Warning: This post contains spoilers about The Girl on the Train. Don’t read if you don’t want to know!
Unreliable narrators continue to be on a roll. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train continues to lead bestseller lists five months after publication, and the just-published Luckiest Girl Alive is being called its follow-up due to its unreliable narrator. Manuscripts I’m reading at the agency I work for are full of them.
In February, I wrote a blog post on unreliable narrators that gave writers guidelines on how to tell whether their story’s unreliable narrator works. After reading The Girl on the Train several times along with several more manuscripts using unreliable narrators, there are a couple more points I’d like to make.
An unreliable narrator is not unreliable if she tells the reader she can’t remember whether or not she committed the act. Hawkins’ Rachel is not considered unreliable because she’s a drunk who thinks she might have murdered Megan. She’s an unreliable narrator because she doesn’t immediately tell the reader that she’s lost her job, that she’s not on the train because of her work commute but because she’s lying to her roommate about being unemployed, and because she doesn’t tell the reader she’s a drunk. Once she puts her cards on the table with the reader – and I believe it’s fairly early on in the narrative – she is no longer an unreliable narrator.
Most new writers playing with this gimmick are straightforward with the reader. Their protagonist doesn’t know what she did because she was drunk, or knocked out, or she sleepwalks and wakes up to find blood all over her hands. A confused narrator is not an unreliable one. When the protagonist tells the reader everything she knows, she’s as reliable as she can be.
If you want your story to have an unreliable narrator, you must have her lie to your readers. Forget the dreams or the reincarnation fantasies or hypnosis stuff. She’s a liar, plain and simple. She cries to the reader about her divorce; it’s her husband who reveals in dialogue how she cheated on him with the entire New York Giants offensive line.
Stories with unreliable narrators are almost always mysteries, and the manuscripts I read that feature them are always overpopulated with possible suspects. Readers have trouble keeping track of who’s who and what their motives are. What’s worse, with so many possible suspects, the killer almost always stands out.
Hawkins avoids this by having very few characters in her novel. There’s Rachel, her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Anna, the dead girl Megan’s husband, Megan’s therapist/would-be lover, and Rachel’s roommate. That’s pretty much it. Since the book is also told from Anna and Megan’s points of view, there’s an additional finger of blame pointed at Rachel. Rachel thinks she may have killed Megan and Anna is certain she did it. The reader thinks Rachel may have done it, but there’s also the possibility that either Megan’s therapist or her husband was the killer. While the reader is wondering whether Rachel could be the killer, Hawkins casually drops all the information needed to figure out the real murderer: Tom and Megan are both cheaters. Megan once babysat for Tom and Anna. Paying attention to these details, it’s obvious what happened.
The real unreliable narrator wasn’t drunken, jilted Rachel. It was stupid Megan, who doesn’t let on that Tom was her lover until it was too late.