Saturday, 7 May 2011

Chapter One: The Hunger Games


This is a continuation of my series of first chapter dissections where I take apart the opening  chapter of a successful novel to find out what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed, and which were broken to good effect (previous entries can be found here: Ch.1 Analyses).

Suzanne Collins was an established writer before she wrote The Hunger Games, having written extensively for children’s television and a series of MG books. She moved onto Young Adult with this novel in 2008, the first in a trilogy. Set in a dystopian society in the future, every year two teenagers from each district are sent to the Capitol to compete in the games.

The premise isn’t original, but I’d say the main difference from its forebears is the audience. Stories of this dark nature haven’t been aimed at teens before (even when they’ve starred teens as in Battle Royale). How the author manages to balance this mixture of children and violence is, I think, part of the book’s success.

Chapter One is pretty long, over 16 pages, so expect this post to be not short. If you haven't read it you can find the first chapter online: here.

The book is first person POV, present tense. The prose is very well written, you don’t even notice the tense. The pace is well maintained, a constant sense of moving forward, even though the opening isn’t particularly thrilling.

The whole chapter is a deft example of how to introduce description within action. We are given a look at the world as our heroine encounters things through action. She doesn’t stop to give an overview or a long explanation. She wakes, she describes the bed, she dresses, she describes the clothes, she goes hunting, she describes the woods etc.


“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.”

We start with one of the classic no-no’s of modern literature. Agents are always putting the opening scene where the MC wakes up on the top of their list of pet hates. Here there are two reasons to start this way. First, because it’s a special day, and it adds to the build up to start from first light. And secondly to introduce the MC's sister, Prim (more on that later).

It should also be noted, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, ‘rules’ only apply to unpublished writers. Once you’re in print you can do whatever works, and agents aren’t your primary market.

We also get a description of the world’s ugliest cat, which then never gets mentioned again. Why? It’s hard in first person POV to get a clear idea of the narrator, since people don’t think about themselves in those terms. But by using the awkward relationship with the cat, how she feels about it and how she imagines the cat feels about her, what the author does is give us an idea of Katniss’ place. Her need to be coldly pragmatic. Her feelings about her sister. The soft spot she has that she suppresses.   

The message here, imo, is that Katniss is a tough cookie, but only because she has no other choice. She has accepted her burden, but it has left her a cold person with defences fully raised. Only Prim can get through.

Slowly hints are dropped in about the kind of world we’re in. Fences, wild animals, restrictions, lack of food, and a special event later in the day. All this stuff is related in between her preparation for hunting, no info dump. It’s very well managed. The dead father, the neglectful mother, and the laws against poaching are slipped in as relevant bits of info to do with the task at hand, hunting.

There is quite a lot of backstory, but it is served in small chunks, and always within the bitter voice of a girl who views her misfortune with an ironic detachment. I think that attitude helps make it more than just a round-up of previous events.

The first few pages contain no big action, but there is constant movement and enough info to give us an idea of an oppressed way of life, and a constant danger. The tone and attitude of the narrator is well conveyed, her tough guy act underscored throughout, but also occasionally punctured with thoughts of Prim.

She hooks up with Gale in the woods. She slips in a story about killing a friendly cougar here, again emphasising Katniss’ pragmatic nature. Can’t afford to be sentimental in this world. It’s a bit heavy handed, the same point has been made repeatedly in this chapter. She drowns cats, she kills lions, she defies the law, she replaces her mother. She does what she has to.

This is a clear difference between this kind of book and an adult work of fiction. Within the first chapter Katniss is given one motivation in life and it is hammered home relentlessly. Even though there are some interesting narrative devices employed, emotionally it is very direct.

“We could do it you know,” Gale says quietly.
“What?” I ask.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale.

A romance element introduced here. It’s done in the classic ‘I’m not interested in love’ manner, but it’s pretty blunt. Gale fancies her. Her life is too hard to consider such luxuries. These feelings are later transferred to Peeta (the guy she's paired with to go to the games).

