Hunger Games (10) – The “Risk Taking” in this Story

As someone who advocates writing fiction from a context of structure, mission driven elements and aesthetic discipline driven by market standards, I am sometimes pitted against others who advocate “taking risks” with our stories. 

As if, somehow, these philosophies are not aligned.

I suppose it depends on how you frame the issue. 

Is breaking certain principles and laws in this life a risk… or is it suicide?  The question applies to our stories as much as it does anything else.

Is jumping off a bridge onto a freeway a risk, or is it certain death that will appear, to anyone looking in, to be suicide?  Because the act violates all the known laws of physics and survival, which is always suicidal. 

That analogy, without compromise, accurately frames the question of risk taking in our stories.

Don’t be fooled or seduced.

Those who encourage us to take risks are not suggesting that we write stories that violate the basic tenets of dramatic physics, structural integrity or creative license.  Go ahead, write a story with no conflict, lackluster pacing,, zero inherent compelling interest and nobody to root for… then see what happens. 

That manuscript lying  on the freeway, right  next to the guy who just jumped off a bridge?  That’s his novel.

No, risk taking, in this context, has everything to do with courage and with bold vision.

It has to do with the bucking of belief systems, social boundaries and the occasional use of creative narration techniques.  It relates to the boldness with which an author takes a theme and explodes it into a dramatic framework that challenges, frightens, disturbs and, while doing so, grips and entertains.

The Hunger Games is a prime example of this, as was The Davinci Code.

I’ve heard from some writers waxing outraged about THG, saying that the book is obscene, and that as authors we have a responsiblity to hold our fiction to higher standards.  Same with Davinci, people seem to take pride in hating it, as much because they don’t believe Dan Brown is all that good (they’re wrong, based on results, which stem directly from his bold vision) as because their world view has been challenged.

The risk, then, is this: whose standards are they? 

Yours?  Society’s?  Risk comes when we challenge norms, speculate on alternative realities and show consequences, and do so in the full knowledge that it very likely will piss off a certain percentage of the market.

Both Suzanne Collins, who wrote a story about children killing children, and Dan Brown, who wrote a story suggesting that the largest religion in the western world is based on a conspiracy to hide the truth, took significant risks.  IF that’s all you see in these stories, then frankly, you didn’t get it.  You didn’t get what about 50 million other readers did get.

For Collins and Brown, let’s just agree that the risk they took paid off, at least in terms of commercial success.  There are still plenty of haters, the fact of which, I’m assuming, makes both Collins and Brown smile widely from the comfort of their 40,000 square foot homes with a helipad and a killer view.

Neither book, by the way, played the slightest bit casual with story physics. 

In fact, both stories are models for it.

It’s gut check time: are you being seduced in the wrong way by the “take-risks-in-your-writing” mantra?  Are you tempting fate by jumping off a literary bridge?  Or are you framing this properly as a challenge to take your book to new places, with bold ideas that explore relevant themes, and then empower the storythrough a fierce adherence to the very principles that will make it work?

Here’s hoping it’s the latter. 

May all your risks turn out to be… survivable, and just possibly, a catalyst for your success.

*****

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10 Comments

Filed under The Hunger Games series

10 Responses to Hunger Games (10) – The “Risk Taking” in this Story

  1. Vivienne Grainger

    Excellent post, as always, Larry.

    In the last six months I began to take my writing seriously, and in those six months I’ve learned that if I don’t scare myself on the page, I’m not telling enough truth.

  2. Using your beat sheet and story structures involve taking risks from a beginner’s expectation of story building.

    I love this essay. It’s wonderful. Thank you for defining what the good risks are. YES, write from the gut, write from the heart, write what you mean and do it well. Take a stand for what you care about. This will always trump something constructed mechanically about safe themes that you could care less about but think it would sell. That’s what the risk is. People will know you at least considered a heretical idea and don’t just believe what you’re told to believe by Society, their level and niche of it, which seems to many people to look like all there is in Society.

    The story structure is about doing it well so that it grabs the reader by the gut and drags them in to care as much as you do.

