Monthly Archives: May 2012

Hunger Games (8) — On Milestones and Meanings

In life, even in art, there are certain laws — principles, rules, fundamental truths — that govern.  That dictate motion, direction… effectiveness… success or failure. 

So called “conventional wisdom” is hit or miss, it may not belong on that list of eternal, universal truth.  In fact, I can name a a fistfull of “conventional wisdoms” that will make your writing life tougher and your stories more vanilla.

There may indeed be no rules in this game, as many like to claim (semantics, that).  But there are always physics and natural law in the mix.  If you want to jump off Niagra Falls in the name of art, prepare to go splat on a rock.  That’s just those impartial physics kicking in, the cause-and-reaction manifestation of ignorance.

These universal dramatic physics will make you… or they will break you.  And they totally made THG into what many consider to be a modern classic.

With storytelling, there is a vital roster of these principles and forces .  Some are simply properties, what I like to call “story physics” (the forces that render a story powerful).  Others are modes of access (to the forces) and application (of the forces), which I call the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

To attempt to write a story without at least a working awareness of these things is, at best, daunting.  To make it successful with years of rewriting… nearly impossible.

I wrote a book about the latter (“Story Engineering“)… and am writing a another about the former (“The Search for Story,” out in early 2013 from Writers Digest Books).

These literary forces are always there, even when the author is unaware of their essential essence, even when the author refuses to recognize them as the very things they are attempting to leverage and optimize on the page.

The Hunger Games is a clinic in how these two realms of story — story physics, and story construction and execution — merge to determine if and how,the story ends up as something that is deemed compelling, or the degree to which it works.

In THG, 30 million buyers are in agreement: it works.  Really really well.

Here’s why: the major story milestones in this story all nail the highest level of purpose and definition of each story milestone.  As well as all four contextual parts that are compellingly aligned with the target definition of their purpose at that point in a story. 

In other words, THG is by the book when it comes to story architecture, which means it optimizes the power of story physics that result from applying these principles.

The effectiveness of a story is never random.  

When it works it can be explained, just as it can be explained when it doesn’t.  The only randomness in this equation occurs when the author doesn’t know what they’re doing… then its a crap shoot.

Some authors don’t want to hear this.

They reject anything that smacks of structural labeling, modeling or paradigm-aligning expecation, or attempts to define what they need to be writing, or are planning to write, at a prescribed point in their story sequence.

Fair enough, call this what you will.  And then take your chances with what you know. 

But gravity is gravity.  The earth only spins in one direction, no matter what you want to call it.  If you want to play a game in which gravity plays a role, you don’t have to believe in gravity or even think about, to make your game effective… but you do have to factor it in.  

Just as universally… for art to work at a commercial level (which is precisely what we’re talking about here), it must touch someone besides the artist.  No matter what you call the means by which that happens.  The means, in this case, are the manner in which the writer has harnessed the power of story physics.

In a tasty little serving of irony, even those writers who decry this approach as formulaic, who claim there are no “rules” are indeed subordinated to these very principles, and when they write a story that works, they are absolutely aligning with them.  However, and whenever, they get there.

The folks backing Columbus swore the earth was flat.  Who knows, ol’ Chris himself may have believed that to be true.  But at the end of the day — no matter what Columbus believed about navigational physics, or how Suzanne Collins feels about story structure and its working parts — they both eventually reached a destination that worked.

Without falling off a cosmic cliff.  Because the physics that defined their journey are what they are.

Story milestones are there for a reason.

When you accept that, you can then forget about what they’re called, because it is those functional reasons that dictate what you must execute and ellicit in your story, and where.  The milestones are guidelines, literary lighthouses, to get you there in an optimal way.

What are they?

The five major elements of story physics are: conceptual power (the compelling essence of the Big Idea)… dramatic tension (conflict)… pacing… hero empathy (resulting in our rooting for something)… and vicarious experience (often a function of setting and concept, as is the case in THG).  Those last two combine to become at catch-all that speaks to the need for the reader to be emotionally involved.

