after you watched that Lifetime movie and I am not making any more promises because I really. Shouldn’t. Have to.” And then you might have pouted for a minute before sinking back into your book, pushing aside the feeling that the author knew you too well.

This was in the beginning, before things got weird. You just suspected Nick was angrier than he seemed and Amy was more desperate than she seemed, and it all was a little too keen, as though the author had taken a shadow and managed to give it form, then sharpened that form to a blade and sliced open every marriage ever.

Or maybe you were just engrossed in the story. To each her own.

You got sucked in deeper, stayed up later, and found yourself on page 219. The midpoint reveal. You knew there had to be one, because nothing added up so far. You may have even floated this in your head, or maybe you positively saw it coming all along. I worried the story might go off the rails, but never anticipated the degree to which Flynn carries her twist through. Whether or not you guessed the twist, if you are like me, even a little bit, you were not happy with this turn of events.

Because if you are like me, you love reading about characters who betray each other but you are less enthusiastic about characters who betray you, the reader.

Okay. This is your final chance to catch up. I'm not going anywhere. Spoilers come after the manatee.

By Chris Muenzer (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ah, you’re back.

Page 219: Not only did Amy fake her own death, she faked all those diary entries. That character who hit a little close to home, whose vulnerabilities were so perfectly blended into an everywoman that I could understand and envy and pity all at the same time? Yeah, she was fake. The real Amy made her up. The real Amy played a joke on everyone, including the reader. And since the real Amy is not real, but made up by the real author, I had some less than kind thoughts for Ms. Flynn on page 219.

I knew there had to be a twist in order for the story to make sense, but I still groaned out loud when this was it. It took me another fifty pages to get over the resentment and get into the new story - the one featuring a sociopath instead of a victim.

Elements of the TWIST FAIL:

Not everyone will be as bothered by this plot twist as I was, and you can’t please everyone all the time, but if you want to please this cranky blogger I recommend avoiding two pitfalls of a big twist:

1. Abusing the Reader’s Trust

Unreliable narrators can be tricky, but they can also work. If you’ve made it this far, you know that Nick is having an affair, and he didn’t tell the reader upfront. Instead, when his girlfriend forces her way onstage, he makes a reluctant confession to the reader:
I have a mistress. Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me. If you liked me to begin with. I have a pretty, young, very young mistress, and her name is Andie.
I know. It’s bad.
Nick has committed some lies of omission in his narrative, making him an unreliable narrator. But Andie doesn’t contradict the picture of Nick. She fills out another piece of the puzzle, and it fits with everything that came before.

As I reader, I don't feel like I bit into my next Goober and got a Raisinet instead.

Amy's twist, on the other hand, is like having your delicious chocolate covered peanut snack replaced by chocolate covered raisins in the middle of the movie. And I have always thought that fruit and chocolate is something a person needs time to get used to.

I was invested in Amy's character. I knew she was holding back, but I thought I related to her. Finding out those diary entries were all supposed to be a lie was kind of like spending 200 pages of my life with a someone I think might be a friend and instead turns out to be doing market research. A lot like that, actually. Maybe I should spend more time with real people. But that's for another post.

2. Forgetting the Limits of Your Authorly Control

Books are at a disadvantage compared to movies. A movie always has one ultimate viewpoint: the camera’s. You can stick with one character, or have voiceovers, but basically what the camera sees is what the audience sees. In The Sixth Sense (a.k.a. best twist ever), we could go back and see all the bits that the camera caught that we had missed, all the ways to look at a scene differently once we understood that there was another angle.

A movie never relinquishes control to the viewer. We might puzzle over things or even miss them entirely, but we don’t generally fill in any details with our imaginations. In a movie, you get what you get.

Authors don't have that kind of control. We readers have to form our own images, and we use our imaginations on every single page to make the world of the story richer. Characters and settings become uniquely three-dimensional in our minds. I kept picturing Nick and Amy in a house just like one I’d seen when my husband and I were house hunting several years ago. If I read a detail that contradicted my image, I’d adjust. But the image was there already, based on only a few details from the author and the pictures my brain had in storage. I’ve never been to Missouri, so the suburbs I pictured were more like Michigan, because that’s what my mind filled in. Gillian Flynn couldn’t have stopped me. The author can't control every detail, or decide how invested a reader becomes in his or her imagination.

This means that changing critical things late in the game is dangerous.

If you give a few telling details about a woman - a hunched back, a shuffling gait, gray hair - and for 200 pages, I picture an old lady, it won't work to say on page 201 that she’s actually a young woman. No matter how many details you tell me, it would take some mind-blowing writerly chops to make me to picture something that could be either an old lady or a young woman without giving away your surprise.

