In part one of this post I discussed various techniques to keep each moment of a story interesting in and of itself. In particular, how a story is made up of a bunch of much smaller stories that keep the reader engaged as the bigger story is slowly rolled out. In today’s post I will use the first chapter of The Hunger Games to demonstrate what I mean (I get so many search hits for HG based on the one post I did mentioning it, that I thought I might as well give those people another article to read). There will be spoilers.
Chapter One introduces the MC, explains what The Hunger Games are, and ends with Katniss not getting selected—her sister is chosen instead.
There is a lot of backstory and exposition and the key development is Prim’s selection, but a lot of other stuff is also going on during this chapter. I’m going to look at the moments in each sequence of scenes to see how the author manages to keep interest high, even when she’s being very digressive.
These techniques can help you energise quieter moments and also make backstory and exposition enjoyable to read.
The scenes roughly break down as:
1.Katniss wakes up and goes hunting.
2.Trading the stuff she’s gathered with Gale.
3.Getting ready for the reaping.
4.Attending the drawing of the names.
Katniss wakes up and goes to the woods to hunt. The narrative is fairly straightforward. Because her father died, her mother lost it. So Katniss is now the sole breadwinner. Why is this enough to hold the reader's interest?
Let’s say I’m writing a story set in the real world. In my story a teenage girl’s father dies leaving her mother depressed and useless, and so the teenager is left to look after her younger sister.
That’s basically the same set up as The Hunger Games. But if I started the story in similar fashion, with my MC dressing and getting her kid sister ready for school it wouldn’t be a very engaging story. And the reason is because the consequences of Katniss’s situation is she has to go out hunting with a bow and arrow, and the consequences for my character is that she has to open a box of cereal and find a clean pair of bobby socks.
Even though each character feels just as hard done by and bitter about the obligation they’ve been put under, they won’t be judged equally by the reader. Prosaic, everyday problems need a more resourceful and insightful kind of writing, (which is totally possible). HG gets round that by larger stakes and difficult activities. As I mentioned in Part I of this post, you can get away with simple and straightforward scenes if the content is out of the ordinary.
While out hunting, Katniss mentions a crazy lynx that used to follow her and feed on the scraps from her kills. The relevance of this seemingly random recollection is that when the lynx started scaring off game, Katniss killed it (I almsot regretted it becasue he wasn't bad compant. But I got a good price for his pelt).
The sense that Katniss is brutally pragmatic and somewhat emotionless, that she does what she has to in order to survive is a repeated motif throughout the first chapter, but why this anecdote?
Earlier she mentioned the cat Prim brought home that Katniss viewed as just another mouth to feed. But she allowed the cat to stay because Prim wanted it. The story of the lynx (a wild cat) shows that when Prim isn’t around, cats don’t get any special treatment. The importance of Prim in Katniss’s life is what’s being emphasised. Not just in the scenes where Prim is mentioned, and she gets mentioned a lot, sometimes very directly (I think possibly too much, although this is a children’s book so I think this is intentionally overdone) but also in the scenes where she isn’t mentioned.
The lynx story highlights Prim’s importance without ever mentioning her, and far more effectively than the more direct methods. Not only is the lynx story an interesting depiction of her hunter credentials, it also builds on a theme of not caring about anything... other than Prim.
She recalls how her father and mother met, and how his death led to her mother turning into a useless burden. But it isn’t enough to have her be a broken woman, she was from a well-to-do family who fell for a lowly miner. Had she been a local woman, ther's no reason why she couldn’t love her husband so much her grief became overwhelming. But this story makes her loss amplified. This sort of backstory is often advised against, especially in early chapters, but make it a romantic tragedy (that doesn’t take up too much space) and the reader won’t mind. Add to that Katniss’s bitter voice and you get a clash between irresistible love and seething resentment. That sort of dramatic irony, the star-crossed love story of how my parents ruined my life, is gold dust in fiction. Doesn’t matter if you produce it with exposition or backstory or seventeen adverbs in a row.
