Notes on Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”

Daddy's kidney stone, angel view edited

This article reflects my notes on Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The attached picture is a kidney stone. This article is somewhat less painful.

Collins has a point of tension in the first paragraph.  Katniss is in bed with a female.  You read the third sentence before finding out it’s just her sister and she’s not a lesbian.  No matter how you feel about it, the first sentence gets your attention subtly in a way that seems unintended. This is good.

You can’t read the first sentence and stop there.

Some readers, like you, read the first sentence innocently, without a thought of sexual orientation. That was silly and immature. Don’t do it again.

After Collins holds you down for three sentences, the fourth adds a larger concern:

“This is the day of the reaping.”

What the devil?

You keep reading.

Katniss reveals a horrible thing she did years ago: trying to drown a cat. You want to find a way to justify it. She gives a cold-hearted, pragmatic explanation that includes a softer glimpse of herself: Her sister cried so hard that Katniss gave in and spared the feline.

Hmm.

You keep reading.

Notice that the cat started out as part of the description of the room, but launched the 3D characterization of Katniss and her sister, both in action (drowning cats and crying, respectively).

The description is woven into the emotion and movement of the story, both present and past. It may show literal movement: the streets usually have “miners walking.” The details are hit and miss, it seems, but no, they’re built around the greatest task of the first ten pages: to flesh out a character well enough to make a reader care.

Collins mentions the dirt under the fingernails and in creases of the minor’s sunken faces – dirt that they no longer bother to wash off.  The description gives the emotional conditions of the town, not just the smells and sights and sounds.

But it does this indirectly, by showing you the dirt and saying why it’s there. This “dirt” detail rings true because you know how impossible some things are to get off.  Grease from cars, for instance.

Collins doesn’t describe anyone’s face in detail. She doesn’t waste words. That’s what I might have done.

Something like this:  “Their faces hung slack, etched and hardened over the icy decades into a mosaic of random cracks, deep and black with the very anthracite coal that filled the lives and the lungs of District 12’s desperate miners… blah, blah, blah.”

Look at my mistakes here, they’re valuable…

First, I’m self-conscious about the words I’m using, focusing on words instead of the raw emotion. I’m using too many adjectives. I’m over-doing everything as if I want every phrase to draw an accolade, and the scene to be the crowning jewel of a writer with a strong voice.

Me, me, me!

But Collins doesn’t sound like a pretentious word-worshiping narcissist. She’s lost herself somewhere, probably in the emotions of the story. Probably in her protagonist’s life.

The whole book reads as if Katniss is talking, not Collins writing.

Collins avoids static description that forces the reader to work up a complex mental image, a thing that reverses the book-to-reader energy flow. Heavy static description makes a story feel like a text-book with an energy flow from reader to book.

Collin’s descriptions spring from Katniss’ emotions, take up little space on the page, push the reader along effortlessly, and convey a mood or an opinion.

There’s little dialogue.

The action is not limited to the present. Her father was “blown to bits” in the past.

In my own writing, describing things is work so I avoid it.

In Collins’ writing the quantity of description is not small, but it’s unobtrusive, tucked in gently with few words.

This word efficiency is important to the energy flow, but a balance is needed. It can be taken too far. I wrote another post about that.

Katniss describes herself indirectly. She gives a logical reason for wearing a mask-like face that avoids showing her anger and frustration with the occupation. It’s in a scene centered on fear, the best emotion for keeping readers interested: She once frightened her mother with some childish honesty about the authorities. Her words could have gotten them all into trouble.

Katniss mentions that the ambient fear of District 12 causes her to clam up, even at home where she admits she “is not so pleasant.”

This is ingenious.

Perhaps none of us are as pleasant at home as we are with strangers… Grumpier and less polite at home? Huh?

When this heroic character says the same thing about herself, as if it’s no big deal, we bond a little with her and maybe feel some relief that we’re not the only person in the world with this ugly flaw.

“Gail says I never smile except in the woods.”  Here we get something of Katniss’ facial appearance and her personality under this relentless stress. Her masked face is a traditional hero’s look. It may be a little worn on a male protagonist, but with this young female hunter, it’s logical and interesting.

