Book Review and Analysis: "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins

I know I’m late to the game on this one, but I decided to read it, and it warrants a review and analysis. This post is kind of long, but if you’re interested in learning something about writing from a famous book, hang in there. My main purpose is to critique the book from the standpoint of a writer.

As a reader, the book was moderately entertaining, fast-paced, and had everything a reader would want, particularly teenage girls, to whom the thing is geared. From that standpoint, it’s easy to see why it was popular. As a writer, however, it broke most of the rules of good writing somewhere along the line, and that is what’s so frustrating about it for someone like me.

This book represents all that is wrong with commercial fiction today, and some that is right. I’ll start with the right.

The writing, in general, is tight and precise. There is little slop, and she keeps description to a minimum. It is pure story. That is, there is nothing in it that does not advance the story. A little flashback here and there, and some description, but little enough that it doesn’t interfere or slow down the story. It’s fast-paced, and nearly every word moves things along.

I like nice, crisp writing. Cormac McCarthy, for example. Collins’ writing style reminded me of his writing, which certainly goes into the good category. What she lacks, however, is any subtlety or nuance, and the wonderful islands of description and finesse that McCarthy has.

Now the wrong. 

The Beginning. If you Google “how not to start your novel,” at or near the top of the list will be, “with the main character waking up.” Read any half-baked self-published book and there’s at least a 50% chance that it starts with the main character waking up. Now, to the author’s credit, she didn’t beat it to death with the character opening one eye, and then the other, and then burying her head in the pillow and then... you get the idea. Nevertheless, Collins starts her novel with Katniss waking up.

There were plenty of ways to avoid that. Have her already awake looking at Prim nestled against their mother. “I was up early on the day of the reaping.” Or something.

This sort of thing is maddening for authors. You take classes, you hire developmental editors, you submit your work to websites for critique, and they all say, “don’t start with the character waking up.” And then comes a wildly successful novel that, you know....

What probably saves it is the sentence about it being the day of the reaping. In spite of the horrible beginning, a few sentences in we are given a carrot. “Okay,” we say, “we’ll hang in there to see what this reaping thing is.”

Clearly, then, the readers of this novel didn’t care about the beginning, or marketing made it irrelevant. 

Its Structure. I am a nut about structure. I study movies and novels to see how it’s done. I read books on the subject. I obsess over it in my own work with, I admit, varying levels of success. In “The Hunger Games,” the structure is scrunched up, compared to the standard dogma.

The story has structure, and that is one of the positive things a new writer can take away. It follows the three-act structure and, largely, the Hero’s Journey.

We get a brief introduction to the characters, and see them in their ordinary world. Then something happens to upset everything (inciting incident), the main character begins her journey by crossing the first threshold, she prepares for battle (trains with the master), engages in the battle, there is a climax, and then the denouement, or end, where we see the character after the story. This is the first book of a series, so the denouement is more of a cliffhanger than one would find in a stand-alone novel, but it’s all there. It’s not the structure itself that bothers me, it’s the timing.

I try to follow a four-act structure found in “Story Engineering,” by Larry Brooks. I’ve blogged on it, and you should read the book. It’s important to understand structure so you know where I’m coming from.

“The Hunger Games” starts with us seeing (being told, largely) what things are like for Katniss and her family. We see them in their ordinary world. Eighteen pages in (about the 5% point), Prim is chosen to go to the games. This is the inciting incident, which upsets everything and causes Katniss to take action. 5% is too soon. It should happen at between 10 and 15%. I couldn’t find anything after that that could be the inciting incident.

What bothers me about the timing is that when the inciting incident occurs, we hardly know who these people are. We know they struggle every day to survive, that Katniss and Gale illegally hunt and gather food in the woods, and we know that Katniss’ father was killed. But at this early stage of the story I haven’t developed any real interest in what happens to them. Okay, it’s a drag that they don’t get enough food. Sounds like the vast majority of the world’s population today. It’s a drag they live in some totalitarian society. Same as above. They’re cold, and hungry, and have to fight to survive. Take number. I’m going to fall asleep over here.

Oh, their district has to send someone to fight to the death in dystopian “Survivor.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Oh no, Prim’s name comes out of the bowl against huge odds. That’s definitely a bummer, and I feel a twinge of sympathy, but it’s the same sympathy I feel for someone I read about in the news who is killed in some unfair or horrendous manner. It’s not the sympathy or grief I feel when it happens to a family member or close friend. That, in my opinion, is what the feeling should be like, and that can’t be done within the first 5% of the book. That’s why an author should spend at least 10% of the book letting us get to know the characters. That doesn’t mean it should be boring or slow. To the contrary. It needs to be just as compelling as the rest of it. But when the inciting incident rolls around, I should say “Oh no!” rather than “Oh, bummer for you.”

