Thursday, March 31, 2011

Analyzing Hunger Games - Act III

So far, I've analyzed Act I and Act II of Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, using Story and Emotional Structure, by Peter Dunne (also Save the Cat by Snyder).


I'm still analyzing the plot. There will be spoilerage. 



Act I is the setup of the plot. Act II is the emotional story behind the plot. Act III is where plot and story come together.
Break into III  
With the new motivation realized in the Act II Climax, we're now ready to tackle the challenges our hero must overcome. We've identified the "solution" - now we just have to see if it will work. Both the A and B plot lines should be addressed.
Katniss realizes that Peeta is the key to her survival, that he was on her side all along. She’s relieved, and also empowered - now she WILL win. She’s determined. Act III is all about the romance - is it fake? Is it not? Is it real for Peeta? And the winnowing down of tributes, the countdown to the finale, the necessary steps to get to the Act III Climax, the ultimate question that has been the Obligatory Scene from the beginning: Will she win the Hunger Games?
Finale - Act III Crisis and Climax
According to McKee the Crisis is the decision that the character must make - the ultimate decision - which is both danger and opportunity for the hero. The Crisis is the Obligatory Scene, the one created by the Inciting Incident, and where the protagonist is faced with the most powerful forces of antagonism. It must be a true dilemma between two irreconcilable goods or two lesser evils. How the MC chooses is a penetrating view of their character. And reveals the story’s most important value. The protagonists willpower is most strongly tested here.

The Crisis may or may not be contained within the Climax - if it is, it can be a very satisfying end for the reader. The Climax is a crowning major reversal, full of meaning - it is this meaning that moves the heart of the reader.

Snyder says the bad guys should be dispensed in ascending order, henchmen first, then the mastermind.

The scene with the Mutts, where Peeta and Katniss are literally fighting for their lives, is the near-climax, the dispensing of the henchmen, and Katniss does make a choice to shoot Cato’s hand, but this is not her Crisis decision - she’s well past the point of having sided with Peeta. The Crisis comes when she has to choose between Death and killing Peeta. Her decision (neither, says Katniss, she's not going to play by the Gamemakers rules) is the rebellion act that sets up the rest of the series. It changes everything, and it makes her into something larger. Someone willing to die for a principle larger than herself, not simply a savage that is smart and ferocious enough to win the Games. Because it occurs at the Climax of the “who will win” question (the Obligatory Scene from the Inciting Incident), it is a Crisis within a Climax and therefore most satisfying. At this point, we think we have won completely - everything is UP. Only later do we find the price, the impact of the choice, and the irony.
The final Image - RESOLUTION

Snyder says the final image should be the counterpoint or opposite of the opening image. In novels, symmetry with the opening image isn't strictly required, but it can be compelling. In any event, the resolution needs to SHOW how the character has changed and how the world has changed. We also resolve any subplots, show the larger effect of the climax on society, tie up loose ends. 
Because this is an IRONIC ending, the heady UP ending of the Crisis/Climax is brought down by the fact that Katniss is not the only one in danger - now her family, her District, even Peeta are all in danger. And the final irony of her not “falling” in love, of having to fake it all the way, now perhaps permanently, gives the story its heartbreaking end. These final parts are what makes us crave reading the second book. (A stand alone book may not have as much work to do at the end.) Collins  uses 27 pages to tie up loose ends and complete the “love” subplot.
The resolution, the price for the Crisis decision, is what propels us into the next book.

I hope this analysis of the Hunger Games has been useful! It's a lot to absorb, and I encourage you to use this as a guide, as I did with Laura's posts, to do an analysis of your own favorite bestselling book. You may be surprised what you learn about storytelling!

While not every book is going to (or must) line up with the storytelling beats as described in McKee's and Snyder's books (they are for screenwriting after all),  they do give a strong structure to build around. Rather than stifling creativity, I find the structure forces me into better storytelling. Like Haiku, the stringent requirements of form bring forth a beauty that would not happen without it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Analyzing Hunger Games - Act II

Last time, I analyzed Act I of Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, using Story and Emotional Structure, by Peter Dunne (also Save the Cat by Snyder).


I'm still analyzing the plot. There will be spoilerage. 


