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How to Write a Best Seller with… Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

January 6, 2013
I've never written a best selling novel, but I've read a few of them, so I'm an expert.

I’ve never written a best-selling novel, but I’ve read a few of them, so I’m an expert.

I dream of writing a best-selling novel some day.  It probably won’t happen because I have too many flaws in my writing, and I have too many gaps in my knowledge (and I’m too lazy to do research).  But I can still dream.

Even though I don’t plan on writing anything bestseller-ish for a while, I still like to read best sellers and see what makes them so popular.  I haven’t intentionally read a best-selling novel solely because it’s a best seller for a while (last summer I read a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction just to read a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction), so last week I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I couldn’t choose Fifty Shades as my best seller because the trilogy is so polarizing.  I didn’t want to choose a book written by Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, John Sandford, or any other hack (I mean the term “hack” as a compliment) because most of those authors have their own formula, and I’m not talking about a formula.  I’m talking about universal elements or characteristics of just about any best-selling novel.

I chose Gone Girl because it’s a book that I normally wouldn’t read.  It’s also been on the best sellers lists for a long time (I didn’t research how long).  It’s written by an author I’ve never heard of (or an author of whom I’ve never heard).  Plus, (I think) the author hasn’t written enough books to rely on the same formula all the time.

There are a lot of subjective factors (that critics can disagree about) that go into a best seller, like quality of writing, depth of characterization, and frequency of plot holes.  There are other factors outside of an author’s control, like how much publicity a book gets.   It helps to be a good writer and to know somebody in the publishing industry, but even so, the novel itself must have certain qualities.


1. A best-selling novel must focus on a relationship.

Gone Girl is about a troubled marriage.  It’s tough to get more universal than a troubled marriage.  Every married couple goes through a rough time.  Every unmarried person has witnessed a troubled marriage (which causes many unmarried people to NOT want to get married).

If you’re in a troubled marriage, this novel might give you some bad (or AWESOME) ideas about how to handle it.

2. A best-selling novel must use some literary devices.

Literary devices (or gimmicks) can set a story apart from the literary chaff.  While Gone Girl doesn’t go as far as something like A Visit from the Goon Squad, the author Gillian Flynn uses her share of literary devices.  The story is told by two characters, and both get their 1st person narration.  One character tells his story as it’s happening (though it’s still past tense).  Another character tells her story in journal form from the kind of distant past up to the present.  And then at the end, the stories merge.

The female character uses parentheses a lot (and so do I, so I immediately like her… but I don’t “like her” like her… because that could get dangerous).  Since the female character writes (or used to write) magazine quizzes, she often expresses herself in quiz format.  Some readers might find that annoying, but it’s a technique that’s unusual.

3.  A best-selling novel puts surprises at the end of chapters.

Gone Girl has a lot of cliffhangers and intended SHOCKING REVELATIONS.  The chapters from the male character’s point of view almost always ended with a cliffhanger or a sentence that revealed a surprise.  Some NON-best-selling novels have surprises but place them in the middle of the chapters.  Put the surprises at the end, and readers can’t wait to get to the next chapter.  This technique was especially effective in Gone Girl because I had to read through the wife’s chapter (which was usually interesting in its own way) before getting back to the male character’s cliffhanger.

4. A best-selling novel stereotypes a lot of minor characters.

Gone Girl has several minor characters that are not much more than stereotypes: the win-at-all-costs defense attorney, the slutty young mistress girlfriend, the Ozark hillbillies.  I have nothing against stereotypes in fiction because not every character can be three dimensional.  If every character is three dimensional, then the novel is probably literary fiction, and it will give me a headache.


If I decide to write a best seller (football season is almost over, so I’ll be able to concentrate soon), I know what has to go into it:  I’ll focus on a relationship.  I’ll have cliffhanger chapter endings.  I’ll choose a couple literary gimmicks (and hopefully not overuse them, like I do with parentheses).  While my main characters will be three dimensional (hopefully), most of my minor characters will be simple stereotypes.  I’m not sure what genre I’ll choose, but as long as I have these four basic elements, the genre shouldn’t matter.


The Review

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I liked it.  It was good.  It could have been really good if it had had (“had had” is not a mistake) a better ending.


Next week I’m going to explain how to write a book review.

  1. I came to this book over Christmas with the exact same background and expectations. Not normally my type of read and our experiences were quite similar. It was fun, though, and I’ve read worse bestsellers. I’ve discovered that the difference between “fiction” and “literature” is way more dialogue, like you’re essentially reading a movie script. Oh, and I thought the ending was just what it needed to be. Many, MANY people were quite put off by it, though.

    • I liked what happened in the end; I just felt like it was rushed (when compared to the rest of the book). I was also disappointed that two minor characters who deserved to feel a major character’s vengeance didn’t receive it. I WANTED MORE VENGEANCE!!! Phew, I feel better now.

  2. neonfish76 permalink

    i totally agree … good book, came across it on Kindle, never heard of Flynn otherwise. really good, just totally needed a different ending

  3. ok, I liked the book too. Like many others, I think it was a really good half (the first half) of a book.

    I don’t read enough best sellers to be able to figure out what makes a best seller (other than writing a diet book, and releasing it at the beginning of the year), but your post got me thinking about it.

  4. I’m a huge O. Henry fan, and her book felt a bit O. Henryish.

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  1. 100% Chance of Best Seller | Dysfunctional Literacy

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