Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Hunger Games: The Archive

Let’s do one last post before the holidays to archive the Hunger Games posts I’ve done over the years:

But I had lots of posts before that as well (and most of them were a lot more critical than my recent posts):

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: How “The Hunger Games” Fills the Reader In on What’s Going On

Let’s look at how the first chapter of “The Hunger Games” parcels out information.

  • Katniss wakes up, sees her mother and sister, interacts with cat, mentions to us that it’s Reaping Day but doesn’t explain what that means.
  • Katniss goes out the door, sees the town, explains to us what District 12 and the Seam are.
  • She slips out through the fence, mentions that her father died in a mine explosion.
  • She gets her bow, explains black market economy and peacekeepers.
  • She meets up with Gale and they eat, and she tells us about the capitol.
  • They find the black market, then interact with the mayor’s daughter, in her nice reaping clothes. They discuss the mathematics of who will get chosen, which we don’t understand, then, as they leave, Katniss explains the system to us.
  • Katniss returns to her family and they go to the Reaping. Katniss explains to us how the lottery works.
  • Katniss sees the officials lined up. For the first time, she tells us the story of how North America became Panem, then she explains how the Hunger Games works.
  • Effie addresses the crowd. Prim is chosen.

So over the course of ten pages, we gradually find out everything we want to know, and it’s very effective. Let’s look at other ways Collins could have done it.

  • The book could have done what the movie did: The movie just begins with onscreen text explaining in a few paragraphs what the Hunger Games are, before Katniss is introduced. Then we get a snippet of Caesar Flickerman interviewing the game-maker Seneca Crane, where they fill in more of the what the games are, then we cut to District 12 (identified by an onscreen title)
  • On the other hand, it could have all been mysterious until we arrived at the Reaping at which point Effie could have described everything to the crowd (even though they already knew it)
  • Even past that, they could have waited to actually show us what the Hunger Games were.

The book on other hand, makes good use of first-person direct address. Katniss just tells us everything we need to know, in little pieces, sometimes motivated by something she sees, but sometimes not. The key is that it’s all interspersed with action and dialogue. She’s up and about, visiting several locations, hunting and killing, having several conversations while she’s telling us all this.

She also tells it to us in the most intriguing way possible: She first mentions Reaping Day and the Hunger Games without telling us what they are. She lets us dangle for a few pages, and engages in some dialogue about it with others that we don’t understand, and then, once our interest is built for a while, she finally explains to us what they each are.

We get the information fast enough that the book can get going quickly, but just slowly enough that it never feels like an info-dump. It’s a model of how to set-up a future world.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Juxtapose the Melodramatic with the Mundane

It’s hard to care about melodrama. When characters are feeling huge emotions about huge events, the natural tendency as a reader is to roll your eyes and say, “Whoa there, it’s too big, too much, too silly.” All we know are our piddly little lives. We don’t know what we would do in these shocking circumstances and we can’t imagine.

So it’s hard to write big shocking moments without losing your audience. But here’s a trick: juxtapose the melodramatic with the mundane. Here’s Katniss when her sister’s name is called:

  • There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tesserae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands. The odds had been entirely in her favor. But it hadn’t mattered. Somewhere far away, I can hear the crowd murmuring unhappily as they always do when a twelve-year-old gets chosen because no one thinks this is fair. And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her sides, walking with stiff, small steps up toward the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

We’re in the same position as Katniss: Only the untucked shirt makes it real to us. It’s too hard to comprehend the horror that a twelve-year old will be sacrificed in a future gladiatorial game. It’s absurd. It’s too big. But an untucked shirt is small. We can comprehend that. It’s real. And if it’s real, juxtaposed with the other, then the other must be real as well.

A twelve year old, telling us about the wild gladitorial dream she just had, wouldn’t mention that untucked shirt. It’s too mundane. That’s the sort of detail you would only notice if you were actually there. So when we see it, we’re suddenly actually there.

The more outlandish your scenario, the more important it is to include little glimpses of mundane details, just to make it real.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Get to the Premise Quickly (Even if It Means Skipping Some Set-Up)

So we get to the Reaping in “The Hunger Games”, and they’re going to read out the names of the tributes. First we hear the female tribute: Oh no, it’s Katniss’s sister Prim, who we care about! Then we hear the male tribute and it’s…Peeta Mellark! And we say, “Who?” We’ve had the chance to meet various villagers that morning, but not Peeta, so the name lands with a thud.

Then Katniss fills us in that she’s not close with Peeta, but she does know him and like him because of something nice he did for her a while ago.

Why not establish beforehand who Peeta is, so that his name will have an impact on us when it’s read out? Because there’s just not time. A little set-up is fine, but the reader wants the plot to start going as soon as possible.

