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!).
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
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.
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.
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.
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.