Whenever you get that sort of ‘no time for love’ stance from a female character you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be little time for anything else. Of course, romantic feelings are used later in the games to great effect.  But this basic confusion about her feelings (can she allow herself to feel anything?) is a major theme of the story, much in the way two people who have a marriage of convenience for ‘Green Card’ purposes aren’t sure of their true feelings. Or when a spy is ordered to romance an ‘asset’, but what started off as a mission...

I think that scene in the woods, although short and full of denial of feelings, very much establishes this as a book for girls. I don’t think the writer put that scene in there by accident.

Then there’s a fairly long section on what and how they hunt, at the same time giving us a pretty good idea of the way this world operates, laws, dangers, black markets etc. It also shows us how self-reliant Katniss is, Gale being very much a partner and an equal, even though he is older than her. There is also a slight push towards the upbeat. 

I think this variation in tone works really well. The start was a bit glum, then the joy of freedom in the woods, then Bam! the lottery. Keeping variation in the narrative helps the momentum, I didn’t find myself getting bored with the details here, even though this is probably the most exposition-heavy, info-dumpy section of the chapter.

The whole reaping concept is mentioned every now and again, but without any real explanation so far. There is a definite sense of foreboding about it, some bitterness and lots of sarcasm. I got a strong sense of Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’, which I think is another big influence. It’s pretty clear the reaping isn’t a good thing.

From the end of the hunt and bartering of goods with the black market folk, to the getting ready and  arrival in the town square, everything is underplayed.  Emotion is suppressed. A kind of weary resignation settles over the story that very effectively makes things feel far worse than people panicking and losing their minds. An excellent demonstration of how to use understatement to emphasise impending horror.

The rules of the Hunger Games (a battle to the death between kids selected from each of the 12 districts) are given just before the draw is made. It’s very important they are made clear before the draw is made. There is a strong compulsion among aspiring writers to hold back information like this as long as possible. But without knowing the consequences of an act, the act loses its tension. And you can't add musical cues to manipulate a reader. 

The rules of suspense requires you to make the stakes clear ahead of the event, not after. Even if the lottery draw took place in the next chapter, it would still be better to reveal the nature of the Hunger Games in this chapter.

So, the draw is made and it’s Prim. Good end of chapter hook. Again, it would have been tempting for a lot of aspiring authors to hold back the name until the next chapter as a way to get the reader to turn the page. Again, a much weaker way to do it. If you’ve set things up correctly knowing who it is makes it more interesting to know what happens next, not less. Consider, if I tell you a) someone’s been in an accident, or b) your mother’s been in an accident, which gets you in the stomach more?

Prim has been mentioned throughout the chapter so we know her, and we know how Katniss feels about her. Her selection carries weight with the reader. But it was done is fairly subtle manner. Even though it was made clear this was Prim’s first reaping, the focus was taken off her by placing it on how many entries Katniss and Gale had, and the desperate hoping by Katniss that she wouldn’t be chosen. Prim’s entry was almost used as an example of someone who was safe from being picked. This sort of hiding in plain sight is always the best way to misdirect the reader. Had it not been mentioned at all and then sprung on the reader it would have felt like a cheat.

The start of the chapter, reaching for Prim who isn’t there, also takes on added significance. It was foreshadowing the end of the chapter and very cleverly bookended the chapter with the loss of Prim, providing a satisfying arc.

It’s clear that the writer knows what she’s doing. The first scene and last scene of the chapter are strongly linked. The big questions (what are these Hunger Games? Who will be picked?) are both answered within the chapter.

Interesting answers always draw the reader in, making them want to know more.

Plus, having proved she can deliver the goods, if the author chooses to be a little more coy in future chapters, I, as the reader, would feel confident in allowing her the room to do that, knowing she’ll pay it off. That is only because she’s done it so effectively straight out of the gates. She’s not asking me to hang on until it gets good down the line, she pays out on all bets up front and then offers the chance to win even bigger if you gamble and keep reading. 

Things to note:

No violence up front. Even though they were hunting, very bloodless. Even with this older age group, I think the approach is to ease into the rough stuff.

