Editor Roundtable: The Girl on the Train

 

This week, Valerie  pitched The Girl on the Train for the next installment of her in-depth study of the psychological thriller. This 2016 film was directed by Tate Taylor from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins.

 

The Story

Global Genre: Psychological Thriller

Secondary Genre: Worldview>Revelation

  • Beginning Hook – So, I think the Roundtablers disagree slightly about where the beginning hook ends. Anne and Kim break it right around the 30 min mark when Rachel wakes up from her blackout. The beginning hook summary therefore would look something like this:

When Rachel Watson wakes up from an alcohol-induced blackout (covered in dirt and blood and unsure whether she has harmed Anna), she must decide whether she should deal with her drinking problem or allow it to spiral out of control. She decides to get her act together and attends an AA meeting.

However, I’ve put the end of act one a little further into the film, at the 37 minute mark (which is over 25%). I think the first act is longer because with three POVs, this story takes longer to set up. I can see the temptation to break the act at the blackout. There’s a clear turning point, crisis, climax and resolution. But, upon closer examination, it starts to fall apart.

This is a very personal crisis and it doesn’t involve Rachel in the disappearance of Megan Hipwell, which is the entire middle build. It’s definitely a complication to the story, but if we end the BH here, there’s not much to propel the story into the MB. Even when Rachel is questioned by police, if she keeps her mouth shut, the story is over. 

So, I put the end of act one after Rachel has spoken with Detective Riley. This is when, in my opinion, she crosses over into the extraordinary world (of the murder investigation). Several of her secrets are out in the open now, so life will never be the same. Everything up to this point has been Rachel’s ordinary world. Being drunk and having blackouts is, for her, status quo. Granted, it’s implied that she’s never woken up in such bad shape, but she has woken up covered in bruises with no first-hand memory of how they’ve gotten there. Now, she’s forced into the heroic journey that will make her question her sanity and allow her to ultimately heal and change.

Therefore, the BH summary sentence goes like this:

When Megan Hipwell goes missing, Rachel Watson must decide whether she should try to help the investigation by telling authorities that she saw Megan with another man, or stay silent and possibly put Megan in further jeopardy and/or let a crime go unsolved. She decides to tell the police but is discredited and learns that she’s a possible suspect.

  • Middle Build – When Rachel insinuates herself into the investigation concerning Megan’s disappearance, she becomes more unsure of her own state of mind. However, when Martha tells Rachel that she didn’t do the violent, abusive things Tom told her she’d done, her memories begin to reappear. (She remembers the truth about their marriage and about Megan’s disappearance.) She must decide whether to go to the police (who have completely discredited her), leave the situation alone (and let Tom get away with murder) or to go to Anna and try to save her and the baby. She goes to save Anna and the baby.
  • Ending Payoff – When Tom comes home to find Rachel with Anna, Rachel must decide whether to confront Tom (endangering, Anna and the baby) or leave without him knowing that she’s learning the truth. She decides to confront him, becomes trapped in the house and must fight for her life. In a desperate attempt to escape, she stabs Tom in the throat but it is Anna to delivers the final blow and kills him. Both Anna and Rachel are cleared of charges and Rachel is finally able to go on with her life.

One note about the ending payoff: Rachel doesn’t deliberate over her crisis for very long here in the film. It’s dramatized a little more in the novel, but still isn’t the kind of crisis where the protagonist seriously considers the option not taken. I think the reason the crisis isn’t much of a crisis, is because Rachel has a core of goodness; she’s been trying to do the right thing all along, but she didn’t know what that meant or how to do it. Now, with her memory intact and the truth revealed, she knows the right thing to do is to help Anna and the baby escape this abusive man, and so she does. (Of course, it could also simply be a flaw in the story!) The ending payoff is fairly short and is essentially one scene, with a flashback revealing how and why Tom killed Megan.

The Principle – Psychological Thrillers – Valerie

This week I’m continuing my study of psychological thrillers. I’m often asked by writers and clients why we need to identify a masterwork, and study multiple examples of stories in the same genre that we’re writing in. My goal this season is to answer those questions by showing you how I study a genre, and by giving you a glimpse at the kinds of things we can learn by doing this kind of deliberate study.

The Girl on the Train is a thriller and has all the elements you’d expect a thriller to have. I won’t go into those details here because that’s not what I’m focused on. I want to drill down to the aspects of the sub-genre.

When we studied Primal Fear, I mentioned that when Shawn named this sub-genre, he was thinking about the villain and whether a medical diagnosis would show him to be sane or insane. At the time, Kim asked a fantastic question and I gave a really high level answer because it’s a huge topic and I wanted to use this episode to discuss it. Kim asked: In a psychological thriller, whose sanity are we questioning — the protagonist, the villain, or the victim?