One of my biggest criticisms of new writers on Critique Circle is that they start right off with the main character in some grave danger (usually being chased through the woods, or dark alleys of some dystopian city). The assumption is that simply because a young woman, of whom I know nothing, is being chased by some deadly foe, I should care. I should be worried for her. But who is she? Maybe she deserves whatever she’s about to get. Maybe she killed a baby or tortured a puppy.

Next on the structure list is crossing the first threshold. Some pundits confuse this with the inciting incident, but it’s not. They are two separate things. Crossing the first threshold usually happens at about the 25% point. In “The Hunger Games,” it occurs when they take Katniss and Peeta (as in pita bread?) into the Justice building at about the 9% point. I suppose one could argue that it occurs when they arrive in the capitol at the 16% point, but I think it’s when they are first taken away after the reaping.

From this point until about the 40% point, they prepare for the games. Some backstory is filled in, and the relationship between Peeta and Katniss is developed.

The next plot point is crossing the second threshold, which normally takes place at about the 75% point, but which takes place in “The Hunger Games” at about 40%, when the Tributes enter the arena for the games. Again, much earlier than the standard rules of structure would dictate.

The next major plot point was the death of Rue at the 63% point, when Katniss decided that she would do whatever she had to to win. This is where the 50% point should be, so this one comes a bit late. Not important, really, that it comes at this point, although it would have been better if it came a bit closer to the halfway point.

The Gamemakers change the rules at the 65% point so that both people from the same district can win. I see this as a “pinch point.” That is, a point at which we see how evil the antagonistic force is, usually occurring at about the 67% point. The Gamemakers (i.e., the government) show that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and the tributes (i.e., the people) are helpless.

When Peeta and Katniss are the only two survivors, given the rule change, the game should be over and they should be taken from the arena as victors. They are baffled when nothing happens. Then they get word at the 92% point that the change has been revoked. There can be only one winner, and Peeta and Katniss have to fight each other. All through the games they have been playing up the romantic angle between them, and now one has to kill the other. They decide that they won’t do that, and agree to take poison berries instead. Just as they put the berries in their mouths (95%), the Gamemakers change the rule back, declare them the winners, and take them from the arena.

This is the climax of the book. The protagonists have taken on the antagonist and won. Taking the poison berries was their way of fighting the government, and the government capitulated.

So, what does all this structure analysis mean? It shows that a book has to have some structure, but it doesn’t have to follow the screenplay structure exactly.

I’ve blogged on this relating to a few movies. If you watch a movie, the plot points I’ve mentioned here come at exactly the right moment down to the second. I haven’t seen the movie of this book, but I wager that the plot has been massaged to make it come out the way a screenplay should. A novel, however, has more flexibility.

I still don’t like that the inciting incident comes so early, but that might be a commentary on the intended audience, which I see has teenage/preteen, girls. They won’t sit still for forty pages before something major happens. The version I read was a paperback with 373 pages. The inciting incident comes on page 20 (18, really, as the story starts on page 3), when it should come no earlier than page 37. But will a twelve-year-old girl wait that long? Apparently not. Maybe the audience for this is not as jaded and battle-scarred as I am, so maybe by page 15 they care for the characters.

The writing.

I’ve compared Collins’ writing to Cormac McCarthy, but she’s no Cormac McCarthy. It’s as though someone has taken a Cormac McCarthy novel and stripped it of all that is fine, subtle, and nuanced about a novel. It’s bare bones story.

That’s not necessarily all bad, but I think the audience to which this book is directed should start to understand that there’s more to a story and more to a novel than plain entertainment. It’s a work of art, not a text message or a tweet.

I admit, though, that there are some lessons in the book. It is a reflection of the pathetic and frivolous society we have become. The novel is about a reality TV show. This is “Survivor” or “Big Brother” to the nth degree. It’s “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” with a twist. (These programs would be improved if the contestants went around killing each other.)

My real beef with the book, however, is not in the story itself, or the fact that it’s stripped bare McCarthy. My problem has more to do with technical things, probably more related to editing than the original writing. It does about everything I tell new writers not to.

