The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: How to Read Like a Writer
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has three uniquely unreliable narrators who create a plethora of plot twists and are connected through trains. I am going to attempt to describe why authors should read this novel without giving anything away. The controlled release of information is vital to the mystery, plot, and development of the characters. The way each character is unreliable, the use of the train theme, and the function and execution of plot twists are all aspects of The Girl on the Train authors can use to inform and better their own work.
Three Unreliable Narrators
The three narrators of The Girl on the Train show different ways a character can be unreliable.
1 – Rachel
The main character and speaker, Rachel, is revealed to be an alcoholic almost immediately when she drinks on her way home Monday evening. The nature of her problem becomes clear when Rachel thinks:
I once read a book by a former alcoholic where she described giving oral sex to two different men, men she’d just met in a restaurant on a busy London high street. I read it and I thought, I’m not that bad. This is where the bar is set (17).
Her substance abuse problem leads her to be unable to remember a key night, negatively affects her relationships, and makes her appear weak-willed. All of these cause Rachel to be untrustworthy and therefore unreliable. In addition, Rachel is obsessed with her ex-husband. She calls him throughout the book, usually when drunk. Having an unreliable main character like Rachel can heighten the mystery of a novel. Readers may find it more difficult to guess who committed the crime when the person discovering and interpreting the clues can’t be trusted either.
2 – Megan
Megan, the next narrator to speak in Hawkins’ novel, is unreliable for different reasons. As Megan’s character develops, readers realize she has a trauma in her past making her unstable and she is unfaithful. While Megan does show remorse for these events, when a person lies about one aspect of their life, people find it difficult to believe anything else the person says. Because Megan is a cheater and struggles with her mental health, readers can’t quite trust her side of the story. Her flightiness is evident in the lines:
I haven’t slept in days. I hate this, hate insomnia more than anything, just lying there, brain going round, tick, tick, tick, tick. I itch all over. I want to shave my head. I want to run. I want to take a road trip, in a convertible, with the top down (27).
Both Megan and Rachel are unreliable because their perception of the world is clearly biased. They see only their immediate, in the moment desires.
3 – Anna
The last character to narrate and the one with the fewest chapters is Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband had an affair with and married. Like Megan, Anna is unreliable because of her choice in sexual partners. However, Anna does not feel guilty for being a mistress and stealing another woman’s husband. This is clear in the passage where Anna reminisces about their first dates:
We’d sit in the window – she [Rachel] was at work in London so there was no danger of her walking past and noticing us. But there was that thrill, even so – perhaps she’d come home early for some reason . . . I dreamed of it. I willed her to come along one day, to see him with me, to know in an instant that he was no longer hers (173).
Because Anna intentionally ruined a marriage, she is difficult to trust. Despite her nefarious intentions with Rachel’s husband, Anna seems naïve and shallow compared to the other two women. Also, readers first see Anna through Rachel’s eyes, so they are preprogrammed to dislike and distrust her.
The three women’s self-centerness adds to their untrustworthiness. They see only how the events of the novel affect them. Even when Rachel tries to help find Megan’s killer, she is really only interested in the crime because it destroyed her fantasy of Megan’s life. The Girl on the Train shows how different characteristics can make a narrator unreliable: alcoholism, obsession, cheating, lying, mental illness, selfishness, and naivety are just a handful of the many traits writers can use to make readers question a story’s narrator.
Plot Twists Galore
The Girl on the Train is a complex mystery that creates suspense by slowly releasing and re-contextualizing information. One of the way’s Hawkins controls information is through Rachel’s memory. Because Rachel is a heavy drinker prone to black outs, she can’t remember the events of an important night and has been misremembering the events of other nights. This functions as a red herring. The reader thinks they know what is happening, then Rachel remembers another piece and what the reader (and Rachel) suspected becomes wrong. This works because Rachel is only desperately trying to remember one night. If she had been drunk so often she couldn’t remember any night, readers would become frustrated and annoyed by the lack of reliable information and possibly stop reading.
Another way Hawkins controls information for plot twists is by using multiple points of view. By showing parts of the story through Rachel, Megan, and Anna, the reader knows more than any single character. This creates tension and suspense. For example, the reader knows Megan is murdered, so when she is alone at night or shouting at her husband, the reader worries this is the scene she dies in.
One great aspect of the plot twists in The Girl on the Train is how they shift the way the reader views the characters. Megan does not appear to be an unreliable narrator in her first couple of chapters because the reader doesn’t know about her past, her indiscretions, or her wishy-washy desires. Almost every character changes as the reader learns more about them and they interact with each other. I can’t really say more about this without giving something away.
One of the themes Hawkins used best was the train itself. Each character has a different yet strong feeling about the train. Rachel loves it, Anna hates it, and Megan wishes to travel like it. The train is both a literal and practical form of transportation and a symbolic one. It is also an interruption and a witness.
While the image and setting are used well in the story, they were used expertly in marketing the novel. People on a train is an evocative image because it implies they are going somewhere, they are in transition, and trains provide an opportunity for travelers to move around and interact in a way other forms of transportation do not. This makes people curious. There are more possibilities, so potential readers want to know what happens. Trains were also used as a part of the book’s release party when various supporters rode trains while reading the novel. This exposed The Girl on the Train to commuters who could relate to the title and caught the media’s attention. It was a fun, unique marketing gimmick directly related to the story that worked.
Why a Professional Editor Recommends This Novel
As an editor, I recommend The Girl on the Train partly because of its success. If a writer aspires to have commercial success, they should read the novels that achieved this and search for why it appealed to such a large audience. More than that, I recommend The Girl on the Train for its variety of unreliable narrators. Many book lovers often confuse unlikeable and unreliable. Hawkins’ novel shows how a character can be both and just unreliable. It also demonstrates various reasons a character can be untrustworthy. They aren’t just crazy or narcissistic. Through its three uniquely unreliable narrators, plethora of plot twists, and train theme, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins captivated society. Writers can use these same principals to Ignite Their Ink.
What other traits make the characters in Paula Hawkins' novel unreliable? If you haven't read The Girl on the Train yet, click the image on the right. Please comment below, and for a list of 13 Writing Craft Books Every Writer Should Explore subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.