The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)

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1. What is the genre?

Global — Thriller > Psychological

Secondary — Worldview > Revelation

2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the genre?


The atmosphere is portrayed in considerable detail, becoming alive and immediately threatening: The story opens up with in unknown narrator talking about “her” who is buried by the train tracks, which then transitions into someone’s mouth full of blood and somebody saying “now look what you made me do.” This scene acts as a prelude to the story before RACHEL, the protagonist of the story who watches things outside the train window, begins her story; she talks about how she picks up on details, most of them abandoned and grungy—creating a clear tone of loneliness, destruction, and death.

MacGuffin (This is the Villain’s Object of Desire, what he or she wants): Tom is the main antagonist of the story. His MacGuffin is for those in his company to adore him. He desires power and ultimately, to get away with murder. He often shines light on this MacGuffin through his inflated perspective of his desirableness and self-worth and importance in his relationships. 

Inciting crime must contain a clue: Tom is the one who says “look what you made me do,” which we hear at the end of the middle build, but with no names we only know that this murderer thinks that the person he is killing “made” him kill him/her—i.e. his delusional perspective and need to get away with murder.

Making it Personal (The Villain needs the Hero to get the MacGuffin and thus must victimize the Hero to get what he or she wants):  Rachel constantly gets in the way of discovering and exposing Tom as Megan’s murderer. He uses her black outs to manipulate her into thinking that she is the delusional one—the one who is making things up and the core of everyone’s problems. In reality Tom is, although Rachel can be a burden to some of her relationships.

Clock (There is a limited time for the Hero to act; failing to act burns precious time): I think this could have been better defined in the book, but looking at the story, I’d see the “clock” of the story being Rachel’s ability to figure out Megan’s murderer before Tom kills her—or before Riley charges Rachel, a likely suspect, of Megan’s murder (on the thought that Rachel, drunk, took Megan for Anna). Or, before the police arrest Scott.  

The protagonist actively investigates and chases clues: Rachel pursues leads on Megan’s disappearance. She is unreliable because she’s an alcoholic and was drunk/black out for some of the night Megan was on the case, but she becomes a key to figuring out the truth behind Megan’s disappearance. She follows leads like memories that she recalls about seeing Anna walking away from her in the underpass, and she makes up lies about her relationship with Megan in order to build a relationship with Scott. (She makes up a false reason to see Dr. Abdic, too.) Red herrings are placed with people like the red-haired man, Megan’s therapist, Abdic, and Scott’s violent behavior. 

Lives depend on the protagonist defeating the antagonist: Anna’s life and her daughter Evie’s life are called into danger once Rachel realizes Tom is the killer, Scott’s “free” life is dependent on the discovery of a murder conviction that is not him: for a good chunk of time we think Megan is missing rather than dead, Kamal Abdic’s professional life is on the hinge, and Rachel’s life is in danger, especially after she discovers Tom is the murderer.

The story contains elements of suspense: The reader never knows anything more about Megan’s murderer than Rachel (or Anna), holding back names of the men Megan is having an affair (other than Abdic). Rachel is unreliable, which amplifies the suspense, and as she unravels clues that get her closer to the antagonist’s big reveal, we start doubting, just like she does, if characters like Abdic or Scott or Anna—or Tom—are the reason Megan is dead.

The antagonist can’t be reasoned with: Tom is intent on destruction and power. He doesn’t care about harming anyone who threatens his reputation and social desirability, and he is so delusional in this objective that he believes Megan and Rachel “made” him kill Megan. This makes him wildly dangerous and extremely unlikeable. We want Rachel to take him out in the end, and cheer when Anna twists the corkscrew deeper into her husband’s neck.  

There is a Speech in Praise of the Villain: Hmm, I’m not sure if I’m finding this in GOTT—could this be how Megan’s death is described. How the murderer was able to kill her without any clear trace of the culprit? I feel like throughout the novel, Rachel emphasizes how Abdic must be the killer because of *insert reasons here* and then switches to thinking it is Scott, before Tom. Once she realizes the murderer is Tom, she begs Anna to leave and get away before Tom “comes back.”

The protagonist is the final victim: Rachel is trapped, ironically, in the house she lived in when married to Tom—Tom and Anna’s current living residence. He holds her hostage as he debates what he wants to do with her before he brutally attacks her, including throwing a beer bottle that smashes against the back of her head.

There is a clear threat of escalating danger: Danger only gets more serious the closer Rachel comes to discovering the truth. First, we (like Rachel) think it’s Abdic, and Rachel puts herself in his presence by choice out of some misconstrued martyristic motive to save Scott. But when Scott turns violent and Rachel thinks Scott could be Megan’s killer, danger consumes Rachel’s actions. Also, Rachel’s bind to alcohol and her depleting relationship with her roommate and only (it seems) friend Kathy threaten her place financially and residentially. When Tom gets wind of her extensive knowledge—of her place in the chaos that ensued the night Megan disappeared—this is the real threat. Tom shows up more often, each time manipulating Rachel, twisting her between security and a façade of affection to violence and ultimately a whiff of death.

