Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Books Work: The Hunger Games (Part 1)

If you've read The Hunger Games (or been in the mute and intensely focused presence of someone in the process of reading it), you know that it's practically impossible to put down. Stephen King compared the book to an arcade game that keeps you helplessly plugging in quarters round after round, and after reading it herself INTERN can say that that's a fair approximation.

What exactly is Suzanne Collins doing, on a sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph level, that makes this book such a terrifyingly addictive read?

To shed light on this question, INTERN repaired to her secret basement Book Lab, where she soaked a randomly-selected chapter of The Hunger Games in a bath of chemicals designed to reveal the exact function of each sentence.

Oh, and what an exciting experiment it was! Within seconds, the words themselves melted away, leaving only bright colors representing the following things:

Here is what Chapter 12 looks like following the experiment. If you have a copy of The Hunger Games handy, you might wish to read along. If you don't have a copy (or haven't read the book), skip down to the very end of this post for a summary*.

Notice anything interesting? Here's what INTERN sees:

New discoveries prompt internal conflict.

Pale blue sections (in which Katniss is seeing, hearing, tasting things) are often followed by dark blue sections (internal conflict).

Katniss is constantly being forced to question things: is this berry safe or dangerous? Is this information true or false? Is this person a friend or an enemy? Every new input is a cause for internal debate. As a result, there is near-constant tension.

(Almost) every internal or external conflict results in a decision.

Red and dark blue sections (external/internal conflict) are almost always followed by dark green sections (action/decision).

Katniss doesn't idly speculate about how to resolve a conflict—she takes action. Sometimes the action is internal (deciding not to trust Peeta) and sometimes the action is external (flinging away the poisonous berries). Whichever action she takes pushes Katniss further along her path. She's always in motion.

Some decisions result in further conflict.

See the alternating red and green patches on the second page? Here, Katniss encounters an obstacle (thirst), takes an action (asks Haymitch for water), and fails (water doesn't appear). She's forced to make a second decision (keep on searching, even though she's nearly dead of exhaustion). Conflict isn't necessarily resolved in one try—instead, it escalates and gets worse.

Internal narrative is slipped in with the action.

Notice how those little grey patches tend to appear in the middle of light blue ones? In fact, there's only one place in this chapter where an entire paragraph is shaded in grey. That's because the author is doing an expert job of weaving in nuggets of memory, backstory, and "telling" without slowing down the pace of the story.

The chapter ends on an unresolved conflict.

See how the last two sentences are highlighted in red? That's a cliffhanger. Katniss is woken up by a raging forest fire (external obstacle!). Dun-dun-duuunnnnnnn...


You can try this experiment yourself with any book you admire. What is the author DOING at any given moment? What purpose does each sentence achieve? Do any of the patterns suggested by this experiment hold true for other chapters in other books? Which other patterns can you find? What's the visual ratio of description to internal narrative to conflict?

These things are worth studying. Or at least, they're fun to study, if your particular brand of insanity is anything like INTERN's.

Happy experimenting! And don't forget to enter the International Sh*tty First Draft Week contest next week!


*INTERN doesn't want to risk copyright infringement by posting the actual chapter here, but here's a quick summary of what's going on for those of you who don't have a copy of Hunger Games handy:

[2 sentences establishing Katniss’ present position in a treetop]

[1 line dialogue Katniss overhears from treetop]

[2 sentences describing what Katniss sees.]

[internal conflict: Katniss questions Peeta’s motives/integrity]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss decides not to trust Peeta]

[action: Peeta moves out of earshot, Careers discuss him]

[2 lines overheard dialogue]

[3 short sentences showing Katniss’ internal reaction to said dialogue]

[a little more dialogue]

[action: Peeta returning]

[3 sentences dialogue]

[action: Careers move away, Katniss changes her position in tree.]

[internal conflict: if Peeta really is on the “bad” side, why hasn’t he told the Careers about Katniss’ secret skill?]

[action: birds fall silent and hovercraft appears to take away dead body.]

[action: Katniss comes down from her hiding place in the tree.]

[internal conflict: Katniss knows the cameras are watching, so she has to act “on top of things” and not let any fear or confusion show.]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss smiles at the camera]

[internal conflict: Katniss remembers her snares—is it too dangerous to check them?]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss checks the snares and is “rewarded with one fine rabbit."]

[action: Katniss guts and roasts the rabbit.]

[action: Katniss camouflages her pack, eats some rabbit, goes off in search of water.]

[internal conflict: Katniss speculates about what people in the Capitol are making of her and Peeta’s “relationship,” tries to suss out her best plan of attack.]

[action/description: Katniss is getting thirsty, day is getting hot, etc.]

[external conflict: finds berries, but they’re unfamiliar—are they edible? are they a trap?]