Act II

B Story

The B story is something new, a subplot, that is layered onto the A story established in Act I. Subplots should contradict the central plot (irony), resonate with the central plot (variation on a theme), or complicate the central plot.
A story - Katniss gets ready for the Hunger Games
B story - the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love story - there are hints of it in Act I, but the Act I climax is where Peeta reveals his love (maybe) and now we have to find out if it’s really true, or just a ploy for the Hunger Games. This complicates the central plot.
Fun and Games

According to Blake, this is the promise of the premise, the fun and games part of the story. According to Dunne, this is the main emotion of the novel, where the story is told, rather than just the plot.
There’s not much fun-and-games in Hunger Games, but in the beginning of Act II, we get the ups-and-downs of The Games. Act I left us with Peeta’s declaration right before starting out The Games, and the bulk of Act II leads us through the rules, regulations, and backstory we need - as well as twists, turns, ups, and downs - to understand how The Games work. Also twisting and turning is the Love Story.

A big new twist moves the story in a new direction. This beat is matched with the "All is Lost" beat below. If this beat is UP, then that one is down, and vice versa.
The big twist in Hunger Games, or at least the midpoint, is Peeta saving her life - here she was, thinking it was all a ploy, that he’s trying to kill her, but then he saves her life. Again. Another big twist is the alliance with Rue. These are both "false wins" in the sense that they are temporary.

While the "midpoint" may be a tried-and-true method in screenwriting, it may not apply too strictly to novels (something which can be said for all of the screenwriting structures that are enumerated in these books). However, it does work in this case.
Bad Guys Close in  

The second half of Act II, up to the Act II Climax. The stakes are raised, games are over. The bad guys regroup, the good guys lose their footing, and they're headed for the big fall...

This is where the Careers (professional Hunger Games players, and Katniss' main opponents in the Games) are closing in on Rue, but Katniss doesn’t realize it yet. The Hunger Games is such a relentless hunt by the bad guys, it’s hard to discern when the stakes are raised, but this is definitely the point where the bad guys regain the upper hand just in time for ... All is Lost.
All is Lost

This is a moment, where it appears that the hero has lost everything. Someone dies, possibly a mentor (or that character that symbolizes everything the hero wants).
Rue, the small, agile tribute that reminds Katniss of Prim, who Katniss has allied with and subtly taken to killed. Katniss has lost “Prim” even though she may yet win The Games. This foreshadows so many things in the series. Katniss couldn’t feel any worse. This is the DOWN beat that is matched with the midpoint.
Dark Night of the Soul:Act II Climax
All is Lost, but then we need our main character to explore how they feel about this. This is a major turning point, so the story needs to slow down so your character can come to their new realization/motivation. Your character may not yet know WHAT they are going to do to solve the problem, but they know WHY. 

The Act II and Act III Climaxes should alternate in their values - if one is UP, the other is DOWN, and vice versa. If ironic, then each will net out more positive or negative, and should still be opposites. 
The Dark Night of the Soul is Katniss’ reflection on Rue’s death. Where she can barely move on. But she’s realized that she will win the Games - for Prim, for Rue, for vengance. A new spirit animates her. And suddenly there’s hope! In Peeta! The Gamemakers have changed the rules, and now she and Peeta need to team together to win the Games - together! In this way, Collin’s breaks the rules, or at least steps one step beyond. The Act II climax is hopelessly DOWN but she spares us from the depths with a ray of hope to get us to turn the page. This is an ironic climax, but it definitely nets out DOWN, which is the opposite of the final climax, which is also ironic, but nets out UP.
Just when we thought it was awful and couldn't get worse, Collin's gives us HOPE! 

Cruel, cruel author.

Which is precisely what keeps us going to ... the third Act! (Stay tuned...)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Analyzing Hunger Games - Act I

I am a complete convert to the Way of the Plotter. 

Having read Story and most recently Emotional Structure, by Peter Dunne, and having put those good books to work in revising two stories and plotting a third, I have to say:  plotting rocks.

Along the way, I followed the amazing Laura Pauling's method of analyzing a well-written story to understand how the ideas espoused by Mckee and Dunne (also Snyder) apply to a finished novel. This helped me to see (and fix!) the structure of my own, already written stories. And now that I'm writing a new novel (Sekrit Middle Grade Fantasy book), all that work is paying off in a major way, before I even start drafting (more on that in another post).

So, here is my plot analysis of Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, a wildly popular YA novel (soon to be movie!).


So, yeah. I'm analyzing the plot. There will be spoilerage. 


