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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Starting in Their Heads Instead of With Dialogue in “Gone Girl”

As a general rule, you want to resist the urge to have characters tell us a lot about themselves before we get to hear them have an actual conversation out loud. This is because the audience knows to distrust whatever people say about their own personalities. Anyone can tell you about how nice and charming they are, but it’s only when we hear them engage in conversation with someone else that we get to judge that for ourselves, which is what readers want to do.

“Gone Girl” breaks this rule, but it does so for good reason: Neither of Flynn’s two heroes is very appealing in real life. This is a really brave thing to do, writing about people who are pretty, shallow, and clever-but-not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are. After all, shallow people are people too, and they too deserve books. So Flynn begins both Nick and Amy’s sections by letting them speak directly to us, giving us their versions of their lives. They’re trying to make themselves sound good, and not entirely succeeding.

Interestingly, she has one good chance to give us some dialogue, when they have breakfast together, and she doesn’t. Instead we just get this description:

  • Amy was in the kitchen, oblivious to my hesitation. She was humming something melancholy and familiar. I strained to make it out – a folk song? a lullabye? – and then realized it was the theme to M.A.S.H. Suicide is painless. I went downstairs.
  • I hovered in the doorway, watching my wife. Her yellow-butter hair was pulled up, the hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope, and she was sucking distractedly on a burnt fingertip, humming around it. She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botcher of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.’ And Amy crooned instead, ‘She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.’ When I asked her why she’d ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything.
  • There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.
  • Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell like berries and powdered sugar.
  • When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
  • Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
  • I was very late getting to work […]

This is the only modern day scene with the two of them together until the end of the book, and they don’t get any real dialogue. It’s a shocking decision. We do get a warm moment between the two here, but it’s his memory of a warm moment, not one in real time. We don’t hear what they’re actually saying other than one line.

Why not give us what we want here? Because Flynn wants us to spend the first half of the book unable to determine who’s right about their relationship, but if she gave them a substantial conversation here, we would have enough information to make a more informed decision about their personalities and relationship, and she doesn’t want that.

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