Monthly Archives: April 2012

Prologue: Deconstructing “The Hunger Games”

It’s been a while since I’ve done a thorough story deconstruction on this website.  I can’t think of a better lab rat than the iconic bestseller “The Hunger Games” for this project, which provides us with a glowing example of each of the six core competencies in play, as well as the underlying story physics that energize a story — any story — toward greatness.

Like the Harry Potter stories, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy broke out from a YA niche to crossover into mainstream juggernaut territory, selling over 26 million copies thus far and inspiring the latest blockbuster film, which is a very true adapation of the first book in the series.  I will be deconstructing both the first book and the film, and will come back to the second and third books at a later date.

Now would be a good time to get involved. 

You may not have read the book or seen the movie at this point.  And the series will work for you if you haven’t, though it’ll work better if you’ve consumed at least one of those versions of this story.  I encourage you to do both, if nothing else than to root yourself deeper in the story in preparation. 

You won’t hear me claim that this story is “perfect. “

Anytime a genre book reaches these heights, somebody always steps up to slam the writing.  I’ve heard that — I don’t agree, by the way, it’s well written in my view — but that level of analysis isn’t what this is about.  This is about story building craft, and on that count it is, if not a perfect story, at least a perfect specimen and learning tool.

It hasn’t blown up because it sucks, folks.  It’s compelling and disturbing, as well as vicariously delicious.

Aesthetics are a taste thing, many won’t care for the violence and the fantasy elements.  Reading outside our own writing niche can be very helpful, though, especially when a story hits all the notes relative to craft, as “The Hunger Games” certainly does. 

Here are a few things to look for as you experience this story.

Notice how context and sub-text play a huge role in the reader/audience experience. 

Part 1 (pre-plot point one) especially is driven by the context of impending and nearly certain death of the hero, who realizes it from square one.  This informs and colors everything — every scene, every nuance, every line of dialogue — with a certain irony and a creepy flavor of fear, and its one of the things that emotionally penetrates early in the story. 

Collins makes it easy to root for her protagonist.

This young hero (Katniss) emerges from the chute as a strong, rootable yet vulnerable character, which is another strong reason why this story has resonated so strongly, particularly with younger audiences.

You may not notice it at first (small spoiler alert here; then again, we’re in post mortem mode, and we’re all in the anatomy lab together), but at it’s heart this is a sort of love story


In fact, that particular sub-text becomes the backbone of the entire structure, over and above the exterior plot (romance writers, take note)… this alone might make this series something that might pop a few story development light bulb for you as we go through it.

The Hunger Games” is no Harry Potter, however, even though both stories take us on a trip to the dark side with elements of fantasy and, in the former case, science fiction (Hunger has both).  Harry’s vicarious juice was enchantment and wonder, while Hunger is pure terror and creepy sense of cultural hopelessness that comes a little too close to our reality television-loving selves.

Tell your Hunger loving friends — writers or not — to join you for this.

If you’ve been struggling with the concepts of story structure, the vocabulary of it that I (and other writing teachers) use to explain it, and most of all the underlying forces of storytelling that are too often ignored yet, once you know them are impossible to not see in any stellar story… if you want a clinic in all this stuff, then stay tuned.

The deconstruction of “The Hunger Games” begins later this week with a series of posts that will expose and analyze it all, and from the perspective of the writer’s hungry eye for craft.


Have you visited the Peer Review page lately?  There’s a new story for us from Derek Tumacder, check it out HERE.  Derek tells us this is his first public outing for his writing, so let’s reward his courage — we all remember that moment for ourselves, no? — with our helpful support.

There is a wealth of material here for the analytic writer to learn from, and just as importantly, a chance to offer feedback to the writers who have braved this territory.  Learn more about the Peer Review service HERE.


Filed under The Hunger Games series

An Insightful Question from a Storyfix Reader

And hopefully, an answer that will empower you.

I make a lot of noise (both in my book and here) about “mission-driven” storytelling.  Especially “mission-driven” scene development.

The bottom line is this: every scene should have an expositional mission.  Meaning, it delivers one piece of story that propells the narrative forward.  Think of your story as a puzzle… that moment of exposition in a scene is a piece of that puzzle.

If you have too many expositional pieces in a scene — two is often too many — the scene isn’t optimized.

Storyfix reader Gary MacLoud wasn’t exactly confused about the concept… but he did ask a very reasonable and important question about how this mission-driven context relates to characterization… which also a goal of every scene.

A bit of a can of worms.  So let’s discuss.

Here’s how Gary positioned the question:

I have been reading your Story Engineering book, and I am finding it a fascinating read. It’s great to see you expand on things I have read on your site over the last few years. However, one thing I am having difficulty with is understanding mission-driven scene writing. I understand that you want to always just have one mission you are working towards with each particular scene, but when you brought characterization into the mix and started talking about primary and secondary missions of a scene, I began to get confused.

I think I understand that we should always have two things in mind when crafting a scene – advancing plot and advancing characterization. More often than not we are simply advancing plot and the particular piece of plot information that is uncovered during the scene is the thing we have been ‘driving towards’, but should we still ensure characterization is maintained or advanced alongside this? If we are showing the reader something about the character, such as in DeMille’s The Lion second scene, does that mean we can’t uncover a particularly important piece of plot information in the same scene?

If we have an important point to make about the character, and an important piece of plot information to uncover, we can’t have them in the same scene because we would be driving towards two missions for that scene. Is that correct?

Or is it always a case of there is a primary mission and a secondary mission, either one being plot related or character related, but sometimes the characterization is stronger than the plot and that is obvious to the reader, so character is primary, and sometimes plot is stronger than the characterization, therefore plot becomes primary. Therefore, it becomes a case of which mission, primary or secondary, we want to apply more weight to in a scene, but both are most definitely needed. If this is the case, could you provide a brief example of primary and secondary missions in this manner in a scene.

This was my response:

Hi Gary — great questions.  And your take in the final paragraph is very solid.  The fact that you even notice a sense of flexibility in these principles (which I admit were put out there, or could be perceived, as rather inflexible) is a great sign that your inner storyteller is flexing.
At a professional level of anything, fundamentals are largely inflexible.  We should teach beginners about principles with this as context.  Michael Jordan can shoot a free throw with his eyes closed, Josh Groban can “speak” a lyric without holding to the melody, a painter can throw in a secret message… but one must earn one’s stripes to make this work.  It’s not about “having a right” to do something out of the box (because this is “art” after all), but rather, having the skill and sensiblity to allow it to work within the sequence of the narrative, without becoming  disruption, a break in the rhythm or otherwise taking one’s eye off the expositional ball.

In other words, there are “general fundamentals” that become default contexts.  In scene writing, they are: always be true to (or further) characterization, and deliver a piece of story exposition that moves the story forward.
If a moment of characterization does, in fact, move the story forward, then THAT becomes the scene’s mission.  If it simply illustrates characterization that is already in place, then without an expositional revelation the scene becomes moot.  You can get away with this once or twice in story, but a pattern of character-only scenes quickly becomes a deal killer.
These decisions are the art of it all.  Characterization is like interior decorating in a fine restauant… it only goes so far if the food isn’t right.  But it can also define and differentiate.  People come for both reasons, and you need to serve both.
Sorry my answer isn’t more precise, but the question is bigger than that.  Thanks for asking, hope this helps.

Feel free to chime in on this.

If you haven’t subscribed to my newsletter yet, here’s at peek at the April issue, which contains a little ‘insider discount” with only a few days left to opt-in.  The May edition is brewing as we speak.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)