Everything in the first chapter centers on Katniss’ 3D characterization. Catnip is a nickname used only by the guy who didn’t hear right when they met… and “incidentally,” there was a dangerous predator cat that she considered no danger at all. It used to follow her around like a dog looking for handouts. She killed it for practical reasons – the thing was scaring off game that she kills. She felt a little bad about killing it because it was becoming decent company, but it was OK because the animal’s pelt brought a good price.

If I’d been writing this, Katniss would have courageously made friends with a dangerous cat whom she taught to hunt. Then she would have felt a huge loss when someone else killed it. It’s difficult for me to see my Johanna (protagonist) doing anything that my own culture doesn’t consider wonderful.

That’s a mistake.

Round characters do “bad” things on purpose sometimes. They also make terrible mistakes. And they tend to live in places where the good-guy norms of my culture don’t apply, and might even be wrong.

In concrete terms, Disney-type movies have made Americans think in anthropomorphic terms about animals. We value them and their feelings highly, at least by historical norms.

Katness’ habit of killing animals brings tension. We excuse her because she lives in a place where everybody is hungry, some starving to death.

Anne Lamott, a brave soul who wrote Bird by Bird says,

“Always write from anger.”

I hope you don’t take Lamott lightly. It would be unwise.

Here’s Collins’ angry message, I think:  “Hunger brings true perspective. Don’t be judgmental as you pound down your bakery goods, PETA, er, I mean Peeta.”

A message is gasoline in the tank of many writers, though we all deny it and strive not to produce artless “message fiction.”

In my diseased opinion, a message, or whatever you call it, if kept in balance, keeps a writer enthusiastic. For writer’s block, even an out-of-balance message works wonders. I’ve got a post on that.

Somebody said that a premise, a theme and a message are not the same. Writing a message is preachy.  Writing those other two things adds depth.

If euphemisms and split hairs matter, why not use them? After all, depending on your planet, a day is a thousand years and vice-versa.

But moving a character from point A to point B gets boring without an ax to grind, an intellectual point to make, or some new thing you’re dying to explore in a character.

Message music is rarely artistic if the message is, “buy my product,” or “buy my religion.” But a lot of great music has an ax to grind.

Handle’s Messiah?

Imagine by John Lennon.

It’s the same with fiction.

Having a personal motivation (message?) for every scene is like “writing from anger.” Both work miracles for some writers. But be careful.

“I inhale the fragrance (of bread) that makes my mouth flood with saliva.” Is it just me, or is this phrase unpleasant?

But it’s valuable because it makes me feel something. And I hear Collins saying to me, “My viewpoint character isn’t going to say, ‘…makes my mouth water.’ She’s indelicate and this is her story. Fall in company with  my earthy girl, or go read something else.”

Always Katniss talks of money and price. She was paid a good price for the cat’s pelt. How much did the bread cost? How many squirrels did you trade for it? The talk of money and trade screams: “We are hungry, some of us starving to death. This is how humans think and behave under these circumstances.”

Later there’s the contrast with the people in the Capital who seem uncomfortably like us. Painted body parts, superficial personalities, loving sports where people are (occasionally) killed, swimming in expensive toys and food. Did you notice that the relationship between the Capital and District 12 is painfully similar to the relationship between “first-world” countries like the US and some “third-world” countries? Except that we shell out billions to them, I guess.

Collins says: Look at yourself from the perspective of the poor people in third-world countries. They don’t think money is evil the way Americans do. They don’t talk about the evils of junk food. They talk about starvation. Their nails aren’t perfect. They don’t pluck their eyebrows. They don’t have time to worry about the themes of their birthday parties. They know exactly what to do with all their time: get some food somehow!

Collins is forcing a broad perspective on us. A perspective that might save us from the ultimate fate of the Capital.

This theme, premise or “message,” if you don’t mind the term, was fuel for Collins. It gave her the feeling that she might make a difference in this world.

When her great, great grand children sit spellbound with her books in their hands, they will hear a message that could save their culture from the Capital’s moral failure and ultimate fate.

“He [Gale] could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, gray eyes…” Collins uses a device here to describe Katniss without a mirror or a water scene.

