Monthly Archives: May 2012

Hunger Games 6 — The Stealth Power of Sequencing

This weekend I returned to the theater to see The Hunger Games again.  My first exposure to the story was the media… then the movie… then a casual read of the novel… then a slow analytic read-through and breakdown… and then the film again.

Every phase of this immersion illuminated something new, and taught me something more.

It occurs to me that this is precisely the way we experience our own stories as we write them. And thus, exposes a potential pitfall on that path: it’s easy to settle, to quit learning about our stories before we’ve discovered all of its inherent potential.

My Latest Observation About This Story

Sometimes, when we notice something from behind the curtain of first-look awareness, we can’t un-see it.  This is true on many fronts in life, and it’s an invaluable skill when breaking down stories for analysis.

One of those illuminations is the use and effectiveness of sequencing within a story.  Once again, The Hunger Games becomes a transparent laboratory where we can observe the narrative power of stellar craft at work… through Collins’ use of sequences as a narrative device.

A sequence is, in essence, a scene broken apart into linear blocks.  

Often those blocks use time and place shifts to segregate its scenes, which is the criteria for any scene.  But a sequence links these scenes together into a micro-story.

For example: the sequence in HG when Katniss is sleeping in the tree with the hunter pack camped below, waiting to kill her when she eventually comes down… then Rue awakens her from another tree, silently pointing out the Tracker-Jacker hive a few feet away, signaling that she could cut it loose and drop in on the others below… then Katniss climbs up and begins sawing at the branch, being stung in the process (which set-up the subseqent sequence)… then it falls and all hell breaks loose… then Katniss climbs down and claims the bow from one of the dead girls.

End of sequence.

Was this all one scene?   You could argue that it was.  But when you look closely, you see that it is just as accurately described as a series of linked scenes creating a sort of micro-story, with a beginning, middle and a great ending, one that propells the macro-story forward.

Just as with scenes, sequences are best written to fulfill a narrative mission.

This sequence, which is the mid-point of the story (both book and film), has the structural mission to evolve Katniss from her Part 2 reaction/wandering self into a Part 3 attacker/warrior self (the contextuual definition of these parts).  In a narrative sense, the mission of the scene is to have Katniss gain possession of the bow and arrows, which makes this transition happen.

When you know what your scene or mission must accomplish, perhaps before you write it, and when that mission fits structurally, contextually and narratively (as it does here), something wonderful happens for the writer: you are then free to blow it out of the water. To optimize dramatic tension, pace and empathy through vicarious experience.

Did those wasps scare the bejezzus out of you?  Did me.  Collin’s could have created anything she wanted as a means of Katniss getting the bow and arrow from the girl (who, not coincidentally, had been shown to us as sadistic and arrogant, making her demise gratifying in its violence), but she optimized the moment with this particular choice.

When we are mission-driven in our scene and sequence choices, that optimization and gratification is what can lift our stories to a higher level.  When we are searching for purpose within a scene, then optimization is harder to achieve.

Other Sequences in This Story

One of the cool things about the use of sequences is that they really fill up your pages.  In a 60 scene novel, for example, if you have six sequences of five scenes each, they become HALF of the story itself.  You don’t have to come up with 60 units of dramatic set-up and action, you can cover half of those with six micro-stories that take the overall narrative forward, and in an optimized way.

Here are some other sequences in the HG… notice how much of the story they occupy:

The reaping… the train ride… the training… the opening of the Games… Katniss fleeing… (then the Tracker-Jacker sequence described above)… Katniss reacting to the stings (where Peeta appears as her savior) … the strategy with Rue and the attack on the food… healing Peeta in the cave… the unleashing of the vicious digital dogs… the end battle at the Corucopia… the aftermath.

They’re all sequences.

In planning a story, you can begin by creating sequences and putting them in order and context to the overall arc and concept of the story.  Which is why it’s critical to KNOW the overall arc and concept, you cannot optimize until you do.

