Every place I’ve gone this summer, someone has asked me if I’ve read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Not in a Harry Potter or Steig Larsson way, but in a “please can you read this so we can talk about it” kind of way. Often the person talks about irritation while reading a specific part of the book. A feeling of manipulation (no spoilers here) comes at the beginning of the second section of the novel, when there is a change in the point of view character. “I wanted to put it down,” people say, “but then I decided to go on, just to see, and then I couldn’t have put it down if I tried.” And that puzzlement—how can being messed with feel so good?—seems to point to something strong novels do that we writers should be aware of as we work.
Without giving anything away, this novel is about manipulative people and the skill with which they can draw us in. And it seems to me that Flynn, understanding how distasteful such masterful manipulators are, forces the reader to a moment of self-awareness at the beginning of that second section of the novel—we are being played with, and we feel precisely the way we do when that happens in real life. Flynn manipulates us just enough to get us irritated, but not enough that we aren’t willing to stay around to see what happens next. And that moment of curiosity is a moment of resonance, a moment in which empathy with the characters on the page heightens our engagement in the story. We are like those characters. We are manipulable. Therefore, what’s happening on the page is very like something that we already understand. It resonates. And resonance creates what readers perceive as truth.
Resonance is what writers aim for, whether consciously or not. Resonance builds empathy, and empathy is what makes reading do what it does to the brain—give us the ability to experience what we haven’t yet done, to recapture experiences from our past and imagine alternate fates. Including destinies in which being locked in a battle of wills with a brilliant deceiver is more appealing than it has any right to be.