There is at least one shapeshifter or hypocrite character: Tom is a shapeshifter and hypocrite; he plays the role of loving husband to violent—potentially insane—murderer. And a wild compulsive liar. Anna could also be argued as a shapeshifter, since she changes from enemy for ally to Rachel in Tom’s final moments. In a prescriptive Thriller, the antagonist must be brought to justice. In a cautionary Thriller, injustice prevails: Prescriptive story; Tom is killed in the end; Rachel kills him in “self-defense” and Anna tells the police she tried to “save him”—in reality, she twists the corkscrew deeper into Tom’s neck to “make sure” he is dead (justice!).

Obligatory Scenes

An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. There must be victims: There’s a dead body that is left unidentified in the first paragraph of the book, and the second one follows with what seems to be a crime scene. (Is this person killed? It seems so?) Later, we see Megan having an affair, but it’s not until Megan disappears that the paragraph portraying the crime scene resurfaces.

Clear “point of no return”: When Rachel tells Gatskill and Riley that she saw Megan committing an affair.

Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails: Rachel tries to trap Abdic in a web, but he’s released since she is an unreliable source—and to make things worse, Scott finds out, staining her relationship with him.

Protagonist discovers and understands the antagonist’s external object of desire: Rachel learns that Tom is trying to cover up his tracks when her memory lost from her black out returns: she remembers seeing Megan getting in a car with Tom in the underpass. This becomes clearer since she also recently recalled a memory that it wasn’t Rachel who swung the golf club at Tom’s head (when they were married), but the reverse. Tom’s lies start coming out.  

Protagonist becomes the villain: Rachel is trapped in Tom and Anna’s house when he returns home, catching Rachel talking to Anna. The truth comes out, and Rachel is held hostage until Tom decides what he wants to do with her.

Hero is at the mercy of the villain: Rachel is bloody and held against her will. She waits, sitting in a chair, debating if she can make it out the front door before he catches her. She can’t, and violence and danger grow. This leads to her fighting back, using his ego against him, and bolting out the back door, where he drags her kicking and screaming, until she kills him. False ending: Rachel kills Tom. It’s not until the last scene that we learn that Rachel and Anna lie to the police about what really happened—that the ladies, together, hold true to these lies: that Rachel killed Tom in self-defense and Anna did her best to try and save him. But in reality, we learn Anna twists the corkscrew deeper into Tom’s neck to make sure that he is dead, all while whispering something to him. Anna leaves the police with what Rachel feels is a threat: she warns Rachel that neither of them must ever go back on their lies, that they are tethered together by their story.  

Learn more about obligatory scenes and conventions.

3. What is the point of view?

Multi—each first person limited. Rachel, the protagonist, Megan, and Anna.

Learn more about point of view.

4. What are the objects of desire?

External/Conscious: safety and self-worth—Rachel wants to save Megan (and Scott, in a way) and eventually save her own life (and Anna’s). Anna wants to be left alone. Megan’s story is more internally driven with her want, since she wants to be able to move on from the memory of her accidental killing of her newborn daughter. (Rachel has other wants in the story including a baby, Tom, and to be helpful in some way.)

Internal/Subconscious: redemption and to self-respect that can allow her to “move on”—Rachel wants to redeem herself form her alcoholic lifestyle that harms those she cares about. She never feels “bad enough” because she can’t remember what she is told are the worst of her actions, so she seeks punishment on a conscious level, but what she really needs is forgiveness and peace from herself for her past actions. 

Learn more about objects of desire.

5. What is the controlling idea / theme?

Life is preserved when the protagonist releases her special gift.

Learn more about controlling ideas.

6. What is the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff?

Rachel Watson spends her days traveling on the train back and forth to London, a routine she follows after she was fired for showing up drunk; she observes and fantasizes about the lives of others—dreaming of perfect couples that are much happier than she, divorced and broken—including a particular couple she names “Jess and Jason.”

But when the woman Rachel likes to watch, and who is really named Megan, goes missing, Rachel gets involved in her disappearance. Rachel shares evidence with the police that she saw Megan having an affair, which Rachel saw the day before Megan’s disappearance. And when the police dub Rachel an “unreliable source” because of her drinking problem, both Rachel’s past and present with her ex-husband Tom are twisted in a dangerous and terrifying way.

Megan’s dead body washes up, and some of Rachel’s blacked out memories return: Rachel remembers her ex-husband Tom with Megan on the night of her disappearance. In a thrilling finale, Rachel’s familiarity with the location of items in her old house become tools that save her: she kills Tom with a corkscrew she kept in a drawer, and Anna—Tom’s new wife and the woman he cheated on Rachel with—twists it further into Tom’s neck. Rachel knows she and her baby will never be safe while Tom alive, and so the story ends with Rachel and Anna, enemies for the story, tethered together by their lie about how Tom died.

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About the Author

Abigail Perry is a Certified Story Grid Editor with professional teaching, literary agency, and film production experience. In addition to writing Story Grid masterwork guides, she works as a freelance editor and is the Content Editor for The Write Practice. Abigail loves stories that put women and diverse groups at the center of the story—and others that include superpowers and magic. Her favorite genres include: Smart Book Club Fiction, Women's Fiction, YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and unique memoirs. She also has a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film and loves working on screenplays that are emotionally driven and/or full of action. You can learn more about Abigail on her website.
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