What I learned about writing from watching The Hunger Games

Studying films is an excellent way for writers to learn about story structure.

None of us want our books to be formulaic, but the argument goes that we are hard-wired to expect and enjoy a certain trajectory. Books like Save the Cat and Stealing Hollywood are advocates of studying film to understand how Hollywood does it (and let’s face it, they know a thing or two about telling stories there).

The Hunger Games follows the classic three-act structure.  

Act One

  • Introduction to main character and her ‘ordinary world’ (District 12).
  • Inciting incident – something happens which changes everything and drives the character into action (Katniss volunteers as tribute).
  • Meeting the Mentor (Hamish).
  • Crossing the Threshold to a new world – Katniss and Peeta arrive at The Capitol.

Act Two (part one)

  • A series of trials in which Katniss acquires the skills she needs to compete in The Hunger Games.   
  • The Tributes Parade is a key scene at exactly the 25% mark of the film – this is where Katniss and Peeta stand out from the other contenders and Katniss acquires her nickname ‘the Girl on Fire’ (fire is an important symbol of power in the book) and we get our first glimpse of the antagonist, President Snow. (Contrast: fire/snow)
  • Development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta – notably their different desires (Katniss wants to survive, Peeta wants to preserve his integrity).
  • The mid-point – The Hunger Games start.

Act Two (part two)

  • Katniss faces another series of trials in which she has to survive. She has to rely on her friends (Rue and Peeta) and her actions in the first part of the film pay off in the second.
  • The lowest point – Katniss’s actions inadvertently lead to the death of Rue. She finds Peeta but he is dying.

Act Three

  • The final act starts when the rules change, and two people are allowed to win the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta work together to fight the final contestant, Cato, in a dramatic battle scene.
  • But the bad guys haven’t lost. They change the rules again. Katniss and Peeta work out a solution (a suicide pact) and the Capitol has to back down. This turns out to be a false victory as we move into the second film, but for the time being, they have defeated their enemy.
  • The film ends as Katniss and Peeta return to their ordinary world, irrevocably changed through their experiences.

It is worth noting that the film does not follow the exact structure of the book – for example the Hunger Games start at the midpoint of the film, but the midpoint of the book is when Katniss escapes the alliance.

However, there are other things to learn from watching The Hunger Games:

Introducing a character in action

Our first introduction to Katniss is when we see her comforting her sister when she wakes from a nightmare. Katniss is maternal, reassuring, protective. Her character has edge when she threatens to boil the cat, and we then see her in her natural environment, the woods, where she is prepared to kill to survive. Within a few minutes, we are told everything we need to know about Katniss, her skills and the journey ahead of her.

Mirroring scenes

I have seen this film numerous times but only recently realised that the scene where Katniss shoots the arrow into the apple placed in the pig’s mouth mirrors another key scene when she shoots the arrow and dislodges a bag of apples to set off the explosives at the cornucopia.

Once you start looking, you see many scenes in the film that reflect each other, reinforcing key symbols and messages. The relationship Katniss has with Prim and Rue for example. There are two scenes when Katniss sings the same song to both girls. The first is to get Prim back to sleep; the second is to comfort Rue when she is dying.

The scene at the start of the film when Katniss is preparing for The Reaping by scrubbing herself in the bath and wearing a clean dress is mirrored when she undergoes a professional make-over before the Tributes Parade. Clothing and appearance is very important in the Hunger Games as it indicates power.

In all of the above cases the stakes are much higher in the second scene.

Symbols acquire meaning

The mockingjay pin is one of the most powerful symbols in the film. It first appears in the market when Katniss notices it. The trader gives it to her, and I think it is important that it is a gift. The mockingjay pin at this point doesn’t really mean anything but when Katniss gives it to her sister, she tells her it will protect her.

Prim gives her the pin back and Katniss makes a promise that she will fight to win. It reappears when Cinna attaches it to her outfit – a secret act of rebellion. The mockingjay thus acquires meaning as the film progresses, becoming, along with the hand gesture, a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

In contrast, President Snow is symbolised by a white rose. He cultivates these himself, controlling nature, shaping his own messages and power.

Other symbols in the film are more obvious. The stark contrast between the affluence of the Capitol against the poverty of District 12 for example, is beautifully illustrated at The Reaping when Effie’s garish purple outfit stands out against the bland clothes worn by the residents of District 12.

