Writerly Wednesday: Writing Lessons Learned from The Good Girl

Last week we visited Forrest Gump and analyzed just a few of the writing lessons the movie offered.  This week we’re going to venture into a movie that wasn’t exactly considered a blockbuster, but it won over the critics nonetheless: The Good Girl. While it wasn’t a popular movie, it was most definitely noticed at Sundance and proved to the critics that Jennifer Aniston could definitely push past her role of Rachel on Friends. It also showed us how the popular book, The Catcher in the Rye, still effects the lives of its readers.

Plot per IMBD: “The plot revolves around a young married woman whose mundane life takes a turn for the worse when she strikes up a passionate and illicit affair with an oddball discount-store stock boy who thinks he’s Holden Caulfield.”

  • First Lines/Opening Monologues: As far as opening lines/monologues in movies go, I believe this one is in the top 5. The Good Girl opens with a monologue by the MC, Justine Last, where she states: “As a girl you see the world like a giant candy store, filled with sweet candy and such. But one day you look around and see a prison, and you’re on death row. You wanna run, or scream, or cry. But somethin’s lockin’ you up. Are the other folks cows chewin’ cud ‘til the hour comes and their heads roll, or are they just keepin’ quiet like you…planning their escape?”
    • An opening line or monologue seeks to drop the reader directly into the midst of the action. But action doesn’t necessarily mean physical action; it can mean the emotional action the MC is going through. Think about it: a first line seeks to grasp the reader, to take ultimately ahold of them with something universal that they’ve more than likely felt at one point or another in their life and not let go – or it can also be something that just grasps their curiosity because they haven’t experienced it before (i.e: running from the cops or a murderer). Justine’s opener does just that: 
      • She feels trapped and unhappy with her life.
      • As a little girl she looked at the world with bright eyes and couldn’t wait to come of age and enjoy all that life had to offer.
      • She wants to run away, begin anew.
      • She often wonders if anyone else feels the same way.

Maybe instead of searching for that perfect first line, we should seek to settle with the most honest, truthful first line that practically sums up our MC’s frame of mind as we begin their journey? It’s definitely an option and has been done before, it’s just that whenever we’ve read it in the past we’ve thought of it as only the perfect first line instead of the truth at the core of the entire plot. Now there’s an idea: don’t search for perfect, search for the truth because that’s what’ll lead you to the perfect first line. Alleviates the pressure a bit, doesn’t it?

  • A Likeable Main Character (Regardless of Her Flaws): Justine Last is a miserable, sad and selfish girl. But you don’t actually realize all of these flaws until after you’ve become invested in her story. Here’s a mini-breakdown of her arc:
    • At the beginning of the film you get to see a day in her life: from the boring 8-hr day at The Retail Rodeo, to coming home and not being able to park in her own driveway, to watching TV with her husband, Phil, and his friend, Bubba (while they’re getting high in her living room) and listening to their stupid-crazy marijuana-talk. Once you’ve watched what a day is like for her, you begin to empathize a bit – her life truly is miserable.
    • In walks – er, sits – Holden, a cashier who’s real name is Tom but refers to that as his ‘slave name’ (note: while it’s not exactly said, he truly does believe he’s Holden Caulfield).  He’s just as bored and dissatisfied with his life as Justine is (and keeps to himself because, in his words, he’s a writer). Bingo! We have a connection and a glimpse of the ‘other side’ that Justine’s been looking for. So she plays with fire a bit and flirts with Holden. But Holden wants more than she’s willing to give at the moment for fear or hurting someone.
      • But then again, all these questions begin to fester inside her: “Has a special fate been calling you and you’re not listenin’?”, “Is there a secret message right in front of you and you’re not readin’ it?”, “Is this your last, best chance?”, and “Are you gonna take it? Or are you going to the grave with unlived lives in your veins?” <—Special Note: This is exactly how inner conflict should work. In order to get inside the mind of the MC and ‘get’ why they made their decisions, a push/pull of emotions on big decisions should be reflected.
    • The day Justine’s co-worker and friend, Gwen, gets sick at work, she receives a letter from Holden: he states she’s the only person who’s ever ‘gotten’ him and that he’s quitting his job because of her – BUT if she wants to be with him too, body and soul, then she should meet him at 5pm outside the Chuckie Cheese (*giggle*). Justine drives her friend to the hospital, drops her off at the ER entrance and tells her she’s going to park and will be right in…but instead she runs off to the Chuckie Cheese (takes the leap) and drives Holden to a local motel where they begin an affair.
    • Because her friend is in the hospital for a few days, Justine uses that as an excuse to come home late from work for the next few days. While her husband believes she’s at the hospital visiting a sick friend (whom she hasn’t seen since dropping her off to begin with), she’s off having an affair. Pretty selfish, huh? But we were invested from the get-go so why stop now?
    • Everything crumbles when she sees Bubba’s truck outside the motel one night, so she runs to the hospital to make as if she was there the entire time. But when she arrives she discovers that Gwen died. She then has a wake up call and decides to go to church one night. Here is when she begins to make strides towards changing her circumstances. But then Bubba blackmails Justine, holds it over her that he’ll tell her husband unless she sleeps with him, so now she’s really eyeballs deep in alligators.
    • During this entire time her husband has been making gestures to make their home life a little better: fixing the TV she’s complained about, seeing a Dr. to find out why they can’t get pregnant, etc.
    • Justine learns she’s pregnant (another turning point). From there she begins to try and figure a way to leave Holden and their entire affair behind her after coming to the enlightened conclusion that “Holden is at best a child, and at worst a demon.”
    • Eventually it all comes down to a crossroads after Holden robs The Retail Rodeo and tempts her with the opportunity to leave Texas and begin a new life, just the two of them (the movie’s tagline: “It’s her last best chance…is she going to take it?). Justine packs her bags and truly makes as if she’s going to leave her boring life behind.
    • But with a bit of reflection, she makes the decision you hoped she would: she turns Holden into the police and walks away (dubbed by her boss ‘The Good Girl’ for doing so).
    • She suffers the consequences of her affair though: Her husband finds the credit card bill and confronts her. She owns up to her mistake and eventually receives forgiveness from him.

