The Girl on The Train & Two Critical Elements of ALL Great Stories


There are two essential components all great writers possess and unfortunately these are highly unnatural abilities. Most of us have to hone and refine and strengthen these skills because they are so counter to human nature. First, most humans run from conflict. Great writers go straight for it. Secondly, most humans really don’t pay attention to or explore the motivations of others. Great writers master what makes other people tick.


We humans are hardwired to avoid conflict and that makes sense. Wandering around in the brush gathering berries, fruits and small game left one exposed and vulnerable. For our ancient ancestors? Every day the goal of “not dying” was preeminent among the Things To Do. But the problem is this. Just because we now have high-rises, smart cars and Facebook, it doesn’t mean that our biology has caught up.

It’s why modern humans are struggling with so many neuroses and stress illnesses. We are wearing out our fight or flight mechanisms because the body cannot tell the difference between outrunning an angry bear or taking on a Facebook troll.

Rejection very literally meant death for thousands of years. We had to have the safety of a tribe to keep us fed and safe. Isolation was a death sentence.

So fast-forward to modern times and there is always this every-present voice to keep the peace. To not make waves. Problem is? Fiction is the wave-making business.

Understanding Other Humans

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of DualD Flip Flop

Most people operate from a perspective that is highly self-centered. I am not meaning this to be disparaging, but we do. If someone won’t talk to us or avoids us, we often assume that person is mad at us. This goes back to that fear of rejection thing. Another human avoiding us is less often about them and more about us.

What did I do? Did I say something wrong? Why doesn’t she like me?

It is a rare person who automatically thinks, “Wow, I bet that person is very shy.”

Whenever we encounter those who are naturally gifted authors, I believe it has less to do with the ability to write, to string words and lovely prose together. It is more that those folks naturally dive headfirst into conflict without hesitation. They also are acutely aware of the goals, conflicts and motivations of others.

The rest of us? We simply have to train these.

How Conflict is Birthed from Understanding Weakness

I do a lot of editing and very often it’s the work of new writers. As I read pages I often can see this is a person who likely made As in English (only college was not training us to write commercial fiction).

On the surface there is nothing wrong…except that everything is surface. Too often new writers are far too nice. They hesitate to exact authentic suffering and instead settle for a shill…the bad situation.

Bad situations don’t say anything about who we are. It highlights nothing about our failings as people, about our flaws. Anyone can be attacked by a band of blood-thirsty marauders, get caught in a hurricane, singed by a dragon or attacked in an alley. This is all external and says absolutely nothing about people, about who these characters are. Because it’s surface. The bad situation alone is not enough.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 10.42.10 AM

I love this meme because this literally says it all. When we are new, however, we are very uncomfortable with bad decisions. Truly bad decisions. Often our first novels are more of a holodeck for us to play out how our world should have turned out, starring the person we always wanted to be. Dialogue often sounds like eavesdropping on a child playing alone.

I call this Literary Barbie Syndrome (or Literary G.I. Joe Syndrome for the guys 😉 ).

Literally, nothing is happening. Oh characters might bitch at each other and come across as needing a Xanax or three. The girls might want to fall in love or go to the dance. The guys race off for another space battle Pew! Pew! But deep down? Nothing.

And much of this has to do with our fear of acknowledging weakness, because we worry it might be seen as our weakness. It is still a self-protection mechanism for what others might think of us should they read our book.

We must learn to separate from that. Writers create all kinds of characters who are NOT us and if others don’t get that? Meh. Let them wonder.

Great writers understand people other than themselves, then use the power of empathy to crawl into that world and crack it open to the light.

Case In Point


Right now I am reading The Girl on the Train. Talk about conflict and human weakness!

The protagonist is a raging alcoholic. She is bitter and angry and self-destructive. She drinks until she blacks out and that creates problems…BIG problems. Then she lies to cover up her failures. She is conflicted—the person she is trying to be (sober) versus the person she ends up being despite her best efforts (drunk).

She has very sympathetic reasons for why she is that way and this is what terrifies the reader. Because the way it is written, we all take a breath and know that under the right circumstances, that could be us. Strip enough of us away, lay our world in ruins and we, too might be that drunk asleep on a park bench. Good fiction draws us in because it promises to show us what terrifies us.

