This week we’re studying the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain (HATMOV) scene from Paula Hawkins’s 2015 novel, The Girl On The Train.
We’re focusing on scenes this season because scenes are the basic building blocks of story. To be able to write a story that works, you must be able to write a scene that works. And we’re using stories that already appear somewhere in the Story Grid Universe. The story we’re discussing today was discussed in an episode of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable. (You can find that episode here.) Of course, we have some new insights, specifically about the Core Event scene, so don’t worry that you’ll have heard it all before.
GENRE AND THREE-ACT SUMMARY
This is a psychological thriller story, and here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary. Full disclosure, I’ve taken this summary from the Roundtable episode we did on the film version of this novel. This past week, Leslie and I were in eight full days of Story Grid training, so there wasn’t time to reread the novel.
- Beginning Hook – 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 must decide whether to go to the police, leave the situation alone, or 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 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 who 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.
The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene is told from two points of view on Sunday, August 18, 2013. It begins in Rachel’s point of view with the line I’m not really sure what to do, so I just ring the doorbell, and twice flips into Anna’s POV. There are two flashbacks to Megan’s POV, and while they provide information about the crime, I’m not including them as part of this study. For those who have watched the film, the movie version of this scene follows Hawkins’s writing closely.
Also, for those who want a deeper dive into the story, click here for the Story Grid Editor Roundtable episode discussing the film.
ANALYZING THE SCENE
Editor’s Scene Type: What function does this scene serve in the story? Core Event of the Thriller Story: Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene
Writer’s Scene Type: What kind of scene is this? Psychological Tug-of-War. Anna is undecided and both Rachel and Tom are trying to sway her to their POV.
What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole? It’s the core event of the novel, but it also serves as a resolution in many ways.
How many people are in the scene? Four: Rachel, Anna, Evie, Tom
Where does the scene take place (location)? Inside and outside Anna and Tom’s house
What is the power dynamic at play in this scene? First Anna, then Tom and finally Rachel (when she gets the corkscrew).
- What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire? Initially, Rachel wants Anna to take Evie and escape, but Anna doesn’t want to. Once Tom arrives on the scene, physical conflict enters the scene. Rachel and Tom have clear, unchanging objects of desire. Anna’s are uncertain, which is part of what gives rise to her crisis question, and why she’s the character with the crisis.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Grid Scene Analysis Questions
1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-surface actions?
Two-person and three-person conversations in and around Anna and Tom’s house.
2. What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?
Rachel wants to convince Anna of the truth about Tom and convince her to get to safety.
Anna wants to ignore the truth. She’s willing to let things go, until she realizes that she and Evie will not be safe.
Tom wants to maintain control of the situation. As Rachel concludes, he’s lying to himself as much as he is to Rachel, and in his mind, these women are causing him big, big problems. Rachel cannot live because she knows he killed Megan.
3. What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
There is a lot going on in these passages, and it would be interesting to track all the micro shifts that happen, especially if you’re writing a Thriller of any kind. The micro work is excellent. But for our purposes of basic scene analysis we focus on the global value spectrum, particularly because this is the core event. In a Thriller the universal human value at stake is Life, so we track movement along a spectrum that runs from Damnation (at the negation of the negation) to Death (negative value) to life (positive value). Let’s track those values. Tom moves from life to death, Anna moves from life threatened to safe, Rachel moves from life threatened to life.
4. What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
Rachel goes to Anna’s home to try to enlighten her to the truth about Tom and get Anna and Evie to escape to safety, but Tom shows up, and attacks Rachel, who musters the courage to release her shadow agent, to save herself, Anna, Evie, and any other woman who might have come into contact with Tom in the future.
Story Grid Five Commandment Analysis
Inciting Incident: Rachel arrives at Anna’s and tells Anna that they have to leave.
- It’s Sunday morning, and social etiquette dictates that it’s not polite to show up unannounced.
- Anna hates Rachel.
- Rachel hasn’t exactly behaved well in the past; drunken calls, in-person confrontations and attempting to kidnap Evie.
- Rachel is an alcoholic and has erratic behaviour; Anna isn’t sure how to react to her. She claims to not have heard the doorbell.
- Anna refuses to go with Rachel.
- Evie is squirming.
- Tom has taken the gym bag with him; Anna isn’t sure whether he’s discovered that the phone is missing.
- Someone might find the phone that Anna tossed away.
- Anna isn’t sure she should have tossed the phone away.
- Rachel makes Anna realize that neither of them knows anything about Tom’s life, or who he really is.
- Anna doesn’t believe Rachel at first.
- Anna has been refusing to consider what the mobile phone in Tom’s gym bag could really mean.
- Rachel knows that Tom and Megan had an affair.
- Rachel claims that Tom killed Megan, Anna refuses to believe it.
- Anna confesses to hating the trains, Rachel points out Tom’s lie about that.
- Time is passing. The longer Anna delays responding to Rachel’s request to leave, the more chance there is that Tom will return.
- Rachel suggests that Megan’s baby was Tom’s.
- Anna can’t stand it when Rachel touches her.