“To be honest, I’m not the forgiving type.”  I can imagine that the author really wanted to get this across.  But how?

“You must show, not tell.” Right?

Hmm.

Collins weaves a textured back story for Katniss’ mom… Where Mom was from, how she met Dad, how she fell catatonic when he died, and did nothing as Katniss and her sister wasted away.  Katniss tried to forgive her, but…

“To be honest, I’m not the forgiving type.”

That’s powerful hero talk.

Is it telling or is it showing?

Both. Collins lays down a gripping back-story that shows Katniss can’t forgive her mom. Then Katniss tells the reader.

We don’t have to wait for it to develop over many chapters. In the first chapter, a chapter that would hook any reader, the author is fixated on showing, telling, repeating, elucidating, and hammering home the heroic qualities of this protagonist.

The contrast of Katniss with her sweet little sister is a huge part of the process because contrast opens the reader’s eyes to the full magnitude of things.

But I didn’t hear a hammer when I read this.  Every new word about Katniss seemed to flow easily from her own reality.

How did Collins do this?

I think she had the story outlined before she began writing.

It seems she knew some, maybe all the specifics of the climax before she wrote the first chapter. As a result, she knew all the attributes her character would need in order to win the Hunger Games. When she wrote the “shi**y first draft” of Ann Lamott’s genius, it was probably a masterpiece that needed little structural attention.

In a way, it’s as if each thing in the 1st chapter was created for the singular purpose of showing the personality, values, temperament, appearance, mood, attitude, physical huntin’-and-killin’ attributes, the dark side and the tender side of Katniss.

“She has trust issues,” my wife said in Katness’ defense, when I suggested that Katness has a genuine dark side. That means my wife is personally invested, like I am.

“How can I leave Prim who is the only person in the world I’m sure I love?”

What kind of person has trouble knowing whom they love? What kind of person only knows they love one person? What kind of person isn’t sure she loves her mother?

This friend Gale, in the woods… now we know that she’s not in love with him.  But why the heck not?

Always, the writer says a lot with few words. I’m so impressed by the way Collins does this. An efficient use of words cuts down the work of reading and packs the magic into a tighter space where it burns brighter.

If you took any chemistry, here’s a thought:  reading a textbook is an endothermic reaction requiring energy from start to finish.

A good story is an exothermic reaction, giving off energy after you put a little in to get it started.

Greasy Sae is the only one in the black market who can be relied upon to take a dog that Katniss killed.  Not that Katniss hunts dogs, but if Katness is attacked and has to kill a dog or two, “meat is meat.”

The author draws interesting people out of the air for a singular purpose, “How else can I show that Katniss is a tough cookie who can handle a bow and face a mortal enemy?”

“Since neither of us has a group of friends…,” the Mayor’s daughter and Katniss seem to wind up together a lot in school.  They rarely talk, but it suits them both just fine. They’re good friends, right? Not so fast.

Later when the Mayor’s daughter gives Katniss the bird pin, it dawns on Katniss that the Mayor’s kid, the only person she hangs around with at school might actually be a friend.

What?

Katniss is so jaded, suspicious and distrustful (beyond her sister and deceased father) that she just figured this out?  “Trust issues?”

Just maybe.

“The anguish I always feel when she (Prim) is in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face.” Still an expressionless heroin is there for us to look at, but now a human side shows up that is far to the other end of the bell-shaped curve (the curve of loving versus sociopath).

How many people are outwardly emotionless but inwardly in anguish over someone else’s pain?

It’s a rare thing, I’d guess. We’re dealing with an unusual person, but actually, not all that unusual for a good story hero. Just better drawn than most – more interesting, more believable, more magical.

The reader longs to see more of this strong person capable of moral goodness, courage, and love, as well as drowning kittens, distrusting everyone and turning her back to the only man who makes her smile.

In the end of the second chapter she resigns herself to killing the boy who once saved her family from starvation. This is a characterization at the edge of plausibility for me. But that makes me all the more interested.

The reader is pulling for the good moral/ human side of this character, but from the direction the author is headed, it’s not clear that Katniss is going to be a “good guy,” in any traditional sense. This only make things more interesting.

