I have just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There was so much to admire in this book -- the wit, the narrative drive, the way Flynn kept just enough information from the reader to maintain the mystery while still letting them inside the emotional heart of the story -- but the thing that stood out to me most was the masterful way Flynn writes dialogue.  Every conversation presented layer upon layer of meaning and nuance, and put the reader smack in the narrator’s head so that we could really feel what they were feeling.
            This is a skill critical to every kind of writing, including memoir, persuasive writing, and self help. To show you exactly how Flynn does it – and how you can, too – I’m going to break down just one instance of excellent dialogue and walk you through it line by line. I have chosen a passage that I don’t believe spoils the story in case you haven’t read the book yet.
            This scene takes place in a volunteer center where people have gathered to help in the investigation of a missing woman. The narrator of this passage of the book is Nick, the husband of the missing woman. He is fast becoming the police’s prime suspect, and he is gradually becoming aware of this reality:
 
            I could feel the presence of someone, a woman, near me, but I didn’t look up, hoping she would go away. [Right from the very start of this scene, it is crystal clear what Nick’s stance is about this woman. We know what he wants – for her to go away. This clear knowledge must be in every scene you write.]
            “It’s not even noon, and you already look like you’ve had a full day, poor baby.”
            Shawna Kelly. She had her hair pulled up in a high bubblegum-girl ponytail. She aimed glossed lips at me in a sympathetic pout. “You ready for some of my Frito pie?” She was bearing a casserole dish, holding it just below her breasts, the saran wrap dappled with sweat. She said the words like she was the star of some ‘80s hair-rock video: you want summa my pie? [Nick’s description of Shawna is fantastic. Note that every single physical detail he chooses to share with us has a purpose in defining the way Nick perceives her. The ponytail is not a random detail about hair. It’s a “high bubblegum-girl ponytail,” which is a description that makes us see that this woman is sugary sweet and young and frivolous in Nick’s eyes. And the lips are not just glossed – she aims them. He sees her lips and her pout as threatening. And she bears the casserole dish just below her breasts – not in front of her, not at her waist, not without any commentary whatsoever. The breasts are called out because the breasts – and the fact that this woman is presenting them to him – is a threat. Many times writers throw in physical detail for no real reason, but every single thing in this paragraph is chosen to paint a specific picture of this woman and evoke a specific feeling in the reader.]
            “Big breakfast. Thanks, though. That’s really kind of you.” [The clipped way Nick replied here further establishes his discomfort in having this woman approach him. Also note that Flynn does not use dialogue tags – he said, she said. She doesn’t need to. We know exactly who’s talking.]
            Instead of going away, she sat down. Under a turquoise tennis skirt, her legs were lotioned so well they reflected. She kicked me with the toe of an unblemished Tretorn. “You sleeping, sweetie?” [The description of Shawna here lets us see how calculated this woman’s appearance is. Nick understands that none of this is random – the skirt, the lotion, the unblemished shoes – and Flynn lets us know it, too. All of this adds up to a rising sense of Nick’s growing wariness: this seemingly innocent woman could be big trouble.]
            “I’m holding up.”
            “You’ve got to sleep, Nick. You’re no good to anyone exhausted.”
            “I might leave in a little bit, see if I can grab a few hours.”
            “I think you should. I really do.”
            I felt a sudden keen gratitude to her. It was my mama’s-boy attitude, rising up. Dangerous. Crush it, Nick. [This is where Flynn just absolutely shines. Nick shows us that he is keenly self aware. His attitude towards Shawna suddenly shifts, and he sees it and knows it. And THEN Flynn adds the “Crush it, Nick,” which shows an even deeper level of self awareness. He realizes that his sudden kind feelings could make a bad situation worse.]
            I waited for her to go. She needed to go – people were beginning to watch us. [Note that he didn’t DO anything or SAY anything to get her to go. He just waited. This says something very important about his state of mind in this moment.  He is not a man who is taking action when he knows he should. Also the “people were beginning to watch us” shows that he notices what is happening in the room. We see Nick as a smart, self aware guy who is not handling this difficult situation in a particularly authoritative way.]
            “If you want, I can drive you home right now,” she said. “A nap might be just the thing for you.”
            She reached out to touch my knee, [Because of the previous descriptions, we feel the sense of violation of this action] and I felt a burst of rage that she didn’t realize she needed to go. [Flynn doesn’t just TELL us about the burst of rage, she shows us with the next line. Many writers only do the first part without doing the second. They tell us what the emotion was but they don’t show us what it means. The second part is what really lets us in and it’s the only thing that does. Without it, we’re lost. With is, we are right there with Nick, right there in the story.] Leave the casserole, you clingy groupie whore, and go. Daddy’s boy attitude, rising up. Just as bad. [Again, there is a wild shift of attitude, and Nick’s self awareness about it. Now we know that this is a man who is highly emotionally unstable – yet Flynn has not once said that. She is showing us.]
            “Why don’t you check in with Marybeth?” I said brusquely, and pointed to my mother-in-law by the Xerox, making endless copies of Amy’ photo. [Nick’s small physical action here is actually a big moment. He takes action to turn Shawna away. He TRIES. Later, when Shawna does something that turns her ‘innocent’ ministrations into an actual problem for Nick, we feel sympathetic towards him. We know how he felt here, we know that he tried.]
            “Okay.” She lingered, so I began ignoring her outright. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Hope you like the pie.” [We can hear Shawna’s disappointment here, so that when she becomes a problem for Nick, we have a clear sense of why she may have done what she did.]

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