When I was trying to determine the genre for the story I’m currently writing, it took me forever to figure out if I was writing a thrilling horror, or a horrifying thriller. Once I settled on thriller, I then had to choose a sub-genre and I started to overthink everything and completely confused myself. 

My story is kind of like The Girl on the Train in that it’s the protagonist who is questioning her own sanity. I didn’t know if that made it a psychological thriller (because it’s quite different than the Primal Fear example) or a woman in jeopardy thriller (because it’s also different than the Sleeping With The Enemy example). I looked at a whole bunch of stories, and the more I looked, the more confused I got. I suspected it was a psychological thriller, but like Kim, I wondered if the question of sanity was for the villain only.

Finally, I had to send out an S.O.S. to Shawn. Here’s what he had to say:

Ok, so Shawn is giving us some pretty important information here. The reason I was getting so confused, is that I’ve stumbled upon a genre that is in the process of a major shift. It used to be that the villain was a stranger, then it was someone close to us, now we’re wondering if it’s us!

Stories reflect changes in society, so what’s going on in society today to cause this shift? It’s pretty simple; we’re being pulled in too many directions and we’re fighting too many uphill battles. We’re stretched to our limits and we feel like we’re going to snap. 

Kim – I was fascinated by what Shawn had to say about the struggles of women to balance our roles and identities in the face of so much modern pressures and adversity. Gives me a whole new appreciation for the Thriller genre. 

Valerie – Paula Hawkins describes The Girl On The Train as a woman’s story. She set out to write a story about the issues women face today – and isn’t that exactly what Shawn was talking about?

While thrillers generally don’t require an internal genre, psychological thrillers do because the value at stake is sanity. The point of the story is to discover the internal shift of the character. 

I hypothesized in an earlier episode that psychological thrillers would often be paired with (worldview) revelation stories. Shawn’s backed me up on this one, but he added an important bit of info. This sub-genre is also paired with (worldview) disillusionment and (morality) punitive internal genres. 

Before I move on, I just want to make a quick sidenote. The Girl On The Train is billed at Hawkins’ debut novel, but that’s not actually true. She’d written and published four novels before this under a pseudonym and she’d spent 15 (or so) years as a journalist. I mention this because we can often beat ourselves up if our first attempt at a novel isn’t on par with the #1 bestsellers. But remember, those authors had an apprenticeship and it’s ok for us to have one too. 

Ok – back to the film. 

There are definitely similarities with Primal Fear

  1. The book is better than the movie: Both Primal Fear and The Girl On The Train were much better novels than films. This leads me to put forward another hypothesis: psychological thrillers lend themselves more to the novel than to the screen (certainly to a 2-hour story format), because its very nature is the state of the character’s mind.

    Robert McKee said that “screenwriting is the art of making the mental, physical” and I agree with that. That’s a tricky thing to do, especially when it’s the protagonist’s sanity we’re questioning. Filmmakers really do need things like voice over to help viewers understand what’s happening. Novelists, on the other hand, can pop right into the character’s mind.

  2. Shifting Hero, Victim, Villain Roles: Megan is clearly a victim, but she’s also a force of antagonism for her therapist. Anna and Rachel are all three. Tom is all three (but is ultimately the villain) and Scott is also all three.

  3. Shapeshifters: Like Primal Fear, because of the shifting hero, victim, villain roles, The Girl On The Train includes shapeshifting characters. No one is quite who they seem. Or at least, who Rachel believes they are (including herself).

  4. Both lean more toward crime than action or horror: In both stories, a crime has clearly taken place and it is what the stories revolve around.

  5. Key use of Point of View: POV is so often overlooked by writers. We might consider it for five minutes when we decide on whether we’ll use first or third person, but then we move on.

    However, knowing who tells the story is essential. Remember, one of the conventions of a thriller—and something that makes it different from a horror—is that the hero becomes the final victim and the villain’s attack is personal.

    In Primal Fear we had an unaware protagonist. Aaron needed Martin Vail to get him cleared of all charges. Therefore, keeping Vail ignorant of Aaron’s true motives, was an essential part of the story. William Diehl (the author) had to incorporate that. The novel is told from multiple points of view so it keeps the reader off balance. It’s kind of like that game with the coconut shells; by constantly shifting the POV, we lose track of who knows what and where the truth actually is.

    In The Girl On the Train we have an unreliable narrator; Rachel honestly has no idea what has happened, and therefore neither does the reader. Plus Hawkins also uses multiple points of view which again keeps the reader off balance and confused as to where the truth is. 

So, hopefully you’re starting to see how important it is to study multiple examples of a given genre. Look for the similarities and discover why certain elements need to be there. Look for differences and discover how these differences can change a story.

Other Perspectives

Kim – Worldview-Revelation / How to set up and payoff a great twist

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good story twist–the moment when what we believe to be true is revealed as false and some other, even stranger thing is actually true.

