Deconstructing The Hunger Games, Part 1:

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.

 

20 Comments

Filed under The Hunger Games series

20 Responses to Deconstructing The Hunger Games, Part 1:

  1. You have a lot of points stuffed into this post, but you indeed got them down.

    “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?” This is indeed true! I’m writing a trilogy, and I can’t let either of my co-protagonists die at the end.

    You also say that the relationship between Katniss and Peeta provides the greatest tension in the story. You can say there’s a reason why fans took a page out of Twilight and had Team Gale and Team Peeta.

    Romances are an interesting element of both fiction and life. The trouble is handling it real.

    Personally, most romances for me rank the same, but The Hunger Game’s love triangle served its purpose. It’s just that your average relationship with a boy and a girl from a girl’s perspective doesn’t have full appeal.

    This is why I’m trying to focus on the somewhat crazy relationship of my co-protagonists in my WIP. One doesn’t know that he’s not handling it correctly, while the other can’t spit it out. More than one crucible put them together, and they’re both trying to reach their goals until the end of the clock.

    All I need to do is to figure out how to map the bumps in their relationship so it develops realistically, add some cute moments, and get that chemistry right.

  2. Others may deconstruct this but I’m certain they gloss over the small stuff that you turn over and look at with a magnifying glass. Thanks again for putting in the time to educate us for free.

  3. ThaNk you for taking on “The Hunger Games.” I’m looking forward to you future posts and the beat sheets.

  4. Thanks, Larry. I love these deconstructions. Helps immensely to see “live” examples of Story Engineering. Keep ’em coming.

  5. Larry, this is truly a gift. I love the way you introduced your post explaining how you (a master) make sense of writing. And, you’re right. This isn’t about competition with other reviewers–it is about study and finding what works. You are a life-long constructivist learner, and that is inspiring.

    Can’t wait for the rest. M.

  6. Pamela Moriarty

    I wasn’t going to read HG. Did I want to pursue a story about children killing children? Don’t we have enough misery in the world? I didn’t care that everybody else was raving about it. (Silly me!). Once you said you were planning to deconstruct HG, however, I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle and have been glued to it ever since. I’m like, OMG, there’s the FPP (I think!). OMG, here’s where she goes into reactive mode. OMG here’s where she switches from reactive to proactive. I don’t have everything nailed, but I’m completely in awe of how this book has been put together, especially the author’s strict focus on Katniss’s POV, which prevents the story from running away with itself. (My biggest problem with my first novel.) I’d never have seen any of this if I wasn’t a dedicated reader of your newsletter and blogs. So, a million thanks, Larry for your time and effort in putting this out there for those of us struggling to be better writers. I can’t wait for Deconstructing “Hunger Games” Part 2.

  7. DMac

    This is terrific analysis. I was so blown away by the book — it’s been a long time since I’ve read something I literally could not put down (cancelled appointments, stayed up all night, etc. ;-p) And after I read it and said “Phew!”…and after I immediately downloaded the next two in the trilogy….I started to wonder “How’d she do it? How can *I* do it? What made this so damn compelling?”

    I agree, it’s the relationships. The whole gladiator combat survivor game is a high-concept and certainly provides a handy life-or-death main plot line — but the tension and emotion come from the characters and relationships.
    I never believed, btw, that Katniss was ever in real danger from Peeta; I understand that logically she would consider him a potential threat, but I never thought he was.

    But it’s true that as a reader, I was very worried because of him — because although I thought it was extremely unlikely that the protagonist would die (not in book 1 of a YA trilogy!), it seemed all-too likely that Peeta would die. I mean, it’s a battle to the death, only one person can survive, and plus he’s Mr. Nice Guy and willing to sacrifice himself for her.

    So the more the relationship between Katniss and Peeta developed, the more worried I got. How could he possibly survive? How horrible will it be if she has to kill him? It matters b/c he’s not just a random guy, he’s someone she grows to care about deeply (if ambivalently;-p)
    Not that I analyzed any of this while reading, I was just white-knuckling the book 😀

    Can’t wait for the beat sheet!