Rachels’ flaws shine a light on the dark places of US, the places we fear to go, the places we fear we could go.

But this is also why we root for her. We want her to win. We want her to be sober because if there is hope for her, there is hope for us.

Rachel isn’t some caricature caught up in a bad event (a woman’s disappearance), she is a horribly flawed and broken character whose redemption is being offered through this bad event (core story problem). Thus every setback she encounters is inextricably tied to her path from perdition to salvation.

Yet, what if the author Paula Hawkins worried that people might believe she was a closet drunk if she wrote a character like Rachel? That the vomiting on the stairs and waking up in urine-soaked clothes was some fictionalized version of her real life? And maybe some people do wonder that but thing is? Ms. Hawkins clearly didn’t care.

She wrote for maximum conflict and created raw and riveting characters who are profoundly flawed, thus immensely vulnerable which makes for a story that will last generations.

I understand that not all fiction is gritty like Girl on a Train, but this works for other genres as well. Helen Fielding’s romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. Michael Connelly’s crime fiction The Lincoln Lawyer. Some other books that do this well? Big, Little Lies and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (women’s fiction). Rebecca Well’s The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.  All of these authors excel at conflict and exploring human weakness/strength and what motivates us all. To read their books is to look deeply inward and see ourselves and that is the heart of great fiction.

What are your thoughts? Do you have to go back and remind yourself to be harder on your characters? I certainly do. Do you struggle making them flawed? Do you worry that the flaws you put in your work might reflect on you? Hey, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t freak me out. What are some works of fiction that really drew you in and why? Do you now laugh at your First Holodeck Novel? Man, mine cracks me up. What was I thinking? Hey, we all start somewhere 😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter TONIGHT! I have also included new times to accommodate the UK and Australia/NZ folks! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes


FRIDAY October 14th Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?


Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

FRIDAY October 21st Your Story in a Sentence–Crafting Your Log-Line

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

Those who miss being in the first ten will get a deeply discounted workshop rate if they would like their log-line showroom ready.

SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

This class is going to cover:

  • How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
  • What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
  • How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
  • What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
  • How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
  • How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
  • How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
  • How can a blog help you sell more books?
  • How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.

Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook



5 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. Reblogged this on authorkdrose.

    • lanettekauten2016 on September 30, 2016 at 10:13 am
    • Reply

    It amazes me the reviews I’ve gotten in which people say they don’t like my main character because she makes bad decisions. I get that the bad decisions hurt a feeble-minded man that everyone wants to coddle and take home with them in their pocket, but I’ve always believed bad decisions make for great books. Some readers are fickle.

    1. Can’t please everyone. Remind me I said that when my book comes out, LOL.

    2. I agree that always-great decisions make for boring reading. I haven’t read your work, obviously, but for me, as a reader… I’m ok with poor decisions, but I’ve really got to know why they’re happening. Meaning, no “too stupid to live” type decision making, and no “well, you could have just asked”.

      For example, in one of the Outlander books (I think “Drums of Autumn” but it’s been a while), Jamie makes an incredibly stupid decision that results in horrible situations all around. It nearly made me toss the book away, I was so annoyed. And I *love* the Outlander books. The thing that ticked me off so much though, was that if Jamie, Claire and Bree had just freaking asked questions and communicated about two seconds worth of information, none of it would have happened. None of them verified any important information with the other until well after the disaster unfolded. Stupid. And none of them are supposed to be stupid people, so it felt like they were being forced to be stupid in order to have the plot unfold “correctly.”

      So I guess, for me… if the character is set up to be somewhat naive and idiotic, then yeah, I will let her get away with being an idiot. (Hi, Bridget Jones!). But if a character is written as fairly intelligent and good at reading situations, then to have that character suddenly unable to see the most obvious problems in what they’re doing… makes me want to throw a book across the room.

        • lanettekauten2016 on September 30, 2016 at 4:16 pm
        • Reply

        I agree. To me, one of the worst plot devices is one that can be resolved by simply asking a question. I understand that at times people can misunderstand what has been said or done, which can create tension in real life, but I once critiqued a romance with an entire premise that hinged on a wife running away because a woman she didn’t trust lied to her about her husband. When the husband found her, she refused to tell him why she left because it hurt so much, then she ran off again barefoot and sliced her foot. When he tried to help her, she pounded on his chest and yelled at him to leave him alone. I stopped critiquing at that point. I just couldn’t…

        1. Yeah… that does not sound like a woman I’d like to spend any time reading about. I’d be demanding that the hero in that story dump her ass and tell her to get into therapy. Real consequences.

          But I’d bet the writer ended up with them together without any loss on the heroine’s part. Sounds like a “wall-banger” book to me… LOL

    3. Don’t let it bother you, Lanette. Not everyone’s going to like our book. I, for one, hated “Girl on a Train.” I’m definitely in the minority.

  2. “If I don’t read Kristen’s awesome blog, I won’t have to go make necessary changes to my mediocre book. Yes.”

    Better to fix it at 30 k words than at the end, right?

    1. Hey, I have to use that on myself too. Oh the stuff I have had to scrap. But? We get better and batter 😀 .

  3. Thank you for this! And all the inspiring blogs you write. Because of you, and your words of wisdom, I published my first book in June. After it went live, panic gripped me. I was filled with anxiety about people thinking that I am a rotten person for even thinking of the horrible things I put my characters through. This (along with the reviews of strangers) just reinforces that putting my characters through hell was the best thing I could have done. Thank you!!!

    1. *HAPPY DANCE* Wonderful! So proud of you and thanks for letting me know about your progress!

    2. Congratulations on publishing your first book!!! What a great feeling it is. Can you tell me the title? You’ve aroused my curiosity.

      • lanettekauten2016 on September 30, 2016 at 4:17 pm
      • Reply

      Yay! Congrats!

  4. Wow! Great post. I loved The Girl on the Train. It is a perfect example!

  5. Great post on conflict and developing the inner character. However, how much would you reserve for chapter 1? I can see the temptation for some writers to load up chap. 1 with mucho “backstory-psycho-baggage.” After taking your class and reading Les Edgerton, I understand that inner conflict can’t be over-looked, but not overloaded either, especially in chap. 1.

    • Tom on September 30, 2016 at 10:52 am
    • Reply

    Kristen, a great, succinct post… you hit all the right notes. I shared it with our writing group. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, is another great example of writing with emotional complexity and depth… and not a bad little movie, either. 🙂

  6. This is one of the VERY best pieces I’ve ever read about the core of writing. You gave me a whole new perspective! Thanks, Kristen!

  7. Right now, in the WIP, I’m working on making a panic attack feel like a panic attack without using the words “panic attack” or “anxiety” or what-have-you. I’m pretty sure I’m getting close, when my ass gets cold. Heh.

    I mean that all the mental energy sort of centers around that root chakra, and I’m having this really uncomfortable feeling in that lower area, that starts actively triggering “fight or flight” in my body. Stressful, to say the least, and pretty unfun. But my character needs to be panicking, so I guess I’m gonna have to panic with her.

    1. Too late to edit this, but I realize that as it stands, it doesn’t much look like a response to the post. Sorry for the lack of clarity. 🙁

      I was actually responding to the idea that it can be pretty difficult at times to step fully into the character’s shoes, to see how things look from that angle. Trying to describe a panic attack or PTSD when I’ve never had PTSD, and only had one panic attack… it’s tough. And I don’t want the character to feel distant from what she’s actually going through. So that’s why I’m trying to write it avoiding using those words.

      It was Kristen’s angry bear vs. facebook troll thing that got me there.

      Anyhooo…. carry on. Heh.

  8. Kristin, I know I’m onto something when my stomach twists while coming up with plot ideas–either something that happens or a decision my character should make. I thought your post was very helpful and a great dive into our motivations, fears, and misconceptions of what makes good writing. One thing I’ve started doing in my plot outline is forcing myself to fill in this blank: Heroine chooses to ———. Forcing her to choose something in every scene (besides also having a goal or drive, however small) gets me out of the trap of “heroine passively receives bad situations” or “heroine watches other people make bad decisions.” Maybe it’s our observer stance in the world, where we as authors are trying to take everything in, that we default to making our protagonists also passive?

    1. Ooh, very good point! I’m just starting the new-novel planning stage, and I’ll incorporate this idea right off.

  9. In my latest novelette my main character has a drug habit and is at the worst point in his life. From there I build him up into a person with values and someone people should care about. Some readers really get it and compliment me on this turn around, others say I couldn’t relate to the character(s). I was even told this from my sister-in-law whose husband is a decent guy, but an alcoholic…I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the character is somewhat based on her husband, lol. I like my characters to be gritty and seriously flawed, like people I’ve met through my life, but I’m wondering if this can be overdone. Or maybe there’s a good amount of people that just don’t want to look at that side of their own life and would rather keep the blinders on.

  10. An inspiring read as usual. Now I’m off to implement this advice.

  11. I have a hard time with conflict, likely the reason I don’t write fiction (at least not intentionally). I think it comes from wanting to avoid conflict when I was a kid. Mom used to pull the “what would you guys do if I died tomorrow?” thing out of her bag o’ tricks and I never had the courage to say “split everything three ways and dance on your grave!”

    • gmroeder on September 30, 2016 at 1:59 pm
    • Reply

    When I, after a Remembrance Day lecture, was literally “pushed” to write my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That” (An Story of Survival WWII, the Russian rapes, murder and other atrocities) I was ‘honest’ to the point that I was embarrassed, ashamed and even afraid. After the book was published I felt ‘naked’ by revealing “all” – my experiences, troubles and conflicts. My readers now want to know MORE and I have problems writing the sequel. What if … I run into legal trouble? How can I not be honest after the first book? Reading Kristin’s piece about ‘conflict’ I feel a bit more ’empowered’. She has a knack to really get you. I love all her pieces but especially this one. Thanks!

    1. Your story sounds compelling. If your readers want to know MORE, you know you nailed it. Congrats! Feeling naked and exposed is totally understandable. Kudos for you putting yourself out there. I wish you much success with your writing.

  12. Excellent post, Kristen. Your insight is amazing. I struggle with my characters’ flaws, for sure. You’ve given us a lot to consider. Thank you!

  13. Motivation and conflict. Conflict and motivation. When do I know I have the right amount without a reader thinking, “Melodrama”? And, yes for someone who was programmed to avoid conflict from childhood, it can be a chore to keep authentic troubles raging in my fiction. But with every story, I get a little better. Thanks for the virtual coaching.

  14. Reblogged this on Erotic Vampire and commented:
    Don’t be afraid of the conflict and confrontation. Thanks Kristen.

  15. I literally LOL’d when you talked about your first novel in Rise Of The Machines.
    This was a great post!

    1. Also, I shared this post on my blog. ?

    • Renee on September 30, 2016 at 4:06 pm
    • Reply

    (not sure if I posted this twice, oy vey)

    Great post, Kristen. I couldn’t put “Girl on the Train” down. The lead is relatable. Often we hide or minimize our own flaws – whether we’re control freaks or binge eaters or super anxious. Let’s be open about our flaws and pour some soul on the page.

    Vulnerability comes from flaws. That’s why people read fiction, for the emotional connection.

    My writer friends and I talk about the challenge of writing romance novels in the post-Katniss era. A lot of blogger-reviewers demand a k*ck-ass heroine, and will often pan heroines as irritating or “Mary Sues” if a female lead shows the thinnest sliver of vulnerability.

    Romance novels – good ones, too – can be eviscerated because the heroine is deemed “weak.”

    As the “weak heroine” that we secretly like is publicly trashed – we readers say nothing, lest we be condemned as blasphemous or anti-feminist. Man, I’m tired of that. How about humanist? Can I aim for that?

    Blogger reviewers tend to love kick-butt heroines, but readers? Nah. We want dimensional. Give us bull-headed Scarlett O’Hara making some of her “Too Stupid to Live” mistakes.

    Give us insecure, tender-hearted, brave, resourceful heroines – equipped with ugly flaws and doubts — any old day of the week. Much preferable to the snarky know-it-all.

    1. I think that is part of why I have drifted toward women’s fiction. Being strong is not always about being able to punch or use a sidearm and never showing any weakness. In fact I find it very tedious. So many people love the new heroine in Star Wars, Rey who is just another Katniss and about as deep as a puddle (my POV). I find them impossible to relate to and dull.

      I didn’t see your comment twice but it is an excellent one 😀 .

        • Renee on September 30, 2016 at 8:31 pm
        • Reply

        Amen. Agree about the Star Wars heroine – her character isn’t memorable. I went bonkers for Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” because I felt her Tiffany character was more dimensional. But Katniss is an action hero, too – it’s a very different format. I do think comic book movies can be touching and dimensional, such as“Spiderman II” with Tobey Maguire.

        I remember my hairdresser scoffing at Maguire being cast as a superhero, dismissing him as a “dork” – but the scenes between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst made me cry. So why can’t we aim for more, even if we’re trying to write clever or funny? Pixar can do it. Why can’t we push ourselves to reveal our own weaknesses and trauma through our novels? It’s widely reported that “The Sopranos” creator David Chase based the mother character, Livia, on his own borderline mother.

        There can be a great film without any CGI or explosions. My husband and I went to see “Hell or High Water” recently. Had heartbreak and desperation, often punctuated by great guy humor, (reminiscent of “Justified”). Or HBO’s excellent “The Night Of” – John Turturro and that cat! (LOL)

        My writer friends and I also talk about steering our work in a romance / women’s fiction direction, but cross-pollination is tough. We write vulnerable heroines, and that’s how we’ve got to advertise ourselves, so the readers who don’t like that – can purchase another author’s book.

    2. There’s vulnerable, and then there’s weak. Weak is not something a heroine should be. But I also think there are too many vulnerable women in fiction, and too many bad things happen to them because of their vulnerability. If I want to read about bad things happening to women, I can read the newspaper. I also don’t want to read about the girl next door or people too stupid to live. I want to read about women who have their doubts and insecurities but plow on anyway.

      1. I think the larger point is less about the extreme case of Girl on the Train and more about being real. Real humans (women or men) are characters that readers can relate to.

        I’m curious; what is an example of a well-written book? You want to read about women who have doubts and insecurities and who plow on anyway. Can you give an example?

          • Renee on October 3, 2016 at 9:30 am
          • Reply

          Hi, Rather Earnest Painter, (like your name). Not sure whether this was directed at me or to Linda.

          For me, great examples of vulnerable heroines include Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind,” and “Jane Eyre,” and a recent example of Louisa Clark in “Me Before You.” All three of those female leads are very different, yet they’re all flawed. As far as a vulnerable male lead goes, John Turturro in “The Night Of” was fantastic.

        • Renee on October 3, 2016 at 9:13 am
        • Reply

        Linda, unfortunately, I think a lot of blogger reviewers who disdain “weak” heroines confuse vulnerability with weak. Your definition of “weak” might be my definition of “vulnerable,” and no amount of online debating will alter opinions. (Very hard to change someone’s mind).

        It’s great that you know exactly what you like to read and that you won’t spend your reading consumer dollars on a book you don’t like. What troubles me about blogger reviews and book reviews in general, is that a review reads more like an indictment than a fair, thoughtful critique. It boils down to personal taste. You don’t like a “weak” heroine, and I might see her as vulnerable and relate to her. Does that make you right and me wrong, or vice versa? Nope. It comes down to taste.

        Let’s take music. You may love the Rolling Stones, while I like Mozart. Do I then post a scathing review of a Stones album — if I don’t listen to them, except for that one album? That just doesn’t strike me as what a true critic does. “Rolling Stone” magazine doesn’t evaluate music the way I do.

        You may love strawberries while I love bananas. I know, that may strike folks as a ridiculous example, but for me — it’s an example of taste. What I like you may not like at all, and isn’t that what makes the world go around?

        That being said, I read everything, every genre, and love a great vulnerable male lead as much as a female one. Men tend to show vulnerability in different ways than women, at least, that’s what I’ve observed. Bottom-line, I just like ’em flawed. For me, that makes characters compelling.

        Ergo, personally, I am very weary of the know-it-all, snarky female lead in the romance genre. I can’t tell you how many writers/readers I speak with, who agree wholeheartedly, yet are reluctant to voice it publicly, because it’ll be seen as “non-feminist.”

        For me, all great fiction features flawed characters who plow on, anyway, despite making mistakes, and yes, I do love a book with a flawed heroine. She’s more like me and the women I know, women who worry, who doubt, who don’t have everything figured out. For me, flawed, deep characters mean the difference between “Game of Thrones” and an overblown film where CGI has overtaken the characters.