Consider the dialogue tags. That is, the “I say,” or “he says” bits that follow a quote. I spend a fair amount of time writing critiques of stories on Critique Circle. There I try to convince young and new authors that you only need a dialogue tag to the extent necessary for the reader to keep track of who’s talking. In this book, however, every single quote is followed by a dialogue tag, even when only two people are having a conversation.

“Blah, blah, blah,” I say.
He smiled. “Blah blah blah,” he says.
“...,” I say.
“...,” he says.

This is too much. Dialogue like this could go on for a few pages. Katniss and Peeta are the only people present. It’s not possible for anyone else to be involved in the conversation. I don’t need the author to tell me on every line who the speaker was. Once in a while, sure. I need to keep track, but not every one.

Also, if there is a gesture or an expression before the quote, I don’t need the tag. It’s a substitute for the tag. To say that he smiled, and follow it with “he says,” is redundant.

Another favorite of mine is the exclamation point. Collins threw them around like candy. I tell people to take it easy on them. The reader should be able to tell from the context whether the statement was an exclamation or not. Shoot for only about two in your novel.

More annoying than an exclamation point is an exclamation point followed by the dialogue tag, “I exclaimed.” Please, are the readers to which this is aimed that dull? If your writing is so poor that you need to inform the reader that what was said was an exclamation, then all you need is either the exclamation point, or the word “exclaimed.”

Also relating to dialogue tags, I encourage writers to stick with “said” or “asked,” or at worst, “whispered” or shouted.” I also discourage the use of adverbs to modify any dialogue tag. To her credit, Collins basically did that. But there are egregious violations of those rules. For example:

“Can you take your boots off?” I suggest.

No, it was not a suggestion, it was a question. It was either asked or said. Even if it were a suggestion, to tell the reader that it was a suggestion is an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

Consider: “But I—,” he insists.

He didn’t insist. He started to say something and she shut him up by giving him a kiss. That she interrupted him is indicated with the em dash. Same with “Yes. Look, if I don’t make it back—” he begins. There are others. These tags must arise from the insistence on using a tag for every line of dialogue. They are totally unnecessary.

It’s also unnecessary to tell us to whom the question or statement was directed if there are only two people in the conversation. “I asked him;” “I say to Peeta.” Who else would she be talking to? 

Another thing I harp on is adverbs. Adverbs should be avoided as much as possible in general, and although she also pretty much followed the rule, there are egregious violations. For example (God help us), “I drink thirstily.” This is a textbook example of where and how not to use an adverb. It’s so horrible of an example that I wonder whether it was put there as a joke, or as a classroom example of what not to do.

One could instead write: “I guzzled; chugged; swilled; pounded; gulped the water.”

Modifying a dialogue tag with an adverb is one of the things I dislike the most. Collins seems to like them:

I say generously
She said encouragingly
I say haltingly
I think grouchily

I could go on, but I’ll spare you. The worst part is that they are not necessary, given the context. Take the “I say haltingly.” The sentence is: “You have a ... remarkable memory,” I say haltingly. The author made the sentence halting by use of an ellipsis. There’s no need to tell the reader how it was said by tossing in an adverb.

Collins also likes cliché. “A beeline;” “ring a bell;” “screaming my head off.” And others.

As to the grammar, in general it’s not bad, even in the dialogue. One exception that struck me was, “...more occupied with the mutts than us.” It should be “...than with us.” I know, it’s dialogue and that might be how people talk, particularly from her level of society, but she has pretty much used proper grammar up to now.

Two more complaints, and then I’ll shut up. There are phrases I see on occasion in new authors’ writing that disturb me. “My head snaps from side to side...” and “A shriek escapes my lips.” Okay, not the most egregious examples of poor writing, but poor writing, nevertheless.
What’s my problem with them? As to the head snapping, her head did not, of its own volition, snap side to side. She looked in both directions. That’s all the author would have to say.

As to the shriek, there’s no need to tell the reader that the sound from the shriek passed her lips, any more than it’s necessary to tell the reader that the sound emanated from her vocal chords when her diaphragm contracted, sending air through her esophagus, resulting in a shriek that went into her mouth and past her lips, and set the surrounding air to vibrating so the sound reached her ears and the ears of others, causing the eardrum to vibrate, facilitating the sound to go to her brain as electrical impulses. What’s wrong with simply saying “I let out a shriek,” or better, “I shrieked”?

So, what are the lessons for the writer? I would say it’s to know the rules and know when you’re breaking them, but don’t let the rules get in the way of a good story. And although you read a lot about agents turning work down for things like I’ve discussed here, the real issue is whether there is a good, compelling story. Adverbs be damned.