Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.
- Jump right into the action and then insert background info.
Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.
Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.
What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)
- Show, don’t tell.
Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.
Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.
Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.
- This takes practice.
Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.
Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.
- Our stories should be eerily familiar
The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”
Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.
The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader. But the second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see.
That, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was born:
Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.” Biography.com
I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?
Josh Kelley is a speaker, writing coach, and author of Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus (Harvest House). As a writing coach, he uses an affordable “single session” model. If you’d like more information, visit his website: www.joshkelley.ink.