[action based on external conflict: flings berries away.]

[action/description: Katniss is becoming exhausted.]

[internal conflict: the need for water is overpowering even Katniss’ fear of the Career pack.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss makes tentative decision to return to the lake in the morning.]

[action/description: Katniss wakes up foggy-headed and in dire straits.]

[external conflict: Katniss will soon die of thirst if she doesn’t find water. She weighs several different possible plans for getting water, but rules each one out. Then she realizes that Haymitch could send her water.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss says “water” in hopes that the cameras will pick it up and Haymitch will send some.]

[external conflict: why isn’t Haymitch sending water? Is he trying to make her suffer? Is there something wrong? etc.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss realizes Haymitch is sending her a message, and decides to keep looking.]

[internal narrative: Katniss recalls years when she watched the Hunger Games on TV, thinks of her little sister Prim watching her on TV this year.]

[action: Katniss falls down out of exhaustion/dehydration]

[internal conflict: Katniss thinks she has “misjudged Haymitch” and that he doesn’t mean to help her after all.]

[action/description: Katniss smells the air, strokes the ground, feels mud, realizes she’s reached water. purifies the water and drinks it.]

[external conflict/cliffhanger: Katniss wakes up to the sound of stampeding feet and the smell of fire.]


  1. I am colour blind. Can you help?

  2. This is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  3. INTERN, this is *insanely* awesome!

  4. Wow, very interesting. Never thought about the books I read in this way.

    Curious if the color patterns have changed historically over time. Maybe more action as our attention spans become shorter with t.v., etc.?

    Nice post! Great food for thought.

  5. Holy wow! What a brilliant way of looking at this.

    Am I banished to some sort of writing oblivion if I admit to never having read "The Hunger Games?"

    Definately in my queue now. Thanks.

  6. I read the book just a couple months ago, and found myself taking notes, but I sure didn't see this.

    Wish there was a program that would do the same, complete with swatch-swapping suggestions.

    As it is, I'm digging out my highlighter in Word so I can start trimming out the grey.

  7. Very cool, Intern! I recently did the same thing (using Hunger Games as well), to look at how she did backstory. See my article Do Flashbacks make your butt look big?

  8. Wonderful learning tool. Analysis equally useful.

    "...last two sentences are highlighted in red? That's a cliffhanger." Brilliant!

    "...every internal or external conflict results in a decision." Of course!

    Thank you so much.

  9. What an interesting study. Thanks for sharing.

  10. *Will now refer to The Intern as The Professor.*

  11. Thanks for sharing this, Intern. You're quite awesome and it's an interesting way to examine stories.

  12. Fascinating dissection. Love King's description of the novel, I concur! Kept me up way too late.

  13. You are awesome for doing this! Awesome insights. I tried to break down The Hunger Games for myself, too, but more on a scene than sentence level. Thanks for sharing! :D

  14. You are amazing. This is absolutely delightful.

    I'd be curious to see how this chapter breakdown compares to a chapter from Mockingjay, which felt much different to me in terms of tension-building and showing/telling.

  15. Okay, so that was brilliant! Definitely saving and possibly even putting these discoveries to work...

  16. Totally agree, Rachel. I feel like Mockingjay was almost from a different writer.

  17. ACK! I'm right in the middle of a big information dump, I can see that now even by mentally highlighting sections of my WIP. Tell you what, my birthday's next month, how about sending a pack of highlighters my way so I can do this for all my book? Suzanne Lucero

  18. Rachel: INTERN hasn't read Books 2 and 3 yet! That's today's project. Very interested to see the difference in Mockingjay!

  19. Wow - excellent analysis! I want to go back through my draft now and pick it apart, and see what I have been doing!

    This is great food for thought...

  20. Obviously INTERN is brilliant and that is why I am now following her and why PUBLISHER should hire INTERN as what ever the first step on publishing is these days. Maybe even the second step. At BEA I did notice an inconceivably large and young work force and suspected many interns to be present.
    Can INTERN do blog template stuff?
    <a href="”)> Fangs, Wands and Fairy Dust</a>

  21. Wow! Great tool for revisionland, which is where this writer's living right now.

    One question about dialogue. There doesn't happen to be much in your sample chapter, and Katniss isn't contributing to it.

    But how would you highlight dialogue that, for example, creates a new external conflict or expresses a decision made by the Main Character? ("They've posted guards at both doors," he said. "Then I'll climb down the chimney," M.C. replied.) Would you tint these two lines pink, or make one red and one green?

  22. Steph from fangswands-etc: Thanks for the comment! Haha, if INTERN could do blog template stuff, her blog would not look like this!

  23. S C Poe: INTERN would probably use a different color altogether—orange perhaps?

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Must. Try this. Immediately.

  26. Thank you very much for this great post.