I rarely read bestsellers for many reasons. Mainly, I’m a slow adopter of new anything: technology, popular culture, political issues, new cars, new drugs, etc. But since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is in my current writing genre, mystery/thriller/suspense, and had gotten raves, I figured what the heck, and read it.
I’m glad I did, because even though I didn’t care much for the characters, and the suspense/thrills revealed themselves in slow motion, I thought it was a technically superb piece of writing. On another website, I rated it five out of five stars for that brilliance.
One of the key techniques that made this book work so well is the use of alternating POVs from the husband and wife, who end up being both protagonist and antagonist at different times throughout the book.
The other reason I think it’s a great book is the story structure. To take a page from Larry Brooks’ method of analyzing story structure, I thought I’d try my hand at deconstructing Gone Girl mainly to reinforce my understanding of what makes effective story structure, which is the key to having any chance of a story getting into the “great” category. So here goes.
A PRIMER: Story structure basics are that a story contains either three or four parts. Three if you follow the screenplay/movie model of a three-act play. Four if you follow the literary construction. The difference is that the four-part model breaks the middle act into two more or less equal sections. I’ll use four-part literary structure. So the critical turning points in a story occur at approximately the following points:
First Plot Point (FPP): Occurs at roughly the 25% mark of the story. So in a 400-page story, the FPP must occur somewhere in the neighborhood of page 100. The range can be plus or minus 5% or so, but any sooner or later than that requires an exceptional reason to deviate (whatever that might be).
The first 25% or so, up to the FPP, is the setup of the story. This will include story elements like character intros, setting, voice or tone, presenting the stakes which will dictate the protagonists’ actions, a hook in the first sentence, paragraph, page or chapter which compels the reader to continue, and an inciting incident, which sets the plot into motion in a seeming inevitable sequence of events that the protagonist needs to navigate successfully, or unsuccessfully if there is no happy ending.
The FPP is the point in the story where the true antagonistic force is recognized by the protagonist. The scene or scenes where the protag figures out what he’s up against, the challenges, the risks, the rewards, and serves as the catalyst for the gut-check moment, where the protagonist decides he’s going to engage with the antagonist in some way and attempt to prevail.
Mid Point (MP): Occurs at roughly the 50% mark of the story. Around page 200 in a 400-page story. Once again, plus or minus 5% is allowable to still be effective.
Up until the MP, the protagonist is merely reacting to the antagonist. She’s not in control, not sure of what will happen, trying to gather more information, reacting to attacks, playing defense if you will.
At the MP, some new information is revealed that becomes a catalyst for future responses by the protagonist. The protag might gain a key piece of information about the antagonist that gives him an advantage, something might happen to change or intensify the protag’s end goal, or cause him to change tactics based on the new information. At this point the protagonist becomes proactive rather than reactive.
Second Plot Point (SPP): Occurs at roughly the 75% mark of the story. Around page 300 in a 400-page story. Plus or minus 5% is allowable to still be effective.
The SPP is the spot where the protagonist becomes the hero. She might become a martyr as a result of her heroic actions, but the SPP indicates the beginning of the end of the story, where all threads of the plot and character arcs will be resolved for good or bad.
So let’s take a look at Gone Girl and see how it meets these key points in the story. I’m using the hardcover edition, which is 415 pages long. The three main markers, 25%, 50%, 75%, should happen at approximately page 104, 208, and 312, plus or minus as many as 21 pages (5% of 415). I’ll endeavor to refrain from giving away too much of the plot or, especially, the ending, in case you haven’t read the book. Here we go:
FPP- At page 117 (easily within our 5% margin of error), one of our protagonists/antagonists, Nick, discovers that his missing wife, Amy, our second protagonist/antagonist, had contacted a group of vagrant homeless men hiding out in an abandoned shopping mall. She was there attempting to buy a gun, which was the first realization by Nick that his wife had hidden something from him before she disappeared. Up to this point, he was portrayed as the grieving, innocent husband. Now this piece of information leads authorities to believe Amy feared for her life, possibly feared Nick. This makes him the prime suspect and puts him completely on the defensive. The reader’s impression of Nick is cast into doubt also, and we begin to believe the worst of him.
MP- Page 219 (Easily within the 50% range).) Everything changes. What the reader was lead to believe up to this point by the diary entries of Amy is completely false. She is not what we think she is– a scared for her life wife, fearful of her husband. She becomes the antagonist, flip-flopping roles with Nick, who seemed to be the bad guy in the first half of the story. Now we learn that Nick wasn’t the bad guy, but still aren’t sure of Amy’s motives and actions up to this point. When I reached this point, I jumped to another conclusion, but had no idea why Amy had done what she’d done up to this point.
SPP- Happens in the space of many pages, starting on page 319 (very close to the 75% mark). What happens isn’t clear until page 374 when the reader discovers what events were set into motion on page 319. FPPs, MPs, and SPPs can sometimes take more than one scene or moment to reveal themselves, but to be effective, the have to at least start at or near the quarter marks of the story. This SPP unfolds over some 55 pages, and adds yet another twist to an intense, intricate plot.
I won’t go into the structure elements known as pinch points, because this post is long already, but if you’re interested in learning more about story structure, check out Larry Brooks’ blog at storyfix.com. He delves deeply into story structure in his book Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Scroll down on the storyfix site to see the link to his book.
My question: How did I do with Gone Girl’s story structure? Agree or disagree? Do you construct your stories like this? Or another way? Or do you just get an idea and start writing? (the old “Plotter vs. Pantser” debate). And Larry Brooks, if you’re out there, I hope I did justice to your concepts.