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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Part 1 exposition (set-up)
- First Plot Point
- Part 2 exposition (response, journey begins)
- Part 3 exposition (hero now becomes proactive)
- Second Plot Point
- Part 4 exposition (hero becomes catalyst for…)
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.
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.