This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.
For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.
In the second post in my in this occasional series (what was actually a three part post), I tackled a novel I had just finished. Having recently finished Suzanne Collins‘ widely-acclaimed The Hunger Games, I thought now was a good time to similarly analyze this book – the recent release of the film notwithstanding. (Note that Dear Wife and I have not seen it, yet, but intend to. Getting a babysitter on short notice is not generally easy – especially when all your stand-by babysitters are themselves going out that same weekend to watch the same movie.)
Obviously, now, no links to the book – but if you haven’t read it you can probably obtain a copy from your local library, and a nearby bookstore is almost certain to have a copy.
I picked up The Hunger Games on the recommendation of Dear Wife, who picked it up on the recommendation of other friends. She read it a couple years ago while I was still in Grad School and thus unable to read it myself at the time. But with the movie coming out this year, I was determined to give it a read before seeing the film. (And in fact I finished the book about a month ago… I just hadn’t had time to write this up, yet.)
I will say, right off, that I didn’t have the same conflicted relationship with this book that I had with the last novel that I analyzed in this blog (the aforelinked The Magicians). Whereas I found the ending of that book problematic, I found the ending of this book mostly to be quite satisfying. That said, I don’t come to this analysis without some criticism for The Hunger Games. But criticism aside, it’s a good book and well-worth the read. It doesn’t have the same lyrical narrative flare and style that some of the other works I’ve analyzed have. But that’s of necessity, being in the first person perspective of the protagonist. Obviously, though, the book has become a phenomenon for a reason, and that reason is valid.
By now you’re likely familiar with the book and its plot. But here’s a short run-down anyway (and my usual warning: There will be spoilers): it’s the dystopian future, and what was once North America has given way to the oppressive regime of Panem, as ruled from the Capitol. North America has been divided into a number of tightly-controlled districts. There is no commerce or interaction between the districts – all of that control lies with the Capitol. Some 74 years prior to the start of the story, the districts of Panem had attempted to revolt against the Capitol, but the revolution was put down, and the Hunger Games were instituted as means of controlling the population. You learn all this backstory in the course of the narrative.
So, each year, the 12 remaining districts send a “Tribute” of one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to participate in the Hunger Games – where the twenty-four children are dumped in an arena and fight to the death while cameras catch their every move, broadcasting the macabre competition to a reality-television-gone-sickeningly-wild hungry populace back in the Capitol and ultimately all across Panem. Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, volunteers to represent District 12, to replace her younger sister who was selected in the lottery.
But the games get complicated for Katniss when her co-tribute turns out to be a boy named Peeta Mellark – a baker’s son who once saved Katniss’s life when she was starving after her father died. And so as Katniss battles well-trained and financially-privileged tributes from some of the lower-numbered districts (the relative prominence of a District seems to be a direct correlation with its numerical designation, such that District 1 is the wealthiest and most-favored by the Capitol), she also battles budding feelings for the boy who saved her life, and questions her prior feelings for her hunting-buddy, Gale. The nascent romance is in mortal danger – because only one of the two can leave the arena alive.
In the end, though, both Katniss and Peeta survive – having discovered a glitch in the underlying facts of the Games: it is a Reality TV program, after all, and the star-crossed lovers storyline proves immensely popular with the viewing public of the Capitol. Gambling on this, Katniss and Peeta are able to play up the romance angle (and Katniss thinks this is all for show), forcing those who control the games to declare them both the winners.
There are several key lessons I took from this book. It’s got a lot going for it, after all. There’s action, of course. And there’s romance. And a love-triangle. And just as Katniss and Peeta play up the star-crossed-lovers storyline (I must admit that I found it interesting that the phrase “star-crossed lovers” remains extent in Katniss’s vocabulary despite the fact that she was likely not exposed to Shakespeare during her young life), Suzanne Collins plays up the same storyline to keep the readers on their toes. Throughout the book I assumed that Katniss and Peeta would somehow find a way to both survive intact. But I was never sure that they would (at least not until the “rule change” announcement). It’s not unusual for readers like myself to start a story expecting the protagonist to win. It’s a real trick, then, to make a reader worried for the fate of the protagonist. In the case of Katniss Everdeen, I knew she would survive the book. (There were, after all, two more books in the series.) But while I had no uncertainty about the protagonist’s survival, I had less certainty about the fate of the other characters, and whether Katniss would have to descend to a particularly dark place in order to survive (i.e. whether she’d have to kill or watch Peeta be killed).
That’s a positive lesson of this story. As an author, you’re not working only with your protagonist’s life. You’ve got other resources to build up tension. There are other characters that you might have to threaten or kill. There are dark places you can threaten to take your character. And, sometimes, you have to kill those other characters and take your protagonist to those dark places. We all know the hero wins in the end. But the winning isn’t easy. That’s what makes for a good conflict, and that’s what makes for engaging tension in a story.
