Hunger Games (9) – The Entire Story in Nine Sentences

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by Larry Brooks on June 2, 2012

Or… YOUR Story in Nine Critical Sentences

The best way to teach a technique is to show it working relative to something you already understand. 

What better way, then, than to introduce you to an immensely powerful story development tool – I hesitate to call it a trick, though it feels like magic when you use it – than to apply this little ditty to The Hunger Games.

Any story – the whole story – can be reduced to 9 sentences.

It can be reduced to one, actually, but 9 can tell the whole story with structural resolution, albeit at a 10,000 foot level.  Go ahead, try it on your story at any stage, or apply this to your favorite novels… it’ll test your knowledge of story architecture, while pointing you toward it… which is the whole point.

This is something you can use when developing a story, or when finishing one.  It’s an acid test, of sorts… if you struggle with it, then you’re just possibly in trouble with the story itself.

The goal isn’t to finish, the goal is to optimize.  To make your story the very best it can be within the context and confines of your driving concept.

These 9 sentences aren’t the first step in story development, by the way.  Or shouldn’t be.  The first step is the identification of an idea.  Then the goal becomes to expand the idea into a concept, and then you lay it out over these specific 9 sentences, each of which is assigned a mission.

When you do that, you’ve just structured your entire novel.

The number 9 isn’t arbitrary here.

Solid stories have five major milestones, and they unfold in four parts.  Do the math… that’s nine things – specific turns and essences – that need to be identified, and then broken down into individual scene treatments. 

The real value comes when these nine sentences expand into more sentences, ultimately with each sentence describing a scene in your story.  At that point, congratulations, you’ve just written an entire outline.

Here’s The Hunger Games in 9 Sentences.

Pay attention to the labels that identify the 4 parts, and the 5 milestones.  This is important because they need to be in a specific order and target specific content… and they all need to be covered.  Here goes:

 

  1. The HOOK is when, after meeting Katniss and her family in the first chapter, we see her sister Prim selected as a Tribute in the District 12 Reaping ceremony, and then Katniss (our hero) steps up to volunteer to take her place in the games.

 

  1. The Set-up continues (PART 1 of the story, or about the first 20% of the total length) with scenes that simultaneously show us the life Katniss had been living, including her skills in the forest, and the process of saying goodbye and then traveling to the Capital city, where their (she and the other District 12 Tribute, Peeta) preparation and training begin under the guidance of assigned mentors and caretakers.

 

  1. The story changes (kicks into a higher gear) at the FIRST PLOT POINT when Katniss, after being unsure about a strategy that pairs her romantically with Peeta, appears to accept this strategic union, thus uniting them as partners in the Games and spinning the sub-textual story arc of their relationship, which becomes the source of hope.

 

  1. In the PART 2  scenes (our hero’s response to this newly defined quest/journey), we see Katniss finish her final preparations with a flourish and then enter the Games as they open, with her surviving a near-miss attack before fleeing into the woods, eluding others and searching for shelter and water, and the dark discovery that Peeta has joined a pack that is targeting her.

 

  1. The MID-POINT changes Katniss from a wandering potential victim into a warrior when she attacks the Tributes waiting to kill her as they wait below the tree in which she had sought refuge, with Rue (another Tribute) tipping her off to a hive of killer wasps, which she drops on them, thus beginning her alliance with this lovable and clever Tribute.

 

  1. The PART 3 scenes, with Katniss now partnered with Rue after recovering from wasp stings and what seem to be hallucinations of Peeta actually helping her to escape, we see her tend to her injuries while hatching a plan to attack the food and supplies of the dominant surviving pack of Tribute (which includes Peeta), and which succeeds but ends up with Rue dead and Katniss once more alone.

 

  1. The SECOND PLOT POINT reunites a badly injured Peeta with Katniss, where their reconciled relationship returns to what is now a seemingly genuine romantic affection that is also their best shot at survival, and as such, sets up the ending sequence.

 

  1. The PART 4 scenes show them finding shelter where Peeta can safely heal, with Katniss leaving him behind to go to a Gameskeeper-arranged gifting, where she is nearly killed before being saved by Rue’s District co-Tribute (acting in gratitude for her kindness to Rue), and then, when it is announced that the rules will change to permit two surviving Tributes from the same district to win the games, they must escape the release of killer mutt creations that chase them onto the Cornucopia itself for a final showdown.