The major story milestones are there to help us make these things happen in our stories.

Read that again… it’s a make-it-or-break-it invitation to become an enlightened writer.

Each story milestone has a mission to fulfill, a definition to live up to, and a functional purpose in your story.  They aren’t there simply to signal a transition, there’s a deeper purpose attached.  When you ignore them, or fail to understand them, you do so at the risk of your story’s optimal power and effectiveness.

You don’t have to have names for them.  But you do need, eventually, to align these truths.  If you writea a story with weak tension, no pace, nobody to root for and nothing for the reader to discover, not matter who majestically you put your sentences together… the story will tank.

I have no idea if Ms. Collin’s is aware of any of these labels.  But having read all three books, I guarantee that she understands them — even if only instinctually — because they’re all there, bolding evident in the pages of THG.

And that’s precisely why these stories work.

It ain’t her killer prose, folks.  Which is fine, by the way… but something less than killer.  It’s her command of the forces that elevate a story to greatness.

Her First Plot Point — when Katniss “accepts” her role as Peeta’s romantic partner in the Games — changes the story into more than a thriller unfolding on a cool conceptual landscape… it turns it into a love story.  It moves the story from “set-up” mode into “response” mode, as Katniss goes forward within this more compelling context.  And meanwhile, the reader is far more emotionally empathetic to the surface dangers in view of these larger stakes.

If you doubt this, look at the ending of the story (both book and film): it’s all about their perceived love for each other.  That is the catalyst that not only moves the story along (in parallel with the thriller storyline), but for the denouement, as well.  Without their love, the ending would have simply been a kill-or-be-killed violent confrontation.

The Mid-Point is when Katniss evolves from her Part 2 wanderer/responder mode (fleeing through the woods, attacking nothing other than her own need for immediate safety), into the Part 3 attack mode.  The moment she starts to saw that branch supporting the tracker-jacker hive (killer wasps) to drop on her pursuers, the story — and Katniss — is different. 

Renewed.  Jacked.  Deeper.  Faster.  More compelling.

The context has evolved, gripping us even more.  That’s the power of structure that is in alignment with story physics.

What, one might legitimately ask, does this have to do with the love story?

Everything.  Because Peeta is part of the pack that is pursing her.  She must survive, and  so must he, for this love story to continue.  And if she doesn’t drop that hive on them, she doesn’t survive.

The Second Plot Point is when Katniss reconnects with the injured Peeta, and they become united in their mutual survival.  Real feelings emerge from this web of strategic facade, complexity ensues, and once again it is the context of a love story that drives the exposition forward.

The ending?  That’s easy… it’s all about their relationship, their love.  They defy the Gameskeeper and the Games themselves by choosing love over survival.  Which is at the heart of the theme of this story (one of the Six Core Competencies). 

 That ending delivers on what Collins has successfully caused the reader to feel — to flip the Capital and its sadistic people the proverbial finger of defiance.  It satisfies… the main criteria for an ending to a story… precisely because of the story physics that underpin it.

Think about how these moments harness the power — the physics — of storytelling.

Without the love story, all we have is an extended chase story, with little at stake except survival.  That could work, but it works better — it is optimized — when the story becomes about love, about defiance and self, over and above survival.  When it becomes thematic.  The reader is emotionally connected… we root harder, we empathize more, because this is a stronger concept.

If the FPP doesn’t happen, then you don’t have this love story, and you have no expositional pace (one of the five basic elements of story physics).  If it happens too soon, we aren’t as emotionally invested, because the set-up has been short-changed.  If it happens later than the optimal 20 to 25 percentile mark (something an uninformed or defiant writer might try), then we’ve already began to settle into a lighter, less resonant story.  One that wouldn’t have experienced the success what ended up on the shelves and on the screen.

