Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest post: The Hunger Games - A Lesson In Plot

Today I'm really excited to welcome my friend Meghan Ward to the blog, and I'm super excited about her post. When Meghan sent me the post below, my first thought was, "Dang it lang it, now I have to hurry up and read The Hunger Games, even though I've had it sitting in my pile for a very long time (it's in hardback, even) and promised myself I would read it and then didn't and feel silly because I know it's fabulous and I need to read it even though I'm deep in the fourth book of the Game of Thrones series." So I picked it up and read it downstairs while I nursed, as opposed to upstairs when I nurse and read A Feast of Crows, and was instantly hooked. I could not put it down. And in fact, my reaction to it is almost word for word the same as Meghan's below--including purchasing the second book within 30 seconds of finishing.

I thought a lot about the strength of the plot and the protagonist, and Meghan's points below are right on. Now, take it away, Meghan!

The Hunger Games - A Lesson In Plot

I first heard about the Hunger Games last summer when the Internet was ablaze with talk about the forthcoming Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I was intrigued by the title of the series because I love playing board games (Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride) and because it reminded me of the 1997 movie "The Game" starring Michael Douglas. I bought The Hunger Games before I read the description of it: in a post-apocalyptic country that has replaced the United States, two children from each of its twelve territories, a boy and a girl, must fight to the death while the country watches on TV. I don't read much YA, and fantasy and
sci-fi aren't my thing either, so I set it aside, almost regretting the $4.69 I¹d spent to purchase the e-book version.

But when I heard Woody Harrelson was to star in the movie that would be coming out next year, I decided to give it a chance. (I once saw Woody Harrelson on stage with Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, and he upstaged them all). If I was going to read it, I wanted to read it before the movie came out. So one night after completing a marketing book I was reading for a class I am teaching, I opened my iPad and tapped on The Hunger Games. And it had me from page one. I stopped tweeting, I stopped responding to e-mails and I stopped reading blogs until I finished it. And within about 30 seconds of reading the last page, I had downloaded book two, Catching Fire. What a wonderful feeling to let the world go on without me while I lay in bed absorbed in a book that I couldn't put down! But what does it take to write such a book? What sets it apart from all the books I've muddled halfway through and then set down, never to pick up again? Great writing? Beautiful descriptions? Complex characters? In the case of the Hunger Games, none of those. The only thing that matters is plot, plot, and more plot (along with an extremely likable protagonist). Sometimes we get so caught up trying to craft clever dialogue and write interesting descriptions that we lose sight of what storytelling is really all about‹telling a great story.

What kept the The Hunger Games moving for me were three things:

1. The ideal protagonist. Katniss is a wonderful character because she's smart, because she has a good heart, and because she is tough as nails. We know from page one that she is going to win the games, the question is how.

Q4U: Is your own protagonist a winner? Is she someone readers will root for? Is she intelligent and determined or is she too passive, reacting to events instead of taking action?

2. A continuous flow of seemingly insurmountable challenges that the protagonist must overcome. I won't go into detail because I don't to ruin the book for you, but just when Katniss overcomes one obstacle, another is waiting for her with just the right amount of time in between to allow both her and the reader to rest and reflect.

Q4U: Does your own protagonist have obstacles to overcome? Are they important enough for the reader to care? (potential death, loss of a loved one, breakup, loss of a job, loss of a home, hunger, etc.) Do you allow the right amount of time between dramatic action scenes and non-dramatic (reflection, internal conflict) action scenes? (Martha Alderson's Blockbuster Plots expands on this.)

3. Twists and turns. Just when you think you've figured out how Katniss is going to win the Games, the game changes, keeping you turning pages (or swiping your screen) until the Author Notes at the end.

Q4U: Is your plot too predictable? Can the reader guess after the first couple of chapters how the book will end? What can you do to keep the plot moving, to keep the reader invested in your characters?

Of course, because this is a teen novel, it doesn't hurt that there's a love interest, lots of kissing and holding hands, but that's not necessary to make a novel work. It doesn't hurt, though.

What about you? Are you experienced writing plots? Do you have any tips on how to write a page-turner like The Hunger Games?

Meghan is a writer and editor working on a memoir titled, PARIS ON LESS THAN $10,000 A DAY, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Paris modeling industry in the late 80s/early 90s. Meghan worked as a high-fashion model in Europe and Japan from 1988 to 1994 before returning to the U.S. to pursue a career as a journalist. She has written for dozens of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and 7x7 Magazine. She holds a BA in English from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She writes out of her office at the San Francisco Writer¹s Grotto and lives in Berkeley with her husband, two children, and fluffy new kitten.

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