 

  1. The story ends when, after Katniss and Peeta survive the mutts and then a final confrontation with the lone and most sinister surviving Tribute (Cato), they are pronounced winners of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, and are taken back to the city for recovery and celebration, which takes a dark turn when their mentor warns that the President is not happy that their near death pact/bluff has humiliated the Capital and tarnished the Games, and that they are not yet out of danger (thus setting up the sequels).

 

Okay, they’re big Faulkneresque sentences, contrived to cover ground (especially when working backwards from a completed story). 

But they begin as short sentences, sometimes bullets (the beginning of a beat sheet), that become placeholders until the writer better understands what, specifically, will happen there.

This is a tool that can unblock you. 

It can be the primary spine of your story development.  It works because it forces you to consider the major moving parts of your story, and opens the door to the creation of specific scenes within the parts that you’ve just identified.

My advice: work on this – these nine sentences – as a means of fleshing out your story before you write.  If you can’t create that way (thousands tell me they can’t, so you must be out there), then use this to keep your organic scene sequence on track with the optimal generic architecture of the story.

Can you reduce your story to nine sentences that cover the five major story milestones (hook, FPP, Mid-Point, 2PP, ending) and four parts (setup, response, attack, resolution)? 

Try it.  You’ll be amazed, if not with what you have, then with the clarity of what you don’t yet have (or perhaps have in the wrong place), which is just as valuable.

Here are the nine sentences you are going for:

 

  1. Hook
  2. Part 1 exposition (set-up)
  3. First Plot Point
  4. Part 2 exposition (response, journey begins)
  5. Mid-Point
  6. Part 3 exposition (hero now becomes proactive)
  7. Second Plot Point
  8. Part 4 exposition (hero becomes catalyst for…)
  9. Ending/resoluiton

Stir in character arc and context, thematic sub-text and specific scenes that flesh out these sentences, and you’re in business. 

Ask Suzanne Collins, she’ll certainly agree… business is good for The Hunger Games.

*****

Webinar, anyone?

Give me 90 minutes and I can change your entire approach to writing great stories by kicking it into a higher, more focused and enlightened approach, no matter what your process is now.

It’s called: THE ELEMENTS OF STORY: TRANSFORMING YOUR NOVEL FROM GOOD TO GREAT.

Writers Digest University is hosting me this Thursday, June 7, at 1:00 Eastern/US (webinar will be archived for later user access if you have a day job and can’t attend) for an online Webinar that will allow you to clearly see your story through a lens that introduces concepts such as applying underlying story physics and how to optimize them through the application of six essential core competencies… just like the pros do it.

Learn more, and register, HERE.

 

{ 30 comments }

Donna Lodge June 2, 2012 at 5:19 am

Terrific post. Thanks.

Tony McFadden June 2, 2012 at 6:50 am

Thanks to everything I’ve learned from your writings (site, books), this is how I start every story. I don’t – can’t – start writing until they are in place.

(4 and 6 need pinch points – favourite part of *my* writing.)

Cheers,

Tony

Larry Brooks June 2, 2012 at 8:05 am

@Tony — you’re right of course, the model then becomes an 11 sentence tool. Just as good. For me, I drop in pinch points when I’m sequencing scenes within the four parts, since they may arise out of location or situation. But like you, I love pinch points, and there always on my story planning grid. Thanks for “getting it, ” Tony, you always do. L.

Martha June 2, 2012 at 9:12 am

As always, Larry, some of your posts seem to magically come at the times when I need them most. I’m wrestling with the story right now for “Bleeder”, my latest, and trying to make sense out of all the notes, scenes, and ideas I have.
Of course I should do this! Why didn’t I think of it? I’m a great fan and promoter of this type of planning, yet I was so dazed by the enormity of what’s ahead of me that I wasn’t thinking. This reminder was like a good, smart rap alongside the head. THANK YOU!

Evelyn June 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

Larry, do you think we can call a pinch point an “Uh oh!” moment? Is it one of those uncomfortable moments when the reader sees disaster about to happen (a handwriting-on-the-wall moment)?

Paul Perron June 2, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Larry, Story Engineering (in particular, the section on structure) was the book I’ve been waiting for. It’s completely changed my (writing) life for the better. I had very little grasp of structure before I read it. So thank you for that.

I hope you have time to answer this question for me: What is the optimal percentile in Part 4 to have the climax scene. I imagine it’s probably an optimal range rather than specific percentile due to the “no rules” tag you applied to it in your book (aside from no new characters or new information). I would guess the range is 50-75% of the way through Part 4. Please clarify. It’s about the only question I have left regarding structure thanks to your book, Story Engineering.