The existence of a killer twist (which may or may not be about an actual killer in a story) does not automatically make the story Worldview-Revelation. Any story can have a twist but Revelation as genre and plot is about a pattern of meaning. It’s not about one twisty moment, rather it’s the sum total of moments culminating in the Core Event where the protagonist learns the truth: factual information which in most cases relates to themselves.

For Worldview-Revelation, the change comes down to the key piece of factual information the protagonist is missing.

The fact that they don’t know this information at the beginning is the source of conflict. It keeps them from being able to take appropriate action. Once they obtain this information (and resolve their cognitive dissonance about it) they can apply it through action (wisdom) and the story can conclude.

This is a key difference between Primal Fear and The Girl on the Train—in TGOTT the revelation moment comes in time for appropriate action (wisdom) to be on stage, which I personally feel makes the story more satisfying. Although to be fair, that wasn’t the only thing that was wrong with PF.

Jarie: What do you think of the scene choice to reveal that between Martha and Rachel on the train?

Kim: I thought that was great. It shows a shift in Rachel’s character, from avoiding Martha (Lisa Kudrow) earlier in the film to approaching her to make amends. I was bracing myself for a confrontation and then Martha was so kind–a very different type of progressive complication than we’re used to. Also it’s intriguing to me that if Rachel had approached Martha earlier, she would have learned the truth earlier, so it’s a subtle way to show how her false belief obstructed her path. 

How do we craft a satisfying Worldview-Revelation twist?

First, as with all stories (and particularly internal genres) in order to be satisfying the pattern of meaning needs to be clear, and the best way to be is clear is by being specific.

To do this, let’s walk through a little rhyme I made up:

  • Define
  • Refine
  • Translate in Time
  • Across the Story Spine

This little rhyme helps me think through the arc I am trying to create and how to construct the global story with a compelling Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff. 

Define the change. Whether getting to a first draft or editing an existing draft, we can use Friedman’s Framework as a guide. 

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What is their beginning state? Character, thought, fortune
  • What is their ending state? Character, thought, fortune
  • What has changed? What has changed the most?
  • How do we (the audience) feel about this change?

Click here to download detailed cheat sheets for identifying Internal Genres:

Internal Genre Elements

Friedman’s Framework

Once we know the kind of change (genre) we need to demonstrate in our story, we can translate the abstract elements (character, thought, and fortune) into concrete items (actions, dialogue, setting). These items become tangible representations of the Life Value present at any given moment in the story. Remember that a protagonist will often change in more than one of the internal elements, but that one should be the major change, the one that the story is really about. The others are either causes or effects of that major meaningful change. Identifying these additional changes and getting specific for your protagonist will help you craft a character that is rich and fully-developed. This increases the audience’s ability to empathize with them, which increases their ability to immerse. And an immersive experience is the universal thing that audiences want. 

Identify Life Values. For Worldview-Revelation the life values at stake are Ignorance and Knowledge. But that is just the beginning. Creating a powerful arc, and in our case today, a powerful twist, we need to know the full range of what we’re working with. 

I have found a process for expanding Life Values that really works for me which I demonstrate in detail in my post Writing a Global Internal Genre Story that Works. For Worldview-Revelation the Life Values expand from the Core Four (IMAK to K) to the Full Spectrum (IMAK up to W, with some additions in between)

Core Four

  • Knowledge
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Ignorance
  • Ignorance Masked as Knowledge

Full spectrum 

  • Wisdom – knowledge and belief applied through action, based on personal values
  • Knowledge – knowledge with clarity and therefore belief
  • Cognitive dissonance – contradictory information/knowledge and unsure what is true and what to believe
  • Acknowledged Ignorance – you know that you don’t know
  • Ignorance – you don’t know what you don’t know
  • Ignorance masked as knowledge – you think you know based on expertise or in this case based on evidence of sensory data

An interesting and I think helpful difference to acknowledge about Worldview-Revelation vs Worldview-Maturation plots, is that Revelation is about objective truth and Maturation is about subjective truth. 

Here’s how Shawn explained it on a recent episode of flagship Story Grid podcast:

[0:13:58.3] SC: Yeah. The dealing with truthful reality – factual, I would say factual reality, because there are two kinds of looks at truth. The first one is objective fact. If it’s 86 degrees outside, that’s an objective fact. Objects and objective facts are about matter, what is. Now subjective truth is more story-driven. That’s about what matters. We attach value to objects. That’s what the difference between an objective fact and a subjective truth is. Objects are scientifically derived. It doesn’t matter if I measure the temperature outside, or you do, we’re both going to get the same number. Whereas, whether or not the weather bothers us, that’s a subjective interpretation. For me, it might be really blistering hot, I can’t stand it, and you might be like “Yeah, this is fine.” That is the difference between objective fact and subjective truth.

