Friday, March 23, 2012

Hunger Games Week: Analyzing the Novel

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FIRST
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Everyone wants to write the next Hunger Games, right?
(Or possibly just have the wild success of a Hunger Games type book.)
(BTW, check out the Hunger Games virtual Capitol Tour. OMG *dies with the waiting*)

I've broken down a few bestsellers to analyze their plot structure. This has been immensely helpful to me in learning my craft. I blogged about analyzing the Hunger Games last year (Act I, Act II, and Act III), and I highly encourage you to take your favorite novel and similarly break it down. It's amazing how useful Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet (stolen from the screenwriting world) can be in understanding novels, and how to build a solid story structure.

There are lots of reasons given for the success of Hunger Games. My personal favorite is the high level of conflict rife throughout the story. There's almost no one in the book with which Katniss is not in conflict, right down to Prim's cat Buttercup. Suzanne Collins is a masterful storyteller, and she has perfected the art of chapter endings as well, compelling you to turn the page to the next chapter. While she uses a lot of cliff-hanger endings, not all of her chapter endings are that kind of drama. She's very artful in "opening the gap" in expectations (another screenwriting term, which refers to having something happen that's the opposite of the expected thing, creating a "gap" between the expectation and the story). Collins opens the gap at the end of her chapters, but doesn't close it again (i.e. give the response to this change in expectation) until the next chapter. For example, when Peeta declares his love for Katniss in front of the gathered fans of the Capitol at the end of Chapter 9 (the Act I climax), he  stammers out why winning the Games won't help him win the girl he has a crush on.

"Because ... because ... she came here with me."

GAH! I seriously swoon just typing that, lord knows I'm going to squeal when I see it on the screen!!

Ahem.

So, evil author that she is, Collins leaves us there. No reaction from the crowd, no reaction from Caesar. Certainly no response from Katniss, even though we're deep in her POV. She just opens up that gap the size of the Grand Canyon and leaves us there. Holy Rides in a Handbasket, Batman!

This is subtly different from cliff-hanger endings, defined as putting the character in a difficult or precarious dilemma, so that the reader seriously wonders how they will manage to survive. Cliff hangers open a gap, but then close it, so that you definitively know that the character is in trouble - they know it, we know it, the question is how they will get out of it. In this particular instance, the gap has been opened, but we're not sure exactly what Katniss' reaction will be. Will she deny it? Will she say, "Oh Peeta, I love you too!" (gag) She's not directly in mortal peril (which she is for most of the book), and she still faces the same daunting task: surviving the Games. Only now she has to do it with the burden of killing a boy who is in love with her. But, until we turn the page, we don't know if she knows this. Or what her reaction will be. (Of course Katniss goes on to rationalize Peeta's declaration as betrayal and a host of other things, because that's her character, but there is no question that the stakes have now been raised, at least in the reader's mind.) That, my friends, is some seriously awesome writing.

And there's no question that Hunger Games is an impeccably plotted book. Here's my mini-synopsis of the breakdown (see the links above for all the gory details).