Btw, I signed up for your webinar for next week. I can’t wait to hear your take on story physics (the four forces, essences).

Thanks for your time and expertise,
Paul

Larry Brooks June 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm

@Paul — this is in an opinion, rather than an optimal target… but I think the climax should occur at the end of Part 4 (which is, of course, at the end of othe story). Could be the very end, or there could be some “aftermath” and epilogue-like exposition (which happens in The Hunger Games). It could also be in the middle of Part 4, but the very word “climax” implies that anything happening after that is “anti-climatic,” which makes a climax midway through Part 4 (which would be 87.5% through the entire book… that leaves a LOT of exposition to go) a tough thing to pull off, I’d think. In summary: the later the better, leaving room for efficient after-the-fact tying off of loose ends and sending the characters forward into their ensuing lives. L.

Larry Brooks June 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

@Evelyn — I suppose it could be, but because the appearance of antagonism at thje Pinch Points is really a “re-appearance” (the opposition was already on the table), it probably shouldn’t be… but it “could” be if that’s the design you have in mind. As long as the Pinch produces a full frontal view of the bad guy (or force), that’s the primary mission of the Pinch. L.

Paul Perron June 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Perfect, Larry. That makes perfect sense and clears it up for me. Thank you for the prompt reply.

-Paul

Ian Walkley June 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm

This is a really simple but useful tool to focus on the key issues around plot. It is so easy to become distracted with subplots and where the characters want to take you, and this helps to stop wandering too far from the main plot.

Tzalaran June 2, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Holy Sh!t! This just made everything ‘click’ for me in what i’m doing with my next novel. i’d previously been stuck with setting scenes into the 4 parts, and wondering if they fit, but after reading this post, i was able to bust out the nine sentences, change some of the pacing (my setup was far too long, and my hero getting to the capitol is the FPP, something previously hidden from me for some reason). Now what i was thinking as the FPP is the mid point shift, and it just all makes sense.

Thank you, Thank you! i think this slow learner might be on the right track finally.

Larry Brooks June 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm

@Tzaiaran — this is so awesome to hear. The tools are powerful, they work, and for some, only “old tapes” (there are no tools, no rules, you sit put your butt in a chair and see what happens = a limiting belief system) stand in their way. Congrats on the breakthrough, I wish you great success! L.

Michael T June 3, 2012 at 12:56 am

I just watched the movie “Winter’s Bone,” which was nominated for best picture. I saw the setup, the first plot point, and the key middle, and then…. well that’s where it kinda fell apart. There was no third act, the main character never gets ahead of the curve, she stays a wanderer and never changes. In fact the one who does (and becomes a far more interesting character because of it) is her uncle (teardrop).

Perhaps the movie should have been about him.

Tony McFadden June 3, 2012 at 6:29 am

Since pinch points have been bandied around (you’re welcome), I noticed something interesting in the Breaking Bad pilot (one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, btw, eclipsing The Sopranos’ writing hands down).

Spoilers are ahead, but we’re well past the fourth season now, and I’m talking about the pilot…

The pinch points in the pilot are located in the right place, but are twisted. The first one, properly, shows Walt the force of his (soon to be) antagonist (the DEA). He does a ride along with them and sees the force the bring to bear against a local meth dealer, something he will need to worry about from about episode two onward.

The second pinch point, though, shifts the story’s point of view. If the PP is meant to expose the depths to which the antagonist goes to achieve a result, then Walt has now become the antagonist. The completely unexpected force he applies to the punk bullying his son comes out of nowhere and sets the tone for the slide he is now taking to an extremely brutal life.

It’s an interesting shift in the story. Blew me away.

Orenthal June 3, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Unlike you, I never would have thought of the word “Faulkneresque” to describe your writing. But I guess that’s because you’re the famous blogger and I’m just the lowly reader. Keep up the good work!

Larry June 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm

@Orenthal — makes me smile… I’d never describe my writing, in general, as “Faulkneresque” or compare myself to anyone who has earned an elite level in this game… I was just trying to frame the nature and tone of those 9 long sentences within the context of this exercise. If I’d like to be compared to anyone (in my fiction) it would be a cross between Nelson Demille, John Irving and Colin Harrison… working on it, have a long way to go, though. Thanks for the grin – L.

