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.

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