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.






Filed under The Hunger Games series

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

  1. Excellent series. Based on the depth of character you reveal here, would you call this literary fiction as apposed to genre?

  2. Outstanding analysis, and great timing! I believe I’m actually beginning to understand this stuff. 🙂
    Keep up the great work.

  3. Excellent analysis, Larry. But I noticed a discrepancy in your scene numbering here vs. the beat sheet. You have the FPP in scene 16 in the beat sheet, but show it as scene 17 here. A minor nitpick, but it may confuse some. My opinion is that this scene 17 is really just an extension of, or the last part of, scene 16.

    These story deconstructions are some of the most helpful writing lessons I’ve ever gotten. Thanks!

  4. I hadn’t thought that “setup” itself could be a scene mission. In several scenes, you mention that either there’s no tension or “nothing happens.” I’m not Suzanne Collins, so I wouldn’t try that just yet, but it’s interesting to see it done.

  5. And this is exactly why plotting in advance is so powerful. How could a writer *possibly* write an effective Act 1 without solid knowledge of the contents of Act 2 (and a pretty good idea of Act 3).

    My first revision after completing the first draft is to go through Act 1, tweaking set up scenes and foreshadowing so the follow-throughs subsequent in the book have the right impact.

    Great analysis, as usual Larry. It may actually convince me to see this movie.

  6. Ing

    I’m not Larry (obviously), but in answer to Nancy… I wouldn’t call it literary fiction; it doesn’t fit the requirements, since it’s clearly written for a YA audience and fits mostly in the science fiction genre.

    Nor would I call it a “genre” novel. It’s a term everyone uses — genre fiction vs. literary fiction — mostly because the publishing industry does it, but as an English lit major, I think (no, I *know*) that’s a misuse of terminology. Genre is not a characteristic that some books have and others don’t. A genre is a category, a type; all books belong to some genre or other, so there’s really no such thing as “genre fiction” (fiction itself being a broad genre, and literary, speculative, fantasy, etc., being sub-genres).

    Okay, rant over.

    The best books, in my opinion, have a perfect balance between depth of character, compelling action, and intriguing concept. It’s why I like fantasy and sci-fi so much. Character tends to get neglected in these genres (or at least take a back seat to concept and action), but when they all come together, as in The Hunger Games, there’s nothing better.

    I’m loving this deconstruction. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the story engineering paradigm, but I’m seeing new things here and it’s getting clearer than ever before. Seeing it applied to a story I already know and love is like a revelation. Great stuff.

  7. @Ing and Nancy — I agree with Ing (well stated). The term (much like the term “deconstruction”) has an “official” meaning, and now, within the vernacular, it has come to mean “a specific category of story.” But Ing is so right, some “genres” emphasize certain elements to the detriment of others (mysteries being one), and the short hand usually goes to characterization. The Hunger Games, IMO (and Ing’s) is a great novel in any genre (and a great film), because of how it didn’t short-change character. Katniss is a quintessential hero, with an arc, with sub-text, with inner demons and with great courage and compassion. Collin’s sure made it easy for us to empathize with, and root for, her hero. Which (again, IMO), because of the powerful context of the story, if you had to boil it down to ONE thing that elevates this above the crowd (there are several candidates on that count), it would be those two things: hero empathy, and vicarious ride. L.

  8. Tara Hamdi

    After seeing the first part with my daughters, I was very disappointed, as I felt it was similar to The Running Man in some way, but then I decided to read the other parts, and I saw the story developing alone.
    Quite Impressive.

    Tara Hamdi

  9. Cool stuff indeed, Larry.

  10. I can’t stop thinking over this. Can you add something more useful?