***spoiler alert*** (we're analyzing the book here, people)

HUNGER GAMES

Opening Image - sets tone, stakes; mirror in Final Image
Katniss wakes up, but Prim is missing.
Theme Stated - Love Triumphs; Crime Doesn’t Pay; What is the story about? The book will debate this.
Primal values: life/death; freedom/oppression
Set-up - The hero, stakes, goal; everything the reader needs to know before the Catalyst.
Katniss loves Prim and is a fierce hunter, a survivor
Catalyst - By pg 20. Inciting Incident that changes everything for the Hero, sets them on the path to the goal.
Prim is picked at the reaping; Katniss takes her place.
Debate - Debate whether Hero should embark on the goal or if the Hero is prepared for the goal.
Is Katniss prepared to fight the Hunger Games?
Break into Act Two - Hero leaves old world behind. Choice: irreconcilable goods, lesser of two evils; not good vs. evil.
Peeta declares his love; Katniss faced with having to kill him and lose her humanity as well.
B story - “Love story”-romance or love of mother or father; or some compelling subplot; secondary theme of the story.
Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle
Fun and Games – Fulfill the promise of the premise. Can be lighter in tone, but all “coolness” of the story comes out.
Twists & turns in Hunger Games rules and in the love story.
Midpoint – Major twist that changes direction of the story. Fun and games are over, back to the story, stakes are raised.
Peeta unexpectedly saves Katniss’ life. Katniss allies with Rue.
Bad Guys Close In - Bad guys regroup and send in the heavy artillery. The good guy’s team starts to fall apart.
Careers close in on Rue.
All is Lost - The low point of the story. Whiff of death.
Rue dies. Katniss has lost “Prim” even though she may win.
Dark Night of the Soul –Explore the impact of the All is Lost moment.
Katniss can barely go on.  She decides: she will win the Games – for Prim, for Rue, for vengeance. 
Break into Three - We find a way out of the Dark Night of the Soul. Yay! We have found the solution! We just have to apply it. Should solve both A and B storylines.
The Gamemakers change the Rules! There’s HOPE! Katniss and Peeta can BOTH win! The third act is all about the romance. Is it real? Is it not? They need each other to survive, but is it love?
Finale –Obligatory Scene created by the Inciting Incident. MC is faced with the largest forces of antagonism and must choose–two irreconcilable goods or the lesser of two evils. Does the solution work? Story A and B end in triumph. A new world is created. Bad guys are dispatched in ascending order.
Peeta and Katniss fight off the Mutts and Cato, only to be faced with the Gamemakers changing the rules again. Katniss must decide: death or killing Peeta? She chooses neither, an act of rebellion that dispatches the Gamemakers and makes her something larger: someone willing to die for a cause.
Final Image - The mirror of the Opening Image. Proof  the character and world have changed.
Ironic ending: they survive, but now everyone is in danger. Plus Katniss may have to “fake” the love or break Peeta’s heart.


Do you agree with my breakdown? Disagree? I'm sure there are many ways to break down a novel, but the process of doing so can be a tremendous learning experience. Especially if you then apply it to your own novel. (I recently did a Beat Sheet breakdown for a friend's novel in my critique, another way to really move your learning of the craft along.)

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Dark Omen and I are heading off tonight to see the movie!! (That squee of happiness is coming from Illinois, in case you were wondering.)

Check back on Monday for my analysis of the movie and for the winners of the Catching Fire and Mockingjay giveaway!

9 comments:

  1. This is really well done. I think this may just be the post to get me over the re-write hump that I hit when I realized events needed to come MUCH later than I have them now. Thanks so much!!!

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  2. Enjoyed reading the breakdown. I'm embarrassed as I really haven't finished the book heck, I'm not yet in the middle of the book *facepalm* I thought I have some time. :) This is good to get back again. :D

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  3. great way of breaking it down. They really are wonderfully written books.

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  4. Thank you, Susan. I will be using this breakdown when I revise my WIP. :)

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  5. I found this so helpful!

    This is the kind of breakdown I'm tempted to show anyone who offhandedly says, "writing is easy, I could write better than [author]." I think most writers devoted to the craft know takes a tremendous amount of work to craft a book that a reader can devour. Even James Patterson, who I have criticized in the past, at least has a page-turning formula that works for him. You have to give him credit for the short chapter, high drama approach, even if the writing is simple and the plot a bit expected.

    The next writing book on my list is Save the Cat, which you referenced. I just finished another book that showed me how my own little story had pretty much zero tension and the plot moved at a snail's pace. Ah, the humility of a new writer's life!

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  6. Nicely done! I adore this book - hope you enjoy the movie!!

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  7. I'm SO jealous that you got to see it already! Part of me is kind of afraid to because I don't want them to mess it up. Excellent analysis and good point about learning from great novels.

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  8. I like to breakdown books with different styles. I tore apart Great Expectations the other day trying to figure out why a book 150 years old is still being published and read. The conflict on several levels is amazing. Thanks for the beat sheet. I'll try it. Lisa Nowak told me I'd enjoy your blog...and she's right.

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    1. Thanks to Lisa Nowak for the rec! :)

      I hadn't thought about breaking down classics, but that's a very interesting idea! So many things I'd like to do, sometimes I feel like I need an army of clones to get it all done! :) Thanks for stopping by!

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers