Hunger Games (4) — From Concept to Compulsion

The word “deconstruction” best leads to learning when we tear into story structure.  Which is happening here, and will continue.  But when we look at softer essences such as concept, character and theme, the better descriptors of the intention are “observation” and “analysis.”

We can look at Suzanne Collins’ structure — or the structure of any bestseller — and learn from it.  See the moving parts at work. Juxtapose it against the principles of mission-driven, four-part, milestone-reliant exposition and sequencing. 

But when we look at concept, what is there to learn

It is what it is.  And in the case of The Hunger Games, the concept in play is huge and compelling.  As they tend to be in most bestsellers (exceptions include more literary works, like those of John Irving and Jonathan Franzen).

But why?  What makes this concept the platform for a great story?  That’s what we can learn from analyzing it.

Concept is like an engine.  In fact, you should think of concept as the engine of your story.   But withoot wheels, a transmission, an undercarriage, a seat to sit in, a steering wheel and some pedals, the vehicle doesn’t function.  It just sits there making a lot of noise while emitting toxic fumes.

Then again, the vehicle goes nowhere without one.

Did Suzanne Collins begin with Concept?

You came for the Games.  You stayed — you gasped, you kept turning pages — because you cared.  And that was because of the love story and the horrific thematic resonance.

It doesn’t matter where Suzanne Collins started.  Stories almost always begin with one of three story elements: a concept.. a character… or a theme.  Sometimes, especially in the case of “based on a true story” projects, it begins with structure, or a sequence of events.

But in each case this is also true: it doesn’t become a great story, or even an effective one, until all of those are in place.  Which means, it doesn’t matter where you begin your story development, as long as you eventually nail all six core competencies (which include those four, plus scene execution and writing voice).

Even then, though, you’ll need more than those to elevate the story to greatness. More on that — and how Collins did it — in a moment.

Rumor holds that Collins was watching television one night, switching back and forth between a war documentary and a reality show.  Both of which, it seems, pushed her buttons. 

And thus the concept for The Hunger Games was hatched: What if a reality television program pitts children against each other, fighting to the death, as a means of asserting power and control within a futuristic dystopian society?

That wasn’t Collin’s first idea.  No, the first idea, whatever it was, was what led her to this concept.

While perhaps implied, that “what if?” statement does not introduce a character, or even a theme.  Those had to be added into, wrapped around and melted into the concept (this stirring process being the art of storytelling), which is certainly what Collins did.  Neither that concept nor these elements arrived fully realized, they were both products of an evolving process of development, the incubation of elements, the heat eventually building until the elements melded into one another.

You can engage in the process through story planning, or through story drafting.  Both can get you there.

The learning: don’t be impatient, and don’t settle.

Don’t jump the gun, or the shark (which is easy to do, especially if you are a drafter, because, a) it’s harder to see the elements working within a draft, as opposed to an outline, and b) it’s daunting to re-do or revise a draft that shows itself to be deficient in mid-stream, making it oh-so-tempting to settle). 

Whatever element you begin with (and it is often concept), play with it, poke it, fertilize it, until is grows into something more, something with character and theme emerging in a completely logical and compelling way.

The mistake — the common shortfall of unpublished manuscripts — is to write almost exclusively about your concept without the visible, visceral presence of the other elements.

In The Hunger Games, while Collins almost certainly began with this concept, the story ended up being about a love story at its core.  The exterior drama unfolding within the arena of the Games is, in essence, the tapestry upon which the stitches of this love story emerge.  The First Plot Point, in fact, is driven by the love story.  Call it an “A Plot and a  B Plot” if you wish (how we label these things is less important than how we understand and implement them), but their sum is vastly in excess of their individual parts.

Without the love story, the Games become nothing more than a weekly episode of Survivor with knives.

Without the Games, the love story is just another afternoon soap opera.

Without the heinous Gameskeepers and the dystopian society they serve, none of this has much weight.  This is what gives the story it’s powerful themes.  And thus, how it emotionally engages (which rhymes with enrages in this case) the reader… perhaps the strongest aspect of this story.

