The GWS 10: Ten Elements of Craft That Writers Should Steal From Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (Part 2)
In Part 1, I discussed five elements of craft we can steal from The Hunger Games books. For Part 2, I thought I would take a close look at some of the prose Ms. Collins put into her book. Let’s jump right in like Katniss diving into the water that keeps her from the Cornucopia:
6. Open your piece with promises that don’t take too long to fulfill.
Let’s compare the opening of the first Twilight book to that of Catching Fire. The former begins thus:
Yes, Ms. Meyer starts her story in the middle of some action, but the tension introduced by this opening scene is not going to be resolved for a very long time. Further, Ms. Meyer brings up a lot of questions and offers a great deal of vague prose. Who is this “hunter?” How is the first-person narrator about to die? Even if we’re curious about this poorly defined conflict, we have quite a way to go until we figure out what is going on.
Think of it this way. Many parents like to record the moment they tell their children that the family is going to Disney World. Look at how happy this young lady is upon hearing the news:
Now imagine that the mother said, “We’re going to Disney World…eight years from now.”
Ms. Collins begins Catching Fire thus:
No, there is no hunter literally stalking Katniss as she reclines on the rock. There is, however, a great deal of tension. Katniss is weary. She’s sore. She needs a vacation. But Effie and the others will be around to bother her very soon. This tension will be capitalized upon very soon. More importantly, Ms. Collins doesn’t present a zillion questions that won’t be answered for a long time. The opening page also offers a great deal of characterization and contributes to the tone of the book.
7. Avoid weighing down your prose with redundant and bloated dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are like balsa wood. They can hold things together, but you shouldn’t put too much weight on them. Look at the bloat in some of the dialogue from Twilight:
ADVERBS. SOOOOOOOOOOO MANY ADVERBS. ADVERBS EVERYWHERE, AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE. Let your characters do some of the work. You’ll wear your reader down if EVERY line is modified in some way. Further, bloated dialogue tags can result in redundancies. Alice’s response at the bottom of the page is, by definition, an agreement with Emmett’s statement…but Ms. Meyer tells you again that Alice is in agreement.
Allow your characters’ statements to carry the emotion. In general, you should avoid the adverb unless your character is taking a tone we wouldn’t expect from the line. For example:
“I’m so angry at you because you’re irresponsible!” Ken’s ex-girlfriend shouted angrily through her rage with her eyes in an infuriated squint.
Don’t we know that Ken’s ex-girlfriend is justifiably angry and filled with rage and fury simply based upon what she says between the quotation marks? Now look at a page of Ms. Collins’s dialogue:
This exchange comes toward the beginning of Catching Fire. Katniss and President Snow are having a very calm argument while sizing each other up. The lines themselves do all the work and the reader doesn’t need to wade through a zillion adverbs.
8. Create tension with nagging injuries instead of catastrophic ones.
Somewhat early in Catching Fire, Katniss finds herself on the wrong side of the now-electrified border fence. Ms. Everdeen knows she needs to get back home before she gets caught. Ordinarily, this is not a problem for our Girl on Fire; she’s a skilled athlete. After climbing up a tree, she makes her way across a limb. She’s almost home free when…
Under normal circumstances, it’s no problem for Katniss to get home and to convince the bad guys that she has been good. If anyone notices her limp, however, they will ask questions that could have problematic answers. There’s a delightful tension to the scene with the Everdeen Family and the Peacekeepers. Will someone notice Katniss is in pain? The suspense is killing me!
I may cry as I bring up another example…
Ordinarily, it’s no problem for Miguel Cabrera to mash the ball into the stands.
When he has a groin injury, however, long-suffering Tiger fans must suffer through a great deal of suspense that ends in heartbreak. Sigh.
9. Place your characters in a well-defined and realistic world, but avoid overwhelming your reader.
Panem doesn’t necessarily need to be more than just THE WORLD IN WHICH THE HUNGER GAMES TAKES PLACE. A ten-year-old who reads these books isn’t required to draw the kind of map I showed you in Part 1 in order to understand what is happening. That child doesn’t need to know what “panem” means. Hardcore devotees, of course, are welcome to perform complicated analyses of the economic and sociopolitical conditions in each of the Districts. Ms. Collins manages to make Katniss’s world feel real, but doesn’t force me to get a pad and paper and keep notes on everything. Here’s an example:
Okay, so I could do the math. District 4 has a lot of waterfront property. District 3 must have a lot of factories and highly skilled engineers. District 8 is the textile center of Panem. Importantly, the sections such as these aren’t homework. All I need to know in order to enjoy the story is that each of the Districts has different resources. The world feels like a real place, even though every acre is a part of Ms. Collins’s daydream.
10. Tamp down that desire to write beautiful poetry when flowery prose is inappropriate.
Ms. Collins is capable of writing some beautiful Harlan Ellison/Ray Bradbury/Jane Austen-esque sentences. The first-person protagonist of The Hunger Games, while bright, is not Shakespeare. Katniss, therefore, shouldn’t be given the kind of complicated lines that would be out of reach for someone who grew up poor in a District with poor schools. Here’s an example where I feel that Ms. Collins is balancing her ability and desire to knock you out with poetry, but balances the urge with the reality of the character she created:
The sentences are often short. There are some killer phrases, but the diction is not too high. As always, our ultimate goal is to serve the story. In this instance, Ms. Collins served the story by holding back.