Katniss is the ‘girl on fire’ and her antagonist is President Snow. Snow/fire.

Food plays an important role in the story – not enough in District 12, far too much in The Capitol. Food is something you need to kill for (hunting) and search for (in The Hunger Games). Katniss frequently rejects the Capitol’s food. The poisonous berries save their lives and deliver retribution to the game maker.

The power of the understatement

Conflict can be subtle. In one of the early scenes of the movie, Gale and Katniss discuss their future. Gale wants to run away but Katniss wants to stay and protect her family. The tension is presented in a very loving way – both have valid arguments, they disagree but this is not a heated argument, it’s an impossible dilemma that they can’t resolve. This conversation is repeated in the second film, when the characters have changed their positions. Gale wants to stay and fight with the rebellion; Katniss wants to run away with her family and keep them safe.

The berries in the bowl. There is a beautiful karma in the scene where the game maker enters the room in President’s Snow palace expecting a reprimand and is presented with a crystal bowl of berries. There are no words and no explanation. We know precisely what this means.

The mockingjay pin – the mockingjay becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion in the film but in the early scenes, it is a small gesture from the stylist Cinna. He tucks the pin in her jacket, close to her heart, to remind Katniss of her home and her values.

Introducing minor characters

There are 24 contenders in The Hunger Games. Far too many to keep track of, so we only get to know the ones that will play a part in the action to come.

The first tribute we see is Cato, one of the career tributes. He’s also the one we see last as he is Katniss and Peeta’s final adversary. In many ways, he is a two-dimensional character representing strength and brutality, but he plays a symbolic role.

Next comes Rue. We first see her hiding on the ceiling having tricked one of the other competitors – we realise that while she is small and vulnerable, she is clever and good at climbing. Her role is similar to Prim’s – a reminder to Katniss about her values.

Glimmer we see being interviewed – she is pretty and girlish and good at winning allies. Another two-dimensional character.

The rest are barely mentioned, and many are pictured but not named. They certainly don’t have distinct personalities. Contrast this with the second film when the tributes play a much larger role in the action and are much more developed characters.

Next time you are watching a film, see if you can spot the key elements of the three-act structure!

Photo by Felipe Bustillo on Unsplash

On the shelf: July 2021 reads

In June 2021, I read:

  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • The Perfect Couple by Jackie Kabler
  • The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler (proof copy)
  • The Cult by Abbie Davies (proof copy)
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (non-fiction)
  • Girl A by Abigail Dean

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig has a brilliant concept. A woman, wanting to end her own life, finds herself in a library surrounded by the stories of what her life could have been if she had made different decisions. I thought it was a beautiful and thought-provoking novel.

I was fortunate enough to be sent two proofs to read this month from my publisher. The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler is a gripping read with all the elements of a classic psychological suspense: suspicion, secrets and shocking reveals. The Cult by Abbie Davies was one of my favourite books this year. Creepy and full of tension, with great characters, plenty of twists and turns, and a nail-biting finish, it was a real page-turner.

Silver Sparrow is the story of two girls and their bigamist father. I loved the tension in this book which is told from the two girls’ perspectives. This is the second novel by Tayari Jones that I have read, and I am keen to read more.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is a collection of essays about writing, critiquing seven short stories by Russian writers. I learnt a lot from this book, but ultimately, I think it was more aimed at writers of literary fiction.

Girl A by Abigail Dean was quite a harrowing read. It follows the lives of a group of siblings who have escaped their childhood ‘house of horror’ with their neglectful and abusive parents. It was another thought-provoking read.  

In July 2021, I am going to read:

  • Little White Lies by Philippa East
  • Definitely Dead by Kate Bendelow
  • The Dare by Lesley Kara
  • Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent
  • The Island by C L Taylor

In other news, I am venturing out this month and attending the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. I really thought it would be cancelled this year due to COVID so I am over the moon that it is going ahead and that I will get to see some of my favourite writers.

What are you reading this month?

On the shelf: June 2021 reads

In May, I read:

  • The Other People by C J Tudor
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan
  • The Dinner Guest by B P Walter
  • Kingdom by Jo Nesbo (DNF)
  • Don’t Close Your Eyes by Holly Seddon
  • Runaway Train by Lee Matthew Goldberg (proof)
  • Her Last Holiday by C L Taylor

I really enjoyed Midnight at Malabar House. I’ve not read any of Vaseem Khan’s books before, but I am definitely keen to read more. This novel, the first in a new series, is set in a newly independent India and features Persis Wadia, the country’s first female detective. She’s a wonderful character and the plot kept me guessing until the end.

