Hunger Games (8) — On Milestones and Meanings

In life, even in art, there are certain laws — principles, rules, fundamental truths — that govern.  That dictate motion, direction… effectiveness… success or failure. 

So called “conventional wisdom” is hit or miss, it may not belong on that list of eternal, universal truth.  In fact, I can name a a fistfull of “conventional wisdoms” that will make your writing life tougher and your stories more vanilla.

There may indeed be no rules in this game, as many like to claim (semantics, that).  But there are always physics and natural law in the mix.  If you want to jump off Niagra Falls in the name of art, prepare to go splat on a rock.  That’s just those impartial physics kicking in, the cause-and-reaction manifestation of ignorance.

These universal dramatic physics will make you… or they will break you.  And they totally made THG into what many consider to be a modern classic.

With storytelling, there is a vital roster of these principles and forces .  Some are simply properties, what I like to call “story physics” (the forces that render a story powerful).  Others are modes of access (to the forces) and application (of the forces), which I call the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

To attempt to write a story without at least a working awareness of these things is, at best, daunting.  To make it successful with years of rewriting… nearly impossible.

I wrote a book about the latter (“Story Engineering“)… and am writing a another about the former (“The Search for Story,” out in early 2013 from Writers Digest Books).

These literary forces are always there, even when the author is unaware of their essential essence, even when the author refuses to recognize them as the very things they are attempting to leverage and optimize on the page.

The Hunger Games is a clinic in how these two realms of story — story physics, and story construction and execution — merge to determine if and how,the story ends up as something that is deemed compelling, or the degree to which it works.

In THG, 30 million buyers are in agreement: it works.  Really really well.

Here’s why: the major story milestones in this story all nail the highest level of purpose and definition of each story milestone.  As well as all four contextual parts that are compellingly aligned with the target definition of their purpose at that point in a story. 

In other words, THG is by the book when it comes to story architecture, which means it optimizes the power of story physics that result from applying these principles.

The effectiveness of a story is never random.  

When it works it can be explained, just as it can be explained when it doesn’t.  The only randomness in this equation occurs when the author doesn’t know what they’re doing… then its a crap shoot.

Some authors don’t want to hear this.

They reject anything that smacks of structural labeling, modeling or paradigm-aligning expecation, or attempts to define what they need to be writing, or are planning to write, at a prescribed point in their story sequence.

Fair enough, call this what you will.  And then take your chances with what you know. 

But gravity is gravity.  The earth only spins in one direction, no matter what you want to call it.  If you want to play a game in which gravity plays a role, you don’t have to believe in gravity or even think about, to make your game effective… but you do have to factor it in.  

Just as universally… for art to work at a commercial level (which is precisely what we’re talking about here), it must touch someone besides the artist.  No matter what you call the means by which that happens.  The means, in this case, are the manner in which the writer has harnessed the power of story physics.

In a tasty little serving of irony, even those writers who decry this approach as formulaic, who claim there are no “rules” are indeed subordinated to these very principles, and when they write a story that works, they are absolutely aligning with them.  However, and whenever, they get there.

The folks backing Columbus swore the earth was flat.  Who knows, ol’ Chris himself may have believed that to be true.  But at the end of the day — no matter what Columbus believed about navigational physics, or how Suzanne Collins feels about story structure and its working parts — they both eventually reached a destination that worked.

Without falling off a cosmic cliff.  Because the physics that defined their journey are what they are.

Story milestones are there for a reason.

When you accept that, you can then forget about what they’re called, because it is those functional reasons that dictate what you must execute and ellicit in your story, and where.  The milestones are guidelines, literary lighthouses, to get you there in an optimal way.

What are they?

The five major elements of story physics are: conceptual power (the compelling essence of the Big Idea)… dramatic tension (conflict)… pacing… hero empathy (resulting in our rooting for something)… and vicarious experience (often a function of setting and concept, as is the case in THG).  Those last two combine to become at catch-all that speaks to the need for the reader to be emotionally involved.

The major story milestones are there to help us make these things happen in our stories.

Read that again… it’s a make-it-or-break-it invitation to become an enlightened writer.

