A Strong Premise. Often in writing classes or in my old screenwriting club I’d hear the phrase, “raise the stakes.” This is a popular concept and it makes sense. The more there is “at stake,” the more weight the story will carry. Some stories handle this in a subtle way, but for The Hunger Games, I was impressed by its literal, hardhitting use of the idea of a “high stakes” story. The premise is simple, but contained within it is everything Collins’ needed to build a pulse-pounding narrative: there is an annual reality show where adolescents fight to the death in a post-apocalyptic world.
Side Note: the other half of this “raise the stakes” argument is that if the problem, the conflict, is important enough to the main characters themselves, then any issue can carry a story. Funny example: the Big Lebowski. This may be a film example, but the principle is the same. The story revolves around the main character wanting his rug back because it was ruined and it really completed the ambiance of his living room. That fact is extremely important to him. That’s all the story needs to move forward. Also, any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show I’ve recently gotten into, uses the smallest of issues as major plotlines because they always mean everything to main character Larry David.
A Smoothly Built Plot. I wrote a fantasy novel 6-8 years ago and I used the “quest” platform to build my plot. Having a spine to your story evolves from having a strong premise. My premise back then was simple but strong enough: reach the antagonistic stronghold for a preemptive strike before a war breaks out. Basically, attack the bad guy’s fortress before he leaves to begin his war. I had enough here to build my quest. I knew the end goal: get my main characters to the fortress and along the way they would be tried and tested and we would see if 1.) they could make it, 2.) they would change or remain the same as characters and 3.) they would succeed or fail on their quest.
In The Hunger Games, I noticed similarities here. Once Collins had her strong premise she could then plot through the story. That may sound like a simple, obvious note to point out, but many writers, myself included, have gotten stuck when it came time to build the plot of a story. Sometimes the idea seems great but there’s not enough there to build a workable plot. Collins creates an engaging plotline through the use of travel that can be seen as a type of “quest.” Here’s what I mean: The story opens with main character Katniss living in the worst, least-respected post-apocalyptic city (once again, going for the most or the least, raising the stakes by not settling for average). Collins has to get Katniss from that city to the arena where the games take place and then she has to get her through the games. That is the basic journey and along the way Collins decided how many challenges her main character would come up against: at home when the story starts, on the road to the arena and at the arena itself. Finally, in conjunction with the unfolding actions of the story, Collins had to decide if Katniss would make it, if she would change or remain the same, and if she would fail or succeed. Perhaps most stories can be thought of as a “quest” and the next time I am stuck with a plot I will try to break it down as a series of small journeys that eventually get me to the end of my story’s goals.
Clear Answer to “Why Now,” aka why on earth have you decided to start your story at this exact moment in time? The story opens just before the yearly reaping where two adolescents from each district are picked at random to journey to the hunger games.
Anti-love love story. I won’t go into details here, but it was definitely my kind of love story.
Lack of Pandering. Collins’ book is technically a young adult novel, but the story doesn’t read like one where that was taken into consideration. The story feels like it was simply written with all its gore, bleak atmosphere, and suspense; then, it became a bestselling novel with a YA brand. Who knows how much Collins’ thought about her projected path for her novel. What I do know, is that it did not come across in a transparent fashion. Collins has, however, been writing for a younger audience her whole life, and it does seem to be her niche.
A little about author Suzanne Collins. I read up on her background after reading The Hunger Games and what I learned was quite interesting: she was a TV writer before she became a novelist. How interesting! As someone who goes back and forth from screenwriting projects to fiction projects I was instantly intrigued by this fact. Collins started her writing career in 1991 where she wrote for shows like Clarissa Explains It All and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. You can see her list of IMDB credits by clicking here. Her first novel, Gregor the Overlander, came out in 2003. She wrote four more books for that series amongst other projects before writing and publishing The Hunger Games in 2008.
It was a truly pleasant surprise to see that Collins begin her writing life in LA as a screenwriter before becoming a known novelist and moving to CT. Currently, The Hunger Games has a green light from Lions Gate Films and will be coming to a theater near you in the next couple years. It seems like Collins’ writing career is coming full circle and it makes me happy to read about her success.