This weekend I returned to the theater to see The Hunger Games again. My first exposure to the story was the media… then the movie… then a casual read of the novel… then a slow analytic read-through and breakdown… and then the film again.
Every phase of this immersion illuminated something new, and taught me something more.
It occurs to me that this is precisely the way we experience our own stories as we write them. And thus, exposes a potential pitfall on that path: it’s easy to settle, to quit learning about our stories before we’ve discovered all of its inherent potential.
My Latest Observation About This Story
Sometimes, when we notice something from behind the curtain of first-look awareness, we can’t un-see it. This is true on many fronts in life, and it’s an invaluable skill when breaking down stories for analysis.
One of those illuminations is the use and effectiveness of sequencing within a story. Once again, The Hunger Games becomes a transparent laboratory where we can observe the narrative power of stellar craft at work… through Collins’ use of sequences as a narrative device.
A sequence is, in essence, a scene broken apart into linear blocks.
Often those blocks use time and place shifts to segregate its scenes, which is the criteria for any scene. But a sequence links these scenes together into a micro-story.
For example: the sequence in HG when Katniss is sleeping in the tree with the hunter pack camped below, waiting to kill her when she eventually comes down… then Rue awakens her from another tree, silently pointing out the Tracker-Jacker hive a few feet away, signaling that she could cut it loose and drop in on the others below… then Katniss climbs up and begins sawing at the branch, being stung in the process (which set-up the subseqent sequence)… then it falls and all hell breaks loose… then Katniss climbs down and claims the bow from one of the dead girls.
End of sequence.
Was this all one scene? You could argue that it was. But when you look closely, you see that it is just as accurately described as a series of linked scenes creating a sort of micro-story, with a beginning, middle and a great ending, one that propells the macro-story forward.
Just as with scenes, sequences are best written to fulfill a narrative mission.
This sequence, which is the mid-point of the story (both book and film), has the structural mission to evolve Katniss from her Part 2 reaction/wandering self into a Part 3 attacker/warrior self (the contextuual definition of these parts). In a narrative sense, the mission of the scene is to have Katniss gain possession of the bow and arrows, which makes this transition happen.
When you know what your scene or mission must accomplish, perhaps before you write it, and when that mission fits structurally, contextually and narratively (as it does here), something wonderful happens for the writer: you are then free to blow it out of the water. To optimize dramatic tension, pace and empathy through vicarious experience.
Did those wasps scare the bejezzus out of you? Did me. Collin’s could have created anything she wanted as a means of Katniss getting the bow and arrow from the girl (who, not coincidentally, had been shown to us as sadistic and arrogant, making her demise gratifying in its violence), but she optimized the moment with this particular choice.
When we are mission-driven in our scene and sequence choices, that optimization and gratification is what can lift our stories to a higher level. When we are searching for purpose within a scene, then optimization is harder to achieve.
Other Sequences in This Story
One of the cool things about the use of sequences is that they really fill up your pages. In a 60 scene novel, for example, if you have six sequences of five scenes each, they become HALF of the story itself. You don’t have to come up with 60 units of dramatic set-up and action, you can cover half of those with six micro-stories that take the overall narrative forward, and in an optimized way.
Here are some other sequences in the HG… notice how much of the story they occupy:
The reaping… the train ride… the training… the opening of the Games… Katniss fleeing… (then the Tracker-Jacker sequence described above)… Katniss reacting to the stings (where Peeta appears as her savior) … the strategy with Rue and the attack on the food… healing Peeta in the cave… the unleashing of the vicious digital dogs… the end battle at the Corucopia… the aftermath.
They’re all sequences.
In planning a story, you can begin by creating sequences and putting them in order and context to the overall arc and concept of the story. Which is why it’s critical to KNOW the overall arc and concept, you cannot optimize until you do.
Then, sequences defined (in terms of their mission, or what they need to achieve and deliver to the reader), you can break them down into scenes.
And then you can optimize those scenes.
It’s all mission-driven, contextually empowered, and narratively seamless.
You can do it up front with planning… or you can do it in real-time with revision.
We’re not sure how Collins’ did it in terms of process, and it doesn’t matter. What we do know is that she accomplishhed it with stellar results. For writers, we can learn from that outcome without needing to see the process, then make our own way toward implementing these techniques in our own work.
Next up: thoughts about the book-to-film adaptation. Much to learn there.