Deconstructing The Hunger Games

Okay, I have figured out the magical formula for making a hit dystopian science fiction Young Adult book.

(This unpublished gem has been sitting in my drafts since April 16, 2012.)

The Hunger Games
Stolen image of The Hunger Games’s book cover from

Okay, I have figured out the magical formula for making a hit Young Adult book. It’s really quite easy.

The story elements in The Hunger Games:

A smart and tough, but emotionally vulnerable hero.

A love triangle with a bunch of confused feelings.

A personal vendetta against a villain.

A villain that singles out the hero for humiliation.

A powerful government regime oppressing the rights of the people.

An underdog rebel force fighting for freedom.

A last-man-standing fight to the death that the hero must survive.

A series of deadly tricks and traps for the hero(s) to overcome.

A caricature or exaggeration of modern American society.

The writing style in The Hunger Games:

First person, present tense.

Very concise, easy-to-read prose.

Cliffhanger chapter endings.

Sparse descriptions.

Very few adverbs.

Taboos in The Hunger Games:

I don’t know if this is true of all Young Adult books, and now I’m pretty curious to find out, but I found it amusing to note that, apparently, the subject matter of a Young Adult novel is very specific about what must be censored. What I mean is this: You can put kids into an arena and have them kill each other with swords and spears and bows, in extremely gory detail. You can drop bombs on groups of kids, then have people rush in to help them, then drop more bombs on the helpers. You can burn people, you can decapitate people, you can dismember people.

But you cannot swear, ever. And you absolutely positively MUST NOT mention anything more sexual than a kiss.

Subject-less Sentences

I noticed another little trick Suzanne Collins used to pull readers along at breakneck speed in The Hunger Games. I hadn’t noticed it in the first two books, but I saw it often in Mockingjay, the last book.

She often clips the subjects off of sentences, especially in scenes of intense action or confusion. For example, she might take a paragraph like this:

I walk into the room. I open the curtains. Then I put some clothes in the washing machine.

And turn it into this:

I walk into the room. Open the curtains. Put some clothes in the washing machine.

It reads ten times faster, but it also seems to devalue the action occurring in those clipped sentences, as if the narrator doesn’t consider it important. It all sort of blurs together, and the eye just skips over them. It almost feels like this:

I walk into the room. Yada yada yada.

I don’t really have an opinion on whether it’s good or bad, it’s just something I noticed. Another tool for the tool belt.

Stay tuned for what I hope will be a Hunger Games wrap-up post, because I’ve been writing way too much about it lately.

Hunger Games Descriptions

As I’m reading the Hunger Games trilogy (I’m on the last book now), I am trying to analyze why it is so popular and addictive. The story is okay, the characters are okay, the setting is okay, but somehow it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s all marketing.

One thing I noticed just now, which contributes to the fast-paced, concise text: There are hardly any descriptions of the settings. Most of it must be filled in by the reader’s imagination. As an example, from Chapter 6 of Mockingjay:

…the doors open on the Hangar.

“Oh,” I let out involuntarily at the sight of the fleet. Row after row of different kinds of hovercraft.

That’s it. That’s literally the entire description of what in my mind must be a giant facility with tons of unfamiliar and interesting stuff to look at and describe. (In the movie version, I’m sure it will be an elaborate CG-enhanced shot that the characters will be walking through.) Collins only writes a hint of where the characters are. But somehow it’s enough to get us from scene A to scene B. And because we’re really only interested in finding out what happens next, we don’t really care.

Maybe lack of description is a “feature” of Young Adult books. I suppose I’ll have to suck it up and read some other YA books to find out.

Anyway, for me, as a person who constantly worries that I’m not writing enough description, it’s a big relief to know that a hit book doesn’t require much.

P.S. “I let out involuntarily?” Really?

Hunger Games Dialog Tags

One thing I forgot to mention about The Hunger Games: The dialog tags. It’s funny the things you notice when you’re an aspiring writer. Suzanne Collins uses the “X said” model when Katniss says something, but uses the “said X” model when other people speak. Like this:

“I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” says John.

But then, if she uses a pronoun, she goes back to the “X said” model. (Obviously, because “says he” would be dumb.)

“John, I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” he says.

And just to make it interesting, she occasionally switches it up and does this:

“I’m going,” I say.

“You can’t,” John says.

Maybe the “said X” model is a young adult thing. I’m listening to Partials by Dan Wells (which is another dystopian young adult science fiction-ish book, coincidentally, *wink* *nudge*), and all of his dialog tags are “said X,” too.

On The Hunger Games

I finally get around to reading Hunger Games. (See what I did there?) I think it’s not terrible. It’s a decent action adventure yarn, but it’s not very deep, which I suppose is normal for a young adult book. It has a Dan Brown sort of flavor to it. I would have given it three stars out of five (“I liked it”) on GoodReads, except I did not like the ending, so I went back down to two stars (“it was ok”).

It takes me some time to get used to the first person, present tense writing. It’s not my favorite style. Later I realize there is a certain cadence to the writing. The sentences tend to be the same length. The sentences tend to be constructed the same way. All of the sentences end on a down beat. All of the sentences end with a noun. It hypnotizes the reader into reading more. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger sentence. The reader is yanked, kicking and screaming, into reading the next chapter almost every time. The book ends on one of those cliffhanger sentences, and it really irritates me because I don’t want to get the second book (unless I see it on sale, as I did the first book). [I borrowed it with Amazon Prime for free!]

In the first third of the book, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen and this dystopian world of the future, ruled by the Capitol, which I assume we are supposed to think is scarily similar to our own media-obsessed America. While there is a kernel of truth in it, I have a hard time suspending disbelief because I can’t see how this Panem society could ever develop or sustain itself, and we are not told much about the historical details of this place. It would have been much better if Panem existed in an alternate world, instead of trying to explain how it evolved out of modern day America. I surmise that young adults don’t care about that stuff, so I let it go.

The book gets considerably better when we start the actual Hunger Games, where we revert to a straight-up action suspense thriller story, which is pretty cool. Basically they stick Kat and twenty-three other kids (twelve to eighteen) in the wilderness and make them fight to the death. Who doesn’t like stories of people fighting to the death? I can see this part making a good movie. We’re supposed to be horrified about the deaths of these kids, but they don’t act like kids so it’s okay. There are no real surprises here. Kat makes relatively smart decisions (except a few bone-headed ones which she gets away with). Plot obstacles are overcome by helpful items floating down from the sky on parachutes (literally). It gets a little mushy at one point, in a young adult sort of way. What I assume was supposed to be a shocking twist could be seen a mile away. The final confrontation between the last three tributes feels a little weird and contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory, because they really didn’t confront each other.

On reflection, there was a lot of potential for agonizing conflict left on the table in the arena. At no point is Kat faced with having to kill someone that she likes, or even someone who is likable, so she has no moral dilemmas to overcome. The bad guys are clearly bad guys without any souls or personality, so we don’t mind them dying. (Some of them literally have no names.)

After she survives the games (spoiler alert: Kat survives), I want her to lead these districts in overthrowing the Capitol. Because, really, I think 75 years of these games is enough time for someone to figure out how to overthrow this circus of a government, don’t you? At the very least, Kat should grab her family and frickin’ leave town. There’s a bazillion square miles of area in North America to hide in. I assume this kind o thing is what the other two books are about (what else is there to do?), but the prospect of wading through Kat’s feelings about these two dudes to get to that conclusion is a bit revolting. [I read that there is another arena in the second book, so I’m a lot more interested in reading it now.]

So in short, start with The Lottery, add The Running Man and a touch of the obligatory young adult teen love triangle, and you’ve got the pop culture phenomenon known as The Hunger Games.