Another highlight for me was The Other People. I have enjoyed all of C J Tudor’s books so far, but I think this one was her best. It features a broken man fruitlessly searching for his missing daughter. Everyone tells him she’s dead, but he refuses to stop looking. There are several different plotlines, and it takes a while for them to fuse together, but when they do it’s a fantastic revelation.

I’m usually a big fan of Jo Nesbo, but I couldn’t finish Kingdom. I won’t post any spoilers, but the subject matter was not for me, so I gave up on it.

Runaway Train by Lee Matthew Goldberg was a proof. This coming-of-age story is set in 90s California and I defy you not to sing along to the soundtrack! I loved the feisty heroine and her emotional journey as she takes to the road, comes to terms with the death of her sister and finds her voice. 

In June, I am planning to read:

  • Finders, Keepers by Sabine Durrant
  • Fatal Harmony by Kate Rhodes
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  • The Perfect Couple by Jackie Kabler
  • The Broken by Tamar Cohen

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Book Two is on its way!

I’ve had a busy couple of months since signing with my agent.

I have recently signed a book deal for my second psychological thriller, provisionally called The Wedding Guest. If all goes to plan, book two will be published by One More Chapter in April 2022.

Local journalist Libby is a plus-one at a celebrity wedding at a grand manor house in rural North Yorkshire. She’s the guest of her boyfriend, Matthew, who used to be in a Britpop band in the 90s. It’s the first time the band members have been reunited since the band split up and she quickly discovers that they have something to hide…

I’m really looking forward to launching Libby into the world! This book was a lot of fun to research and write.

At the moment I am doing my structural edits. These are big changes that the editor suggests in order to make sure the story works. They’re a little tricky, as you have to check that when you change something in chapter 20, it doesn’t impact on something in chapter 47. There is a lot of ‘find and replace’ going on! The plan is to complete these edits by the end of May.

I have also been working on a follow-up to this book. It’s early days and I have just done an outline, a bit of preliminary research and written about 3,000 words. This means I have put aside the other novel I was working on for the time being. At some point I am hoping to pick it back up and work on them both simultaneously but I’m not sure if my brain can handle that…

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

ON THE SHELF: MAY 2021 READING

In April, I read:

  • Vox by Christina Dalcher
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • The House of Killers by Samantha Lee Howe
  • The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

The first two books really made me think. Vox is a dystopian book in which women are only allowed to speak 100 words a day. It reminded me of A Handmaid’s Tale which I have just started watching on Amazon Prime.

At the heart of An American Marriage is a cruel injustice which has ramifications for all the characters. It was a very emotional and thought-provoking read. After reading it, I bought another of her books, Silver Sparrow.

The House of Killers is the first in a series about a female assassin and an MI5 investigator. This was fast-paced, fun and I really didn’t see the twist coming. I also enjoyed the simmering tension between family members depicted in The Mother-in-Law.

In May, I hope to read:

  • The Dinner Guest by B P Walter
  • Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan
  • The Other People by C J Tudor
  • Kingdom by Jo Nesbo

I am about half-way through Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield and I am also hoping to read The Familiars by Stacey Halls. These were both on my reading list for April, but I was a bit over-ambitious!

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

On the shelf: April 2021 reads

In March, I read:

  • The Chain by Adrian McKinty
  • How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister
  • The Hit List by Holly Seddon
  • Someone We Know by Shari Lapena
  • The Last Snow by Stina Jackson
  • The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean
  • Playing Nice by J P Delaney
  • Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman

My favourite of these was The Last Snow by Stina Jackson. Set in Sweden, I loved the atmosphere of the creepy forest, the claustrophobic community where everyone knows everyone, and the idiosyncratic characters. I immediately bought a copy for my mum for Mother’s Day.

I also really enjoyed The Hit List by Holly Seddon and How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister. Both books left me thinking about their plots for a long time afterwards, particularly what it might be like to enter witness protection. They’re both ‘what would you do if…’ books and highly recommended.

