I mean, in the US alone, book one sold 28 million copies. The trilogy got four movies. It’s one of the defining pieces of YA literature.
But what makes the writing so good, so strong?
A few months ago, I sat down to dissect the book like a biology specimen and learn to write better. Here are ten awesome lessons I learned in the process.
And yes, there will be spoilers.
Continuous narrative Makes for unbeatable pacing
The whole book is almost one continuous narrative. Often five or ten chapters will lead into one another without a break in time. Even sleep doesn’t create a scene break. Katniss generally has nightmares or something and wakes up in the same chapter.
This sticks you smack dab in the middle of Katniss’ head. And you don’t get a break. And so you can’t put the book down. The chapters aren’t long, but really, the book is composed of these super scenes, sometimes 100 pages, with chapter breaks thrown in just for convention.
Further, Collins does something really peculiar. In most writing, a well-structured scene looks something like:
- Main character starts scene with a goal and pursues that goal.
- Tension builds to a climax. At climax, a decisive shift happens (either for better or for worse).
- We wind down and end the scene.
Collins has many chapters that follow this general structure, such as the opening ceremonies in chapter 5:
- After preparing to go out before the crowd, Peeta and Katniss are given clothing that will be lit on fire. They’re afraid of being burned alive.
- The clothing is lit on fire, but they’re not hurt. The crowd goes “ooh, ahh.” The climactic shift is that for once, District 12 has attracted attention.
- Peeta and Katniss exit and talk a little bit.
However (and this is the really interesting part), some scenes follow the following format:
- Recovery from last scene
Chapters often ends on a climax: such as when Peeta declares his love for Katniss or when she shoots the game maker pig. The next chapter begins with the wind down from the previous chapter.
This is the same as a normal scene outline, except that you shove the wind down portion into the next chapter. However, it generates a book you can’t put down. When a chapter ends on a climax, you must start the next chapter in order to get the expected resolution.
Collins includes incredible amounts of a wide variety of emotions in every level of the story.
Take chapter 9, the interview chapter. The chapter goes something like this:
- Katniss emotionally processes the fact that Peeta wants to train separately.
- Katniss prepares for the interview.
- Katniss does the interview.
Here’s the various emotions I noted in the chapter:
Betrayal – The scene starts off with: “Betrayal. That’s the first thing I feel…”
Humor – Effie tries to teach Katniss to smile.
Anger – Katniss goes berserk and breaks a bunch of dishes in her room.
Sympathy – The Avox girl forgives Katniss and hugs her and tucks her in bed.
Awe – She awes the audience with her performance. Increased by the fact that she screwed up so badly in preparation.
Nervousness – Katniss before and during the interview.
Shock – Peeta is in love with Katniss and announces it in front of the whole country.
This all within one, 5,000 word chapter!
This strong emotional content gives us a very intimate first person.
Make characters proactive
Proactive characters make a story interesting. When characters seem to get carried away in the plot, we care less about them.
In this story, Katniss is taken captive and forced to fight in an arena. It would be very easy to have an extremely reactive protagonist. I mean, she’s a prisoner. Volunteering to take Prim’s place was proactive, but for the next third of the book, her every move is supposed to be dictated by coaches and stylists. However, even when preparing for the games, look at the proactive choices Katniss and Peeta make:
- Peeta bargains with Haymitch about his drinking so that they’ll have a mentor.
- Katniss chooses not to cry as she is taken from her family.
- Katniss chooses to throw away cookies from Peeta on the train and resist any kindness from him.
In the arena:
- Katniss goes for a backpack, even against Hatmitch’s command.
- Katniss chooses to get the bow as the tracker jacker poison is infecting her.
- Katniss chooses to go on the offensive against the career tributes and executes a brilliant plan with blowing up their stash.
- Even when she and Peeta are supposed to fight to the death, they opt to use the berry trick to escape with their lives.
Proactive characters exude a sense of reality, that their lives aren’t just controlled at every stage by the author. Re-reading Hunger Games gave me a great example of how to make characters proactive.
Put a twist at the end of the chapter
You could learn a lot about how to end a scene from this book. There are so many sudden twists in the last paragraphs of chapters:
- 1: Prim is called for the reaping.
- 3: Revelation that Haymitch is their lifeline to the world (and totally plastered)
- 4: She thinks that Peeta is actually fighting hard to kill her.
- 7: She shoots the game maker pig
- 9: Peeta admits loving Katniss.
- 25: In the very last paragraph, Claudius announces that they don’t have to kill each other.
And check out these one-liners:
- 2: “Odds have not been very dependable of late.”
- 7: “Perhaps she [the Avox girl] will enjoy watching me die.”
- 11: (As Katniss hides in a tree from the career tributes): “I almost fall out of the tree. The voice belongs to Peeta.”
- 17: “Rue just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body.”
Set reader expectations, then reverse them
In chapter 8, right after Katniss shoots an arrow at the game makers’ lunch, she stalks away and thinks about what she’s done. Collins spends about 700 words of Katniss going up an elevator, lying on her bed and crying (physical reactions), then thinking how she’s totally screwed because of her impulse. For the next 1000 words or so after that, she reviews the event with her team, and they cheer her up.
This is a lot of page space to dedicate to a character reacting to one action that isn’t even a major plot point. Why?
It’s a genius little piece of reader misdirection. As it turns out, the game makers love her performance and give her a high score in combat ability.