Both types of truth are likely at play in either kind of story, but only one is “what the story is about”. 

From here we narrow to the  

Constrained Range 

Not every story in a genre will cover all the possible life values on the spectrum, take Love Story or Morality for example, not all subgenres of these two types will reach the lowest low or the highest high. Based on my observations, though, Worldview-Revelation stories appear to span the full range from Ignorance Masked as Knowledge to Wisdom. 

Story Specific Manifestations

In any story of any genre, getting specific is essential. This is the only way that the Life Values can be truly communicated to and experienced by the audience. For Worldview-Revelation this means we must define the factual information the protagonist is ignorant of. 

For example 

  • In The Sixth Sense – Malcolm needs to see that ghosts are real and visit Cole for help, and that he himself is a ghost.
  • In Get Out – Chris needs to see that his girlfriend and her family abduct and brainwash black people in order to take over their bodies, and he is their next victim.
  • In Shutter Island – Teddy Daniels needs to see that the investigation is a farce, an experiment to help him recover from his psychosis onset by the murder of his wife.
  • In Oedipus – Oedipus needs to see that the criminal he seeks is himself: he killed the king and married his mother. 
  • In Arrival – Louise needs to see that the child she keeps seeing is her daughter and the visions are of her own future.
  • In Sharknado … just kidding. Just making sure you’re paying attention. 

In The Girl on the Train, Rachel’s needs to see that her ex-husband was abusive and tainted her memories and beliefs about herself, and that he is actually a master manipulator and Megan’s killer.  

Once we know what the actual Objective Truth will be in our story, we can use the revelation of that truth (the Core Event and VIP obligatory scene) as our turning point fulcrum and work out from there. We can use our range of life values to craft specific scenes that complete the story’s arc. This means a compelling progression towards the Core Event and an even more fulfilling payoff to follow.

There are a couple VIP Conventions that are needed. 

First:

  • Clues that are the Opposite of Red Herrings, they seem irrelevant but actually point to the truth. 

Valerie – Hey Kim, can I jump in here for a minute? You’ve mentioned these clues that are the opposite of red herrings a couple of times now, and because they’re so important to the revelation genre, I think it’s time we gave them a name.

I have an idea. Stay with me for a minute.

These clues are things that are hidden in plain sight, right? They’re there, but the reader/viewer doesn’t recognize them as clues. They’re camouflaged. So, I was thinking we could call them after another sea creature who is a master of disguise.

I propose that we call them … Cuttlefish!

Cuttlefish hide themselves in plain sight. They’re there, but unless you’re looking very closely—and you know where to look and what to look for—you can miss them. 

What does everyone think?

Jarie – I like it so much I already got the tattoo. 

Kim – I love it, cuttlefish are one of my favorite sea creatures which fits perfect as the name for my favorite convention of one of my all-time favorite genres. 

Valerie – Ok, then. Motion carried. (I guess I’d better let Shawn know that we have “Coyned” a phrase!) Kim, please continue!

Kim – So, with that wonderful change of phrase, note that the cuttlefish present in a Revelation story may be different for protagonist vs the audience due to the author’s choice for narrative drive. There may be times when these true clues are dropped in for the audience to see but the protagonist has no way of knowing. 

It’s important to keep this in mind when crafting the twist. Remember a twist for the audience does not automatically make it a Worldview-Revelation plot for the protagonist. The best example I can think of for this is The Prestige. There is certainly big twist revelation moment, in fact several, but based on my gut I’d say the internal genre is Morality-Punitive. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend checking that film out–just fantastic. 

In order for the Twist to count as the Core Event of a Worldview-Revelation plot, the protagonist will need to experience a reversal of what they objectively believed about themselves or their circumstances.

Next: 

  • Compelling reason for the protagonist (and the audience) to NOT doubt their current objective view of the facts.

This is why the protagonist begin at Ignorance Masked as Knowledge, because they have reason to believe they are right. Everything about their experience, observation, expertise, etc. aligns with what they objectively believe to be the truth. 

This is one way you can test your story to ensure the arc is fully present.

  • Does the protagonist begin at (or quickly fall to) the negation of the negation, Ignorance Masked as Knowledge? If not, look for ways you can “back them up” in terms of life value range, and further establish their false beliefs. 
    • In TGOTT, Rachel knows she is an alcoholic who experiences blackouts. She’s lost her job because of her drinking. She believes she can be  extremely destructive during these blackouts which is the reason her husband had an affair and left her.
    • She also believes that Megan and her husband have a perfect life and are madly in love.  
  • Does the protagonist experience events that introduce challenges to their objective belief?
    • In TGOTT, it kicks off with Rachel witnessing Megan on her balcony embracing a man who is not her husband. 
    • Then when she wakes up covered in blood and doesn’t know why due to a black out
    • The cops show up and question her about her whereabouts (Rachel is actually a Red Herring)
    • Her unclear memories muddle what she knows to be true. 
  • Does the protagonist experience the major revelatory moment (the Core Event) that is a reversal of everything they previously believed? Is this truth closely related to themselves in some way? 
    • In TGOTT, Rachel approaches Martha, the wife of her ex-husband’s boss on the train, to apologize for her drunken outburst at her party years ago. Martha corrects her and assures her she did no such thing and simply took a nap in her guest room and then Tom took her home. Martha also clarifies that Tom did not lose his job because of Rachel but his own, ahem, indiscretions. 
  • Now that the protagonist knows the objective truth, do they take action to apply it as wisdom according to their moral code (that is, according to their subjective truth)? This may appear either positive or negative to the audience. Oedipus gauges his eyes for example, and Teddy Daniels from Shutter Island chooses to get a lobotomy–hardly positive, but true to the characters subjective beliefs.
    • In TGOTT, Rachel remembers what happened that night in the tunnel, that Tom was the one who struck her down and that Megan got in his car. From this knowledge, she goes directly to warn Anna. This leads to the confrontation with Tom and the HATMOV. 
    • The final resolution is her riding on the other side of the train because “I’m not the girl I used to be,” an echo of why she had revered Megan in the opening, because she was everything she lost. 

A couple of additional Cuttlefish for the viewer:

  • When Rachel comes home drunk and Cathy asks her, “What brought it on this time?” This tells us that Rachel doesn’t call the time, only sometimes when something triggers her, which contradicts what Anna says to the police. 
  • Anna tells the cops that “Unknowns are always Rachel.” BUT we saw that Rachel’s name did come up on Tom’s phone, so not unknown. 
  • Also there is a flash of Megan calling something saying “are you there, are you there, are you there,” over and over, which links back to the frequency of the unknown calls that Anna reported to the police and assumed were Rachel.
  • Tom tells Anna that Rachel is, “She’s a sad person, completely harmless.” And yet he tells Rachel, “We both know what you’re capable of.”

Leslie – Thanks for this in-depth breakdown, Kim. In the past, you’ve talked about how the Worldview-Revelation protagonist is often a professional, someone at the top of their game. They tend to be sophisticated and have a strong will, but simply lack the information they need to make a wise decision. Is it significant that Rachel doesn’t fit this pattern? 

Kim – Yes, great question. I thought about this convention and if/how it applies to Rachel and what I came away with that it really comes down to sophisticated knowledge of whatever subject of objective truth is at stake

In most stories, this is demonstrated by the professional who is at the top of their game (honored psychologist, a photographer with a great eye for detail, a detective, a king, a linguist with top military clearance), but here we see Rachel at rock-bottom. 

But I think she still meets the convention because she is still an “expert” at her own destructive tendencies, which is what the objective truth at stake is here. She knows how much she drinks and that she often has black outs, she knows that behavior led to losing her job and her marriage, she knows she went into Anna’s home uninvited and picked up their baby and carried her into the backyard, and she has evidence of the violent scenario she is capable of concocting through the video on her phone … all things that uphold her current objective belief. 

But the other thing I felt is that by having her be more layman in terms of professional expertise, Rachel feels more like the everyman protagonist we get in a Horror story, as opposed to the hero we get in Action or Thriller stories. That, along with the psychological aspects of this story and the subject matter of life and death of infants, amplified the horror aspect of this Thriller story for me personally. 

Jarie – Obsessive Love Leads to Tragedy

There is a lot of love to keep track of in this story. Each one adds a different misdirection so that we don’t really know what’s going to happen. The love I’m talking about includes: Rachel <-> Tom, Tom <-> Anna, Scott <-> Megan, Megan <-> Dr. Abdic, and Tom <-> Anna. The last one, Tom <-> Anna we don’t find out about until later. In fact, that particular one drives the story twist, which Valerie and Kim talked about above.

Some of these lovers are having affairs like Megan <-> Dr. Abdic and Megan <-> Tom, which adds to the tension and confusion in Rachel’s mind, especially Megan <-> Dr. Abdic.

Rachel is also obsessed with Megan because she wants Megan’s life and can’t believe that she would “cheat” on her husband Scott. This obsession and Rachel’s obsession with her ex-husband Tom, drive her to drink more and more. 

The complexity of all the love triangle in this story make it hard to follow, at times, but increase the tension by powers of 10. The therapy sessions between Megan and Dr. Abdic also makes for increasing the tension and drives Rachel’s obsession even more.

The one love story I’m going to focus on is the obsession love sub-plot between Megan and Tom. We don’t see all the conventions and obligatory scenes of this love sub-plot between them but it seems to be manifested through Rachel’s obsession with Megan, which I find an interesting twist.

