8 Takeaways From Our Interview with 'Gone Girl' Writer Gillian Flynn
Author and screenwriter Gillian (pronounced with a hard ‘G’) Flynn has only published three novels: Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. Here's the thing — each one went on to be New York Times bestsellers, as well as garner Golden Globe and Emmy accolades. Each novel is also so richly decorated with twisty plotlines and wounded female antiheroes, it’s easy to get lost in the dark universes she creates and never want to leave them. That’s how good a writer Flynn is.
Starting her writing career as a journalist, she wrote her novels at night after working long days at the office. She now makes her living as a screenwriter and is the Official Industry Expert for this year's ScreenCraft Cinematic Cinematic Book Writing Competition.
We sat down with her to find out a little bit more about her career and explore what’s important to her as a writer. You can watch the full interview below, but continue on to check out our favorite takeaways from the discussion.
Story is King
Most writers will tell you that having an amazing character that leaps off the page is crucial – but it’s just a start. It’s what happens to that character – and how they change – that will make them unforgettable. With a mother who taught literature and a father who taught theater, Gillian Flynn was constantly surrounded by stories. She views that as a very good thing.
“I grew up in a household that really valued story so I feel really lucky about that. [Story] wasn’t considered a trivial thing, it was a very valuable and important thing. It was an important way to understand each other and talk about different issues,” said Flynn.
Flynn is an expert at crafting edge-of-your-seat stories that take turns when you least expect it. Understanding the fundamentals of story by reading books and watching movies (even ones she may not have appreciated, like watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead with her dad at the tender age of 7), helped her create an encyclopedic knowledge of plot, stakes, consequences, and resolutions.
Write for Yourself, Not the Marketplace
“Never, ever write what you think the market wants,” said Flynn, adding, “The market doesn’t know what it wants!” She said that if she had considered the market, none of her books would have ever come to fruition. “When I wrote Sharp Objects, I wrote it because I was frustrated there weren't enough layered female protagonists who were antiheroes. The antihero is a very dominant form in any fiction genre, it's a very big theme. I was like, ‘Where are the fucked up women here?’ I had to push that.
She said it was a difficult journey because there weren’t a lot of publishers who wanted to buy Sharp Objects. Instead, she was constantly told, "Men don’t want to read women authors and women don't want to read narrators they can't aspire to be. Women want uplifting stories." I don't believe that's true. I've been at Random House ever since because they believed in the book.”
Writing Takes Discipline
Gillian Flynn has been writing since she was a child, starting with short stories. But it was working as a professional journalist for Entertainment Weekly and being forced to turn in her stories on deadline each week that helped her develop her work ethic.
“As a journalist, you learn that the muse is not going to come down and present you with the words. You learn that you can't waste time puttering around and pretending to do work. You have to sit and write and that’s how writing gets done. I say over and over, it’s part skill but 50% is stubbornness and discipline. I’m going to stay in the seat, not pretend to do research, I’m going to sit and write.” Once you create that discipline, anything is possible.
Indulge in Naming Your Characters
Gillian Flynn says naming her characters is the one area where she really takes her time.
“I go down the rabbit hole naming characters, which I love doing! I spend so much time going to the Social Security baby name website – it’s fascinating, you can look by decade and popularity, and I highly recommend it if you’re trying to waste time naming a character,” says Flynn.
Sometimes it’s the small things, like finding the perfect name for your villain, like Adora Crellin in Sharp Objects, that can really help you get to know who they are and solidify them in your writer’s brain.
Remember You’re Writing Fiction
Though we’ve all heard the adage, “Write what you know,” Flynn says not to adhere to it too much. “If you write too close to what you know, you're basically journaling and that can really get in the way of the fiction part of your story – at least for me. You can get hung up on over-explaining things. Or tying yourself to the truth when it's supposed to be fiction. If I feel like I'm getting too close to who I am, I pull myself away. If I start basing any character too much on someone I know, I immediately pull away because that means the character isn't working,” said Flynn.
There’s a freedom in writing a fictional character. If they only live in your head, you have complete permission to let them do anything – no matter how good or bad.
Sometimes, You Have to Start Over
After writing Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn says she didn’t want to become the “dark female narrator lady,” so in trying to avoid that stereotype, the story she was working on didn't make a lot of sense. It was when her husband read an early draft of Gone Girl and opened a bottle of bourbon to discuss it that she knew she was in big trouble. He asked if she liked the character of Libby. “I hated the character,” said Flynn, and knew she had to start over.
When it Comes to Taking Notes, Pick Your Battles
One thing both novelists and screenwriters have in common is that it seems like they are inundated with notes. But Gillian Flynn warns us to choose how we respond carefully. “Some notes just aren't worth pushing back on. Some just aren't going to affect the overall vision,” said Flynn. “But then there are certain things worth fighting for. I’m not a big, ‘Oh I’m the ARTIST!’ But you have to respect your producer.”
Her advice is to talk things through with the person who wants the changes and finds that sometimes, once you start articulating your reason for not making a change, you discover that it really doesn’t matter after all.
“But sometimes,” she said, “the scene is just really cool, and I’m going to keep it! Just let me keep this one!” and they often let her.
Be Proud of Your Work, No Matter What
Any film or TV show can miss the mark when it comes to critics, but Flynn says the only thing that matters is if you are proud of the project.
“A lot of things can happen to a movie or TV series on the way to getting released to the world. It could get released at the wrong time or it could be a great thing and not do well, so I make sure to prepare myself to not worry too much about the outcome once it’s out there. I tell myself, ‘Gil, is this a thing you wanted to make? Are you proud of it?’ And that’s all that matters. So many strange things can happen and other people may not like what you like. If you’re able to look back on it and go, ‘It’s still solid!’ that’s what’s going to protect you as a writer.”
If you're inspired by Gillian Flynn — first of all, get writing — second, take a look at the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Writing Competition where she is an Official Industry Expert.