High concept logline
You need to have a one sentence description of your story eventually. The sooner you can come up with this, the better the concepts (high or otherwise) will be fixed in your mind, and guide the writing of your story.
Sixteen year old Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a brutal future reality TV show where twenty-four participants compete, but only one survives.
Right away, you can see the enormous stakes in this book, which is part of the popularity.
Act I
Opening Image:  (Or for a book, the opening scene or scenes)
If  your Inciting Incident doesn't happen on the first page, then an opening subplot should be used to propel the story from the first page to the Inciting Incident. Only include what the reader needs to know in order to have the appropriate response to the Inciting Incident - no more, no less.
Katniss wakes up the morning of the reaping. Her sister is missing because she had bad dreams. We see the struggle Katniss goes through to feed her family. We meet Gale, one love interest, and understand her/their role as providers where they barely survive under the thumb of the overlords. We have a snapshot of her life before it changes. Subplot is that Katniss is trying to get them food to survive. We see the conflict with her mother, Gale, even Prim and her cat.
The Inciting Incident in Hunger Games happens on the 20th page, the end of the first chapter, when Prim is picked for the Hunger Games. In a mere 20 pages, we know exactly what we need to, and no more, in order to be devastated by that event, just as Katniss is.
Thematic Statement:
The thematic statement has to do with the story rather than the plot - what is the meaning behind this series of events that are about to unfold. This thematic statement should be made (explicitly in movies, implicitly or explicitly in books) early on, so that the reader knows what this story is about.
The values in Hunger Games are primal - survival/life, love/death (mother-daughter, Katniss-Gale, sister-sister), freedom/oppression.
The theme in Hunger Games is about surviving the horrors of the Capitol. Can Katniss keep her family fed? Should they try to escape the oppression by running away? Will all her strengths be enough to overcome the oppression and win the Hunger Games and survive?
We know this from the very first page.
Set up
During the setup (from opening to Inciting Incident) all the basic information of the story needs to be told.
Hero - Katniss
Outer goal - to keep her family fed
Inner goal - to keep the horrors and ugliness away from Prim; secretly that she could be as deserving of love as Prim.
Stakes - Survival of her family and her District; avoidance of the death sentence that is the Games.
Many important characters are introduced, but not all. No Peeta, or host of secondary characters.
Katniss’ flaws: she’s a heroic figure, but we sense her stoic-ism, her lack of emotion. We see her major skills, but also that she can be cold and harsh and unforgiving. And impulsive.
By the time we get to the Inciting Incident, we know everything we need to know.
Catalyst: (Inciting incident)
Questions to ask the Inciting Incident (McKee):
  • Does the Inciting Incident radically upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life?
  • Does it arouse in the protagonist the desire to restore balance?
  • Does it inspire in him the conscious desire for that object, material or immaterial, he feels would restore the balance?
  • In a complex protagonist, does it also bring to life an unconscious desire that contradicts his conscious need?
  • Does it launch the protagonist on a quest for his desire?
  • Does it raise the Major Dramatic Question in the mind of the audience?
  • Does it project an image of the Obligatory Scene?

Prim is picked in the reaping. (20 pages)
The Inciting Incident has to be an irrevocable change that forces the protagonist on their journey. Prim is picked, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, and the entire story is set on its course from there. Katniss volunteering for the games brings to mind the Obligatory Scene - that scene that the story will have to contain later on, probably at the Act III Crisis/Climax: Will Katniss win the games and survive? How? And if not, what will happen?
Body of Act I -  scenes turn in minor but significant ways; a series of scenes builds a sequence that turns in a moderate, more impactful way; a series of sequences builds the next largest structure; the Act peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal in the values of the story. Subplots can be used to contradict, resonate or complicate the central plot. During the Debate, all these plot turns are used to "debate" the central plot idea, to show that the main character is not ready (or is ready) for the task before them.
After the reaping, Katniss wonders what she’ll do, and there’s the procession of people to say goodbye to her. But she only questions for a moment whether she should have run off with Gale instead - because who else would have been there to step up to take Prim’s place? This shows that Katniss is ready to take on her task. The rest of the Act is her preparations to take on the Games.
Break into Act II  (The definitive disaster or turning point before the start of Act II)
There cannot be a choice between good vs. evil - that is no choice at all. The character will always make the choice that in their mind means good. But given a three way choice (this is why love triangles work) or a choice between two irreconcilable goods or two lesser evils, then it becomes interesting. Always there must be a sacrifice.
So, from the get-go we’ve known that Katniss is going to the Hunger Games. From the Inciting Incident on, the only question in our minds (truly) is whether she’ll survive. But Collins goes one better at the climax of Act I and says NOT ONLY is this a question of how she will survive, but now we have the act of Peeta declaring his love for her (and there is a nagging sense that she might be in love with him too - or at least conflicted about her feelings). Collins leaves us with this giant sized gap in expectation, because that certainly was not what we (or Katniss) expected Peeta to say. Having Peeta love her ups the stakes - now, in order to win the Games, she’ll not only have to kill everyone, including Peeta, but apparently Peeta loves her as well. She will have to lose a bit of her humanity in the process. Part of Collins’ genius is to open the gap in expectation, but not close it until the next chapter (she does this with most of her chapter endings).
Holy cliff-hangers, Batman! Makes me want to go back and read the book again (for the third time)!
I took this analysis of Hunger Games and compared it against my own story structure, finding remarkable similarities and some weaknesses, which were then much easier to fix.
Next time, I'll analyze Act II

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rights for Characters!

Recently, I've been unable to write the story I've been working on for the last five months. So, I'm taking a break, because I always take a break when I'm stuck.

But when I take a break, I don't stop writing. I just write other things, exploring new ideas, and thinking about old ones. I half-start new stories, and work on old half-started stories that I haven't even looked at for years.

And in some dark corridor of my mind, I found one of my old characters, sitting dejectedly with his giant pet caterpillar in his lap. He glared up at me, and started complaining. Pretty soon, he was yelling at me. Oh, he had a reason, and a good one. But then again, he always has a reason.

This character is the most moody, emotional, stubborn character that I have ever come up with. I've had him since sixth grade, and I've tried so many times to put him in stories, but he always ends up throwing a fit because I've re-written a scene one too many times, or put him with characters he doesn't like. But he's very good at rebelling and I, frankly, am absolutely terrible at dealing with rebellion. He's stormed out of my stories, and argued with me and somehow, he makes me feel like the bad-guy. He once even organized a full character strike and I had to negotiate terms.

I just had another argument with him, and he stormed off. So, yeah, I'd better be careful or I'll end up with a full character rebellion.

But anyway, do you ever talk to your characters? Do they ever talk to you? How do you keep them from campaigning for rights for fictional characters?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Things Change Fast, but Books Grow Slow

The book market for young readers can change like lightning.

For a while they wanted vampires and zombies. Now it's mermaids, or is it something else already? Fantasy was all the rage, but now is science fiction on the rise? I've heard you can't sell plain old historical fiction these days, but it used to be a major staple.

The biggest problem with this is, books grow slow. If I start today to write a book that fits the latest trend, by the time it's ready to sell, the latest trend is over.

So how do I find the courage to move forward with a project, knowing full well that by the time it is done, the genre may be out of style?

I have to forget all of that and focus on writing the best book I can. And then if I can't sell that book, I move on and write another one. Someday, somehow, everything will come into alignment.

The world needs great stories of all kinds. Write what you love, and have faith that there will be a place for it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Epic First Line Contest

Just wanted to let you all know that I'm hosting an Epic First Line Contest over on my blog, and the prizes include a query critique from Agent Mary Kole, a critique of the first 5 pages by author Martine Leavitt, and tons of books! Go check it out:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Jewelry!

Magick Front by EmilyMah
Magick Front a photo by EmilyMah on Flickr.
Sorry it's been a while since I've posted. Life's been insane - and I'm sure all of you can relate. I figured I'd share this project though, as it is book related. This April 5th, Stephanie Burgis's book, Kat Incorrigible, comes out in the United States, and I'm doing tie in jewelry! That picture is of the rough draft of the Magick Book pendant that will come out the same day as the book. We're doing one more version that will be much cleaner and more ornate.

Steph and I were both classmates at Clarion West back in 2001, and she's one of those people whom I'd hate if I didn't love her so much. While I struggled to thrash my ideas into the short story format, she'd receive the assignment for that week and show up a couple of days later with a gorgeous story that executed it. For her last week, her story had the climax in flashback, at the beginning, and the whole piece felt beautifully balanced and held my attention in a white knuckled grip from beginning to end - and this was after six weeks of me reading sixteen stories a week (though it seemed that Stephanie also consumed several novels and short story collections on top of reading the workshop material.)

So it was no surprise to me that I LOVED Kat Incorrigible. I read the UK edition, titled A Most Improper Magick. I can't recommend this novel highly enough.

Since I run my own little shop on Etsy, stocked with my handmade jewelry, and since I was taking a course in wax carving and investment casting, I thought I should start approaching authors to ask if I could obtain a derivative works license to do jewelry from their books. I started with Stephanie (figured I'd aim high) and she's been wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic. Run, do not walk, to get a copy of her book when it comes out!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Falling in Love Again

At the end of each major draft, I leave time to quickly read through my entire MS, all at once, or as close to it as I can manage.

