You don’t have to like The Hunger Games – book or film – to appreciate its craft. And more importantly, to learn from it.
Most who don’t like it (some of whom were summoned forth from this series to berate me for focusing on it) are put off by the subject matter (teenagers pitted against each other to the death), and sadly, perhaps missed the point, the thematic metaphor and thus, the skill with which Suzanne Collins created this juggernaut.
Simplicity, naivety, and blinders do not serve the emerging novelist. It’s impossible to challenge and stretch the reader’s mind and world if one’s own mind defies challenge of any kind.
Non-writers get to do throw these babies out with their personal tastes in bathwater. But no matter what that bathwater tastes like, real writers need to recognize craft when they see it. Machinations, manipulations and applications of forces. Such recognition is every bit as critical as practice — write write write, says the writing teacher, as if that’s all it takes — as we strive to improve our ability to craft great fiction.
Here’s what stuck to my wall as we eviscerated this story:
Narrative point of view is a choice.
Make it carefully. You might be cutting off a viable contributing source of dramatic exposition. Collins did just that with her first person voice, but the filmmakers added a behind-the-scenes POV that birthed an entirely new subplot, and while they were at it, added to the vicarous tension stemming from what the hero was going through. We (the viewers) saw it coming before Katniss could.
It’s perfectly okay, by the way, to mix POVs within a story. You can have chapters rendered in third person, while others are told in first. Just make sure it’s the hero narrating when you try this, and make sure these occur in clearly separated scenes and/or chapters).
Or, you can show multiple POVs in all third person chapters. But again, make sure they stand alone as segregated blocks of exposition.
The core story isn’t always what it seems.
Or better put, a love story trumps a thriller focus every time.
Katniss fleeing through the woods only offered so much story potential. But from the beginning the Games were merely a catalyst for what proved to be the core structural thread of the story, which was Katniss’ emerging relationship with Peeta.
Your twelve year old probably didn’t care, but that’s the brilliance of this. The story works on two levels, and together they became a sum in excess of their parts.
This dual narrative form happens all the time out there… start watching for it.
Sub-text counts. Big time.
I’m thinking that without the screamingly obvious parallel between the sadistic nature of the Games and those citizens who tuned in to watch them, not to mention the supposed rationale the Capital city used to justify them, and our own world of reality television and media spin… without that sub-text, THG is just another chase story.
The Bachelor without tears and heartbreak? That’s a rating disaster in the making. The audience — us — craves and delights in that suffering. Impossible to admit, horrific to see when you love a teenage hero.
This sub-text is what elevated THG above and beyond its surface YA genre to cross over as an adult contemporary bestseller.
Watch and learn. This is how you jump genres.
Story Physics will never fail you.
We all understand the need for conflict (at least I hope so… if you don’t, start digging though the archives here, that’s the most basic 101 criteria in all of fiction).
But there are at least four other major categories of story physics that can make or break your story, and too often — because they can naturally manifest as collateral forces stemming from your plot — we take them for granted.
Hero empathy — our feeling for, and subsequent rooting for Katniss (both are essential chunks of story physics) are major factors in this success of this book. Combined with an intriguing premise (the Games) and powerful themes, this element alone stands at the front of the class in this regard, right up there with the characters in The Help.
Don’t settle for this to simply appear in your story. Shoot for it, design your premise and your character to optimize these forces,
Aim high, write with courage.
A significant factor in the appeal of this story connects to the conceptual premise premise. These same intended themes, the same characters and many of the dramatic elements could have been pursued, say, by a reality television show depicting teens chasing each other around a suburban mall.
But Collins didn’t settle for the familiar or the mundane. And she went deep enough to license the contrived. Her story landscape — her arena, both literally and figuratively in this sense — was fresh, frightening, edgy, and a ripe metaphor for life.
Many stories can be set anywhere.
Again, choose wisely, using THG as inspiration. Take us somewhere we’ve never imagined, somewhere we’d love to go, somewhere that, while riddled with its own realities, jars us into recognizing something of ourselves and our own reality in the process.
The best historicals do this. The best science fiction and fantasy does this.
See the new film, Prometheus, just out this week. It’s a great story, but it’s an even greater vicarious experience. That’s the juice of that story. Combined with the plot, you have significant thematic weight, which wouldn’t happen if either the setting or the underpinnings of the story would have been… less courageous.
Even the best thrillers and romcoms utilize vicarious experience to snag our interest. W hy do you think so many are set in Hawaii? Answer: vicarious experience, which is one of those key elements of story physics, available to all of us in nearly any story we might write.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I know I’ve learned a lot, hope you have, as well.
Thanks to those who have chipped in some nominations for the next deconstruction, which is coming soon. I’m narrowing that down now.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to start deconstructing stories on your own. See if you can break them down into the core 9 sentences, and in doing so, begin to recognize the power of story physics at work.
Just like medical students spend half their time in anatomy labs peeling back the layers of specimens that once lived and breathed, we too can benefit from seeing what works — often hidden to the untrained or uncaring consumer eye — from the inside out.
Next up – a guest post from our favorite drop-in guru, Art Holcomb.
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