The GWS 10: Ten Elements of Craft That Writers Should Steal From Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (Part 1)

Suzanne Collins rocketed onto the bestseller lists in 2008 with The Hunger Games, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a young woman compelled to participate in a life-or-death game show that was created by the government to keep citizens in line.  The books are considered works of “Young Adult” literature, but their appeal reaches far beyond that single demographic.  If you haven’t read the books, it might be a good idea to pick them up or to borrow them from from a young person in your life.  Stephen King, master of the page-turner, called the novel a “violent, jarring speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense and may also generate a fair amount of controversy.”

Most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t want the same kind of vast and passionate audience that Ms. Collins enjoys.  Here are ten elements of craft that writers should consider stealing from the Hunger Games trilogy:

1. Treat Your Reader Like an Adult…Even When They’re Not.

The Hunger Games, is not exactly what many people would consider “appropriate” for young adults.  As Mr. King points out:

And although ”young adult novel” is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ”jumbo shrimp” and ”airline food” in the oxymoron sweepstakes, how many novels so categorized feature one character stung to death by monster wasps and another more or less eaten alive by mutant werewolves?

I had much the same experience as Mr. King as I read the books.  There’s a lot of death and destruction in these books.  And that’s a great thing!  (You know, because the books are fiction.  Real life violence is a problem.)  It’s hard enough to tell a story; it’s still harder when you forbid yourself from depicting the natural consequences of human failings.  It’s tempting to want everything to end in a pleasant fashion and for every character to find happiness, but that’s not how the world really works.  In other words…

Rue HAD to die.

2. Be Open to Inspiration From a Wide Range of Sources.

Writers must play an unending game of “what if?”  Ms. Collins described her moment of inspiration for Publisher’s Weekly:

Collins says the idea for the brutal nation of Panem came one evening when she was channel-surfing between a reality show competition and war coverage. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” She also cites the Greek myth of Theseus, in which the city of Athens was forced to send 14 young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to face the Minotaur. “Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was,” Collins recalled. “Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ ”

Great things can happen when a writer mashes together her thoughts about increasingly outlandish reality shows, coverage of the war in Iraq and childhood history lessons.  Why not flip through Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?  The book is packed with steal-worthy stories from history.

3. Seize the Reader with the First Person Present.

One of the first things I noticed about the books was that they are written from Katniss’s perspective in present tense.  (It just so happens that I’m working on a book that uses the same POV.)  Here’s an excerpt of the book’s prose:

Haymitch has never seen me run. Maybe if he had he’d tell me to go for it. Get the weapon. Since that’s the very weapon that might be my salvation. And I only see one bow in that whole pile. I know the minute must be almost up and will have to decide what my strategy will be and I find myself positioning my feet to run, not away into the surrounding forests but toward the pile, toward the bow. When suddenly I notice Peeta, he’s about five tributes to my right, quite a fair distance, still I can tell he’s looking at me and I think he might be shaking his head. But the sun’s in my eyes, and while I’m puzzling over it the gong rings out.

And I’ve missed it! I’ve missed my chance! Because those extra couple of seconds I’ve lost by not being ready are enough to change my mind about going in. My feet shuffle for a moment, confused at the direction my brain wants to take and then I lunge forward, scoop up the sheet of plastic and a loaf of bread. The pickings are so small and I’m so angry with Peeta for distracting me that I sprint in twenty yards to retrieve a bright orange backpack that could hold anything because I can’t stand leaving with virtually nothing.

What does the first person POV accomplish for Ms. Collins?  What does the present tense add?  Well, a first-time reader knows nothing about The Hunger Games.  Experiencing the spectacle through Katniss’s eyes allows us to understand what is “normal” in the book’s society.  Katniss doesn’t think it’s at all strange for children to kill each other as they make a mad dash in the direction of a pile of weapons.  A third person narrator would have a lot more explaining to do to bridge the gap between the world of the book and our world.  Instead, Katniss just gets to tell you about her life and what she’s thinking and feeling.

The present tense adds a lot of suspense.  Katniss doesn’t know how her story will end…it’s still happening to her!  A reader may have unspoken assumptions that a third person narrator has access to the future.  By keeping everything in the present tense, Ms. Collins gets all the more power out of Katniss’s reactions to her problems.

4. Avoid Overwheming Your Reader with the Minutiae of Your World.

I’m certainly not disputing the influence of the Lord of the Rings books and I acknowledge Tolkien’s great achievement.  That said, I found it very hard to truly engage with those Middle Earth stories.  It seemed to me as though reading all of those books represented an awful lot of WORK that I wasn’t willing to do.  As Lee K. Abbott points out, it’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  I’ve come across some other works whose authors seem to expect me to get a pad and paper so I can construct the detailed family tree that would allow me to understand the story.

The Hunger Games books, on the other hand, don’t require you to delve into the minutiae of the world of Panem.  You don’t NEED to know where District 12 is located in North America.  You’re not FORCED to remember how many winners have come from each District.  The story is about Katniss and her struggle and Ms. Collins allows you to understand the political intrigue through her eyes, not the other way around.  On the other hand, we should…

5. Create a Realistic and Complicated World as Detailed as Our Own.

Ms. Collins may or may not have gone the J.K. Rowling route, compiling a complete history of the Games and of Panem for her own benefit.  What matters is that the end result FEELS real.  Two very creative folks took to LiveJournal, creating as realistic a map of Panem as they could based upon the details from the books.  Ms. Collins put enough love and attention into her novels that you can do this kind of detective work if you really want to.

Look at a site like PanemPropaganda.  Ms. Collins created such a realistic dystopia that talented fans are able to recreate the kind of propaganda that is put out by the Capitol.  These kinds of efforts are only possible because of the work Ms. Collins did to ensure that everything in the books fit together in a logical fashion and that you could actually live in the world of the book.

Continued in Part Two

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