Paula Hawkins - On Writing the Unputdownable Book.Nov 01, 2020
From the Desk of Paula Hawkins.
I didn’t set out to write an unputdownable book, but when The Girl on the Train was published, I was told very clearly that I had, and that numerous train stops had been missed as readers were compelled to keep turning the pages.
Unputdownable hadn’t been an aim: I had wanted to write a crime novel about a young woman with a drink problem who suffers from blackouts, because I was interested in how her memory of acting a certain way related to her sense of guilt and responsibility for her actions.
You might want to write a book about the plight of women accused of witchcraft in the late sixteenth century, or about a southern African immigrant’s experience of life in London; your aim might be to write a book that makes people laugh, or reconsider their life choices, or a book that makes them too frightened to turn off the light at night.
Unputdownability is rarely a goal in and of itself. Not everyone believes unputdownability is a good thing at all. Howard Jacobson, the Booker prize-winning literary novelist, wrote a whole newspaper column about how authors ought to strive to write books which are eminently putdownable. Before the end of the very first page a reader should, he argued, be putting the book down in order to think about what the author has written.
That literature ought to be thought-provoking or challenging is hardly controversial; some might argue that it ought to be possible to write provocative and stimulating novels which are also impossible to put down, they might even argue that some writers of literary fiction would do well to pay more attention to compelling narratives and less to provoking thought.
But I do think that the art of inducing readers voraciously to turn the page, the skill of transporting them from the armchair in the living room to some other world they desperately don’t want to leave, for a page or twenty or fifty, can be valued just as much as the art of inspiring the reader to place the book back on the edge of the armchair and ponder the state of the universe.
So, what is it, then, that makes a piece of fiction irresistibly compelling? Spoiler: it’s unlikely to be the plot.
A cracking plot is important, particularly in a crime novel, but it is not what tends to make a novel addictive. For unputdownability, you’re better off considering structure and character.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you want your novel to be unputdownable, it helps to have an element of predictability about it. In the early chapters of TGOTT, Rachel’s morning and evening commute gave a definite rhythm to the novel which lured the reader in. They knew exactly where they were, they knew what to expect until – suddenly! – they didn’t.
SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life have a similar quality (as does the film Groundhog Day!). The reader (or viewer) understands that there is going to be a certain amount of repetition, but they also know that something is going to have to be different, and the anticipation of the change is part of what keeps them turning the page.
Of course, a reader might tire of those early chapters - a woman going backwards and forwards on a train is not, in itself, a thrilling concept – unless the woman herself is very intriguing: readers will follow a compelling character to the ends of the earth. A compelling character needs to be at once psychologically convincing while also surprising the reader, someone whose actions might at first shock or even repel but which become understandable once we understand the background or that rationale behind her actions.
The immediacy of a first-person point of view can help: Rachel from TGOTT was not, on the surface of it, likeable or warm, but readers were afforded direct access to her at times discomforting and strange thought processes and they engaged with them. Readers saw a part of themselves in her, they identified with some element of her isolation or pain or anger and they gave themselves over completely to her story.
A good first-person narrative is immersive in the most compelling way: Lucy Ellmann’s 1000+ page novel Ducks, Newburyport is a singular case in point. Ellmann puts the reader inside the head of a housewife going about her daily life, exposing them to every single notion that occurs to the protagonist throughout the course of her day; the experience is both dizzying and utterly compelling. And memorable in all the right ways: while endless plot twists, cliff hangers and other page-turning ‘devices’ can feel manufactured, a good character never does.
That is not to denigrate the plot twist: a truly surprising or shocking twist is a glorious thing, but for a book to be unputdownable, the reader must on some level be waiting for the twist, they must be expecting something to happen, and still be surprised by what actually happens. My agent puts it this way: a good plot twist is not having no pieces of the puzzle, it’s being given the pieces of the puzzle, one by one, thinking you’re going to end up with a picture of a combine harvester and then suddenly realising you’re looking at a picture of a lawnmower.
The pace at which those puzzle pieces are doled out is critical. A good writer drip feeds essential pieces of information at exactly the right moments, making it impossible for the reader to resist them: they must pick up the crumbs, they must follow the trail into the woods.
Knowing not just the direction of travel but also what one might find at the destination also keeps the reader turning the pages; moreover, knowing how a novel ends can add to the suspense rather than detracting from it. Everyone knows, for example, that Thomas Cromwell will be executed at the end of The Mirror and The Light, and it is in the context of this terrible knowledge that the book becomes almost unbearably suspenseful as the climax approaches. Mantel’s work is a good example of a book that is at once cerebral and propulsive, Kate Atkinson’s stellar Jackson Brodie novels – pacy, intricately-plotted and peopled with memorable characters – also prove Jacobson wrong. You don’t need to choose between intelligence and unputdownability, it’s possible – though fiendishly difficult – to compel readers to turn the page while still leaving them thinking about the novel and its ideas for days and weeks and months to come.