Gillian Flynn is thriller content’s current queen. First came Gone Girl. Next came Sharp Objects, this summer’s thriller-series-to-watch, adapted from book to small screen.
Book to Small Screen
Six years ago, Flynn’s novel Gone Girl skyrocketed to the top of the publishing charts. Readers everywhere got a taste of Flynn’s gothic, lingering tone and engaging, destructive female leads. Gone Girl was adapted to the big screen just two years later and Hollywood took note of the way Flynn’s work translated so well from book to screen, captivating audiences in both medias.
With the rise of Gone Girl and the sudden audience craving for dark content with compelling female protagonists, Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, was re-released to instant success. This time, instead of taking it the big movie route, Sharp Objects is currently being released as an HBO TV series.
Sharp Objects follows Camille Parker, played by Amy Adams, a late 20s reporter who is assigned a reporting job in her hometown. A murder of a young girl has occurred, and Camille is called to write a story on the case. As she navigates the case with Detective Richard Willis, played by Chris Messina, Camille struggles between the harsh realities of current events, her fractured family life and her own dark past.
6 Great Writing Tips from Sharp Objects
Flynn’s works translate so well across different medias, moving seamlessly from fiction content to movie and now television. What is it about Flynn’s writing that makes it so adaptable? How does her writing style and voice capture an audience’s attention? What can we learn from Gillian Flynn’s writing and Sharp Objects’ book to small screen adaptation? Read on for six great writing tips as we explore Sharp Objects and the journey it has taken.
Tip #1: Make Time
Sharp Objects was written back in 2006, when Flynn’s day job was writing for Entertainment Weekly. In an interview with HBO, Flynn describes writing the novel on nights, weekends and holidays, using her extra time to write. From writing on movie sets in New Zealand for Lord of the Rings or in swampy Florida for Jackass: The Movie, Flynn made the time to write.
No matter what you’re writing, you need to make the time to write. Utilize small pockets of extra time in your day whenever you can. Write small chunks before leaving for the day. Sneak in small moments for writing between house chores. Write while you have small sections of unused time like waiting in line at the Post Office or riding a bus. Or, if finding time every day is impossible, take a note from Flynn’s book and use weekends or holidays to carve out sections of your work.
Tip #2: Use Consistent Tone
Many readers fall in love with Flynn’s gothic tone, which heightens the overall tension of her novels and makes for great screen adaptions that keep audiences on the edges of their seats. From the beginning, in Sharp Objects, Flynn writes with ugliness, dripping the dark elements of society down around her main characters. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Flynn described her tone as consistently creeping, explaining she wanted it to feel as if you couldn’t relax, for fear of vines coming after you. It is this exact sinking, creeping feeling that lends such a closed-in grimy feel to all of her works. Readers, and viewers know what tone they’re in for—and they keep coming back for more.
In your own writing, develop a tone and stick with it. Readers will come to know your work through your tone of voice, the feeling that they get while reading your writing as well as the residual effects that remain afterward. Make sure your tone is true to yourself while also maintaining a sense of engagement and immediacy.
Tip #3: Create Fully-Fleshed Out Characters
No one writes women like Flynn. Refinery29 calls her female characters “Equal parts terrifying, manipulative, whip-smart, and hilarious, they’re always (whether hero, villain, or something in between), three-dimensional people with inner lives and flaws.” These multi-faceted women translate well both in novels as well as on-screen. In an interview with HBO, actress Amy Adams, playing Camille in the Sharp Objects book to small screen adaptation, says that she loves the female characters that Flynn creates because “they feel so real and full, so unexpected and surprising.” Readers and viewers appreciate Flynn’s full, realized portrayals. Across media types, audiences are connecting with characters that are as deeply nuanced as in real life, especially female characters, who are often sidelined in thriller narratives.
When writing, take the time to create fully-fleshed out characters that your audience can connect to. Give your characters realistic flaws that draw the reader in. Make sure you aren’t developing certain characters and not others. Create backstories, motivations, tics, attitudes and triggers. Full characters lead to full audience attention.
Tip #4: Include Varied Representations
Flynn writes multi-faceted, varied women. Some of her characters are beautiful on the outside while rotting morally. Others are funny, smart and completely sociopathic. The key is in writing many types of both men and women. Reducing women, or men, to a certain type, is incorrect. Flynn reacted to this reduction of women to a single image, mentioning to Vanity Fair that “It’s incredibly misogynist to tell me I can only write a certain type of woman. Because that’s saying women must be a certain type of person… It denies us any humanity.” For Flynn, every character is a chance to create a varied human, not just another stereotype.
Have a good look at your own writing. Are you using stereotypes? Do your characters all stem from the same basic character outline? If so, it’s time to switch things up and write a more varied representation of humankind. Think of the best and worst parts of yourself, your loved ones, your friends, acquaintances, even any mortal enemies you may have. Character building is easily sourced from your real-life character experiences. Don’t have any mortal enemies? Just think of your sweetest, dearest friends and then envision what they’d be like if they went over to the dark side. Now you’ve got a whole range of villains to choose from.
Tip #5: Subvert Expectations
Often in thrillers or crime media, “the dead girl plot” is used. We’ve all seen it. A woman’s death starts things off, with a male detective taking the helm. The dead girl is treated like a character, albeit silent and forever-pure, elements which are attributed posthumously. In an interview with Refinery29, Flynn speaks about how she subverted the dead girl trope by creating a main character, Camille, who identifies with the dead girl, giving her a voice and a corporeal narrative. It is an unexpected twist on the trope, one which leaves readers and audiences feeling as if they’ve experienced something they know (murder of young women) but in a new way (through the eyes of a woman who identifies with the deceased).
If you’re struggling to create new content in your own writing, why not subvert expectations your readers may have? Writing a Western about gunslingers? Why not have the gunslinger be a young lady of dubious origins, or the sour saloon owner a wizened old woman? The great thing about creating content is that you can mold it to your means.
Tip #6: Know Your Audience and Their Emotions
Gillian Flynn writes a thriller as if it was a true crime, manipulating reader emotion to keep them turning the pages. This same way of playing hostage with our emotions leads to great movie content. With Refinery29, Flynn stated “that there is a true crime element that we, as women, are interested in, because it gives us a way to discuss that strange underlying fear that is constantly there,” like being assaulted, raped or murdered, in our hometown, in a new city, anywhere. She taps into that fear, that dark current of worry normally repressed in the light of day. She brings it out and lets it play with her characters in her dark narratives. It is terrifying.
The lesson here is to know your audience and their deepest emotions, and then find a way to connect to it. Hold It hostage. Keep a finger pressed to that pain point until your audience is begging for a reprieve. Even then, don’t let up. Not until the end. This applies to any strong emotion that can be sustained relatively constantly for the duration of a work. Find what the audience connects to and then use it to keep them turning the pages.
Become a Sharper Writer
While Gillian Flynn is the master of her brand of thriller craft, you can become the master of your own. Take her success and learn from it. Make time to write and develop a consistent tone. Create fully realized characters in a multitude of representations. To keep your readers hooked, subvert expectations and use their emotions. Most of all, just remember: writing wasn’t originally Gillian Flynn’s day job. It took hard work and dedication. So, keep going and, whatever you do, don’t give up.