The reason the obsession love sub-plot works for a thriller is that in the Obsession Love Story, one of the lovers has such a shallow but intoxicating passion for the other that the Life/Death value comes into play. Obsession Love Stories are cautionary tales. They don’t progress beyond the Desire value, and usually end in tragedy. That’s why they are the perfect sub-plot for a Thriller.

Recall that global values for love go from Hate Masquerading as Love > Indifference > Hate > Repulsion > Ignorance > Attraction > Desire > Commitment > Intimacy. Those last two are the endpoints for Courtship (Commitment) and then Marriage (Intimacy).

Each of the love stories do vary along the global value continuum. So in that sense, they all work. The hidden love story between Megan and Tom also works and is hinted at various times (like the first scene in the woods) but it’s never on the screen. I still think it works.

Since the Megan <-> Tom love story is a subplot, it’s not a requirement to have all the conventions and obligatory scenes but it would help if more were on the screen.

For example, lets review the conventions of a lover story which are Lovers meet, First Kiss or Intimate Connection, Confession of love, Lovers break up, Proof of love, and Lovers reunite. For our obsessive love story between Megan and Tom, we don’t see any of these on the screen. It’s implied or rather we make it up in our heads except for the Lovers break up scene, which is when Tom kills Megan — the ultimate breakup and our tragic ending for the Obsession Love Story.

Still, I was not fully satisfied with the Tom/Megan love affair until the Martha and Rachel scene on the train. It starts at 01:19:45 and is when Rachel learns the truth about her husband Tom:

RACHEL: Martha

MARTHA: Rachel? I have not seen you in a million years

RACHEL: Um… Yeah I-I wanted to call you, um, but Tom said I should just leave it alone. I’m so sorry.

MARTHA: For what?

RACHEL: For the barbecue. And I just need you to know that I-I don’t remember anything and, um, I just completely blacked out.

MARTHA: Everyone had a little too much to drink, so it’s okay.

RACHEL: I know, but, uh, with the eggs and then I-I screamed at you. That I was that abusive, I just feel … I just feel so ashamed about it.

MARTHA: Um. I don’t … 

RACHEL: Tom … Tom said that, um … that I smashed your plate. I don’t … Tom was fired .. fired because of how I behaved. 

MARTHA: You felt sick and you took a nap in our guest bedroom. 

[FLASHBACK to that Day]

MARTHA: You want to lie down. Come with me.

RACHEL:  Okay.

MARTHA: Excuse us. Rachel, are you feeling better? You guys can stay tonight if you want.

TOM: No, no. That’s fine, thanks.

MARTHA: Okay. I’d would have remembered if you caused a scene.

RACHEL: I’m so sorry

TOM: Get up

MARTHA: And then Tom took you home.

[FLASHBACK to that Day]

RACHEL: Sorry, Tom …

TOM: Stop fucking saying that! I know you’re sorry!

RACHEL: Sorry

TOM: What’s you fucking problem? Can’t even focus on me. Can’t even fucking stand up! What is wrong with you? Can you stand? Fucking disgusting.

RACHEL: No. No.

MARTHA: Yeah, Tom got fired ’cause he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. You did nothing wrong. Nothing.

This scene is the turning point for me because we now see the Truth Revealed and Rachel learns how her Obsessive Love tendencies got her in trouble, along with being black out drunk of course. This is also the big secrets that lovers keep from each other in that Tom has been gaslighting Rachel their whole relationship. For the Love Story Convention of Secrets, it’s a good one that also reveals Tom as a psychopath. 

For writers, The Girl on the Train does a decent job at developing the Obsessive Love Story subplot. I don’t think the writer could have done more with the Megan <-> Tom love subplot or the twist would have been revealed too early and would have ruined the thrill leading up to the big reveal. Overall, I liked The Girl on the Train. Not as much Gone Girl. I did feel something for the characters and I liked the way the writer put in all the twists and turns.

Anne – Scene types 

I had a tough time getting through this movie. It’s my job to ask myself why in these cases.

First, simply because I have no interest at all in stories about marriage, children, alcoholism, infidelity, infertility, sexual promiscuity, or obsessive love. 

I know, I know, that’s just personal taste, and I only mention it because even the story that meets every requirement of empathy can’t appeal universally to everyone. The best we can aim for in our own writing is to create characters, desires, and journeys that appeal to us and therefore to our target audience. Then we can build empathy for those characters using the tools we’ve got: clear objects of desire, or a clear heroic journey structure, or both.

But I couldn’t find either in this story. No clear objects of desire until too late, and no heroic journey that I could discover at all.