Shaun June 4, 2012 at 3:05 am

I was actually doing this last week. I was a little overwhelmed by what to put in the “parts” but then I just focused on the primary milestones and now it’s a lot less hectic. Thanks for clarifying it here.

Paula Zahniser June 4, 2012 at 7:34 am

This post nailed my novel to the page: WOW! Although I have fantastic characters, a solid plot, theme, and several plot twists at the end, I’ve been struggling with my novel. Its seemed “too big,” and although I haven’t given up, it’s been a daily struggle. With this advice and information, I can say that I will finish my first novel. Not only did I come up with the sentences, but a few characters told me something they were going to do that I hadn’t written in. It’s going to be powerful! Thank you SO SO SO much, Larry.

spinx June 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

There he goes again, changing lifes, left and right……………..go, Larry!

Vivienne Grainger June 4, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Dangit, Larry, now I have to think some more …. thank you.

Michael T June 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm

One query for Larry:

While cheating on Storyfix with another website (storyfanatic) and pondering the ways of story structure I recalled the sci fi book Starship Troopers and began to wonder, “can the first act and second act be blended together?”

In S.T. the first scene is that of the hero attacking a planet allied with the bugs (hook), then it goes back in time (setup).

If you started with the second act (wanderer) and throughout it blended in flashbacks for the setup could this work?

How much can story structure be bent before it breaks?

Matthew Bennett June 5, 2012 at 1:21 am

Hi Larry, I’ve been reading and using your book (and a couple of others) to help me get the structure sorted out for my first novel, Cities of Energy.

If we can go from 9 to 11, can I suggest a 13-sentence version…?

1) Opening hook
2) Set up, exposition:
3) Inciting incident & 1st plot point:
4) Unleashing the darkness I:
5) 1st pinch point:
6) Unleashing the darkness II:
7) Midpoint context shift:
8) Attacking the problem I:
9) 2nd pinch point:
10) Attacking the problem II:
11) 2nd plot point:
12) Final run:
13) Climax:

Lena June 5, 2012 at 10:28 am

Great post, this should help in writing a summary as well as in developing a story!

mindy sitton-halleck July 16, 2012 at 8:11 am

I learn something HUGE everytime I read your blog. I’m working on my 9 sentences now. Great road map. Thank you! Mindy Halleck (Seattle)

Claire November 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Very helpful!
I know this is an old post, but I’m having a lot of difficulty with a dual arch storyline. There’s two parallel plotlines, generally would they share the architectural points, or each have their own?

Larry Brooks November 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm

@Claire — good question. Depends on how “separate” the storylines are. In The Hunger Games, for example, the “games” and the “romance” are actually two facets of the SAME plot, so you need to be really clear on how your two relate. If they DO relate, pick ONE to be the primary CORE story, and build your milestones around that (that’s what Collins did; her core story is Katniss’s survival strategy, which IS the romance “sub-plot). If they don’t, then generally shape them both to fit into the 4-part paradigm; just make sure one of them — here’s where you, again, need to pick a “primary” story — nails the optimal location of the First Plot Point. These are guidelines, they’ll keep you safe… but hey, this is still an artful pursuit, so follow your gut, too. Hope this helps — Larry

Frank E Legette III April 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Larry, “Story Engineering” is the best screenwriting book I have ever read. And trust me, I’ve purchased and read just about everybody. SE is the screenwriting bible for me from this day forward. When I turn writers onto this book I share with them that my sharing the information about this book is the best gift in life that I could have ever given them. And I mean every word of it. This book has changed my life. It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Thanks – Frank

K.C. May April 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Loved Story Engineering! Loved, loved, loved it. Any chance you’ll be doing another webinar? Or was last year’s one recorded and available for viewing now?

Larry Brooks April 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm

@K.C. — thanks for the shout out. I’ve actually done three webinars for Writers Digest, the last two of which (the most recent was last month, the other is the one you reference) are available as a “Webinar OnDemand” through WD here:

http://www.writersdigestshop.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=larry+brooks

Thanks! Larry

Ryan May 12, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Hi Larry,

Just found your website, and the 9 Sentences were exactly the kind of light-weight but firm structure tool I was looking for to map out my plot. I’m confident about characterization, setting, theme, etc, but I find plot easy to lose in the fun of spinning a world. (Sci-fi, of course.) I DO, however, have a strong vision for the story.

Story Engineering is on its way via Amazon…

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