If there’s time, then there’s some value in letting us know who someone is before something happens to them, but not if it takes too long. The book is called “The Hunger Games”, not “Life in the Seam”, and we want to get to find out what that is and begin the process.

We have about ten pages of set-up (most of which is action in the woods). During that time we get to meet three possible female tributes: Katniss, Prim, and the mayor’s daughter, but we only meet one potential male tribute: Gale. If Collins had introduced Peeta during this time, she also would have had to introduce some other men so it wouldn’t be too obvious, and we could have some shock that it’s Peeta. (Also it would be too much of a coincidence if Katniss had only interacted with a few people that morning and two of them had their names called. It’s far more believable that she only met one that morning.)

Finding out a reason to care about Peeta after his name is called works out fine. Collins knows she can just make us care retroactively, after the name fails to get a reaction from us. In fact, we’ll care more. She’s lost the potential for shock, but she knows we’ll feel more for Peeta’s backstory now as a result.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: The “Drown the Cat” Intro in “The Hunger Games”

The late Blake Snyder wrote three great books of writing advice that are still widely disseminated today, but I have a problem with his central piece of advice, that heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they “Save the Cat.”

“The Hunger Games” takes a different path. Let’s look at the third paragraph:

  • Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

I guess you could say she saves a cat…from her own murderous impulses. But she still describes her as disgustedly as she possibly can!

Why do we like this nasty heroine? In the parlance of my book, we believe, care and invest:

  • Believe: This one paragraph does a great job showing a consistent worldview. Every word is colored by a very unique way of seeing the world. She doesn’t seem like an accumulation of author-imposed traits. She seems like a fully-realized human.
  • Care: She’s suffering and doing what she can to survive. If she was living a comfortable life in the suburbs, we would hate her for wanting to kill a cat, but seeing her hunger, our heart goes out to her. We wonder what we would do.
  • Invest: We definitely trust her to solve whatever challenges this book offers. She’s bad-ass, and she’s ready to make hard decisions.

Don’t worry, Katniss does get a chance to kill a cat a few pages later:

  • Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

All of this cat killing ironically sets us up for her one big moment of selflessness later. If Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games because she was a super-nice person, we wouldn’t buy it. It’s only because she’s so vicious that it’s believable and compelling.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Annotation Project: The Hunger Games

Well folks, I didn’t get any non-bot comments on two weeks of “Gone Girl” pieces. I’ve always been reluctant to do books due to my fear that nobody actually reads, and that suspicion feels like it’s being confirmed. Let’s do one more book, see if anybody responds, then see where we’re going from there.  UPDATE: As requested, here’s a link to a downloadable Word file.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Starting in Their Heads Instead of With Dialogue in “Gone Girl”

As a general rule, you want to resist the urge to have characters tell us a lot about themselves before we get to hear them have an actual conversation out loud. This is because the audience knows to distrust whatever people say about their own personalities. Anyone can tell you about how nice and charming they are, but it’s only when we hear them engage in conversation with someone else that we get to judge that for ourselves, which is what readers want to do.

“Gone Girl” breaks this rule, but it does so for good reason: Neither of Flynn’s two heroes is very appealing in real life. This is a really brave thing to do, writing about people who are pretty, shallow, and clever-but-not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are. After all, shallow people are people too, and they too deserve books. So Flynn begins both Nick and Amy’s sections by letting them speak directly to us, giving us their versions of their lives. They’re trying to make themselves sound good, and not entirely succeeding.

Interestingly, she has one good chance to give us some dialogue, when they have breakfast together, and she doesn’t. Instead we just get this description:

  • Amy was in the kitchen, oblivious to my hesitation. She was humming something melancholy and familiar. I strained to make it out – a folk song? a lullabye? – and then realized it was the theme to M.A.S.H. Suicide is painless. I went downstairs.
  • I hovered in the doorway, watching my wife. Her yellow-butter hair was pulled up, the hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope, and she was sucking distractedly on a burnt fingertip, humming around it. She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botcher of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.’ And Amy crooned instead, ‘She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.’ When I asked her why she’d ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything.
  • There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.
  • Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell like berries and powdered sugar.
  • When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
  • Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
  • I was very late getting to work […]

This is the only modern day scene with the two of them together until the end of the book, and they don’t get any real dialogue. It’s a shocking decision. We do get a warm moment between the two here, but it’s his memory of a warm moment, not one in real time. We don’t hear what they’re actually saying other than one line.

Why not give us what we want here? Because Flynn wants us to spend the first half of the book unable to determine who’s right about their relationship, but if she gave them a substantial conversation here, we would have enough information to make a more informed decision about their personalities and relationship, and she doesn’t want that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: The Unreliable Narrator Fake-Out in “Gone Girl”

Another trend recently is the increase of unreliable narrators. In “Gone Girl”, Gillian Flynn takes advantage of this trend in a clever way: She plays with us by letting us assume that her narrator is more unreliable than he actually is. The fact that our narrator isn’t lying to us (much) turns out to be a big twist!

One of the most famous unreliable narrators of all time is to be found in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. At the beginning of that story, our narrator, Dr. Sheppard, tells us of the day of the murder, then about his experiences “assisting” Hercule Poirot is solving it. Only at the end, after Poirot has solved it, does Sheppard admit to the reader that he left out some key information: He committed the murder himself.

Flynn encourages us to treat her co-hero Nick as a modern-day Dr. Sheppard. We begin with the words “Nick Dunne, the Day of” then we get his first person tale of that day, but we instantly wonder if he’s just skipping over the part where he kills her.

Obviously, as an author, this is a very dangerous game. Usually, your whole job is to get us to fully bond with your hero, to share his POV, to know what he knows, to wonder about the same things he wonders about, to trust him to solve the challenge that we want him to solve.  Flynn is doing the opposite. She’s encouraging us to distrust our hero, to assume that he knows more than he’s saying. We suspect that he won’t really try to solve the mystery we want solved: What happened to his wife?

Flynn isn’t going to reveal until halfway through that Amy is still alive, so how does she fill our time with Nick while she’s encouraging us to suspect him? Amy has created a mystery for Nick to solve: a scavenger hunt. We suspect that he’s trying to solve it idly after killing her, rather than genuinely trying to solve it to look for clues to her disappearance, which is the truth.

By choosing to play this game, Flynn is limiting her own options. She can’t show us anything, or have him think anything, that would make it clear that he isn’t guilty. What a fiendish thing to do to herself! It’s amazing that she keeps it interesting. Cutting to Amy’s diary helps. We identify more with her than him, wondering along with her if he intends to (which is to say, already has) hurt her.

Flynn does gratify our suspicion that he’s an unreliable narrator a bit when he admits to us that he has been eliding part of the story: that he’s having an affair. Ironically, it’s when he admits this to us that we really begin to suspect that’s all he’s lying about.

What about you? Did you suspect Nick? When did you stop suspecting him? Do you think the trick was worth the effort it obviously took for Flynn to pull it off?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation: Take Any Writing Job (And Two Rulebook Casefiles)

 Gillian Flynn doesn’t have an MFA. From a profile in Elle:
  • Knowing she wanted to be a writer but too practical—self-effacing, as well—to apply to an MFA program, the de rigueur move for an East or West Coaster with similar preoccupations, she applied to journalism school instead. Claiming novelist as your ambition sounded, in her words, "Mmm, yeah, a little…lofty." She thought she'd become a crime reporter, combine her love of words with her love of sex and death. Only, as it turned out, she had, of all things, a squeamish side, which effectively put the kibosh on a career covering the mean streets. So after graduating from Northwestern, she moved to New York and took a job with Entertainment Weekly. At EW she could be up to her eyeballs in kiss kiss bang bang, but kiss kiss bang bang at a remove, safely confined to the screen, dissipating once the credits rolled and the lights came up. She stayed on staff for 10 years, writing about movies and TV.
If you imagine yourself as a great novelist, then writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly (not even the New Yorker!) might seem like too much of a comedown, but for Flynn, it was the apprenticeship she needed. What’s a huge part of writing reviews? Coining unique adjectives and similes! You don’t want to say, “I liked it because it was good.” You want to say what it was like.

Every writing job gets you writing, and the more manipulation of words you do, the more facility you’ll have.  If you must get a graduate degree, do what Flynn did and get a journalism degree.  Unlike MFAs, journalists learn to write on deadline, listen to real speech, and crystalize it into just the most interesting bits.

This leads us to two Rulebook Casefiles: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself and Tap Into Real Life National Pain.

Of course, the problem with the advice I’m giving you is that these jobs are now much fewer and farther between than they used to be. But of course that change is a big part of this novel. Flynn has gifted her backstory to her character Nick, and by doing so, she’s tapped into a real source of national pain: the death of a huge sector of the economy due to the rise of the online space, culminating in a total wipeout with the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I learned a lot about writing by writing reviews but I was part of the problem: I gave away my reviews for free on this blog. I would have loved to have made the jump to writing paid reviews, but nobody was hiring because the magazines were failing because they couldn’t compete with free content like mine!

Flynn knew her pain was real, and widely shared, and that she could bestow it upon her character to make him real, and more meaningful. Giving your own life away is the greatest gift you can give your characters (And then, once you gift them your real past, you craft a present that is more interesting than your actual present. You don’t want to get too realistic.)