Yes, this is a bit long for a ‘mini-breakdown,’ but you get the gist of what I’m talking about when I say that the main character should be likeable regardless of their flaws! She made a mistake because she was dissatisfied with her life. True she should’ve handled it differently, but that’s what makes her human just like you and me. The journey she took made her realize what she had wasn’t so bad. Isn’t that the same one we all take at one point or another? And she was likeable the entire time – even while she was being selfish by not visiting and using her dying friend and so wrapped up in this affair that she was unable to see the great things her husband had begun to do around the house until it was too late. Yes, believe it or not, she was likeable the entire time. <—The magic of writing!

  • Raise the Stakes: Now that you’ve had a breakdown of Justine’s story, I can easily point out that throughout her story, the stakes were raised higher and higher:
    • She’s dissatisfied with her life…and life should be enjoyable. Does she continue down that path or seek to make herself happy regardless of how? <—A universal question
    • Now that she’s played with fire, she may get caught. Her husband’s best friend has blackmailed her: he knows her secret and will tell her husband unless she does something in return. Now it thickens and she’s closer to possibly losing everything, regardless of how boring it was to begin with.
    • With the decision to wipe her hands clean of the affair, the stakes rise even more when Holden cries, gets a little rowdy when she hints at wanting to end things, and he even threatens to hurt himself. Now it’s suddenly not just her life she’s got to think about (In her words: “I realized Holden was at best a child, and at worst, a demon.”).
    • After the discovery that she’s pregnant, the stakes are raised even more: there’s a new person whose life will be affected by her decisions. Will she run away with Holden and be a fugitive, but yet have what she’s always wanted by getting out of that town? Or will be stay and raise her child with her husband who’s really a good man at heart (he just likes to get high, what?)? Truth be told, and you find this out at the end, if she’d only shared her unhappiness with her husband she would’ve learned that he too can feel as she did in the beginning: Phil: “I need to get stoned. I just gotta escape. Do you ever feel like that? Like you gotta escape?”

Notice a pattern here of how to raise the stakes? If it ain’t one thing, it’s another! Think of situation or dilemma to begin your MC with. Now think of something tempting, something that would force them to make a huge/life-changing choice (ruining their life or the life of others – it doesn’t always have to be ‘life threatening’, especially if that doesn’t fit the genre/story), then rain hell on them, continue to ask yourself: “What’s the worse thing that could happen now?” Or you can ask my favorite: What could I do that would make my character scream, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another!!!”

  • Introduction of Secondary Characters: The secondary characters in this movie just float in, as if they were always a natural part of the story and not inserted because the movie needed more characters/interaction. No big introductions, no real time spent on each one, they just float in and around the story and soon become the ones you know by name and can always count on to make you laugh a little when they appear.
    • Corny: A religious security guard who you first see as playing with the automatic door of the store during Justine’s opening monologue. He’s the one bugs Justine to come to church. His appearance is extremely natural in the film.  Movie funny: When Justine tells him that she prefers her nights to herself vs. going to church, he replies (paraphrase): “Well maybe you’ll have night after night of eternal hell-fire all to yourself.” *snicker*
    • Cheryl: A young, cynical girl working at the store who begins in the movie as the intercom announcer of the store’s great deals. But you quickly learn that she enjoys sneaking in sly innuendos into the sales announcements. Her appearance is also extremely natural – every store has some kind of announcement going on in order to drive their sales, right? Here’s one of Cheryl’s (again, paraphrasing): “Liquid drain cleaner, 2 12oz cans for $5. Liquid drain cleaner has turning power and it will turn right through your pipes. Ladies, you need female formula. Shove something clean and new up your filthy pipes. That’s liquid drain cleaner on aisle 3. Have a good day and thank you for shopping Retail Rodeo.” *laughs out loud ‘cause nobody notices*
    • Gwen: A woman older than Justine who works behind the cosmetics counter with her. A very natural introduction because she’s working her butt off while Justine just sits there, bored with her job and her life, watching her co-worker do both their jobs.
    • Phil: A natural and intricate character to the story who didn’t need an introduction because you could figure out who he was when Justine got home that first night (and got fussed at for getting blue paint on their new couch).
    • Bubba: Phil’s best friend who also didn’t need an introduction. He sits next to Phil, night after night, and definitely appears to be a natural part of the story.

There are more characters I could bring in but the point is that each character you introduce should  happen in the most natural way possible. Ever read a story where every character who comes into play is fully described from their height and build to their hair and eye color? Didn’t it feel jarring? Exactly! Introducing a character that way is unnatural. Your MC doesn’t walk into some they know and describe them in that moment, do they? Nope, that’s normally reserved for those mysterious men who appear out of nowhere so the MC is noticing all of that to ensure the vision is burned into their memory. So why would we write that in unless it’s one of those moments? Let the characters’ actions and dialogue be their introductions – the one that’s the most natural to the story.

What about you? Have you seen The Good Girl? Have you ever felt like Justine? If so, have you used that in your writing in order to relate to the reader? Are there other writing lessons you can extract from this particular film? Do you have a movie you’d like to see analyzed during this series?

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Copyright 2018 by Melinda S. Collins