Valerie – You’re right on a couple of points here, Anne. Empathy is definitely subjective and when the topic doesn’t interest someone, it doesn’t interest someone. What Story Grid allows us to do is remove this subjectivity and look for storytelling elements. So, is the heroic journey in place, are the objects of desire in place, does the character have a center of good, and so on. 

I said earlier that Paula Hawkins wrote this as a woman’s story. Not all women have children, or want to have children (even though society assumes we do). Hawkins gave a nod to that with Megan’s story, but the backstory confuses matters, in my opinion anyway. For any woman who does want to have a baby but is unable to, or is having trouble conceiving, Rachel’s story is going to hit home; her heartbreak is their heartbreak.

The interesting thing with The Girl On The Train, is that none of the three point of view characters are particularly likeable. That is, the reader or viewer tends not to have too much sympathy for them. This was a major criticism of the book.

However, in the book at least, empathy is achieved for both Rachel and Anna. Rachel is constantly trying to do the right thing. Her objects of desire and center of good are clear. Anna too inspires empathy. Yes, she whines, but she’s trying to keep her baby safe the only way she knows how. 

Megan’s story evokes a sense of pity, but not so much empathy. And, isn’t it odd that the character that inspires the least emotional attachment is the murder victim?

I’m not saying this story is strong on the empathy scale, but it’s certainly done better in the novel (and this might also be a function of the sub-genre, I don’t know). This is listed as the fastest selling adult book of its time, so something resonated with readers. 

Anne – I know! And from what I understand, that resonance arose from the novelist’s art of going into the thoughts and feelings of the three POV characters–that one thing that a novel can do so well and that movies can’t really do. 

From the movie, I couldn’t identify what the protagonist or the other women wanted or needed until way too late in the story. Even if I were inclined to identify with Rachel’s wants and needs, I was confused before I had the slightest chance of developing empathy.

As to the Heroic Journey, our other source of empathy, it was muddled by the constant breaks in the timeline, the unending voiceovers by different characters, and the obscurity of the flashbacks. Real memory? False memory? How long ago? Who is remembering?

In that environment, was there anything remotely like the call to adventure? I couldn’t sense it, though Valerie has done great work teasing it out. With no call to adventure, there’s no apparent refusal of the call, no crossing the threshold, no clear Ordeal, and so on around the heroic cycle. If we need either clear wants and needs or a clear Heroic Journey to generate empathy, then it’s no wonder that I couldn’t engage with the protagonist, because I couldn’t find either thing.

Sometimes a story offers a kind of meta-empathy. Jupiter Ascending was like this for me: the filmmakers were aiming at big ideas I found resonant, and I felt an overall empathy towards the story itself because, if you will, it was trying so earnestly for something it couldn’t attain.

But this thing? It felt actively harmful to me, a story without even any cautionary value to women. 

Jarie – I think the cautionary tale is don’t drink to deal with your sorrows. Rachel is a not as messed up Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas. I felt for her in that regard and it did make it more interesting to me. If she was sober, the story would not have worked at all.

Anne – Her drunkenness helps explain her memory loss, and memory loss is key to this story. But “Don’t drink to deal with your sorrows” as a cautionary message? How about “Don’t abuse and murder women”? How about “Don’t gaslight your grieving wife”? How about “Get help for your sex addiction and your anger issues”? I mean, there are plenty of “life lessons” here that have little to do with the protagonist and her journey from grief to obsession to murder.

Jarie – True enough. The scene where we see Tom’s true self has all of what you mentioned and was the point in the story where I started to wonder about Tom. I felt more empathy for Rachel then knowing that she was abused.

ANNE – Look, I’m definitely not the empathy expert here–not on the Roundtable and not in real life–so I should move on to the interesting thing I did find in this film: scene types!

Put as simply as possible, scene types can be categorized by how many characters are in the scene, doing what, in what kind of surroundings. 

You can then break the categories down further by what the characters are intending, facing, avoiding–that is, how and why they find themselves in a given situation.

Valerie and I have begun a series of articles on scene types, and scene types are the basis of my work with Shawn in The Masterwork Experiment on the Story Grid podcast.

Once you begin to see the scene types, you realize that there’s no such thing as a wholly original one. Innovation can really only come from two sources:

  1. Unexpected blends of scene type and the story type–for example, the big family dinner table scene type in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the foods are horrifying; or 
  2. Modernizing old forms with new technology–so, for instance, an epistolary scene involving text messages rather than actual letters.

One of Valerie’s great discoveries is that if you want to slow down the narrative drive and create reader boredom, all you have to do is repeat the same scene type two or three times in a row.

And that’s what happens in The Girl On The Train. As I run down this list of the scenes or beats in the middle build, just let associations with other films and books wash over you. I suspect you’ll recognize them all.

Sixty five percent of this film’s middle build consists of repetitive two-person confrontations or confessions in which a truth is revealed, or else epistolary or voiceover exposition. 