- Rachel explains what happened the night she saw Tom with Megan and Anna can’t deny the truth of that to herself.
- Rachel suggests calling the police.
- Anna begins to go into shock as she realizes the truth of what Rachel is saying.
- Tom comes back home.
- Anna greets Tom with a warm welcome home.
- Tom sees Rachel in his home.
- Rachel tells Tom that she knows he killed Megan.
- Anna learns that Rachel had been unsure about who got into the car with Tom.
Turning Point Progressive Complication: Anna tells Tom that she found the phone he used to call Megan.
Crisis – Anna’s: Will Anna side with Tom or Rachel?
Climax: Anna sides with Rachel.
Resolution: Anna calls the police and Rachel kills Tom in self-defence.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SCENE?
Unreliable Narrators: This scene presents a classic example of an unreliable narrator. This is an important element of a Thriller–because forces of antagonism are complex and the protagonist struggles to understand where the threats really come from. But any first-person narrator is unreliable to the extent of what they can know or perceive but also in a what they want. Any narrator chooses what to reveal and not based on what they hope to gain, for good or ill.
Great Scene for Studying Beats: There are lots of interesting beat types, for example, sizing up the threat, weighing options, etc., within the larger “Tug of War” scene type.
Story units, beats or individual scenes? Writer shifts perspective during a scene that lasts all day. There are perceivable shifts within the scene, but these are mainly changes in tactics. Anna doesn’t commit to the truth until the end, so the central question of the scene and story is not resolved until then. The true story about Megan’s death doesn’t come out, and they won’t survive, if Rachel and Anna don’t both express their gifts. Anna must accept the truth, and Rachel must release her shadow to kill Tom.
The last installment of this scene, from Rachel’s point of view, is particularly good because we see all of Tom’s usual tactics on display. He’s trying every trick he can to maintain control of the situation.
Shifting POV Impact on Narrative Drive: It’s hard to talk about this scene without mentioning the shifting points of view and the impact it has on the story as a whole. For example, even though Rachel is clearly the protagonist of this novel, Anna has the crisis of the HATMOV scene. In my opinion, this heightens the tension—and therefore the narrative drive—of the scene as a whole.
Although we see Anna’s POV throughout the novel, it’s primarily focused on Rachel and what an irritant she is. Anna’s not wrong. Rachel did try to kidnap her child, she is an alcoholic, and she is stalking Tom and making their lives miserable generally. Likewise, we know from Rachel that Anna is “morally flexible” (as Saul Goodman would say); she’s the woman Tom had an affair with. She’s like Tom. As a result, it’s not clear which option Anna will choose in the crisis.
Most of this scene is from Rachel’s POV, so we can’t hear Anna’s thought process. Is she appeasing Tom to keep him from becoming violent? Is she biding her time until she can safely call the police? Is she weighing her options?
Scene Length: This is a really long scene, interrupted twice by flashbacks to Megan’s story and twice by portions from Anna’s point of view. This is the core event of the story. Everything has been building to this point where we see Rachel finally faceoff with Tom, and yet, we’re pulled away from Rachel’s POV four times. In my version of the book, this scene takes 41 pages to tell. Twenty-three of those pages are Anna’s and Megan’s POVs.
This is an advanced storytelling technique. Yes, this is Hawkins’s first thriller, but it’s not her first novel and she had years of journalism experience before becoming a fiction writer. So she brought considerable storytelling skill to the table.
How did Hawkins manage to pull this off?
The short answer is that she spends the entire novel setting this scene up. As readers, we’re familiar with both Anna and Megan; we’re used to their points of view, so hearing their voices isn’t a sudden or jarring interruption. The two entries from Megan’s story answer questions we’ve been asking ourselves all along—even if we guessed whodunit, we’re still wondering how it happened. This scene is right at the end of the novel, so loose threads are being tied, and the story is resolving. (In fact there’s only five more pages of the novel after this.)
Since this scene is serving as the resolution to the story, we need Megan’s storyline to resolve so we can forgive the interruption.
Anna’s segments serve to heighten the tension dramatically. By this time, the central dramatic question of the novel (Is Rachel sane or not?) has been answered. We know she’s trying to do the right thing and is trying to protect Anna and Evie. What we don’t know is where Anna’s allegiance lies. That’s the main question driving these final pages of the book.
Leslie: I want to emphasize the importance of slowing down and studying your masterwork carefully. Read it closely, reread it multiple times. The things that make this scene great appear to be what’s on the surface, but when you get into the layers beneath the surface, you’ll see that’s what’s really driving the emotions the reader feels. It’s like walking down the street versus driving. Going slowly, you notice the details. You don’t have to do that with every story, but take the time to do it for your masterwork, and it will pay huge dividends.
Valerie: For me, this is a prime example of what a writer can do when they understand story and storytelling principles. So often we get questions about “can I do this, or can I do that” and honestly, those are the wrong questions. What we need to be asking ourselves is, “How do these tools in our writer’s toolbox work?”. Once we know that, and we’ve practiced using them, we’ll be able to write any story that we want.