I did mention that I had some criticisms of the story, though. My primary criticism, and the thing that most made me disengage with the story, was the way in which background details and backstory was fleshed out. Frequently, the flow of the book is interrupted when Katniss stops to reflect on some background history and how that history is relevant to the immediate conflict at hand. I first noticed this early in the book, when Peeta’s name is called as the second Tribute of District 12 – and Katniss enters an extended recollection of her first encounter with Peeta on a rainy evening, when she’s starving, and he brings her bread from the bakery, followed by further recollections of their infrequent interactions.
When Peeta’s name was announced, it’s clear that Katniss has an emotional reaction to it. But the context of that emotional reaction is given to us in the moment, instead of being something the reader was already familiar with. For me, as a reader, this robbed the moment of the appropriate emotional resonance, since instead of feeling what Katniss was feeling, I got fed a dose of “Katniss is shocked, and here’s why she’s shocked…”
Early in the story, this was easily forgivable: the characters of Katniss and Peeta have to be established somehow. But the same technique is used over and over throughout the book. Katniss’s sudden fear at encountering the avox serving girl is followed by a flashback that explains it. Katniss’s encounter with the Tracker Jackers (and her subsequent use of their hive to kill some of those chasing her) is interrupted by an explanation of what Tracker Jackers are and what role they’ve played in the history of Panem. And so on.
There’s a name for this narrative technique: it’s called an infodump. And it gets a bum rap for a reason: it yanks a reader out of the moment of the story. It reminds them of the fourth wall of the book. It cuts the cords that hold the weight of their suspension of disbelief.
Granted, now, there are several instances when things are effectively foreshadowed instead. The importance of the mockingjays is established before Katniss joins up with Rue and the two use them to communicate, and before they take up their song at Rue’s death. The poison berries are introduced before Katniss and Peeta use them to force the hands of the Gamemakers. But my impression was that effective foreshadowing was used more rarely in this book than outright infodumping.
Within the context of this book, perhaps these infodumps were the best and most expeditious means of relaying this relevant information. It was a lean, tight novel clocking in under 100,000 words. It would be difficult, I think, to write the book in such a way as to fully contextualize and foreshadow all these elements and keep the book as lean as it is. (Note, in that prior link, the discussion of trends forcing books to be shorter for marketing purposes.) You save some small wordcount in the scenes where the infodumps occur, when you rip those infodumps out. But adding new scenes earlier in the story to replace that context would add substantially more wordcount than is saved. But, in my opinion, the story is better-served when relevant information is foreshadowed rather than infodumped in the very moment of their relevance. So this is my second critical take-away from The Hunger Games. As I am more interested in the artistic integrity of the story, overall, than I am in artificial marketing constraints (not that I don’t think those things are important, from the business-side of writing, but when you’re writing, the story is everything), I feel that this is something for me to strive for in my own work.
I don’t want to dump detail and information on a reader in a ham-handed way. I want the world and its detail and its backstory to flow naturally to the reader, and for the pieces to fall together and make sense.
My final take-away from The Hunger Games concerns characterization. Suzanne Collins does a masterful job of developing her characters. Although the story is told in a first person point of view, the reader is able to get a sense of the depth of all of the characters through Katniss’s observations about them. The reader understands how deeply traumatic Haymitch’s prior experience in the Games had been. They can sense his antipathy toward the Capitol and his unresolved self-loathing for playing into their game. The reader understands immediately that when Peeta says he’s in love with Katniss, he’s being wholly sincere. For that matter, when Katniss tells herself that saying the same thing is just for show, we glimpse the inner turmoil and we understand that what she tells herself about her feelings – what we see in the text of the story – don’t accurately represent her true inner feelings – the narrative we see emerging between the lines.
Putting a story and an idea into the minds of readers that isn’t explicitly supported by the text of the book, but which is very clearly the intending meaning that one is expected to draw from that text – that’s a really fancy trick. It’s one that should prove especially useful to any given writer, should they master it.
A big part of what makes this all work is inextricably linked to the protagonist herself: The Hunger Games introduces us to an active, engaged heroine. She’s not a passive character to whom plot is something that happens. Katniss creates her own plot. She reacts to her world, and her reactions are consistent with her character. She cares about things, she has values and convictions. And she does what she can within the constraints she believes she has to act according to those convictions.
A lesser protagonist would not have volunteered for the Hunger Games – she would have been called up by the Lottery. And that moment, that act of defiance early in the story, sets the tone for everything that comes after.
I would do well to learn this lesson for myself, I think. My own WIP, “Book of M”, centers on a female protagonist. I must admit to having had some trepidation about the idea of writing from the perspective of a protagonist who is not of my own gender. Would I get it right? Could I capture the essence of being a female character? I worried that I’d be ridiculed or pilloried for effectively writing a boy character with female parts. It was probably a stupid worry. I chose a female character because a female character is what my story demands. But The Hunger Games has shown me, especially, that what makes for an engaging and interesting protagonist is a more universal quality that transcends gender and identity. It is in the having of values, beliefs, convictions, wants, and desires. It is in acting on those qualities. And it is in finding the tension and conflict – external, internal, and deeper still, below the level of conscious awareness – between those qualities. And I’m glad for having that experience. And I hope I can learn those lessons and act on them in my own work.
Have you read The Hunger Games? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?