The result is a scene that tugs you as far as you can go in one emotion—despair—then hits the climax of the scene (the combat score of 11) which tugs you as far as you can go in the other direction—jubilation.
Set reader emotions to the extreme in the beginning of a scene, even if you have to take a lot of page space to do so. It makes the climax of the scene that much more powerful.
Really, Collins does this as a whole book: from the beginning, Katniss believes that she doesn’t stand a chance. Some of the tributes weigh fifty pounds more than her.
Setting your reader expectations up like this really pays off later, as long as it’s believable. Katniss winning the Hunger Games was believable, even though all the odds were against her.
However, I did not find the overthrow of the Capital in Mockingjay believable, because throughout the series, the Capital was set up as such an invincible opponent. I believe Collins set reader expectations of the Capital so high in book one that she prevented a believable victory in later books.
So while setting reader expectations is a huge deal, make sure you don’t write yourself into a corner. Trust me, I’ve done it. An unbeatable enemy is no fun for the author.
Make internal and external progress in each scene
A good scene has two kinds of motion: internal and external. Or rather, character and plot.
For example, in the interview scene, externally, they’re doing the interview. But internally, the readers become aware of Peeta’s love for Katniss.
Sometimes, these things are only somewhat related. For example, Katniss thinks about Peeta giving her the bread during the reaping ceremony. During the external motion of the reaping, we learn about their past.
Readers will forgive a few bad scenes
Even a good book can get away with a bad scene or two. The scene where Katniss goes to the feast, in my opinion, was a low point in the book. Lots of character decisions didn’t make sense:
Given that Katniss has a bow and arrow and can basically kill anyone with it, why does she run to the feast before the tributes who want to kill her?
After Katniss distracts the girl tribute with a glancing arrow, rather than finishing her with a second shot, she turns her back on the enemy and runs for the medicine.
After Thresh rescues her, rather than turning to fight Cato together, they run away.
Supposedly, Foxface was hiding in the Cornucopia. But something about the description made this unclear. I didn’t get this fact until it is recalled later in the story.
Regardless of whether you agree with me about that scene, here’s the lesson: even a great book isn’t perfect. You will make mistakes. Deal with it, don’t listen to the critics, and write another book.
Don’t do simple blow-by-blow battles
I found the climactic fight with Cato a bit, well… anticlimactic. Collins used an interesting strategy, here. Cato has been built throughout the story as the strongest of the tributes. In the chapter before they fight him (24), she dedicates some page space to building him up. “Brutal, bloody Cato who can snap a neck with a twist of his arm…”
However, when we actually get to the fight, we have yet another plot twist. Rather than a fair battle royale in a field where we can finally see who’s the strongest (readers expect that), we see Cato weaponless, running for his life from a pack of muttations. Yes, we do get a bit of combat on top of the Cornucopia, but it’s quick. When Katniss finally kills Cato, it’s actually an act of mercy.
One lesson: never write a six page, blow-by-blow fight that could be summarized with the words, “The fought and somebody died.” It may be fun in movies, but in books, it’s boring.
This battle is more complex. They have to run for their lives. They have to climb the Cornucopia. The mutts try to climb after them. They fight Cato on top. They almost freeze overnight.
Rather than a simple combat, there’s more moving parts, and in a book fight scene, more moving parts means more interesting.
Resolution doesn’t have to be predictable
Still, it’s anticlimactic. She shoots him once, he falls, then the mutts take care of him. Why?
First, because Katniss is much more innocent and a much cleaner hero if she kills Cato in mercy: It increases her likeability.
More importantly, Cato is not the real enemy. The Capital is. In fact, the climactic battle, in many ways, isn’t the climax. After that battle, Katniss and Peeta have more obstacles to overcome. They have to survive the change in rules to get them to kill each other. Then they have to politically survive the fiasco they created by both surviving.
From a structural standpoint, I see a double-climax. The first climax involves them surviving the games (killing Cato and doing the whole berry thing). But then, surprise (and breaking standard story structure), we get a second climax where Katniss better say the right things in the interview, otherwise President Snow will kill her family.
The second climax is quicker and less tense. However, it’s more of a surprise.
Does it work? Meh, a little. Personally, I felt like we got a bit gipped in the Cato battle, and I wasn’t particularly worried about them getting killed because of the interviews, but I understand why she made those choices.
The major theme in The Hunger Games is deception.
In the interview chapter, every tribute decides what angle they plan to use to win supporters. Their true hearts and selves don’t matter. What will they display? The entire capital is based on deception.
A key moment comes when Cinna tells Katniss: Just act like yourself. This is the antithesis of the rest of the book, and it’s one thing that makes Cinna such a great character.
This theme is resolved at the end of the book as Katniss and Peeta choose deception (faking their love) in order to preserve their lives. I found this rather depressing the first time I read the book.
However, it was unexpected. The amateur way out is to have your characters do the right thing without consequences. However depressing I found the ending, at least it was original. And it left room for further development of the theme in the rest of the trilogy.
Including a theme in a book often separates good books from great ones. It gives the book more of a timeless feel. Hunger Games included a theme without being preachy or obnoxious. Do this.
Just don’t depress me.
I learned a ton from dissecting The Hunger Games. Was this article helpful? Post a comment and let me know. I’d love to do this again, sometime.