Lots of foreshadowing. Not just for later in the book (with the romance stuff) but between the opening and the ending of chapter one. Set up and pay-off within the first chapter.

Strong emotional voice, not just out of personality, but situation. She is a product of her environment. The examples of her attitude were many and varied, but all kept to the same message. Chapter one was about making sure you knew her approach to life, and that approach was kept simple – whatever it takes to survive.

An excellent first chapter, would certainly get you to keep reading and makes you confident you’re in capable hands. A lot of ideas lifted from other places, but expertly mixed and reimagined.

Agree with me? Think I’m talking out of my hat? Feel free to let me know. All opinions welcome. Never not interested in alternate takes.

40 comments:

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great dissection. I just purchased a fantasy book today by a new author because she is represented by an agent who rejected my latest fantasy. I'm going to try and dissect it like you did this first chapter and figure out why it made the cut and mind didn't. Thanks for the lesson.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

You pointed out so many little details that a reader like me would've ordinarily missed--like how the first and last scenes of the chapter are linked. That never even occurred to me. Now that I think about it, I've realized that the first sentence itself is very loaded. We instantly feel Prim's importance to Katniss.

Lindsey said...

Yep, you nailed the dissection. Nice job! But while the romance was probably written for the girls, the hunting and killing was written for the boys, I think. Both girls and boys at the high school I work at are completely obsessed with The Hunger Games.

Brent Wescott said...

This is a good choice considering its popularity. I like how you point out how Collins really knows her audience.

Escape Artist said...

Great idea Mood, and a great way of highlighting for our own work!
P.S. I did get spoiled and I will excuse one son for not calling as he resides in London! Thanks for letting me know, otherwise I just may have sulked!!
Best,
Linda

Sophia Richardson said...

I think I'm going to have to study the rest of The Hunger Games in a similar way to this because Collins does a great job of keeping the pace going and ending chapters with a hook. This was a great dissection, I didn't realise the link between Prim being missing from the bed at the start and the link back to that at the end of the chapter.
- Sophia.

Sarah McCabe said...

Interesting. I've heard a lot about these books and will definitely have to read them. I like that you approach this more from a "what works" standpoint than a "look at everything this author is terrible at". It's better to learn from the positive.

Girl Friday said...

Excellent analysis, as ever. I didn't read The Hunger Games for a long time because I just thought 'Meh, it's a rip-off of Battle Royale', but in the end I thoroughly enjoyed the books.

Pk Hrezo said...

YOu did an awesome job of breaking it down. Believe it or not, I've only read the first chapter of HG. Mainly because I know I'll be hooked once I take time to read it and know there's 2 more in the series, so I want to make it an event. It'll be soon for sure. That being said, I'm almost always able to put down a book. There has to be some major cliffhangers to keep me reading above all else.
I loved Collin's writing tho... it pulls you in. I also write in first person present tense and it's nice to read others who do the same.

Ellie said...

Fascinating diessection. After reading your post I feel I need to read Hunger Games myself to fully take on board what you've talked about. I can't wait to read another of your first chapter reviews.

Ellie Garratt

mooderino said...

Thank you all for taking the time to read (I know it's long) and comment.

@Lindsey - while I'm sure loads of boys read the books too (I was a big Jane Austen fan at school), it feels very female-centric to me, expecialy with the later development of Katniss and Peeta 'falling in love' for the TV audience. The whole sorting out of true feelings angle is quite emphatically where the theme is at.

@Sarah McCabe - I would have gladly have pointed out stuff that didn't work, and I do mention where she gets a bit heavy-handed, hammering the message home for the younger audience, but overall it's just very well structured and executed. Credit where credit's due.

@Ellie - Next time I'm thinking of doing the epic fantasy book (Name of the Wind) that was up against HG for this slot, and then maybe the first Potter book. Might as well have a crack at JKR.

Cheers for all the feedback.

Madeleine said...

I have not heard of this author before, so was interested in your comments. I like a good read whatever the agegroup it is aimed at (and beleive me I've got books for all ages)I like the sound of the 'description through action' and would therefore consider reading Hunger Games myself too. :O)

Alison Miller said...