Without this angle and its placement at the FPP,  what we have is just another episode of Lost.

The placement of the Mid-Point moment uses the same justification.  

If Katniss remains a fleeing potential victim for too long, we don’t feel as strongly, we have less and less to root for.  Less hope.  If it happens too soon, then we aren’t as fully aware of and empathetic to the danger and the pain of her situation.

The HG Mid-Point optimizes these story physics.  It’s placement isn’t random, and it isn’t a rule… it’s just optimal.

Same with the Second Plot Point.  It changes the story into what it was all along… a love story.  A love that defines their chances of survival.  Defines and strengthens stakes.  Once again, story physics are at the heart of it… if placed earlier or later, this SPP moment wouldn’t work as well.

All of these principles and tools await us.  Every time, every story.

It is up to us to recognize them, and once understood, to harness them.  To harness that which you do not understand… is luck, is imprecise, even if it is driven by solid instinct.  Better to know what you’re doing.

Just as in life itself… some people get it, some never do… and some of those still trip over good fortune.  Either way, we get to choose.  To not choose, to just keep writing blindly and organically, to rely strictly on an uniformed instinct, places the outcome entirely in the hands of your subconscious, where you are rolling the dice with your career.

Once chosen, the knowledge and learning is out there, right at our fingertips.  Once recognized, you’ll see these story physics exerting force within each and every successful story you read, or see on a screen.

No exceptions.

Are you in, or are you rolling dice?

The Hunger Games shows it all to us, clearly, effectively and, if you look for it, with the empowerment that comes from getting it.

******

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Prepare to hear what you’ve never heard before, at least in this empowering context… just possibly a milestone in your writing career.

Click HERE to register.

 

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Hunger Games 7 — Lessons From the Film Adaptation

Sometimes the coach calls timeout to lecture a player about footwork.  About mechanics.

Sometimes the coach calls timeout to say a few words about how the game is approached.  About mindset.  About how to avoid getting in your own way.  To get the most of the talent you are bringing to your game.

This is one of those times.

In this series I’ve called out several ways, and several specific instances, in which The Hunger Games, the film, is different than the book upon which it is based.  The author, Suzanne Collins, received a screenwriting credit (which may or may not mean anything in terms of who actually wrote the final shooting script, and it only very rarely signifies a collaboration), so lets assume she was in on this very deliberate departure.

Or at least signed off on it while sitting on a yacht in Cannes.

But why change anything, one might ask?  

Good question, that.

There’s always the pat answer that what plays in a novel may not play as well on the screen.  That’s almost certainly, to some extent, part of this.  But there’s more to it, which is the point of today’s post.

In fact, there’s a lesson for us storytellers — novelists and screenwriters — just itching to make us better at what we do.

Here’s a truth nobody involved will admit to, out of respect to Suzanne Collins: the movie was changed not just to optimize it for the screen, but to make the story better.

But wait, I hear you crying out.  How can you make a 30 million copy selling novel better?  Why change what has proven to be magic, what is universally loved?

Because — get ready for it… — it can be better.

As novelists, we are a creative committee of one.  

We alone get to say what stays, what goes, what changes… at least in our “final” draft.  Editors hop on the team at that point, but they’re not likely to make the type of changes the filmmakers made to HG.  Which means, the author lives and dies by their creative decisions, which are always made in light of, in context to, what they know and believe about storytelling craft.

Suzanne Collins was no rookie when she penned this story.  No matter how the filmmakers switched some things around, her decisions were stellar.  But her experience, her craft — the very qualities that empowered her to write this great story –is precisely what played into her acceptance of the changes themselves.

The point: one mind alone, especially the mind of a newer writer, or an unpublished writer, rarely optimizes each and every creative decision that must be made in the course of writing a story.  We nail some, we get by on others, a few we tank.  The real problem — and the opportunity I’m putting in italics here — is when we unknowingly, or because of ignorance, haste or blinders that fit tighter than a muzzle, settle for the first organic idea we have.