Each story milestone has a mission to fulfill, a definition to live up to, and a functional purpose in your story.  They aren’t there simply to signal a transition, there’s a deeper purpose attached.  When you ignore them, or fail to understand them, you do so at the risk of your story’s optimal power and effectiveness.

You don’t have to have names for them.  But you do need, eventually, to align these truths.  If you writea a story with weak tension, no pace, nobody to root for and nothing for the reader to discover, not matter who majestically you put your sentences together… the story will tank.

I have no idea if Ms. Collin’s is aware of any of these labels.  But having read all three books, I guarantee that she understands them — even if only instinctually — because they’re all there, bolding evident in the pages of THG.

And that’s precisely why these stories work.

It ain’t her killer prose, folks.  Which is fine, by the way… but something less than killer.  It’s her command of the forces that elevate a story to greatness.

Her First Plot Point — when Katniss “accepts” her role as Peeta’s romantic partner in the Games — changes the story into more than a thriller unfolding on a cool conceptual landscape… it turns it into a love story.  It moves the story from “set-up” mode into “response” mode, as Katniss goes forward within this more compelling context.  And meanwhile, the reader is far more emotionally empathetic to the surface dangers in view of these larger stakes.

If you doubt this, look at the ending of the story (both book and film): it’s all about their perceived love for each other.  That is the catalyst that not only moves the story along (in parallel with the thriller storyline), but for the denouement, as well.  Without their love, the ending would have simply been a kill-or-be-killed violent confrontation.

The Mid-Point is when Katniss evolves from her Part 2 wanderer/responder mode (fleeing through the woods, attacking nothing other than her own need for immediate safety), into the Part 3 attack mode.  The moment she starts to saw that branch supporting the tracker-jacker hive (killer wasps) to drop on her pursuers, the story — and Katniss — is different. 

Renewed.  Jacked.  Deeper.  Faster.  More compelling.

The context has evolved, gripping us even more.  That’s the power of structure that is in alignment with story physics.

What, one might legitimately ask, does this have to do with the love story?

Everything.  Because Peeta is part of the pack that is pursing her.  She must survive, and  so must he, for this love story to continue.  And if she doesn’t drop that hive on them, she doesn’t survive.

The Second Plot Point is when Katniss reconnects with the injured Peeta, and they become united in their mutual survival.  Real feelings emerge from this web of strategic facade, complexity ensues, and once again it is the context of a love story that drives the exposition forward.

The ending?  That’s easy… it’s all about their relationship, their love.  They defy the Gameskeeper and the Games themselves by choosing love over survival.  Which is at the heart of the theme of this story (one of the Six Core Competencies). 

 That ending delivers on what Collins has successfully caused the reader to feel — to flip the Capital and its sadistic people the proverbial finger of defiance.  It satisfies… the main criteria for an ending to a story… precisely because of the story physics that underpin it.

Think about how these moments harness the power — the physics — of storytelling.

Without the love story, all we have is an extended chase story, with little at stake except survival.  That could work, but it works better — it is optimized — when the story becomes about love, about defiance and self, over and above survival.  When it becomes thematic.  The reader is emotionally connected… we root harder, we empathize more, because this is a stronger concept.

If the FPP doesn’t happen, then you don’t have this love story, and you have no expositional pace (one of the five basic elements of story physics).  If it happens too soon, we aren’t as emotionally invested, because the set-up has been short-changed.  If it happens later than the optimal 20 to 25 percentile mark (something an uninformed or defiant writer might try), then we’ve already began to settle into a lighter, less resonant story.  One that wouldn’t have experienced the success what ended up on the shelves and on the screen.

Without this angle and its placement at the FPP,  what we have is just another episode of Lost.

The placement of the Mid-Point moment uses the same justification.  

If Katniss remains a fleeing potential victim for too long, we don’t feel as strongly, we have less and less to root for.  Less hope.  If it happens too soon, then we aren’t as fully aware of and empathetic to the danger and the pain of her situation.

The HG Mid-Point optimizes these story physics.  It’s placement isn’t random, and it isn’t a rule… it’s just optimal.

Same with the Second Plot Point.  It changes the story into what it was all along… a love story.  A love that defines their chances of survival.  Defines and strengthens stakes.  Once again, story physics are at the heart of it… if placed earlier or later, this SPP moment wouldn’t work as well.

All of these principles and tools await us.  Every time, every story.

It is up to us to recognize them, and once understood, to harness them.  To harness that which you do not understand… is luck, is imprecise, even if it is driven by solid instinct.  Better to know what you’re doing.

Just as in life itself… some people get it, some never do… and some of those still trip over good fortune.  Either way, we get to choose.  To not choose, to just keep writing blindly and organically, to rely strictly on an uniformed instinct, places the outcome entirely in the hands of your subconscious, where you are rolling the dice with your career.

Once chosen, the knowledge and learning is out there, right at our fingertips.  Once recognized, you’ll see these story physics exerting force within each and every successful story you read, or see on a screen.

No exceptions.

Are you in, or are you rolling dice?

The Hunger Games shows it all to us, clearly, effectively and, if you look for it, with the empowerment that comes from getting it.


Webinar, anyone?

On Thursday, June 7, I’ll be presenting a 90-minute Webinar through Writers Digest University.  The title is: THE ELEMENTS OF STORY: TRANSFORMING YOUR NOVEL FROM GOOD TO GREAT.

Prepare to hear what you’ve never heard before, at least in this empowering context… just possibly a milestone in your writing career.

Click HERE to register.



Filed under The Hunger Games series

13 Responses to Hunger Games (8) — On Milestones and Meanings

  1. Shaun

    What’s with the Lost comment? lol Despite its horrible final season (it ended at 5 for me personally), Lost was pretty awesome. And at its core, was a character driven love story. Hmm.

  2. Olga Oliver

    Appreciate your “On Milestones and Meanings.” An excellent review of Story Engineering. But I have a question, Larry.

    Ironically, just last evening I met with a book group discussing their latest reading – The Hunger Games. The meeting ended with many questions. Your first sentence in today’s “On Milestones and Meanings” states the very substance that was the subject of the evening: “In life, even in art, there are certain laws—principles, rules, fundamental truths …”

    I can’t help digging and turning over and over the questions’ content expressed in last night’s meeting.

    “My kids will not read these book, nor see the movie, if I can prevent it?”
    “The very idea of killing your neighbor via experiencing first love is an unacceptable concept.”
    “The random killings that are taking place right now must have given the author this idea for a book.”
    “Don’t you think story publication has reached a point that is in need of some regulation? This is terrible reading for our young children.”

    So, my question is: Doesn’t story concept bear some responsibility in the art of writing? For the adults in this meeting last night, all educated folks, who are furious with this story, what can I say? Can I say, “you’re simply not getting it?” But if these adults are not “getting it” are the young readers “getting it”? So, in this grand art of writings, what is an author’s responsibility?

  3. As soon as I saw your LOST comment, I had to laugh (in agreement). Ah, it’s good to be back and reading these posts again and remembering how much I love story structure and milestones. Can’t live without ’em, at least not without getting into editing nightmares. 🙂

  4. Kristin

    It’s the responsibility of the author to tell an honest story. Those who get it might want to enlighten those who don’t, because these books are important.

    They are more than an action packed teenage love story. They are about love, yes. That’s the bone. But the themes are significant, and the fact that these books have become the mass entertainment they comment on is perfect, except when the mass appeal eclipses the significance.

    Collins (She’s worth reading up on.) writes about war. War affected her childhood. Who is the Capital? What is the nature of identity within a state? What does war do to people? What is the nature of diversion and entertainment in society? What is the nature of image and identity in celebrity?

    The genius is the way the concept plays out so deliciously. If you only explain the (Wait, what?!? That’s crazy. Gross. How can you live with yourself reading that?) premise (“No, no, really–it’s not so bad, it’s not like that. No, the author really makes it work, she totally pulls it off.”) to anyone they don’t get it. Until they do. But by then Suzanne has already drawn them in and made them the Capital.

    These books are no more violent than reality or history. They are a mirror. Except for those who are too squeamish to participate. And in that case, bummer–especially if they are the same ones who race their Hummers home from the gas station to watch American Idol.