  16. I don’t know . . . Maybe I’m alone over here, but I am so tired of characters doing stupid things. Of characters acting like they’re little kids rather than grown adults and communicating.

    Maybe that isn’t good fiction, but it’s hard for me to care much about a character that continually makes bad decisions. Just like it’s hard for me to find the energy to finish a book when the characters could resolve their issues with a 5 minute conversation.

    Characters who do things they think are right, and you even agree with them at the time, and it turns out to be a bad choice? Those I can go with.

    frankly, characters that keep doing dumb things, characters that are “too stupid to live”, I stop reading. And I don;t pick up another book from that author.

    Yes, the one-dimensional Katniss may be less appealing in some ways, but I get the draw. Same reason we like Superman. It’s more about escapism than introspection, and that can also be okay. People read for lots of different reasons, just like they watch movies for lots of different reasons.

    I have hated some classic movies others loved. And enjoyed some pretty eye candy. Just as I have hated some books others love, and have enjoyed literary dribble after a long day at work.

    1. I get what you’re saying about the bad decisions. I thought that ‘Patron Saint of Liars’ was a little bit too much like that. But, I felt this one was different because 1. She was struggling with alcoholism and it’s not just a ‘decision’ to fix that. And 2. Even if she couldn’t put her finger on it, she knew there was a reason to keep doing what she was doing. (Kind of the opposite of what you said. It was what seemed to be a bad decision, but turned out to help.)

      That being said, this was definitely a book I had to be in the mood for. I spent a lot of time reading everything Agatha Christie that I could get my hands on because it was such a light read.

  17. I completely agree, but do you think it also depends on the genre? For example, romance needs conflict, but if the characters are too flawed or gritty then the fantasy is gone. In fact, romance seems the opposite. The heroine is usually nearly perfect with a few quirks. Or am I missing the point here?

    1. That is why I gave the example of Bridget Jones at the end so you might have a genre that was more comparable. No, they don’t need to all be raging alcoholics that blackout when drinking. But the “too perfect” character is dull. What if she experienced a loss and now she seems cold and aloof and the reason is she is terrified to let anyone close? There is a belief that everyone I love just leaves. Now we have a flaw. She isn’t perfect all the time.

      People act out of pain, secrets, rejection and loss. Use it!

  18. Thanks for an insightful post. I read GOTT two days ago in one sitting (and told the kids to just wait for their dinner). Rachel wasn’t always likeable but she was relatable and I was so glad I stuck with her to the end.

  19. You LIKED The Girl on the Train? You thought it was well-written because the main character was an idiot who drank too much? I read it. It was, in my opinion, a wannabe Gone Girl, derivative and — as another reviewer said, “Stupid.”

    I found the characters shallow, stereotypic and uninteresting. I felt no sympathy for anyone except the main character’s husband. I found it predictable. I knew the first time he drove by who the killer was. I found it full of artifice and gimmick. There was even a “red hair-ing”. Puh-leeze.

    Because a comment on the cover compared it favorably to Gone Girl — which had twist upon twist and delved into the depths of a sick human psyche — I started out wanting to read The Girl on the Train. It didn’t take long to derail my interest, but I barreled my way through it. What an utter disappointment.

    I checked it out from the library, and this is a fair and honest review.

    1. Well that is why I offered other options at the end of different novels who had flawed characters. Not every book is for everyone. I remember LOVING “Big, Little Lies” and “What Alice Forgot.” I couldn’t WAIT to read another Moriarty book! So I read “The Husband’s Secret” and gave up. I hated everyone. Other readers loved it. Again flawed characters but they were (in this book) flawed in ways that rubbed me the wrong way. Same author? Different reaction.

  20. I loved The Girl on the Train. When I was reading it I was thinking, ‘This is what I want to do!’. That’s not to say I want to write that book or a variation of it. I mean, I want to make people enjoy my book as much as I’m enjoying this one.

    And you’re correct. I’m good at writing honest, believable 3-dimensional people when I’m just jotting stuff down, but when it comes to the characters in my book I’m a pansy and can’t make them go through anything uncomfortable. And, this is also my my stories derail.