Gale, Katniss’s friend and hunting partner, suggests they run away together, and there is an undercurrent of emotion here. He has feelings for her, but she doesn’t have the luxury to acknowledge they even exist. Gale isn’t a major character in this book, but he serves a purpose and has to be introduced and his feelings for her established.
You can tell by the way the girls whisper about him when he walks by in school that they want him. It makes me jealous but not for the reason most people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find.
Here the author establishes Gale’s desirability in fairly direct fashion, and also that Katniss is attracted to him (despite what she says). But the switch up at the end is key. Like a joke, it’s the bit you weren’t expecting that fires your interest in a story, and framing things in this way makes routine information much more enticing.
This sequence is all world building. You have to establish the world you set your story in, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s very easy to fall into the trap of endless description.
They go to the Hob to trade food. This starts with a very literal "I’ll give you this for that" type of scene, which helps give an idea of the state of the world they live in, but then she mentions that Greasy Sae will buy wild dog.
We don’t hunt them on purpose, but if you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat.
This is a good example of how a brief but interesting tidbit can flesh out exposition and disguise its true nature.
They sell strawberries to Madge, the mayor’s daughter, showing the different classes in this society and how the Capitol keeps tensions high with its different rules for different people. There’s an explanation of tesserae (entering the draw multiple times in exchange for food) that is very straightforward. But it’s a clever and original idea that bears explaining. Not all ideas do (anyone for quidditch?). Long, rambling rules and regulations of no real consequence rarely interest anyone other than the writer. Again, it's the heightened stakes in this story that allow for quite blatant exposition.
3. Getting Ready
When Katniss returns home and gets ready for the reaping, everything becomes pared down and very simple. The complete opposite of everything I’ve been advocating. And for a very good reason. After all the build up to the reaping, the constant references to it, the fear and anxiety, the sudden focus on simple mundane tasks (eating, getting dressed etc.) provides a contrast to the coming terror that is chilling. Using mundane to show mundane is boring. Using mundane to highlight imminent death is not. As long as what you see is not what you get, you can get away with pretty much anything.
It demonstrates really well how the mundane can be used, but only in contrast, as a way to provide relief. A band playing music is what it is. A band playing on as the Titanic sinks can be the excat saem description, but totally changed by the context.
4. The Draw
Finally the Hunger Games are explained and the full horror of what these children are in for is described. The history of this world and why the games came about are all told in fairly quickly. And it’s an interesting enough tale to hold the reader’s attention. You could call it info dumping. This happened, then this, then this. But the foramt is: This happened becasu eof this, which led to that. The way it's interlinked, one event causing another, is how story works. By making it a story (and by keeping it short) it is an interesting tale about the end of the world in a couple of paragraphs.
After all this build up the reader's happy to get the information any way they can. And then of course the draw provides a nice hook into the next chapter.
But the way the actual nature of the games has been left hanging throughout the chapter until now is something a lot of writers try to do and fail badly. The fact we aren’t told what it is Katniss (and everyone else) is so afraid of, just that it’s scary and unfair and most likely life threatening certainly makes the reader curious to know more and keep reading.
But it isn’t just lots of tension about this coming event, and then a reveal of the event. While people are freaking about this special day, the anxiety is threaded through all these other stories and moments and anecdotes that are not mysterious and vague.
What tends to happen with aspiring writers trying to write in this vein, is that they manage the big question (something’s going on, what is it?) and they come up with a big answer (although often this is a problem too) but they fail to keep things interesting along the way.
As you can see from the parts I’ve selected (and there were plenty more), a single chapter made up of numerous sequences, built out of a multitude of scenes, all have multiple events going on.
The level of complexity in even a simple conversation about a nice dress, and what you can achieve through that in terms of the narrative, is huge. That shouldn't be too worrying, you will find that a lot of what I've spoken about in these last two posts are things you often do without thinking in your own stories.
It is in the nature of telling tales that we digress and fill in background info. But being more aware of it will help you do it more and better.If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.