The purpose of this series is 1. to reflect on the technique the author is using and how, and 2. ask how I can practically apply this technique to my own writing.
I’m currently rereading The Hunger Games. Even the second time, it is gripping and tense, well-structured and full of great characters. I think Suzanne Collins’ writing tricks apply to any genre and audience.
The protagonist can always be under more pressure
Katniss is under constant pressure throughout The Hunger Games. Even when Katniss is close to breaking point, Suzanne Collins keeps upping the ante to ensure the stakes are extremely high. This makes the book unputdownable.
Food for thought: is there an opportunity in this scene to make things harder for the protagonist? What would make them squirm or give their current goal more urgency?
External conflict is most meaningful if the protagonist is also battling internal conflict
The Hunger Games (an external conflict that requires Katniss to battle for survival) are so shocking and gripping because of the inner journey Katniss undertakes. I care about her survival because I am invested in the tough morality and identity questions she is also battling. This inner conflict gives meaning to everything she does and that happens to her.
Internal and external conflict impact each other equally: Katniss’s internal conflict informs her actions relating to the external conflict, and the external conflict forces her to ask questions about herself that she may not have otherwise.
Food for thought: what internal conflict (such as an identity crisis) does the external conflict (such as a war) incite in my protagonist? How does their inner journey impact their response to the external conflict, or vice versa?
Short sentences can accelerate pace and tension
The Hunger Games is full of short sentences that are so easy to read that it’s hard to stop! In this book, short sentences result in fast forwards motion.
But that doesn’t mean short sentences are the be-all-end-all. It means you can consciously alter sentence length and structure to impact pacing in whatever way you want. Different sentence lengths in different situations (e.g. longer sentences in an action scene) can have interesting results (e.g. 1. amp up the suspense by forcing readers to slow down, or 2. speed up the pace by giving lots of detail in a relatively small time frame).
Food for thought: how would different sentence lengths change the way this scene is read (e.g. accelerate reading pace/force readers to slow down)? Can I alter my sentence length and structure to reflect a change of pace or tension in this beat?
There may be more than one threshold to cross
According to Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey (a plot formula that many myths and contemporary stories follow) the protagonist begins their adventure by crossing the boundary between their ordinary world and a special world.
I found it interesting that Katniss crosses two thresholds: firstly, when she travels from District 12 to the Capitol, and, secondly, when she enters the Hunger Games arena. At both thresholds, she leaves behind all sense of order and normality. She crosses the first threshold early in the book, so the plot is constantly driving forwards and covering exciting new terrain.
Food for thought: the Hero’s Journey diagram (I recommend Googling it) is a good starting place for plotting, but can I tweak or subvert any of these storytelling tropes to create something original and interesting?
Get on with the plot even if the world building and backstory are incomplete
The first chapter of The Hunger Games is rich with world building. After that, however, the plot speeds onwards. I like how Katniss’s new experiences inspire her to look back on her old life, giving us insight into the people, place and version of herself she left behind. This structure of always moving forwards with frequent backwards glances kept me hooked and in the present.
Food for thought: what information must I give readers straight away for them to understand and care about my story? What world and character building information can I withhold until later? Can I use a “backwards glance” to deepen the meaning of a moment in the present?
Secondary characters should bring out the protagonist’s best and worst
Many dimensions of Katniss’s personality and capacity for growth and change are triggered and motivated by the secondary characters. Think of Katniss’s mother, whose emotional withdrawal Katniss responds to with defensiveness, resentment, and independence. Besides having their own journeys, secondary characters also offer different dynamics and challenges for the protagonist to respond to.
Food for thought: what purpose do my secondary characters play in my protagonist’s life? Can my secondary characters offer my protagonist something different to respond to (positive, negative, and everything in between)?