As I read, I create images based on my interpretation of the story. In a movie, I have no choice but to interpret the image you show me. In that case, painting a picture that can be seen two ways is easy peasy lemon squeezy:

Maybe I wasn't supposed to relate to Amy as much as I did. Maybe I was supposed to smell that she was off from the outset, or maybe I wasn't supposed to be rooting for her. Maybe I wasn't supposed to picture the diary entries as vividly as I did, or get so attached to them. But Ms. Flynn couldn't have controlled that without giving away the surprise.

A book might be born in one person's creative mind, but the experience of reading it is always collaborative, a meeting of the author's words and the reader's imagination. So before you introduce a twist, ask yourself if you’ve anchored the reader in the right images, and if the promises you made along the way are the ones you meant to make. Some people love surprises and some people hate them, but no one likes a broken promise.

For a great analysis of what makes a twist really work, see MaryAnn's brilliant post: Pulling off The Big Twist.  

I'm off to order Gillian Flynn's other novels. Story critiques aside (we haven't even talked about the ENDING!), Gone Girl was a heckuva fun read and I can't wait to do it again.


  1. Sarah! Oh how I have missed you and your brilliant posts!

    I now officially need to read this book.

    1. Thanks, Sheena :) I hope I didn't actually ruin it...

  2. Yay Sarah!! Welcome back and great post!!!

    I would've been annoyed at that twist too. Why did she make fake journal entries, was she trying to frame her husband? Seems like a lot of work to me when she could just sent a few e-mails to a friend that she was concerned with his behavior and that would've been enough to cast suspicion on him for the police (not that they really need a big nudge in that direction). Anyway, the twist needs to fit the story and not just be a ploy to mislead and manipulate readers although since I haven't read this book, I really can't judge. :)

    I like what you say about the difference between movies and books, and I think it is important to realize when writing that readers aren't going to really read the book you've written, just a version of it. In some ways that is what makes reading and writing novels so awesome, but it also leaves the door open for people seeing things in your story that you did not intend. It's interesting.

    1. I want to tell you why she faked all those entries, but I'm worried I've spoiled enough already :)

  3. You wrote: In The Sixth Sense (a.k.a. best twist ever), we could go back and see all the bits that the camera caught that we had missed, all the ways to look at a scene differently once we understood that there was another angle.

    That sums it all up for me. I'll take the twist, as long as it was there for me to see all along...I've been having some discussions along these lines lately and that is what I've been trying to say!

    The Thief is a great example of this. So is Howl's Moving Castle, although the twist is more of a subplot in that book. It's what makes you finish the last page and turn right back to the first page to read it again. Possibly the best example is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I was absolutely floored by that one, and I'm not sure how many times I reread it, just because of that tingle I got when I see something I missed the first time around. I wish I could read it again for the first and second (and third) time.

    This book you're talking about sounds like the kind of book I'd stop reading half way through and look up the synopsos. I don't like to be lied to, but I love to be tricked.

    And it is so nice to have you back Sarah. I've missed you lots.

    1. I've missed all of you guys, too! You know, I kind of had to get this post out of my system because it was just *too long* until book club, and we still haven't met, but in passing conversations I've gotten the impression the other women liked it. So it's really an individual thing. I do think the more time I spend thinking about how fiction works, the harder I am to please :)

  4. Sarah! Welcome back!

    I'm with Melanie on this one. Give me a book with all the subtle clues and then I love a good reveal. Simply throw a twist in my face (which is sounds like this one did), and I'm not a happy camper. This was a great post. Thanks!

  5. A twist is always a toss-up for me. City of bones, for instance, was not a twist I enjoyed. I want clues or I'm not going to believe the twist, and it'll just annoy me. I think the twist you're talking about would bug me, too.

    Fantastic post, Sarah! I really enjoyed it. :)

  6. It took me over a year to pick up another Mortal Instruments book. I'd forgotten about that, since I ended up enjoying them so much (I'm in that group of people who refuses to read book 4 though). Very good example Trisha.

    1. Okay, Trisha and Melanie, I don't remember the twist in City of Bones so it must not have bothered me too much. Was it the taboo relationship? I read all three in a row so I didn't hang on one point for very long. I just remember thinking there's no way the author's not going to lead us back out of that path... Melanie, I liked Book 4 okay (not the love I had for the first 3, but fun) but it ended on a cliffhanger and I really hate reading a book as soon as it comes out only to have it end on a huge question mark. When the next one comes out a year later I have lost interest in the cliffhanger but I have not forgotten my annoyance.

  7. Yeah, it was that relationship. It was one of my first paranormal romances, and it honestly spooked me. It was my first book with a homosexual romance too, and I had no idea how far her envelope-pushing would go, if you know what I mean. If I read it for the first time NOW, it probably wouldn't have troubled me so much.


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