Inside A Story Part 2: The Hunger Games
In part one of this post I discussed various techniques to keep each moment of a story interesting in and of itself. In particular, how a story is made up of a bunch of much smaller stories that keep the reader engaged as the bigger story is slowly rolled out. In today’s post I will use the first chapter of The Hunger Games to demonstrate what I mean (I get so many search hits for HG based on the one post I did mentioning it, that I thought I might as well give those people another article to read). There will be spoilers.
Chapter One introduces the MC, explains what The Hunger Games are, and ends with Katniss not getting selected—her sister is chosen instead.
There is a lot of backstory and exposition and the key development is Prim’s selection, but a lot of other stuff is also going on during this chapter. I’m going to look at the moments in each sequence of scenes to see how the author manages to keep interest high, even when she’s being very digressive.
These techniques can help you energise quieter moments and also make backstory and exposition enjoyable to read.
Don’t love me for fun, girl
Romance fiction, the kind with the bare-chested male on the front cover, has always been looked down on. It sells very well, but no one is very impressed by it. Most modern YA books have a strong romance element to them, and are often equally derided for their wish-fulfilling maelstrom of passion. The kind of love they contain is, in a word, corny.
However, love is a strong motivator and part of most stories, but the simplest things are often the hardest to articulate (especially without resorting to clichés). Why does person A love person B (and possibly also person C)?
If the answer is along the lines of: He was so cute; she had a nice smile; his eyes were so blue; I felt a knot in my stomach the first time I saw he; there was just something about the way he moved… then the writer is asking the reader to take it on faith. Forget why, it’s just how they feel. And in many cases the reader will agree to overlook the exact reason why the “okay-looking” girl who no one talks to is suddenly the most desired girl in school.
But what if you were able to demonstrate how it happened, if you could show the moment love took bloom? And in a way that made the reader go: Okay, I see why that person’s special. How would you go about that?
Rewrites: Longer Faster Harder
This post specifically relates to getting from the first draft to the second draft. This rewrite is key to the whole rewriting process. Further down the line changes in small details and polishing of the text become important, but at this stage the transition from raw material to story-worthy narrative is what’s going to keep you interested in coming back time and again in order to get the story told. By establishing exactly what the story is about now, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.
At some point you will have a complete first draft. Whatever genre, style or approach you take getting it done one thing is for sure: It won’t be good. If you look at it and think, Hmm, not bad, ninety percent there, then you are either a genius like none before you, or you’re just plain wrong. It’s going to be all over the place.
But terrible is perfectly acceptable because it isn’t meant to be good at this stage. It just needs to have a beginning, middle and end, a good sense of who the main characters are and their roles, and as much plot development as you could work out.
Yes, but that’s just your opinion
The goal for the novice (or even the not so novice) writer is to write better. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing to a grammatical gold standard, or following the rules laid down by the late and the great. It just means finding the words to tell your story in the way you would like it to be told. In your voice.
The thing is, we are all capable of moments of clarity where we say what we intended, in a way that hits home and actually means something. But we are also capable of saying the wrong thing, doubting ourselves, stammering like a loon and then bailing on the big moment we had been building up to. The great thing about writing is we can sift through the first draft and keep the good bits, and keep reworking them until they say what we meant to say.
It’s okay to write down a bunch of stuff that happened (in reality or imagination) but what is the effect you want it to have? Sympathy? Outrage? Amusement? It’s only once you figure that out that you can start deciding which bits are unnecessary, and which bits are missing. But it isn’t important so that the reader reacts the way you want them to. Readers are a varied bunch and will interpret your words in an infinite number of ways whatever you do. The important part is how it affects you, the writer. What does it mean to you? Because that’s the voice you want to write it in.
Finding people who can help identify what it is you’re going for (when sometimes you don’t even know yourself), and who can also help you get there, is no easy task. It isn’t impossible, but you should bear the following in mind.
This is something I struggle with, and I’m not speaking about poorly written characters, I’m talking about the kind of story that starts off slow and then builds. I’m going to go over some of the problems I’ve encountered (in my own and other people’s works) and then later I’ll go into some solutions which I’ve thought of (but can never seem to implement in my own stories).
If your story has a normal guy (or gal) and then through the story things happen and they change, that is a legitimate story structure. But if at the start your character has many negative traits, and by that I mean they predominantly DON’T want to do stuff (they’re shy, they’re aimless, they’re afraid of taking a chance) it can make for a very slow, pedestrian start to the book. Obviously you want to provide a contrast, show their transformation, but boring is boring, whatever the reason.
Often writers use one (or all ) of the following excuses:
SHOW and TELL
An old favourite I know, but I will be giving my personal view on this subject, which isn’t the usual back and forth from a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about (this will be just from one person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).
Because these are common words that get used in other contexts, when specifically referring to the techniques I’ll type them as SHOW and TELL to avoid confusion. Also ACTION refers to people actively doing something, not to car chases and gunfights.
How you tell a story comes down to one basic rule – make it interesting. How you do that is completely open ended and there is no hard and fast rule. If a story is interesting you could write it with crayon on the sole of your shoes and people would be tripping you over to have a read.
The most important thing to remember is that
Character is plot
There are many ways to structure a plot, but all plots have the same basic purpose: to reveal something about the character.
What people do tells us who they are.
And actions speak louder than words.
(The word ‘action’ does not mean car chases and explosions, it means any physical movement from turning on the tv to taking a shit to blowing up the Statue of liberty and everything in between)
The specific goal of the plot isn’t important, it could be finding the lost Ark of the Covenant, or climbing a ladder to wash a window, the important thing is: