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.


Brjun said...

Thought -- the cat characterization adds something else too. We don't get to know Prim before she is picked for the games, but we need to feel & understand Katniss's affection for her sister.

So, even if Katniss doesn't save the cat, her sister does.

Matt Bird said...

Good point!

McL said...

After hearing of "save the cat" I noticed "kill the dog" moments in the opening of a few stories. I saw it in John Wick, House of Cards, and Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier comic used for slightly different reasons, but usually to set tone and reveal character. Nice to know it happens with cats too. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt, as far as I remember you didn't think much of the film hunger games. So what is your opinion on the book ? We all know that the book is always better but do you actually like it now?

Matt Bird said...

I admire it more than I like it. I think it does what it does very well, and it deserves its success. I'm not much of a fan of the next two books, and, as you say, I didn't like the movie (I only saw the first one.) These first two pieces have been all praise, but the next three might not be.

friendly Anonymous said...

Yeah, the other two books suck. This whole trend to make everything into a trilogy is absolutely cancerous. Especially with a premise like hunger games.
Suzanne Collins had to either redo the first book all over again or abandon the premise. (which is exactly what happened).

Unknown said...

I thought the (first) book was very readable and frankly hard to put down (a bit in the vein of The Da Vinci Code), but the movie was the biggest collection of frantic, unmotivated cuts and big camera movements I'd ever seen and I didn't make it to the second act.

Seen through the prism of STC, that scene seems to work on three levels: as world building (life is hard in the Seam), character building (Katniss is tough and unsentimental), AND as a non-literal STC moment, since we see that despite the former points, Katniss is a sympathetic character who can't refuse her sweet little sister = likeable.

And that's how you gotta write if you wanna play with the big dogs!!! (Said in my best Blake Snyder imitation.)