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  9. Olga Oliver

    Well Larry – I’m one of those old duffers who has never read a fantasy – not a single one – I bought that book this morning simply because you’re opening it’s structure and skeleton for our viewing – so here I go on a new path. As Marilyn Monroe used to say “Thanks ever-so.” I listened to a couple of your Radio interview yesterday, and I must say that your voice simply rocked these East Texas pine trees. Did you know that you sound like a Harvard professor over the airwaves? Great talks.

    Thanks ever-so for your giving. I believe its a Zen saying, “you cannot receive what you don’t give,” so we receive from you and pass it on. I promise.

  10. Shaun

    Tsk. No First Plot Point discussion for part 1? I hate to be impatient but do we have to wait a week for part 2? I want to get straight to the Plots Points and your thoughts! lol Looking forward to the beat sheet. Thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s really helpful.

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  12. spinx

    Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

    YOu´re going to post a BEAT SHEET for this????

    Ha – finally, I have been waiting for something like this for ages. The beat sheet is the only thing that I just can´t seem to make sense of.

    Can´t wait.

    Peace out ;T

  13. Thanks for your take on this. Looking forward to the beat sheet.

  14. Pat

    Thank you very much for breaking down The Hunger Games. Got to agree with you that Suzanne Collins has a masterpiece thanks to her powerful story-telling.

  15. spinx

    @pat

    Yes, yes……..her storytelling is powerful – but – could it have been even better? Deffinitely! That is what I am striving for, that perfect mix.

    More depth, more character, more warmth, more relevance, a better background…………….blah, whatever – can´t wait for the beat sheet.

  16. I liked the idea behind The Hunger Games and I agree with Collins’s choice to use Katniss as a first-person narrator, but I still really didn’t like this book. I felt like I never got to know who Katniss or the other characters were. The imagery and descriptions about the setting were great, but I would’ve rather had more information about the characters and less descriptive imagery.

    Check out my blog post on why I hated the Hunger Games at:
    http://wordnerdgirl.tumblr.com/post/20337778655/why-i-hated-the-hunger-games-novel

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  18. I’ve waited to read through these until I at least saw the damn movie. Let me just start out by saying that I had no interest in the book or the movie and I was unaware of the hype until I saw a display at B&N yesterday. Tsk! Whatever.

    My point is, I’m coming into your series of posts like a lump of Playdoh and I kept it that way intentionally until I able to at least see the film. I will say that Jennifer Lawrence did indeed capture everything the character of Katniss needed to be.

    “It sates the lust and fascination of a society that is… just like us.” I kept thinking that in the movie but didn’t want to admit it. I so didn’t want you to “go there.” Ugh! We need that don’t we? The only difference is that The Hunger Games is their annual “reality TV.” Sigh.

    I agree that the story needed the romance to keep it moving but I think the fear and hopelessness is what pulled them together.

    I’m actually more concerned, if I’m allowed to be that, about Gale Hawthorne (the young man who stayed behind to watch mom and sis). I so FELT that pain. What a mess of emotions that one had to be dealing with, OMG! Please don’t die, please don’t fall in love with that other guy, etc. That’s part 2 of the trilogy, I assume.

    I hate those game manipulator people by the way. They don’t have enough drama and those computer freaks make their quest even harder??? Jerks!

    This cracked me up: “(at Denny’s)” Really? Not Starbucks? Too noisy, too expensive? Is Denny’s more comfortable? I couldn’t tell you myself. From my experience, they’re both equally noisy. 🙂

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  20. mike lawrence

    There is a political subtext as well, which touches on the perils of dependence. (Put your name in for bread – each time increasing the risk of state-sponsored annihilation)

    Gayle and Katniss both are self-sufficient responsible people that extend their cloak of responsibility over those around them to take care of them at their own peril. They understand this, they resent it, but they are willing to do it because of the moral imperative of being responsible. Peetah exhibits the same concept when he tosses bread to Katniss, at the risk of punishment.

    Finally, there is, what I thought was quite obvious, the notion of divide and conquer. The state maintains control by separating it’s subjects (If you’re in district 12, you ain’t goin’ to district 1) and putting them literally at each other’s throats. If you are competing with each other, you are not competing with the state. There is universal resentment at this, but the fact remains, they are divided and they are conquered. (So far, we have two books to go. I guarantee you we have a revolution coming.)