Happens all the time.  To all of us.  Even Suzanne Collins, to some extent.

Why else would the filmmakers tell her story differently, even slightly so?

To make it better.  To jack dramatic tension.  To heighten stakes.  To intensify reader empathy.  To elevate thematic resonance.

Every change in the book-to-story evolution points directly to one or more of these underlying motivations.  It’s all about story physics, the forces that make a story work… and those are always up for grabs.

We, as writers, need to do the same with our stories.

Hopefully, before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button once you get a nibble from an agent or editor.

THG was told in rigid first person.  This was Collins’ choice.  We see nothing that transpires beyond the curtain of her hero’s awareness.  Which limits the ability to fully understand the motives and Machiavellian cruelty of the folks who are pulling the strings of the Games themselves.

The more we understand that, the more emotion we’re likely to invest.  This is what the filmmakers knew, and why they changed the story.

In the book we only get a historical overview from Katniss’s POV.  We never meet President Snow or the head Gamekeeper.  We never see the machinations of folks with crazy facial hair pulling levers that result in fires and parachute deliveries and digital hounds from hell (which, while in the book were representative of dead tributes, were simply generically terrifying in the film, which took great liberties in doing so, because they created new laws of physics that push the story into the realm of fantasy).

That limited first person POV limits the story on almost all the elements of story physics cited above.  And so, the filmmakers added scenes from behind that curtain, including a subplot with its own dramatic tension that pits the President against the Gamekeeper.
If you saw the film, you know how that turned out.  But if you only read the first book in the series, you didn’t.  That dynamic and its outcome aren’t revealed until the second book, and even then, without the up-close-and-personal cache of the film.

There were other changes.  

Many of Katniss’ backstory flashbacks were combined and compressed.  Gale, who occupies Katniss’ thoughts, is given almost no airtime after she departs for the Games.  And in a major add, the film shows us a moment in which Katniss gives a sign of respect to the people of District 11, whose tribute (Rue) has just been killed and mourned by Katniss, the result being a rebellious riot.  Which connects to stakes and theme.

Imagine a room full of people wearing cool clothes sitting in front of iPads sipping designer water and lattes.

That’s the team of screenwriters, producers and even actors as they discuss the script they are about to write and shoot, based on your book.  You may or may not be there… probably not.

They must love your story, right?  Why else would someone driving an Astin Martin have optioned and then green-lighted it?  Why else would Michael Douglas and Meryl Steep be sitting in that room?

What are they up to?

They’re trying to make your story better.

They are playing with options on all fronts, asking “what if?” questions, firing off ideas.  They aren’t settling for your last and best creative decisions, even if they are in love with the general concept and arc of your story.  Even if your name is Suzanne Collins.

And then, at this same moment in time, there’s you.  Sitting in an office, alone, sipping tepid coffee while listening to the air conditioner, which you need to replace soon.

What’s the difference?

There shouldn’t be a difference.

Write your story.  Let it rip.  But then — either in the moment, or via another pass — ask yourself if your decisions, your story moments, are the best they can be.  If what you’ve written, moment by moment, optimizes dramatic tension while forwarding exposition, both at the macro-story level and the sequence and scene level.

Do your scenes and sequences have their own tension and stakes?  Are they compelling?  Will your reader be right there in those moments?

Are you maximizing point of view?  Does what happens behind the curtain enhance the story?  How are you handling that… and backstory… and foreshadowing, all within the infinitesimal subtleties of your characterizations?

Have you asked… why will anyone care?  What level of emotion am I plucking at… at any given moment?   Can you make what you’ve written even better?  You need to make that your highest priority at some point in the process, over and above moving forward.

You are your own committee.  Your story isn’t just a novel or just a screenplay, it should be the best story it can be.

Even if it isn’t the first version that you wrote.  Especially then.

*****

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