Passionate writers of all kinds should take a deepened appreciation for those that have made a name for themselves in the screenwriting world. Even if it’s a writer from a genre you don’t care for, there is still plenty you can learn from them. It’s a matter of learning from the best, and Gillian Flynn certainly falls under that spectrum.
Gillian Flynn is a writer, best known for her three novels, Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl, all of which have been adapted for film or television. Flynn also wrote the adaptations for the Gone Girl film (2014) and the HBO limited series Sharp Objects, and was co-screenwriter of the 2018 heist thriller film Widows.
Below will highlight the art of screenwriting and lessons from Gillian Flynn. We’ll highlight the notion of asking dramatic questions early, taking liberty with drama, emotional investment, being unpredictable, building suspense, and not relying on a twist. Let’s take a look!
Photo credit: Digital Spy
Ask Dramatic Questions Early
Although it’s especially needed in suspense, just about every film can benefit from asking dramatic questions early. The idea of asking a dramatic question early has to do with building the conflict immediately. People are impatient, and no one will sit around waiting for the film’s plot to progress unless it interests them right away.
For example, in Gone Girl, Flynn makes Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) vanish under mysterious circumstances. From there, we have an interest in discovering what happened to Dunne. Even though the story unfolds in a completely unpredictable fashion, we’re pulled into the story due to a tragedy.
No matter what story idea you’re developing into a script, understand that conflict and tension should be utilized early. Even if you plan on creating a slow build of a story, realize the difficulty associated with the matter. Do what you can early on to build tension, and move on from there.
Take Liberties With Drama
Just about every script or story idea is deeply entwined with drama to a certain extent. Even if the script is meant to be a slapstick comedy, there is still drama and conflict in the script to keep the audience engaged. Flynn is of the belief that writers should take liberty with drama, constantly shifting the running question of the story.
For example, going back to Gone Girl, the drama begins with what happened to Amy? From there, it suddenly becomes a story of a marriage under animosity, further shifting into what if Nick did something to Amy? Realizing that you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself into a central point is exceptionally refreshing as a writer.
Understand there’s a delicate balance of combining genres and taking risks to strictly abiding by the question at hand. Always do what you can to keep the audience engaged by shifting the dynamic of what’s at stake. Flynn does an excellent job at showing a few avenues the story can go and changing into a different route altogether.
Emotionally Invest in Your Story
Flynn’s success in the writing world dates back to her career as a journalist. After graduating from Northwestern, Flynn freelanced at U.S. News & World Report before becoming a feature writer in 1998 at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for the magazine until 2008.
Flynn credits her career as a journalist for demonstrating the tools needed to write. Writing isn’t about reaching a creative cloud and pushing onward in that respect. It’s a matter of forcing yourself day in and day out to write and let the ideas come to you. Breaks are needed but strictly relying on personal creativity isn’t the only way to get a script done.
Flynn has a specialty for being unpredictable in just about every story she’s ever written. Although unpredictability isn’t always a good thing, for the most part, it’s ideal for creating a story where the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen. If the audience can predict the next scene, you may want to go another route.
In another sense, you need to be careful with unpredictability when it comes to screenwriting. Audiences don’t necessarily need to be spoon-fed, but it becomes a point of what’s too much and what’s not enough. Do it well enough where people can’t see where it’s going but don’t confuse to the point where they get angry.
Flynn’s most notable attribute with screenwriting is her natural knack for building suspense. Suspense can drive just about any genre, but especially in the thriller neo-noir style. It’s a way of keeping the audience engaged and at the end of their seat while they anticipate what’s to come next.
Don’t Rely On A Twist
Although many of Flynn’s stories have a twist or turning point that becomes the big reveal, Flynn has gone record stating that writers shouldn’t rely on a twist for their plot. There’s a reason so many critics pan M. Night Shyamalan films; most of them rely on twists for their entertainment. Flynn tastefully uses twists to her film’s advantage.
● Gone Girl (2014)
● Sharp Objects (2018)
● Widows (2018)