    That boldness, using strong conflicts, writing characters larger than life, freeing imagination to create immersive settings, letting your villains murder and your heroes turn vigilante and everything in the story turn larger than life, your jerks do things that you’d have chucked them out as a flatmate three chapters ago, those are risks too. A lot of people come to fiction thinking that they have to keep it Realistic.

    That a hero can’t be actually heroic, drum up some grit against terrible odds and overcome life’s troubles. There’s a whole range of fiction with realistically neurotic, beaten-down protagonists who have no character growth throughout the book and many teachers point to this as far better artistically than the one where that protagonist overcomes his massive personal flaws to discover life’s worth living.

    That’s another kind of risk. That’s the risk that makes your story structure a risky proposition. Many times the original literary work of genius that sparked the type had the structure and there was one thing that varied – say, the protagonist didn’t grow but it was screaming obvious to the readers that this failure was the protagonist’s alone and everyone else in the book grew and changed leaving him behind. That it’s a personal tragedy written well as a tragedy. The third generation imitation literary derivative that got an A+ in class was a bit of dribble about a lot of whiny neurotic characters that run in circles going nowhere and describes the Pointlessness of Modern Life. Because some professor missed the point of the first book in a few volumes of technical analysis.

    Overcoming bad training is itself a risk because the writer’s going up against authorities who claim with some evidence to know more about literature than you do. It can lead to a lifetime of unpaid work in precious small publications for a handful of compliments and maybe some contributor copies.

    Breaking out of that takes knowing what your goals are and that some branches of ‘literary fiction’ are a genre unto themselves with their own set of genre expectations.

    Just my two cents worth. I loved this essay. But those are some other risks to be looked at while writing. There are some teachers I’ve had that I would not have gotten a good grade if I’d turned in a good story.

  3. Sarena

    I enjoy your story deconstruction series very much, I was wondering, though (I don’t know where else to write this) whether in the future you could do a deconstruction on Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.
    Thank you for your consideration, and please continue posting such helpful content.

  4. Both The Hunger Games and The Davinci Code are great books, partly because of their risk-taking, and partly because they still follow the story structure. Great post.

  5. Michael T

    I tried to read The Da Vinci Code but could only make it to page 30. The poor writing turned me off.

  6. Margaret Anderson

    I just had to write to thank you. I attended your webinar last Thursday – it was great. I bought your book, Story Physics, have almost finished it. I’ve studied and read books on writing (and loved them) for years but I feel like I’ve found a voice in the wilderness of babble about writing and must dos and must don’ts – a voice talking sense and laying it all out in a way that speaks to me personally. I’m laying out the structure for my story now and I feel confident that I can move forward and get it accomplished. I’ve suffered with having what I considered good scenes but not knowing where to put them or exactly how to use them – all that’s behind me. Thank you a thousand times.

  7. Margaret Anderson

    Sorry – the name of your book that I bought is Story Engineering.

  8. margret baillie shipp

    I’ve just bought your book Story Engineering but am not new to your wisdom. We call it cutting tall poppies in Australia, a horrible past time. Structurally these books are sound, the only risk they seem to take as far as I’m concerned is the content, children killing children in a world controlled by adult decision makers and religion which is man-created (I can hear the outrage). Come to think of it, Hunger Games controls masses as well. Both story worlds are well set-up by gifted storytellers. A word we should remember when we criticize their story. You may not like their particular story but to say it is badly written is screaming you don’t get it.

  9. Pingback: Challenging Norms, Alternative Realities and Consequences | Betrayal of Trust

  10. Judy

    I believe that Charles Dickens was viewed in a similar way as Brown and Collins in his time. His challenge of the social norms of the day in terms of theme and subject matter were often criticized as invalid or incorrect (perhaps even obscene) at the time as well. Not to mention the fact that he was criticized as pandering to the masses (too commercial) and not a serious writer. Yet today his novels are revered as classics. Just a thought that seemed relavant to this post.

    Larry, love your books and website. Please keep up the great work!