I skim quickly, reading as fast as I possibly can. My internal editor has been told that the draft is complete, and she's already out on the Lanai deck sipping Blue Hawaiians. I'm reading for voice, throwing in a few for-fun phrases along the way. I'm reading for plot inconsistencies, chapter after chapter blurring quickly together. I'm reading for typos and literary speed bumps that knock you out of the rhythm of the read.

But mostly I read to fall in love with my story again.

See, by the time I've wrenched through an entire draft, I'm ready to strangle my story, or possibly poison it to death with a slow-release toxin. I'm convinced that it's wretched garbage that should be thrown out, not foisted upon my lovely beta readers.

So I read it through quickly so I can fall in love with the story once more. I let myself be absorbed in that heady rush of emotion that entranced me in the first place.

What do you do at the end of a draft?

Something to Hide

I've been struggling lately, to my chagrin, with writing. Yes, I've actually considered giving up because it hasn't brought me the pleasure of thrills I used to experience. Even the thought of attending my most favorite writers conference where I feel like queen, made me feel numb.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Story Diet

By Jonene Ficklin

I've never had this problem before and I'm a little blown away.

My current WIP has two story lines that come together at the end. I asked three writing friends to read it and give honest feedback, sparing no feelings.

What an awesome experience! (Thanks a million, gals!) I learned which parts don't work. They let me know the parts they wished were different, or needed serious changes. It was interesting, because all of them liked one of the story lines, but felt the other needed work.

So, off to work I went.
I cut.
I changed.
I added.
I rewrote the entire ending. Again.
And when I was done, my novel was 108,000 words.

Yikes! It used to be 97,000. (It's a serious no-no to submit anything over 100,000 words, even in adult fiction.)

I'm not a horror fan, but I have read Stephen King's book, ON WRITING. He recommends cutting at least 10 percent after your first draft. That's just about where I am now, except this manuscript is several drafts down the line. It's been cleaned, chopped, and tightened many times before.

Still, that's not good enough.

So I'm putting my story on a serious diet. I'm cutting out all unnecessary words. I'm hacking out every single part that doesn't speed the plot along. I'm being ruthless, and boy, am I learning a lot. Rebecca is right on with her weeding analogy!

You know, a story diet is just as hard as the real thing. Each evening, my brain feels like butter in a hot frying pan. But . . . right now, I'm down 3,000 words and I'm not even a quarter of the way in.

Writer's high!

Is that how you feel when you put your story on a diet? Any advice?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Weeding the Plot

So I'm reading through my first draft this morning, and my characters start having this long, random conversation about world-building details that have nothing to do with the story.

That's okay in the first draft. Maybe even important. Those were things I needed to set down for my own information. But now that I'm on the second draft?

Hand me the weed whacker.

For my first draft, I like to throw a bunch of seeds out there, rake the dirt around, water it, and then come back later and see what came up.

Lots of weeds, that's what.

The flowers I planted came up too, but it's hard to see them for all the weeds. So now I've got to go back through my plot and pluck out anything that doesn't add to the grand design. Some of those weeds are pretty, yes, but they're going to have to go.

Great storytelling isn't just about what to say, it's about what not to say. I'll always admire Walt Disney for cutting a couple of really cute scenes from his original "Snow White" film. They were charming, but they weren't needed for the plot.

I bet it was hard to cut those scenes. Pulling out those weeds can hurt. Sometimes their roots are tangled with parts of the story I want to keep. Sometimes I find beautiful wildflowers that I want to dig up and transplant to another book. It's hard work, but when I'm done my plot is going to look great.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Story Food

Stories, like all living things, start out small. One tiny seed of an idea can grow and branch and lead to more ideas, until you've got enough story for a ten book series.

But this won't happen all by itself. Stories, like all living things, need food.

How do you feed stories? What gives you that feeling that there's something growing inside you, something that has to be told.

For me, experiencing great stories always helps my own stories to grow. When I go too long without reading, my stories tend to get stunted. I'm trying to keep up a healthy diet of books, with the occasional movie or play for dessert.

I also like to participate in other creative activities. Music, woodworking, and the odd sewing project give me a change of pace and help pass the time while I wait for new ideas to sprout.

Travel is great story food for me. Seeing new places and meeting new people always sparks new growth in my forest of story ideas.

And now my favorite kind of story food, NON-fiction. I love to watch documentary films, listen to NPR, read books about nature, science, art, history, medicine, ANYTHING! My latest find is DK's Eyewitness Books series that my eight-year-old brings home from the school library. Full of pictures and interesting little facts, they're a story feast! Oh, uh, was I writing a blog post? Sorry, I started looking through the Eyewitness book instead.

So how do you feed your stories?