  5. Pingback: Friday Features #7 | Yesenia Vargas

  6. Olga Oliver

    KRISTI – you say “these books are no more violent than reality or history. They are a mirror.” I agree, yet questions hang around consciousness edges, bumping against the knowledge, that we create our reality and history. A little study of past history shows human evolvement tightens its stretches forward, by repeating and repeating and repeating.

    I agree with Larry about freedom of speech – but even freedom of speech has some fuzzy whistles sometime. As I sat listening to the Reading Group last night in all their fury, and since I’m trying to become a published author, these questions about this particular story moved me. And so I’m asking – AND THIS IS NOT THE PLACE FOR THE QUESTION on Larry’s site (please forgive me Larry) would someone please tell me the essence, the truth, how is this story giving our human evolvement another forward step? Perhaps we’re not writing to advance human evolvement, we’re simply writing to mirror. And to say it’s delicious is not a good answer, in my opinion. Please educate me!

  7. @Olga — when you ask: “would someone please tell me the essence, the truth, how is this story giving our human evolvement another forward step?”… which you did in your comment, you really need to ask that question of ANY AND ALL books, if that’s what you’re setting up as criteria for worthiness, publishability (your smacking up against censorship on that one… controlled by who, by the way?). As heinous content goes, THG is very tame and minor league. The lists are crowded with books that are much more sexually charged, including my own (is that bad, too? see “50 Shades of Grey”), much more violent (virtually any murder mystery… are they bad, too?) and much more politically disturbing (THG is wonderful, in that regard, as it shows us the outcome of power taken too far). Want violence, evil despots and children being tortured? See Snow White and the Huntsman, that makes THG look like a grade school play. Should be censor Snow White?

    Really, holding THG up as the icon of indecency is sort of silly, when you look at the market as a whole. It says more about the complainer than it does the book. L.

  8. Olga Oliver

    Larry, appreciate your input. I’m not complaining about THG, nor am I seeking censorship. I’m simply asking the question: What about author responsibility? And to look at the market as a whole opens up a bigger can of worms … in my opinion, of course. Thanks for the exchange … I’m looking forward to your Webinar.

  9. mike lawrence

    At the end, she was willing to die by berries – for love?

    Or to defeat the game maker?

    Which story is really subplot here? Love or war?

    As I’m reading this decon series, I find myself not quite agreeing with your proposed main story throughline here. You’re better at this than I, so I’m probably just not seeing it correctly. But the love story as primary isn’t working for me. I think it’s subplot. Which means I need to replace it with something else.

    Concept: Sadistic political oppression forcing the populace to compete with each other to live. (symbolically through the games.)

    Theme: David and Goliath, straight up. Katniss is David.

    Hook: “I volunteer”

    Important foreshadowing: pigs and apples. I will defeat you by breaking the rules and you can’t stop me. If this isn’t foreshadowing, then Collins is breaking a rule and letting the hero take a swing at her foe too early. It still works, but I think it’s foreshadowing.

    1PP: The games begin. (Yes, the OTN choice. I’m leery of discounting the obvious choice here. The antagonist is shown frontally by the tributes around her, the cornucopia of weapons and the battle arena. Her life is now committed to a new path, firmly and undeniably. Textbook 1PP) BTW, there is a thematic element here, too, and it’s a mean one. A Cornucopia is a symbol of bounty – in this case a bounty of weapons served “kindly” by the state. We could have given you food, money, whatever. We have it, you don’t. But you get weapons today and you need them, because we say you do. May the odds be ever in your favor…

    1P: Fireballs (arbitrary and unjust application of state control)

    1PP:Bees and bows

    2P: Rue dies. (Career Tributes are part of the “system”)

    Lull: “OK, I’ll stay” He’s wounded, she can’t win alone. They are going to die.

    2PP: Dogs. (One last time, arbitrary and unjust application of state control)

    Climax: berries. I win, mother f-

    This is off the top of my head, having seen the movie and read half the book, so I may be off target on some of the tent poles. But it is way easier for me to find them in a “fight the system” template than a love story template.

