Premise: A con woman masquerading as a psychic helps a young mother deal with her possessed step-son, only to realize she’s in over her head.
About: We’re doing something different today. Earlier this year, Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame sent out a short story to all the studios and a huge bidding war erupted. Universal ended up winning the rights for seven figures. Short stories are actually perfect for adaptation. While novels are huge and cumbersome and you have to leave a lot of the nuances that made the novel great out, short stories allow you to flesh things out, expand on what’s working and make it even better. In an interesting side-note, Flynn wrote this for George R.R. Martin.
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Details: 61 pages
I’ve been working on this far-from-groundbreaking theory that the bigger the situation in your screenplay, the higher your ceiling at the box office. So if you blow up our planet in your script, you can top out at 500-750 million dollars. If, by contrast, you chronicle a murder mystery in a small town, you may top out at 15m if you’re lucky. If you write about the mob’s stranglehold on one city, expect 75m tops.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Movies like “Love Story” could make a billion dollars. But the reality of the matter is, in order to pay that 15 bucks, audiences want an experience these days. And if the world (or something similar) isn’t at stake, it’s hard to feel like you’ve experienced anything. There are exceptions to this rule. There always are. And certain genres like horror can muck up the equation. But on the whole, it’s becoming more and more true.
Which brings us to Gone Girl. I always wondered why that film was successful. Sure, it was a big novel. Yeah, it had David Fincher. But the average moviegoer hasn’t read the novel (nobody reads, in case you were wondering) and I can guarantee you they have no idea who David Fincher is. This was just a missing wife movie. Then I realized, it’s because the missing wife storyline went national. Had Amy’s disappearance stayed local, the situation wouldn’t have seemed as big, and the box office wouldn’t have been as big.
For all intents and purposes, Flynn’s follow-up film, Dark Places, should’ve been a huge hit. In the old days, it would’ve been heavily promoted and everyone would’ve rushed to the theater to get themselves some more Gillian Flynn. But it was a smaller situation with less at stake, and therefore, it had that low ceiling.
Where does this leave The Grownup? Let’s find out.
Our nameless narrator didn’t plan to become a con woman. It’s just the only thing she grew up knowing. When her father died, her mother resorted to begging, and our heroine quickly learned the art of conning – of doing anything to get that next GW.
After she grew up, she got a job at a local psychic’s office, which she quickly learned doubled as a place for rich assholes to get handjobs. And our heroine would soon be giving those handjobs.
She would eventually graduate to the front room, however, becoming a “psychic,” and that’s where she met Susan Burke, a rich wife who’d obviously had a rough go of it. Susan confided that she had a step-son, 15 year-old Miles, who she feared was possessed or demonic, or possibly just crazy, and feared for her life. She felt that the old house they lived in may have been possessing Miles, and she wanted our heroine to check it out.
Once at the old Victorian mansion, we learn that it is, indeed, fucking creepy. But that creepiness is nothing compared to Miles, an undersized teenager who looks like he could shoot up a school while snacking on a box of cracker jacks.
One day, when Susan isn’t around, Miles threatens Heroine, “Do not come back or you will die,” and Heroine makes the mistake of ignoring that request. What follows is not at all what we expect, as our heroine learns that she may have been afraid of the wrong person all along. And that maybe it isn’t the house that haunts, but one’s past indiscretions.
What’s funny about this short story is that it’s exactly 60 pages. Which means if you double-spaced it, you’d have a screenplay. So why didn’t Flynn just write a ready-to-go screenplay? Maybe because when George R.R. Martin says, “Write me a story,” you do it no questions asked? Even if he’s incapable of finishing his own stories?
I was paying particular attention to the structure of this story, since I don’t know much about short stories, and found it to be somewhat similar to screenplay structure. You start out with a shocker of an opener, something that grabs the audience. Even better if you can do it with the first line, as we see here: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”
From there, you pull back, tell us about the characters. With novels you can go more into backstory, which we do here. In screenplays, it’s more about giving us a scene that encapsulates our character’s identity (so if your hero is stubborn, write a scene where he insists to his boss that he’s right).
And from there you start building the elements of your story. Get to know our heroine’s job. Get to know who the key characters are and what’s going on with them. And with that, you want to create some mystery. You can’t just be in set-up mode where you’re conveying nuts and bolts information. Your set-up must be entertaining. And mystery is an easy way to entertain.
For instance, Susan comes into the shop and looks bad. Something terrible has happened to this woman. You can hear the quiver in her voice. So when she leaves after that first session, we want to know more. We’re curious about her circumstances.
But when you’re talking about Gillian Flynn – let’s be honest – you’re talking about one thing: her endings. That’s her achilles’ heel. Gone Girl had one of the most nonsensical unsatisfying endings for a great story ever. You can paint it however you want, but the reality is, Flynn painted herself into a corner and couldn’t find a dry spot to jump back to.
So how do you write a good ending?
There’s two schools of thought here. The first is the Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) philosophy. Don’t start writing your script until you’ve figured out your ending. In other words, outline! If you don’t know where you’re writing towards, your story will jump all over the place.
The second way is the opposite of the first. Embrace a “searching” philosophy and find the ending by writing the script! The argument here is that you’ll find a much more interesting ending than would’ve been possible had you methodically bullet-pointed your way through an outline. While this approach is riskier (without a destination, you could completely lose direction), the potential reward is bigger.
Here’s the trick with the second option though. If that’s you how find your ending, YOU NEED TO THEN GO BACK AND REWRITE YOUR ENTIRE SCRIPT.
Why? Because the large majority of what you’ve written, you’ve written with no idea of how things were going to end. So you now have all these scenes which have little-to-no connection to your ending. The best thing to do, then, is go back and rewrite everything so that it connects organically with that ending.
The thing is, VERY FEW WRITERS HAVE THE PATIENCE TO DO THIS. They instead change a scene here and a scene there and convince themselves it’s good enough. And they’re left with this patchwork story that, at times, connects with the ending and at times tells a different story entirely.
Then there’s the third option. I call this the “Fuck it” option. This is when you don’t really know how to end things, so you write a bunch of bullshit and hope for the best. This is how The Grownup ends. It’s so apparent that Flynn didn’t know how to end this that you can actually hear it in the character himself. As he’s talking, you can hear him searching for a logical ending. I can’t get into specifics without spoiling things, but let’s just say that any bottom level prodco executive would tear this to pieces.
Maybe whoever adapts this will address this issue. I hope so. Because there is a lot of good to the story. But man, that ending?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There are a TREASURE TROVE of great movie ideas out there. Where? SHORT STORIES. Why? Because a) it’s the last place people think to look for movie ideas, and b) nobody reads short stories. If you’re looking to hack the system, get a bunch of those “Great short stories” books and devour them. I guarantee you’ll find a good idea sooner or later. And since it’s an adaptation, anybody you send it to in Hollywood will take it more seriously. Good luck!