The Hunger Games: What Suzanne Collins Did Right

It’s been a long time since I could read a book like a reader and not like a writer. What tense is this in? Whose head are we in? How is the writer handling the backstory?

And mostly, DO something. Make something happen. Make me care.

As you might glean, I’m a restless reader. Writers don’t have long before my attention drifts. I had heard great things about The Hunger Games trilogy, but that doesn’t always mean anything.

Here’s what Suzanne Collins did to keep me turning pages. The opening:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of The Reaping.

Voice: blunt, stark, unadorned. Just like the speaker, Katniss.
Show don’t tell: We learn the sisters share a rough bed and that one of them has bad dreams.
Hook: Something nightmarish is happening that day, something called, ominously, The Reaping.

Just as Katniss is thrown into the Hunger Games, starkly, brutally, the reader is thrown into Collins’ bleak dystopian world.

What backstory and description she includes early on are in the same economical style and rationed out only as needed. Ever heard of ‘salting’ backstory through the story? Check out how she does it. The opening pages are a study in how to set your scene, pull a reader in and keep the story moving.

Collins wrote for children’s television and she ends each chapter expertly, hooking the reader to “come back from the commercial.”

 

Perhaps Collins’ greatest triumph is the character of Katniss. Sure, she’s self-sacrificing, hot, a bad-ass with a bow and arrow. A hard character not to root for. But what she really is? Is three-dimensional. Real. Riddled with human frailties to balance her sometimes superhuman strengths. I don’t need all of my fictional heroines to be warrior women, though I do prefer it that way.

But I do need my protagonists, and all the characters in a story, to be fleshed out, to have flaws, to seem real. Katniss Everdeen is one of the more complex and 3-D characters to come along in a great while. Collins even handles the love triangle with restraint and balance and doesn’t play to that segment of the audience that might want Katniss to swoon into some boy’s arms to be rescued and taken care of. Katniss stays Katniss. And she’s awesome.

Suzanne Collins is a lean, cinematic novelist. All three books, really three parts of a single story, sizzle. It’s less than a week till the movie. Read the book while you still can in case the movie sucks.

If you’re like me, it won’t take that long.

 

Here’s the movie trailer, though it doesn’t excite me as much as it seems to do most fans. (I just have to get over my issues with the casting. But Robert Downey Jr. as Haymitch? Would have ruled my world.)
Movie trailer

This entry was posted in Characterization, Description, Fiction, Pop Culture, Reviews, Scenecraft, Writing Craft and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Hunger Games: What Suzanne Collins Did Right

  1. As I said in a recent blog post, basic plot of “The Hunger Games” is as old as time itself. And the relatively new “televised dystopian future” angle is lifted straight out of “The Running Man”, itself influenced by the 1968 Star Trek TV episode Bread and Circuses.

    “The Running Man”: A novel published in 1982, conveniently well before the Hunger Games target audience was even born.
    “Good authors borrow, great authors steal,” indeed… 😈

    That said, Suzanne Collins is a great author, and the plot twist of “force the powers that be to choose two champions rather than none” would have worked just as well in an ancient Roman story as it did in The Hunger Games.

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  2. The Star Trek episode cited above takes its title from a quote in an ancient Roman story, Satire X by Juvenal.
    “…everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
    In the original Latin, “bread and circuses” is panem et circenses.
    Suzanne Collins named her dystopic future nation “Panem” after this phrase.
    Which brings us full circle! πŸ˜‰

    My own novel is a veritable labyrinth of such cultural connections. 😈

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