Wherein We Reveal How Suzanne Collins Pulled This Off
Just got Randy Ingermanson’s monster newsletter today, and he’s doing an analysis of The Hunger Games. Good stuff.
I’ve seen at least four others out there, too. There is certainly more to be found and more on the way.
They’re all good, all valuable. Please read them all.
I don’t find this intimidating, nor do I consider it a competition.
But it does get my attention. I want my contribution to this discussion to be worthwhile and illuminating in a way that isn’t redundant or obvious. That empowers writers in a way that furthers their craft, not just their admiration for the story.
I need a unique focus, a theme and an objective to fulfill that need.
And it needs to come from a hardcore, strategic story engineering perspective, rather than softer concepts such as, “it works because we, the reader, have an emotional resonance with Katniss’ soul.”
True. Important. Also obvious.
What isn’t obvious is how you, as an author, can achieve the same effectiveness in your story through the strategic, informed choices you make along the journey.
Focus, Theme and Objectives: Got ‘em all.
The focus will be on the relationship between the story’ structure – and it’s not giving anything away to tell you up front that HG totally nails the classic 4-part paradigm that I advocate – I’ll even give you page numbers for the milestones – as well as the underlying story forces (or physics, as I like to call them) that render a story effective.
Effective enough to sell nearly 30 million books and become a juggernaut film, with two more down the pike, and a Harry Potter like cultural fascination and tchotchke industry to go with it.
The theme will be to illuminate why the book works, why it has become a near religion for some readers, and why that isn’t an accident or pure luck. What were the choices Collins made, and why do they work?
That said, there is some of both – accidental kismet and pure luck – in Suzanne Collin’s home run. Other novels, past and present, are just as good and never get a fraction of this attention, some don’t even get published. This thing we do as writers is not an exact science, and while we all plan for and seek to create a monster outcome, please understand that we as authors are not anywhere close to having complete or even significant control over getting there.
But we can try. We must try. Having the tools and certain fundamental understandings at our command will send a little of that kismet and luck our way, absolutely.
The only thing we have control over is the story.
The manuscript. From there, we throw it out there, and we wait. We take our chances.
This deconstruction seeks to use The Hunger Games as a model for how to improve our chances of success. Not by imitating Suzanne Collins in any way, but rather, by applying the craft this story demonstrated and harnessing the story physics it optimizes.
We have complete control over that.
The objective is to show you things you may not have noticed, to recognize them as powerful and effective – validate the principles through a credible show and tell – and to move you towards putting these truths and skills into your quiver as a storyteller.
First Glance Learning
Collins makes some challenging choices in her narrative strategy.
Collins mashes her scenes together like a skillet breakfast at Denny’s (don’t mistake scenes for Chapters… they are very different in this book). This is a function of time-spanning first person narrative, wherein the narrator flashes back to things and then returns to the present, moving through her journey as a memory told over coffee (at Denny’s) to a long lost friend. You have to pay close attention to the scene strategy, but it’s there, and it works.
First person was the best and only real choice for a story like this.
Notice how (unlike the movie), the book remains true to the hero/narrator’s (Katniss) point of view for the entire journey. This limits you, as an author, but it also empowers a deeper dive into what things mean, what they could mean, and a sense of fear, anger, paranoia and hope that is as much subtextual as it is sometimes on the nose.
Subtext is critical to the success of this story.
The Hunger Games is a clinic in subtext. The subtext – very much by design – infiltrates and informs virtually every scene, elevating dramatic moments into something more than eating on a train or sleeping in a tree and schmoozing with a freaky television host as part of the Game’s pageantry.
There is always impending darkness, death, distrust and terror right below the surface of everything. Always the unspoken. That alone imbues this story with one of the key elements of story physics: reader empathy. We are scared for Katniss from the moment she steps forward at a Tribute.
And thus, because she deserves our empathy because of who she is (through other narrative means, such as her instantly stepping forward to save her sister), we root for her. This alone can empower a story to greatness.
Katniss is, in all probability, going to die. Horribly. She knows it, everybody else knows it. She’s going to kill, too. She will kill children who, like her, don’t deserve to die, before her turn comes.
One of the most creepy elements of subtext is that this very fact – her killing, her being killed – is precisely the point, it is the delicious inevitability and largely hopeless stakes of the Games. It sates the lust and fascination of a society that is – this being yet another genius dose of subtext at a thematic level – just like us.
But the real killer subtext in this narrative, alongside the more thematic ones, is her unfolding relationship with Peeta. In fact, this is actually the expositional spine of the structure – you may be surprised to hear that, but I’ll show you – and thus becomes the heart and soul of the story itself.
Titanic was more about a relationship than a sinking ship.
The ship and the situation was pure subtext. The outcome of that was never in doubt.
Same with The Hunger Games. This story is also more about a relationship than an impending disaster or situation. In both cases it is the danger, the proximity of death and the impact of fear, that becomes the driving empathetic essence (an element of story physics), and in Collin’s case, the primary source of dramatic tension.
The danger is primarily a catalyst for an unfolding relationship.
Really? You think not? I didn’t say the only source of tension… just the narrative focus of the story’s structural pacing through conflict.
I ask you, did you ever for a moment consider that Katniss might die? No. It’s a trilogy, and the hero never dies in a story like this. So that’s not the primary source of tension… leaving… what? Answer: how she’ll survive, which is completely linked to Peeta. Because he is positioned as the subtextual danger to Katniss – especially in her own mind – from the moment his name was called to stand alongside her as a Tribute.
Maybe subtext isn’t something you’ve noticed as a reader, but it is certainly something you need to understand and command as an author. It is all-powerful in storytelling, and in The Hunger Games it is the very thing that sparks reader empathy.
And as a result, showcases a masterpiece of reader manipulation.
Food for thought: what is the subtext of your story? Are you in command of it? Are you using it to deepen your story physics?
Next up: Part 2 of this deconstruction: concept vs. theme in this story.
Coming soon: a beat sheet of the novel… a generic beat sheet of the scenes and their purpose/mission… the macro-structure of the story… the hook and why it works… the story’s Part 1 quartile… the First Plot Point, and why it isn’t what you think it is… and the rest of the structure, piece by gloriously effective piece.