Prim draws a light laugh out of her.  Only prim can do this.  Katniss kisses the top of Prim’s head.  Characterization making it inevitable for Katniss to take Prim’s place at the reaping.

Do you see why I think she had a plan going into the writing? A solid outline, maybe?

The fact that Prim is not likely to be chosen (it’s her first reaping) adds surprise to a situation where the reader already knows who will eventually fight to the death. Plus, the courage and heart of Katniss come out once again (characterization) when she sacrifices herself for the only one she loves, Prim.

But Collins takes you in first person present tense for a fearful ride in Katniss mind. This hero is made of the same stuff the reader is made of, really. Maybe the reader is a brave protector of her loved ones and doesn’t fully realize it? There’s the book reaching into the reader’s life again.

It’s as if the author got into a competition with a writer friend…

“I’ll bet I can write a first chapter in under X pages with over X number of devices unveiling the heroine’s character and appearance without water or mirrors or other characters telling the reader about her.”

Collins always has an organic “reason” to describe a scene.  It’s not a break in the flow.  Blatant example where the description flows from an opinion of things:

“It’s too bad they hold the reaping in the square, it’s usually a pleasant place.  Now it’s….” A description of the town center follows in sparing strokes. It’s so natural.

Interesting horrors lurk in the crowd, people with no one to love or who “don’t care anymore.”  They take bets on whether or not the chosen ones will cry when their names are drawn. Why is this so good?

It adds contrast, a baseline from which the reader will judge the Katniss’ heart when she volunteers to take Prim’s place. To die for her sister, really.

These soulless people are informers, too.  Katniss could be killed on a daily basis for hunting, but even the informers are hungry, so they buy her kills rather than turning her in. “Others are not so lucky,” Katniss tells us.

This is a way to make the hero seem as if she’s playing down the fact that she faces death on a daily basis, by contrasting it with the “worse dangers” facing others. The reader senses her modesty and doesn’t see exactly how the others are facing death as often as she. Furthermore, this kind of hero might somehow win a fight to the death against large male opponents.

In the first version of my novel, Johanna, my protagonist was often characterized as smarter than imaginable, but I didn’t show all the details of her character in the first chapter or build her attributes around any distinct story climax or outline. It was mostly seat-of-the-pants writing: letting her discover the plot with me as it unfolds. Fun to write, but boring to read.

Collins gives back-story in real-time like this:  Every year the mayor gets up and tells the story of… and presto we finally get details that might have been an “information dump” in lesser hands.

We know exactly what the hunger games are!

I mentioned this above, but it is important:  The last line of the second chapter.  After telling the touching story of how the baker’s son had saved her life by taking a fist in the face to give Katniss two loaves of bread, Katniss says that she wished she’d thanked him so she’d feel less like she owes him now.  Not because she’s grateful he saved her family’s lives! Oh, no. She just hates to owe people, especially him in these circumstances. And if that weren’t bad enough, she consoles herself by saying, “Oh well, there are twenty-four of us. Odds are someone else will kill him before I do.

Before I do!

This pushes the envelope of heroic moral conscience. But I’m so attached to her by now that I won’t breathe the words, “antisocial personality disorder.”

How then did Collins hook me on a hardened animal killer who hates her mother and is ready to kill a boy who saved her family from starvation?

It’s as if Collins had said, “Here’s a list of things I need in Katniss if she’s going to pull off the climax scenes. All the other characters, the plot details and the back-story will all be putty in her hands. Whatever she needs – a catatonic mother, a Snow-White sister, a back-story about a cat or two, a dead father, a boy who saved her family only to become a target in her cross-hairs – she gets it all.

And she gets it all in the first chapter.

All the while burning questions anticipate the chapter’s end.

“What happens to Katniss at 2:00?”

I care.

I care because of her rebellious ideas, her courage, her odd ability to hunt wild game with a bow, her trust issues, her love for her little sister, her unforgiven mother, her precious father who is dead, her jaded view of people’s motivation, and her innocence.

“Will they pick Katniss to fight?”

M. Talmage Moorehead