September 6, 2011

What The Hunger Games Taught Me About Writing

I naively thought I could read three chapters of Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Gamesand then go to bed, but this book glued  itself to my hands and wouldn't release me until I finished the final page.  There are a bushel of reasons why I love this book, but I'll stick to one: it taught me about pacing, and it wasn't the lesson I expected. Apparently my writer-brain still works during sleep deprivation.

The bane of pacing, I'd been told, was description, flashback, internal dialogue and world building asides.  Yet I found all of these in abundance in The Hunger Games.  A conundrum.  As I read, it slowly added up.  Pacing, description, flashback, and internal dialogue that don't add tension slow the pace.  All of these literary tools can be used to increase tension, and thus pacing.  The Hunger Games does this masterfully.

Take for example this meal:

"The supper comes in courses.  A thick carrot soup, green salad, lamb chops and mashed potatoes, cheese and fruit, a chocolate cake.  Throughout the meal, Effie Trinket keeps reminding us to save space because there's more to come.  But I'm stuffing myself because I've never had food like this, so good and so much, and because probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds."

If you haven't read the book, this might not mean much.  If you have, it's one more concrete, painful contrast between the poverty Katniss has grown up with and the bounty and power of the Capitol.  She's at their mercy -- they have everything, she has nothing. It also shows Katniss' personality and her desire to survive.  Instead of sulking about her imminent demise or forgetting her troubles in the face of luxury, she's calculating.  Food isn't pleasure or forgetfulness: it's one of the few assets she has.  My sympathy for her jumps.

Consistently, the details Collins gives paints a world of the powerful Capitol and Katniss, the survivor.  The former raises the conflict; the latter makes me care about the conflict.  Without these moments -- description and internalization -- I doubt I'd much care about the action scenes. 

All writing involves balancing, of course.  Description often faces scorn because bloated, bland description is so easy to spot.  Cut entirely, it can leave a manuscript feeling hollow.


  1. I love your point about balance. I agree that flashbacks, description, etc. can add to the story-- as long as they're still driving the plot forward. If we have to stop, read the flashback, and then get back to the action, it doesn't work. Collins worked them in so they gave you more info and still kept the tension and story moving forward. Great post!

  2. Thanks for commenting! This is one reason why I'm grateful for my writing group -- trying to figure out the balance with my own two eyes would probably be impossible.