Whenever I pick up a book I want to care about these people, to be grabbed by the throat. When I picked up Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, I knew right away that I’d found exactly what I wanted.
Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood. (Tony Kushner, THE ILLUSION)
PART I: Nick Dunne …the day of
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I’d know her head anywhere.
from GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn
When I read those words, I felt a shiver of emotion that promised hours of pleasure guided by a storyteller with the magical skills to translate fantasies into a powerful tale filled with living people.
Gone Girl‘s characters may not be flesh and blood, but from the first page I knew that they were alive. There’s certainly no doubt in the minds of the over 3 million readers who drove Gillian Flynn’s book to the top ranks of bestseller lists including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today.
As a reader, those first words told me I needed to read the book – RIGHT NOW!
As a writer, I wanted to know what the author did to evoke such a strong craving for the rest of the story in me.
The mention of “lies, hatred, and even murder” in the Epigraph told me that Gone Girl wasn’t just about love. I like mysteries, but I especially love mysteries when both characters and suspense come to life immediately. I’m not interested in wading through fifty pages of not-very-exciting preliminaries. So although the Epigraph didn’t sell me on the book, it made me curious enough to turn the page.
When I turned the page and began reading Part I, I immediately understood that love, lies, and murder wouldn’t be flung across the page impersonally. This story would unfold with powerful subtlety, even with (ghostly shiver) gentleness.
The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it.
The rhythm of this sentence is so soft and gentle that I can feel the love, and yet there’s an disturbing undertone created when Nick Dunne describes his first sight of his wife. He didn’t see the back of her head. Instead, he saw “the back of the head.” The impersonal “the” slipped into my subconscious and…
The human subconscious is a marvellous thing. It recognizes clues and red-flags them. Flynn is a master at building atmosphere with her clues. Step by gentle step, she begins with a romantic image and leads us through a sequence of images, each one more un-alive than the one before.
Look at this sequence image-evoking power words and phrases, taken in order from Nick Dunne’s description of his wife:
- “The first time I saw saw her” | sounds like the beginning of a love song
- “wife” … “lovely” | affirms the “love song” image (with “the head” slipped in there)
- “angles” … “shiny” | not romantic, although not overtly spooky or frightening
- “hard corn kernel” | dried up
- “riverbed fossil” | once alive, now only an imprint
- “Victorians: | long gone – echoing the title of the book, Gone Girl
- “skull” | all that’s left of a person’s head after death and the erosion of soft tissue
You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I’d know her head anywhere.
Is she dead? I hope she’s not dead. Did he kill her? If he didn’t kill her, who did? Gone Girl means she’s gone, but maybe she’s not dead. Maybe …
I’m reading the next paragraph while these thoughts flood into my cerebral cortex. I’ll analyze the beginning later, but I’m a story addict and before I analyze, I want my fix. Above all readers love to worry about what’s going to happen next … or what might have already happened. Readers want to know, and I’ve been a bookworm since I was 8 years old, so I’m certainly a reader.
I’m too busy enjoying the ride, exploring the people, and worrying about what’s going to happen to these people next. In the middle of my hooked-on-this-story, my most objective thought as a writer is often a hope that I might absorb some of the author’s skill by osmosis. It’s only later that I start analyzing and taking the words apart, trying to figure out “How did she do that?”
In my next blog here on the Pen Warriors, I want to look at the common elements in the openings of several of my favorite books.
Meanwhile, if you love a good mystery and you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, you won’t be disappointed!