Agreed with the dissection. The Hunger Games was so perfectly paced and Suzanne Collins did a remarkable job of showing me everything that I needed to know without an info dump. Hunger Games had me up late at night. I finished the series in a week (and only because a snowstorm prevented immediate Mockingjay purchase).

Excellent post!

Paula Martin said...

Fascinating analysis, mood.
I also like your comment "‘rules’ only apply to unpublished writers. Once you’re in print you can do whatever works."
I hate all those so-called rules, especially as every agent/editor has their own anyway!

Sylvia Ney said...

I really like that you do this. We all benefit from these exercises. It would be a cool idea to start a blogfest where we all do this with out favorite book/movie on a certain day. Are you planning on doing more of them?

Donna Hole said...

I'm not a YA reader or writer. I clicked the first chapter link, and did find myself riveted. Especially by the well integrated details of the world, the characters, and the introduction to
the overall plot by way of the backstory on the reaping and its meanings/use.

You have a good eye for details yourself Moode.

.....dhole

Charmaine Clancy said...

Very thorough exploration of the opening of this popular fantasy novel. There's a lot to learn here.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

TV-Reports said...

Thanks for sharing :)

Karen Lange said...

I love the idea of dissecting a chapter like this. I mentally do it with some books as I read, but have never gotten this in depth. Thanks for the inspiration!

Donna Weaver said...

Nice analysis.

Lydia K said...

Nice analysis. I really loved reading the HUG so this was also very enlightening. Thanks!

Linda Leszczuk said...

I'm one of those rare creatures who hasn't read Hunger Games, although it's sitting near the top of my towering TBR pile. So I'm going to save this post and read it after I've read that first chapter.

magpiewrites said...

Great job on the break down. I have read the whole trilogy, or maybe it's better to say that I wolfed them down. The pace, which really picks up in the second chapter, is relentless, and I forgot how the first chapter, though loaded with foreshadowing (as you mentioned) is relatively slow, which gave me time to absorb all that information. I do wish she'd used a few more 'breaks' like this later in the book/series, to allow for absorption. That said, I ran right along side katniss the whole time, panting, ducking and weaving as I went!

Julie said...

I've heard so much about the Hunger Games and am one of the few people who hasn't read it. This analysis was so interesting, it made me certain I want to read the book. Putting it at the top of my list now. :)

Austin James said...

I haven't read this book, but I will eventually (sometime over the summer). I really enjoyed Battle Royale. And I've heard this book is a weird mix between Harry Potter and Battle Royale.

Milo James Fowler said...

A thorough dissection; nicely done. I enjoyed this book in the trilogy the most. The grand finale of book #3 was anything but and, in my opinion, left much to be desired. All the skill the author used in crafting the first book is barely recognizable in the third.

K.M. Weiland said...

Great series! Authors who know how to dole out the necessary backstory in the first chapter are pros. We can't *not* tell readers some of what's happened to the characters prior to the first chapter, but the trick is to make the backstory so interesting and vital that they're fascinated, instead of bored.

Margo Berendsen said...

I blogged an analysis of this first chapter, too, but you noticed some interesting things that I missed. Really good point about how "Emotion is suppressed. A kind of weary resignation settles over the story that very effectively makes things feel far worse than people panicking and losing their minds. An excellent demonstration of how to use understatement to emphasise impending horror."

You're the first person I've encountered who noted the connection to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."

Jennifer Hillier said...

Great dissection. I was worried that the book would be front heavy with too much world-building, but the story sucked me in so quick I almost didn't notice. Katniss is a great character. I felt connected to her immediately.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Yet more marvellous insights from you. I have nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award. See the post on my blog.

San said...

I am so in awe of you! Yikes.

I have awarded you today and it is well deserved so be sure to snatch it up and YAY!!!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Wow, you've put a lot of thought into this. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I generally stay away from dystopia. They make me feel down. I especially detest the constant threat of death and running for your life kinda feeling.

I appreciate you shedding light on this book. A book I've heard SO much about.