    The conflict here is between Katniss and the state, in a few different ways. Care for Prim so she doesn’t have to put in tickets for bread. Hunt in the wild even though it’s not allowed. Take care of others who are beaten down by the state. Prim, Mom, Rue, Peetah. It’s all over the place. Rebel: shoot apples and stuff. I can clearly see Katniss as the rebel against the system here. She is told that she is unappealing by Haymitch, but this is not a call to overcome inner demons in the way of love. This is a call to overcome inner demons in the way of expanding here strategy through perception. Smile, people will like you and send you a parachute later on. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with love.

    I don’t see her struggling to overcome any obstacle to Peetah’s love. She sees him as part of the tactical problem, not an object of desire. She doesn’t even trust it until the end, but it’s not a lover’s leap with the berries, it’s defeating the state. She does not say “I love you”, she says, “Why do they have to have their victory?”

    Look at the arc, too. Actually, I can’t find one. She’s a tough anti-establishment type from beginning to end. Inner demons getting in the way of love? What inner demons? Where? Her only real inner demons (2nd dimension) is her need to protect those weaker than her from the state. (Again, Mom, Prim, Rue, Peetah, even Foxface) A recurring problem in her mind is what will happen to all these people when she’s gone? (“I promised her I would win.”) That inner demon falls away when she accepts the idea of dying, but only if it means beating the system. She can let go of her compulsion to take care of everyone and go to the real 3rd dimension agenda: beat the system. Which, honestly, is a much more nobly heroic action than giving in to love. She is saving the world, which is what heroes are supposed to do. That right there tells me the main throughline here is her fight against the system.

    The love story does not work on its own. Make Peetah some anonymous thug and her quest against the state still works just fine. She would just make him eat the berries first.

    And, finally, the love story itself is an act of rebellion. It’s function is hope, a thematic ingredient entrenched in the context of a hopeless people in a hopeless situation, not hope for true love. (And this is so important, the film adaptation uses 3rd person omniscient and an actual character to tell us that.)

    The love story is in the background, not the games. Peetah could die in the first act and we still have a really good story.

  10. @Mike — this is a fair observation, and your disagreement it logical and well presented. Thing is, there are two primary sources of EXPOSITION in this story: the games, and the relationship with Peeta. When we write a story this way, we pick one as the structural tent poles, and Collins used the relationship. The optimal target location for her First Plot Point is almost exactly the moment when Katniss decides to publically play along with Peeta’s strategy of them being a couple. Because it will get her further in the Games. The start of the Games isn’t anywhere near the target FPP.

    This isn’t a right or wrong discussion, it’s math. Everything in the story, especially the end, depends on and turns on her relationship with Peeta. When you read the other books (which Collins had in mind when writing THG), you’ll see that this spine continues and grows. I’m not saying the Games is a sub-plot, but I’m pretty sure the Katniss-Peeta spine isn’t a subplot, either. That’s why the book is so powerful, it presents two dramatic spines, only one of which aligns with target locations, and therefore, becomes the primary structural skeleton of the story. L.

  11. mike lawrence

    @Olga – the contribution to human evolvement here is an ideological statement. “Freedom has its price.” It’s not much more complicated than that and, especially in this political climate, it’s message is more timely than ever. Social evolution is not a linear process. It is a cyclical process.

    To condemn The Hunger Games for its portrayal of human cruelty is absurdly myopic and hypocritical. None of those same people in your reading group would prohibit reading The Diary of Anne Frank, 1984 or learning about the Holocaust, all subjects of intense human cruelty. Truth is its own messenger, whether in history or a fable. (The Hunger Games is a fable)

    I fear for the future of our nation, and the world, when I hear more and more people questioning the right for anyone to speak out because it leads to some arbitrary notion of harm. For God’s sake, that’s the time-tested formula for tyranny! If you don’t want your children to read it, don’t let them. But, what you should really do is buy it for them. The message is timeless, universal and important. Frankly, those who seek to condemn it take us one step closer to its manifestation.

  12. mike lawrence

    Thanks for the response Larry!

    BTW, is there a way to find/track comments? The only way I know right now to see if you’ve replied is to remember where I commented and then go look. Sometimes I forget and I’m afraid of missing a response.