Now, a certain number of patient-and-therapist confession scenes make sense in a psychological thriller. A 12-step meeting scene makes sense in a story about an addict (though Chuck Pahlaniuk set the bar for innovating that scene type 23 years ago in Fight Club, and if you can’t top that, why bother?). Naturally every story is likely to have two person conversations in a room. And a worldview revelation story does depend on progressive revelations leading up to the big one.

So the problem is not that the 37 scenes I just categorized are inherently wrong, or even that we can see clichés in some of them. 

The problem is the uncreative, repetitive, re-re-re-use of the same scene types. Over and over and over. How is “two people in a room confronting each other” time after time escalating the stakes or the tension? It isn’t. All they can do is swear more or throw things harder. Is there another way for the truth to come out? Another form of confrontation besides talking? 

If a familiar object must trigger a flashback in one scene, is there a different way to trigger the next one? 

So what’s my takeaway for writers? We are very far from having all the answers, but here’s a place to start:

Add a Scene Type column to your spreadsheet and comb through your draft for repeats. 

If you have several two person conversations, move some of them to a car, or outdoors, or during a walk or a run. Have two people talking in a box, with a fox, here or there, anywhere, in the dark, at the park, in the rain, on a train. 

Change it up

And not arbitrarily. Restaurants signify something different from coffeeshops, which don’t mean the same thing as bars. A fancy eatery is different from the local diner, and a dive bar is different from a swanky cocktail lounge. Your scene type choices should reveal character, generate conflict, and pit characters against each other in organic, revelatory ways, for story-related reasons.

Even if your story has a Worldview revelation plot where the gradual reveal of the whole truth is the middle build, find other ways to reveal those truths besides just two people in a room confronting each other in a room. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’m grateful to this film only because it has helped us all land on “cuttlefish” as a term for the anti-red-herring. And because it has given us fodder for more scene type work, which I’m looking forward to doing.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Rich Mansfield. Here’s his question.

I’m stuck! The genre I really want to write is the opposite of dystopian. 

Is no one interested any more in Utopian novels like Looking Backward and Walden Two? 

To quote you in “Which Genre am I Writing In”: 

“Our choice of genre dictates the value at stake, the core emotion and core event, the protagonist’s objects of desire, the obligatory scenes and conventions, and even the theme.”

When I started, I thought it was going to be a thriller about violence in South Chicago, but what I really want to do is deal with ways to end that violence. That led to too many ideas for a thriller, seems to me, although the dialogue my characters have are, I think, engaging and full of enough conflict to maintain interest.

Any ideas as to why there’s this gap in genres? Any suggestions for obligatory scenes and conventions, etc?

Kim: Hi Rich, thanks for your question. Like Fantasy or Science Fiction, Utopia and Dystopia are part of the Reality Genre leaf which informs the governing rules of the story world rather than the Content Genre leaf which as you mentioned informs the life values, core event, etc. 

If we look closer at the Reality Leaf, we see that it breaks down into four categories. 

  • Factualism – based on factual events in the past
  • Realism – governed by rules of the known universe, so it’s possible that it could happen.
  • Absurdism – there are not rules and/or the rules change, which means there are no rules. 
  • Fantasy – governed by rules, but not those of the known universe. Requires credible worldbuilding to inform the reader about the rules and should be consistent with established governing rules. Shawn breaks down into three additional subtypes: Human, Magic, Science Fiction

Under the Reality>Fantasy>Science Fiction genre, Shawn lists several subsets:

  • Alternative History
  • Cyberpunk
  • Hard Science
  • Military
  • Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian
  • Romantic
  • Soft Science
  • Space Opera

So it seems to me that Utopia would fit as another subset of this kind of speculative fiction, similar to Alternate History. Utopia seems to embody a fantasy reality of the way society functions. 

Having a Utopian could lend itself to any number of Content Genres. The two novels you cited are referred to as “a novel of ideas” which feel more like Big Idea Fiction and would likely be a Global Internal Worldview genre paired with external Society genre, where the entire novel serves as the “visionary speech” solution to the crime of injustice of inequality. Beware a novel like this suffering from a lack of conflict and plot, which would keep it from feeling like a story. 

My recommendation at this point is to find five examples of stories like this and study them closely. Complete the Editor’s Six Core Questions and then identify the 15 Core Scenes to help you identify the Life Values at Stake. From here you can dig deeper into common elements that exist across the stories (conventions and obligatory scenes), and from there, extrapolate constraints for yourself to outline/draft a story, similar to what Anne and Shawn are doing in the Masterwork Experiment with Brokeback Mountain. 

We all agree that constraints are the key to enhanced creativity. 

Good Luck!

 If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Join us next time as Jarie delves into Crazy Rich Asians as an example of a modern love story. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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