Sunday, February 1, 2009

Writer's Book Review: Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games


This was probably the most talked about book of 2008. Or, at least, the most talked about book that I heard about. It seemed, there for awhile, that every time I turned around, someone was raving about this book.

And with good cause.

This is easily the best book in the 50 Books in 2009 Challenge that I've read so far, and, to be honest, I'll be surprised if another book tops it. Here's how good it is: when I finished, the husband read it. And he never reads my "kid" books. But he read this one--and liked it!

Five sentence summary: Katniss lives far into North America's future--in a world where North America has been split into different districts, all controlled by the Capital. The districts, especially those far from the Capital, tend to suffer--there is little food, little shelter, and poverty and starvation run rampant. Enter the Hunger Games, where each year 2 tributes are selected from each district and must participate in a survival game where the winner is the only one surviving. After Katniss's baby sister is selected for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Now Katniss must survive the Games--which means killing everyone else, including Peeta, the other boy from her village, who might be in love with her...or who might be planning to use her in the Games.

So what can we, as writers, learn from this book?

1. World Building: World building is essential in any novel, even your most pedantic chick book or simplest picture book. The reader must know where the characters are. That said, it's easier to establish a world that the reader is already aware of. The reader knows the rules of a world set on Earth, for example. And the writer sticks to those rules. With fantasy and sci fi, the writer must establish the rules of the world (i.e. how does gravity work? are dragons real?), and then stick to them. This is what Collins does brilliantly in The Hunger Games. Katniss's world is clearly drawn. The reader is entirely aware of what her world looks, feels, and even tastes like. And--and this is the most important reason for world building--because the world is so clearly drawn, the characters are clearly drawn. Katniss is not a character in a bubble--she lives and reacts to the world around her. Her motivations are clear because her world is clear. We sympathize with her because we sympathize with her situation in her world.

2. Internal and External Conflict: The best books have both internal and external conflict. Katniss's external conflict is to survive the Games. That's a serious external conflict that shows up over and over again in "mini-conflicts" (i.e. finding food, overcoming injuries, etc.). But she has a very real internal conflict running parallel to her external conflict. Ultimately, the internal conflict comes to this: does she kill others for her own survival? Is she willing to forsake her humanity in order to win? And Collins practices that best method for ramping up the stakes of the conflict: she torturs Katniss. [Highlight for more] Not only does Katniss have to choose whether or not to kill to win, but there are other issues. For example, if she wins, her family will prosper in ways they've never known, and Katniss loves her family more than anything else. But winning will mean killing, including the innocent little girl from another district who reminds her of her baby sister...and Peeta, the boy from her district who, she comes to realize, loves her.

Cheryl Klein over at Brooklyn Arden posted a quote that sums up what I mean best:
"Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another." -John Gardner
3. Realistic Detail: This is so important...and so often overlooked. Katniss lives in a world where she's very poor and nearly starving--has, in fact, almost starved to death in the past. So when she goes to the Capital and is given good food to eat, she gorges on it--and gets a bit sick on it. When she's hunting before selection, there's no squeamish feelings about killing animals, no regrets about the death of cute little squirrels and bunnies--they're food and treated as such. When a character gets injured, they stay injured until a realistic amount of time and medicine cures them. It's cold at night. They get hungry and thirsty. And it doesn't matter how it fits into the plot. Here's the key: Realistic details are not sacrificed for the sake of the plot. Sure, the story might go smoother without knowing how cold Katniss was up in the tree at night--but it wouldn't be as real.

And a bonus one! But it's a spoiler point, so highlight: Can I just say that I LOVE how Katniss, the girl, is the strong one? That Peeta, the boy, is clearly the weaker contender and the one who's blinded by love? It was so refreshing!!
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