  13. John V

    I wonder if the milestones might be a bit different in the film versus the novel as a consequence of the changes that were made by the filmmakers, changes that Larry has pointed out.

    For example, PINCH POINT 1 in the novel: Larry indicates is when Peeta speaks of not giving in and becoming something he is not, as in blood lusting savages. He wants to die as himself, and, in the film at least, Katniss is saying she can’t afford to think that way. In the film this comes at 59 minutes or 46.4%, past the optimal point. What about the PINCH POINT occurring (in the film) when the President says to the Gameskeeper: “A spark of hope is fine as long as it’s contained–so contain it!.” This occurs at the optimal place according to Larry’s story engineering, 48 minutes into the film, the 38% mark: this seems to fit the definition of the pinch point as “a reminder of the danger, the stakes and the implication” or “An example or reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. The ‘viewer’ sees for herself in a direct form.” This scene would not have been in the novel but it’s placement and magnitude in the film seems important.

    Also I wonder if the MIDPOINT is different in the film too. Larry indicates the MIDPOINT in the novel occurs when Katniss takes the action of cutting down the Cracker Jacker nest (occurs at a optimal place in novel), something pointed out and suggested by Rue. This occurs in the film at 82 minutes in, or 63.8%, well past the halfway or 50% mark. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the filmmakers have the games start at the exact middle of the story, at 50%. Here there’s a moment before the start of the games, we see Peeta take a look at Katniss, indicating to RUN into the woods. They were both told to do this by Haymitch. Up to this point, Katniss has gone along with things, she hasn’t been happy about a lot of it, but she, in the end, has gone along with what they wanted while also showing her independent nature. Here something different happens: she doesn’t run to the middle to get equipment or supplies nor does she take off into the woods like we see Peeta doing. She watches for a bit, takes things in, thinks, plans, and then makes a charge for a particular bag. She almost gets killed in the process but this is a proactive move on her part, she’s not just following what others tell her to do or being reactive, she is taking a proactive measure. This tells us so much about Katniss and feels like a catalyst: “it activates new decisions behaviors and actions stemming from a new perspective and changes the contextual experience and understanding” going forward as the games begins. This comes at the optimal MIDPOINT or 51.9%. If the midpoint occurs at 64%, the story (film version!) doesn’t seem as structurally balanced.

    As for PINCH POINT 2: Larry indicates that in the novel this occurs when Katniss must directly kill in an attempt to save her and Rue, when Katniss experiences the darkness of the circumstances. This is when Rue is killed and Katniss kills another tribute, at 95.3 minutes, about 75% into the film version, the optimal location for the second plot point. What about a case being made for it happening when the fire comes at her and then she is immediately chased up the tree, when all the antagonistic forces are seen in a one-two punch at the 74 to 78 minute mark, approximately the 58 to 61% mark of the film, optimal is 62.5% for the second pinch point.

    The SECOND PLOT POINT comes, as Larry indicates, when Peeta and Katniss seem to form a genuine relationship. This moment seems exemplified at the 104 minute mark when Katniss says to Peeta, “I’m not going to leave you, I’m not doing that.” A powerful moment that occurs at the 81.9% mark of the film. It comes right after Katniss mourns Rue and raises her fingers in what seems like solidarity and tribute to district 11 (and before they go into the cave). This ‘fingers-raising’ feels as if she’s making a larger statement to those in charge as well. Can a case be made for this being at least part of the second plot point? This moment of her raising her fingers occurs at 101 minutes , 78.7%, close to the optimal point. What makes the finger raising especially powerful to me is that it comes before the announcement that two victors may be crowned, whereas it is only after this announcement that she solidifies her union with Peeta, giving that slight bit of opening that there union could be as much about the larger issues going on here as it is about the degree to which their love for each is developing, though both feel very strong and compelling at this point. It’s interesting that even at the end when they are about to put the berries in their mouths, I get a sense Katniss is partly doing this as a strategy, believing the “HIGH UPS” won’t like this because she gives a look to the side, up at them, rather than at Peeta, at an interesting moment. This seems part rebellion (and part love of course), just like the raising of her fingers. There seems to be a lot going on at this pivotal second plot point.