Relating this to Story Physics

Story physics, or forces, are the powers of narrative that move the reader toward engagement and response.  They are essential to an effective story.  They include: inherent conceptual appeal… dramatic tension… pace… reader empathy… a vicarious reading experience (you’re so there with Katniss as you read this story)… and some sort of undefinable “X-factor,” best described as executional excellence.

The Hunger Games nails all of these. 

And that’s part of the learning here: you need to nail them, as well.  No matter how strong your concept, it doesn’t rise to this level without all of those story physics in play.  And that can’t happen unless you bring strong characters, powerful themes and solid structure to the execution of your concept.

Powerful story physics is what you’re going for.  The Six Core Competencies are how you get there.

Without the Games, this love story has little dramatic tension and absolutely no stakes (they key to reader empathy).  In fact, it doesn’t exist.

Without the love story, we have less reader empathy and a more shallow vicarious experience.  In fact, without the love story this book plays more like a video game.

Without the dystopian society (which is killing these children), there is less reader empathy.

The outcome of your understanding of all this — as demonstrated so ably in The Hunger Games — leads to a checklist against which to vet and improve your story.  How are you dealing with each of the six core competencies?  How do your story elements optimize the major modes of story physics?

You can plan for and command them, or you can wrestle your story toward them as you write.  But in the end, what will make your story more effective is never a mystery.

How you get there is your call.  If you’re willing to look closely and recognize the inner machinations in play, stories like The Hunger Games become a clinic on how to do so.


Want more Hunger Games?  This the 4th installment in a series of posts deconstructing both the novel and the movie.  Check them out, and come back for more posts as we go deep into both the structure and the narrative forces that make htis story great… all in context to our goal: to learn how Collins did it, and how we can do it, too.

If you’d like more on the Six Core Competencies, click HERE to see what my book is all about.  And… big news about the book is forthcoming within the next couple of weeks.


Filed under The Hunger Games series

6 Responses to Hunger Games (4) — From Concept to Compulsion

  1. I hadn’t thought about the synergy of it all before. You need so many elements on different levels, all working together, to finish with a really worthwhile story. The seemingly lurid elements, such as the death game, elevate the seemingly deeper elements, such as the building of a relationship. It doesn’t just happen in the other direction. And without the accessible human drama, the really weighty part, the examination of an oppressive society, would just be a pompous and dull political science lecture.

  2. Shaun

    So many things to digest. So many things to make a great story. It’s overwhelming.

  3. “Without the Games…” “Without the love story…” “Without the dystopian society…”
    Those three statements explain the power of The Hunger Games in a nutshell. Strong insights, Larry.
    I’m especially encouraged by The Hunger Games in that anyone could have written it. Collins’s prose isn’t outstanding; the sway of her presentation is. In my opinion, this superbly demonstrates that if you nail the Six Core Competencies with confidence, you can write a remarkable story.

  4. spinx

    @Nann Dunne

    You, girl, took the words right off my mouth!

    So———-I wasn´t the only one who was totally blown away by the “Without the Games…”, “WIthout the love story…”———–because, yes – HOLY COW – I was just that blown away!

    This, right here my friend (Larry!), is the way to explain such things – to even the thickest out there. Just like that………and……..all of a makes sense – all of it.
    I don´t know if you realize just how powerful those simple sentences are. If you can, then by all means – let it all out. I´m itching to read more. In that easy manner. A knockout. First round, first minute.

    Two more steps…that´s how I feel right now…two more steps, and I will finally be able to step out there on my own. To search the forest, to wander, to survive – with confidence, with skill.

    That´s what I ask for – those two steps.

    Push me, Larry! Push me!!!

    (Great, great post! I´m sure you can tell by now – I learned more from thid, than from anything else in the past five months. Thank you ;T)

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  6. I enjoy the comments of readers here. Even if my focus does seem to be a little outside the box, as usual. 🙂

    RE: “The learning: don’t be impatient, and don’t settle.” OMG, Larry, you’re so right! I’ve read books where I feel that the author “settled.” Did they get tired? Why didn’t they build it? “They could have made it so much more!” At that point I lose faith in the writer. Ick.

    I don’t want that to happen to any of us. 🙁