  21. Ah, Kristen – you always manage to put things into words so succinctly. I laughed out loud when I read the term “Literary Barbie Syndrome” because that exactly describes the pathetic heroine in my first (trunk) novel. Never mind bad decisions – she never made any decisions at all! She just wafted through life looking beautiful. And yes, she really was “too stupid to live” which is why she’s now buried in a virtual trunk and has been replaced with a bunch of women who make mistakes and actually have to live with the consequences.

    (In fact, maybe I should get her out of that trunk and turn her into a murder victim in my next novel because I seem to remember that she “always looked beautiful when she was sleeping” – ick!)

    Great post! I loved “Girl On The Train” by the way, and took it everywhere with me for the few days it took me to read because I couldn’t put it down. You’ve described so perfectly what it is about Rachel that makes us want her to win.

  22. I had to make sure I didn’t give my main character my own flaw of endless second-guessing – because it’s mind-numbingly boring to read!

    1. THAT’s funny!

  23. I like my friends nice and I try to make good decisions (don’t we all?). So it’s really difficult for me to put enough conflict into a character’s interior struggle and I’m not usually able to see the problem until the story has rested for a while. Thank you, Kristen, for putting into words what I know but have a hard time doing, and helping me see the need more clearly. Cheers!

  24. This was so awesome to read, Kristen! I’m one chapter away from finishing my first book, it’s a shame I hadn’t known about your blog BEFORE I started writing it. I tend to lack creativity when it comes to finding things for my characters to fight about, in real life I tend to avoid any kind of argument so when it comes to adding the drama and excitement of a heated dispute to my work, I always seem to falter. When I do happen to jot down an idea of conflict that strikes me, I feel that my charterer reminds me too much of my mother! (LOL) But over all, I don’t find myself being afraid that my readers are thinking I obtain the bad behavior my protagonists display, but more so bothered with finding something for them to quarrel about in the first place. Once again, awesome post (: x

  25. Kristin, thank you for the continual genius posts in my inbox. You’ve helped me become a “bad girl” in the very best way. This post is exceptional!
    My first holodeck attempt has been sent into the abyss, but it was written in the nineties, so that goes along with most things from the nineties.
    Start somewhere, just don’t stay there!

    1. “The dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland!”

      Sorry… couldn’t help myself. 😉 Put a bird on it… that’ll make it so much better.

      Bedtime, and I’m thinking of “Portlandia”. This promises to be a night filled with strange dreams.

  26. I’m just wondering how long it will be before there is a popular best-seller titled just “Girl”

  27. I’m blocking out each scene in my WIP and trying to put some sort of conflict in each one. Didn’t realize just how difficult that is, to tell you the truth. I’m stuck just past halfway (again) and am wondering if I should barrel through to the end, then revise the outline after I have an overview of the entire story, or go back and put more conflict into what I already have, then go on from there. What do you–or anyone else, for that matter–suggest?

  28. I think someone just identified a major flaw in my writing without even reading it

  29. EXCELLENT post, Kristen!

  30. Reblogged this on Kat's Writing Runway and commented:
    Nice post.

  31. Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

  32. Love this article. I am definitely learning to be a better writer with every book I publish but this is something I still find hard to do and have to really work at. Perfect characters do not good stories make and even though my fans like how “smart” my characters are, I still have to make them “human”. Which means exposing their vulnerabilities. Which could then translate into my vulnerabilities. And what about those sex scenes? *Gulp* Ah, the rabbit hole of introspection. But still, we need to do it if we want to write fantastic, gripping stories and characters that will stay with our readers for a long time.

  1. […] via The Girl on The Train & Two Critical Elements of ALL Great Stories — Kristen Lamb’s Blog […]

  2. […] Kristen Lamb shows how Girl on the Train demonstrates the two elements that all great stories share. […]

  3. […] The Girl on The Train & Two Critical Elements of ALL Great Stories […]

  4. […] When writers start a new fiction piece, sometimes we get stymied because our premise has been done before. Mary Kole explains how to get specific to make a premise fresh,  Jo Eberhardt shares 3 lessons Supernatural taught her about writing authentic characters, and Kristen Lamb explores the two critical elements of all great stories. […]

  5. […] The Girl on The Train & Two Critical Elements of ALL Great Stories – Kristen Lamb, thought-provoking as usual. […]

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.