Monday 27 April 2015

Chapter One: Gone Girl

Chapter One is a series of posts where I take apart the first chapter of a successful book to see what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed and which were broken to good effect (previous entries can be found here: Chapter One Analyses).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2012 and made into a hit movie last year. The author’s previous two novel were moderately successful, but sold nowhere near as many copies as this one.

It’s a contemporary mystery thriller, written in the first person by two narrators, both of whom seem fairly unreliable. Chapters are alternated in a he said/she said format. The story starts with the husband (Nick) writing on the day his wife goes missing. The wife (Amy) is represented by a diary that begins on the day she first met Nick at a party in Manhattan.

I’ll be looking at both first chapters (his and hers) to see how they differ and how they complement each other.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

The first line is quite an odd one. Nick is remembering the unique shape of his wife’s head, but rather than a romantic memory it comes across more like a serial killer fondly recalling a favourite skull in his collection.

I’m sure this is intentional, for the writer I can see it as an effective way to make the reader unsure about how this guy feels about his wife. But from the character’s perspective it seems a strange way to begin a story.

The oddness of the first paragraph is enough to keep you reading, I think, but a little contrived. A way to get to him wondering what went on in her head, establishing the distance between them. I didn’t really believe the first thing he thought about when thinking of his wife was the shape of her head.

The next few paragraphs are him waking up. Starting a story with a character waking up in bed, sun streaming through curtains etc., is considered amateurish and will be found on any list of things to avoid in a first chapter. And for good reason. It’s dull, it’s clichéd and it tells you very little. And all those things are true here.

Of course, no rule is absolute and there’s always a way to make the old new and fresh again. Not in this case, though.

At that exact moment, 6-0-0, the sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river…

Both character’s are writers by trade (him a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly type mags, her a quiz writer for something similar to Cosmo), and both have lost their jobs due to the internet’s effects on the publishing industry. Clearly not a day too soon.

There then follows an extensive chunk of backstory. We learn how they meet, lost their jobs, moved back to his hometown in Missouri, her reluctance, their lack of options, and the buying of a bar with the last of her trust fund.

This part isn’t too bad. Even though info-dumping isn’t encouraged in the first chapter either, I’ve always felt it depends on how interesting your dump is. In this case the way he works in commentary about the economy, the state of the publishing industry and his hometown, his general mood of pessimism and guilt about taking his wife away from the life she was accustomed to, all helps bolster the expositional stuff so I wasn’t bored (which is my main criteria for what makes something worth reading).

Eventually he gets out of bed, goes down to the kitchen where his wife is making breakfast and then we cut to him going to work (at the bar). The chapter ends with him seeing a line of men walking along the river bank, mirroring the feeling he got from the angry-god sun (you have been seen) and he hurries into the bar.

I don’t know who the men were or why he felt disturbed by them, but I don’t think I’m meant to. I think it’s meant to feel odd, again, as a way to set the tone for the story, and I think it does that fine.

So, nothing much happens in this opening chapter. It’s more about tone and introduction. He’s not happy in his marriage, he feels guilty and a little bitter.

He isn’t a very sympathetic character and I think the author has gone out of her way to make you question his loyalties. This is not the normal approach for this sort of story. Usually in a story where a man is suspected of killing someone, we are encouraged to empathise with him and be on his side. If he turns out to be innocent we are relieved, if he is guilty, we are surprised. Both resolutions work, the important thing is to keep the reader following the story. Something much harder to do if they don’t like the character.

However, in this case, the dual narrators shifts the focus onto who is the good guy here, rather than rooting for one person from the outset. This probably works best in mysteries where the reader is perhaps willing to wait a little longer to find out what’s really going than in other genres.

Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan grin as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teen-girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble over my head saying: I met a boy!

My first reaction was to fervently hope the rest of her diary entries weren’t written in this style. I haven’t read the whole book, nor seen the movie, but I know enough of the story to suspect she isn’t quite the gushy Sex in the City fan this makes her seem. 

There are plenty of clues that she is aware how her writing will come across. She makes several references to her job as writer of quizzes in women’s magazines, the kind of status it gives her among other writers, and her need to practice her skills. And beyond that there’s a sense that all is not quite what it seems. I think her fizzy personality and one liners are meant to keep you engaged but still, having to actually plough through pages of this pseudo-teen mag!!!! writing fills me with more dread than any murderer.

The end of her chapter, where they kiss under a shower of powdered sugar, is particularly cheesy, and makes me think she’s faking it (or at least hope she is).

Having said that, the difference between narrators is very clear. You wouldn’t confuse the two styles, even without chapter titles. It’s also clear both aren’t being totally frank. He wears his guilt like a fluorescent jacket, and she writes like a delusional Austen fan.

Neither character is particularly appealing at this point. In fact I’d say neither chapter is remarkable in any way. So what makes this such a successful book?

Well, I have no doubt it’s a good story, with interesting twists and turns and fascinating characters even if you don’t like them very much. What it tells me is that you don’t need a slam bang opening, even for a thriller, if people have some expectation of good things to come.

In previous Chapter Ones I’ve considered bestsellers with slow starts to have been countered by having established authors behind the wheel. If you know the author and have confidence in their abilities you really won’t care very much about the first couple of chapters.

In this case, though, the writer was fairly unknown and her books mid-list at best. If it wasn’t an attention grabbing opening that sold the public on the book, what was it?

I think it was probably a number of thing but in my opinion most likely it was marketing and publicity. Seeing a book advertised heavily in newspapers, seeing it reviewed well by journalists in serious publications has a similar effect as a big name author’s name above the title. People assume there must be something to all the hubbub and won’t be put off by a slow start (or even a hackneyed one as in this case).

Getting publicity, though, isn’t all that easy. It’s where big publishers have it a lot easier than those self-publishing on Amazon. Not that simply signing with a traditional publisher will get you the same kind of results. They don’t spread their money around evenly, they prefer to choose one or two books they think will do well and then push them down everyone’s throats as hard as they can. Seems to work.

What it does tell you is that readers aren’t all that bothered about how a story starts if they have a reasonable expectation that good things are coming. You just have to find a way to give them that expectation.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Anonymous said...

There have been a few books I've read that I thought the beginning wasn't the best. I kept reading because the story interested me and I wanted to know what happened.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

From the examples, it doesn't sound like a thrilling beginning and the characters are not very likeable. I think the fuel behind the marketing campaign had a lot to do with it. Seeing it everywhere, with great reviews, meant readers kept pushing through to find a great story. Which there must be one after that slow beginning.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - I generally have reasons other than a good opening line or chapter to read a book. I think most people do.

@Alex - Obviously it helps if there is something worthwhile there, and I think there probably is here, but I certainly wouldn't be too impressed if i was coming to this cold.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said... described...I would never have gotten past the first chapter. :)

leadyson said...

I admit that I was sucked in by marketing as well, but I wasn't as impressed as much as my peers. I had to force myself to get through it and mostly because I hated both characters.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

The rise of unlikeable characters has been pretty common these days, both in film and books. I recently saw a movie called "Ex Machina" that had some pretty terrible characters in it, yet it got a lot of buzz and critical acclaim. I guess that people want gritty reality and "real" flawed characters. I can see the appeal, but in the end, it's not a kind of entertainment I really like spending too much time pursuing.

Chemist Ken said...

Didn't read the book. Saw the movie (because my wife wanted to see it). Not bad, but things didn't pick up until the twists started happening, and that didn't occur until much later in the movie.

Thanks for the post. It got me thinking about first chapters.

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