Then, sequences defined (in terms of their mission, or what they need to achieve and deliver to the reader), you can break them down into scenes.

And then you can optimize those scenes.

It’s all mission-driven, contextually empowered, and narratively seamless.

You can do it up front with planning… or you can do it in real-time with revision.

We’re not sure how Collins’ did it in terms of process, and it doesn’t matter.  What we do know is that she accomplishhed it with stellar results.  For writers, we can learn from that outcome without needing to see the process, then make our own way toward implementing these techniques in our own work.

Next up: thoughts about the book-to-film adaptation.  Much to learn there.

 

 

 


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Hunger Games 5) — Examining the Part 1 Set-up Scenes

You’ve heard me say, again and again, that the First Plot Point is the most important moment in your story.  Now that we know what the FPP is (see last post), we can examine how the scenes prior to it — which comprise the entirety of the Part 1 set-up — fulfill this misson.

The contextual mission of all Part 1 scenes is to set-up two things: the forthcoming First Plot Point… and the story to follow.  The First Plot Point is the trigger, the catalyst, for the rest of your story.  Which is why, in turn, it is the most important moment in your story.

Here’s a provocative truth: the degree to which you succeed with your Part 1 set-up scenes defines how successful your story will be overall.

These set-up scenes (usually about 10 to 18 or so) need to accomplish a critical handful of things: hook the reader…  introduce the concept of the story… show us setting, time, place and some (as necessary) backstory… introduce the main character (your story’s hero)… show us the hero’s situation, goals, world view and emotional state prior to the launch of the path that lies ahead… make us care about the hero through the establishing of stakes… and foreshadow as necessary, including the presence (perhaps implied, maybe in the reader’s face, your call) the antagonist.

With all this in place, you are ready to lower the boom, ignite the fuse, launch the journey with your FPP, which comes in context (and an emotional investment) to these same objectives.

If you do so too soon, without adequate set-up, you risk compromise to reader empathy for the hero, which is essential to success.

If you engage is too much set-up, then you risk compromising pace, which (especially at this point in the story) is also essential.

Let’s see how Collins does with this in The Hunger Games.

The narrative style and flow Collins uses in this series makes it challenging and imprecise when it comes to identifying and segregating scenes.  She uses what I call a “deep first person” voice, meaning it comes off like a stream of consciousness flow of thoughts from Katniss, during which she might reflect on something that happened in the past.  When that occurs, you could consider that flashback, as its own scene… or not.  Normally a “scene” announces itself with a shift of time, place or both… but here this becomes a fuzzy line.

That said, I identified 16 scenes in Part 1.  All of them are clearly, in terms of context, there to setup the forthcoming FPP, as well as the rest of the story.  (See the Beat Sheet to follow along.)

Scene 1 – clearly sets up the Reaping ceremony later that day, which is in itself a means of setting up the entire story.

Scene 2 – a cutaway flashback of Katniss in the forest showcasing her hunting skills, clearly a set-up for her forthcoming experience in the forest/arena of the Games.  There is no tension at all in this scene… that’s not it’s mission.  Setup is its mission.

Scene 3 – introducing elements and dynamics of relationships.  No tension, no stakes, just pure expositional information we’ll need later.  If this same scene happened in any other Part 0f the story (2, 3 or 4), it wouldn’t work, because of that fact.

Scene 4 – because you know (now) that Katniss will volunteer to take her sister’s place when Prim is selected in the lottery, this scene shows itself as necessary set-up by illustrating the emotional bond between Katniss and Prim, and their mother.

Scene 5 – a critical moment of exposition: the Reaping ceremony itself.  It ends with Prim being selected.  This illustrates how a set-up scene can itself be an Inciting Incident (which this clearly is), with dramatic tension and stakes (established in Scene 4).  But in context to the whole, you can  also see how the primary mission here, the requisite path, serves an even bigger moment to come… when Katniss steps up to take her place.  This is a major hook, coming on the heels of a less impactful hook (when we learn the nature of the Reaping ceremony, even without a full grasp of it).  Notice how this hook comes fairly early in the story, but how she (Collins) used that earlier hook to entice us toward this very moment.

Scene 6 —  Katniss volunteers.  If this isn’t clearly a major moment of “set-up,” I don’t know what else could be.  This is yet another Inciting Incident, right on the heels of Prim’s selection (also an Inciting Incident), that points the story in a clear direction toward Katniss’s journey.  And, toward the FPP.  But notice, too, how we don’t yet know much about her journey, especially the heart and soul of it (which is why this is not the FPP), which is her forthcoming relationship with Peeta.  That remains to be set-up.  Next, in fact.

Scene 7 — our first look at Peeta, with necessary backstory.

Scene 8 – Peeta is selected, she and Katniss are presented to the crowd.  Katniss realizes that to win the Games, she’ll have to kill the guy.  Pure set-up.

Scene 9 – family goodbyes (emotional set-up through stakes), Gale’s goodbye (foreshadowing several things, including her proficiency with a bow, her dynamic with Peeta in contrast to her feelings for Gale, and setting up Gale as a player in future books in this series).

Scene 10 — the train ride to the Capital city, with necessary b.g. on the Games, and the beginning of an unfolding contexual dynamic with Peeta, which is criticcal.  Notice that nothing happens in this scene… it’s all background and set-up.

Scene 11- more set-up of her paranoia, fear and resistence to Peeta, whom she suspects is already trying to play her.  This is, in fact, the major dynamic of the first half of the entire story, and it begins here.  Pure set-up.

Scene 12 —  more b.g. (through flashback) of her hunting and survival skills, her family story, and her independent spirit.  This deepens our understanding of the hero… which is more set-up.

Scene 13 —  on the train we see Haymitch coach them on how to survive the opening moments of the Game, at the cornucopia.  This is an important scene, because it deepens stakes, puts the danger (violence and death) right in their (and our) faces, and deepens the tension between Katniss and Peeta.  Which, in case you forgot, is the core story Collins is telling here… the Games are merely a stage upon which this dynamic will unfold.  We, the readers, are now emotionally involved and vicariously present (both being elements of underlying story physics, without which this story doens’t work as well)

Scene 14 — a transtional scene as Katniss reflects on it all, wraps her head around her situation (allowing us to do the same), and thus deepening everything in terms of stakes, our rooting for the hero, our horror at this situation, and our interest in seeing how this will play out with Peeta.

Scene 15 —  as Cinna prepares Katniss and Peeta for their introduction, Collins is establishing (setting up) the role and importance of strategy, which itself is the source of tension between Katniss and Peeta.

Scene 16 —  they are presented to the blood-thirsty crowd as a couple.  Katniss takes his hand, showing us that she’ll play along (however unwittingly) because she understands the need for strategy.  This also sets up the FPP in the next scene..

Scene 17 — … where in the afterglow of a stunning introduction where they are positioned as a couple, Katniss makes a gesture that changes the entire story: she kisses Peeta on the cheek to signal her agreement to the strategy, and perhaps to make him believe in her fondness for him.  But Collins lays in a bit of poignant foreshadowing here… she has Katniss kiss him on the cheek, right on a severe bruise.

Their game is on.  This is the FPP, because it defines their journey going forward, and does so in context to known stakes and opposition.  Katniss has made a shift that launches the core spine of this story, which is what makes it (along with location, on Page 72, right at about the 20th percentile mark).

The Learning

No matter what happens expositonally in your Part 1 scenes — action, backstory, subtle dynamics, foreshadowing — the CONTEXT OF SET-UP applies .  You can’t short-cut it, and you can’t over-lay it.

Which illustrates how the metrics of story structure don’t constrict us.  Rather, they keep us from writing outselves into a corner… or over a cliff.

Next up: a closer look at Part 2, the response to what the FPP has put in motion.

 

 

 

 

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