♥.•*¨Elizabeth¨*•.♥

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YA Paranormal Romance Darkspell coming fall of 2011!
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Suzie Quint said...

Great project you've got here. I love The Hunger Games and you do a lovely dissection of the chapter. Good food for thought.

Michael Offutt said...

I thought the Hunger Games sucked (Yes, I read it).

Anonymous said...

I agree with Michael Offut. To me, The Hunger Games was just a shallow rip-off of Battle Royale. Katniss is the worse main character I've ever read. I mean she loves her sister so much she tries to drawn her cat? Her tough guy act is annoying and she focuses on the stupid things. Like, how her make up looks for the audience. You would think as a strong female character she would want people to remember her as she was, not what she pretented to be.

The romance in the series was terrible and it's very obvious that she through in that element at the last minute to get more female readers. Katniss is a fake (shocker), Peeta's too obsessed (but that's apparently romantic), and Gale doesn't even appear in much of the series for it to be really a love triangle.

Overall, I disliked the Hunger Games and I don't understand what the hype is.

Elle Strauss said...

Great insights--learning a lot from this series. Thanks!

Dad McHugh said...

Many moons ago, I did a similar analysis of Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games. If it matters, your analysis is more detailed than mine, but our thoughts are/were very similar. However, I would propose that you might have glazed over something that I thought was a key element of this Chapter 1.

In any story that takes the reader to an unknown, unfamiliar world, the writer has to first get the reader into that world before any serious and/or understandable action can take place. As you point out, it's a long first chapter, contains a lot of backstory, and has a lot of description. I think there's a very good reason for this, and it has more to do with keeping to the rules rather than breaking them.

The inciting incident of the story doesn't happen until the beginning of Chapter 2 when Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place. One of the things I have seen writers of new and/or unknown worlds do, is get to the action, and the inciting incident, too quickly before setting the scene and introducing the reader top this new and different world.

Collins, in my opinion, followed the rules of "unknown worlds" in an almost textbook manner. Intro the world, get the reader comfortable, don't go too fast, let the reader acclimate, let the reader see the scene and feel the mood. Withhold the inciting incident until the reader has fully entered into this unknown world.

As you see, I think Collins was actually following the rules for her choice of genre in Chapter 1.

mooderino said...

@Dad McHugh-The problem with most sci-fi/fantasy stories isn't whether they should or shouldn't establish the world first (they should, and they do—nobody is suggesting otherwise); the problem is how to do it without boring the reader.

Aspriring writers tend to paint a flat narrative picture, like looking at someone's holiday photo. A mountain on the left, a tree on the right. Finding a way to make it interesting for the reader while you do it is what matters.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant analysis of the first chapter, Moody. Suzanne did well at what many writers could have screwed up. That demonstrates her talent.

marykate77 said...

this just shows how different people can read the same thing, note the same points and yet come to completely different conclusions.

I am not a fan of the hunger games. I do not particularly like Collins style.

You note that she intersperses action with description. I think she drowns action in description. I like the idea of seeing an average day, with a special nasty twist, but feel that she 'describes the day' rather than involves us in it. Explaining the slight awkwardness between Gale and her other friend.

You interpret the cat as a means of illustrating her only soft spot - her relationship with her sister. As someone who is plagued with unwanted cats this feels a rather tame example of her harsh attitude and is further weakened by her obvious affection and trust in Gale and her wish to see him and her other friend get along.

But the real weakness of this opening is the moment when her sisters name is pulled out. The way the tension that might have been built is almost instantly dissolved is a major disappointment. At that point I was sorely tempted to put the book down. This was the ideal opportunity to really show what was at stake, to highlight the sacrifices and lengths Kat would go to in order to protect Prim and most importantly to really pull us into the 'omg what is going to happen' mind set that should have driven the entire story..

Basically we know from the blurb Kat is going to the games, the twist of her sisters name being picked is great - except two seconds later Kat has volunteered and hey ho.. we are back on track with everything we know is going to happen, happening. Her sister is never really in jeopardy, Kat is in control.

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