Incidentally, if you are a writer, check out The Honest Authors podcast which is hosted by Gillian McAllister and Holly Seddon. It lifts the lid on the publishing industry and writing in general and is incredibly helpful and entertaining.  

In April I am going to read

  • Vox by Christina Dalcher
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • The Familiars by Stacey Halls
  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

In my mission to read the Hercule Poirot books in order, I’ve skipped The Mystery of the Blue Train (I did manage to catch the TV adaptation on ITV Player though) and have moved on to Peril at End House.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What’s your favourite book of the year so far?

The road to publication: signing with a literary agent

It has taken seven years, five manuscripts and one book deal to get to this point, but I have finally signed with a literary agent. And I couldn’t be happier!

I am now represented by Camilla Shestopal from Shesto Literary.

The first time I spoke to a literary agent was at Jericho Writers’ Festival of Writing in 2014. As part of the weekend package, you could book two one-to-one sessions with literary agents to get some feedback on your work. I was so nervous, but the agents were both lovely and asked to see more of my manuscript.

Over the ensuing years, I have sent probably close to 100 submissions to literary agents and done several one-to-one meetings. Most agents want a submission package of the first three chapters, a covering letter and a synopsis. If you want any advice on writing a synopsis, I recommend Write a Great Synopsis by Nicola Morgan.

There is a lot of waiting involved with submitting to agents. Some don’t get back to you at all; sometimes you will receive a ‘form rejection’, which is a standard response without any specific feedback on your work or, if you are lucky, you might get a personal rejection explaining what they liked or didn’t like about your book.

Rejections are part of the writing life. They’re rarely personal. My way of dealing with them is to put them in a folder and never look at them again! (Unless they contain some helpful feedback of course.)

Or…you might get a full manuscript request. If you get one of those, you should definitely celebrate! Literary agents get thousands of submissions per year, so your work has stood out.

I’ve had a few near misses in the past. Literary agents who were interested in my work, but not enough to take me on.

Camilla Shestopal was the first agent to respond with a ‘revise and resubmit’ which was a full page of editorial notes about how she thought I could improve the book. I agreed with almost all of the changes, so I was happy to implement them and write another draft.

I worked on the book, with Camilla’s suggestions, for several months before she finally asked to meet me. Due to lockdown restrictions, this took place on Zoom.

To prepare for the meeting, I read two books that were very helpful:

Getting Published by Harry Bingham

Getting Published is Just the Beginning by Rhoda S Baxter

This helped me to prepare some questions and know what to expect from the meeting. Although I was nervous, it went very well, and she offered me representation! We chatted about the book, and what would happen next, and a few hours later she sent me a contract to sign.

I couldn’t be happier to have an agent. I got my first book deal without one, but I feel much more confident going into the process with my second book with an agent by my side.

On the shelf: March 2021 reads

In February 2021 I read:

  • Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis
  • If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin
  • The 24-hour Café by Libby Page
  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
  • Girl at Christmas by Rhoda Baxter
  • Money: A User’s Guide by Laura Whateley (non-fiction)
  • The Big Four (Hercule Poirot #5) by Agatha Christie
  • The Choice by Alex Lake
  • All my Lies by Sophie Flynn (proof – to be published in April 2021)
  • The Success Code by Amanda Dewinter (non-fiction)

The stand-out title for me was A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, one of my favourite writers. Chevalier can make just about any subject fascinating, so although bell ringing and embroidery are by no means my favourite things, I found myself drawn into this world. The novel is set in 1932 and I really enjoyed reading about that period and the expectations of women and their roles in society between the two world wars.

All My Lies was a proof, kindly sent out in advance of the publication date of April 2021. A psychological suspense, set in Oxford and Cornwall, I really enjoyed this debut novel. Great characters, evocative writing, interesting locations and a page-turning plot with plenty of twists and turns.

The Agatha Christie was not for me. I found the premise completely ridiculous to be honest!

The other stand-out title for me was The Success Code by Amanda Dewinter. I found it quite inspiring and a practical approach to defining your goals and working towards them. I particularly liked the emphasis on self-care and looking after yourself so that you don’t burn out.

In March, I am planning to read:

  • The Last Snow by Stina Jackson
  • The Chain by Adrian McKinty
  • How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister
  • The Hit List by Holly Seddon
  • Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

On the shelf: February 2021 reads

In January, I went on a crime spree and read:

  • The Holiday by T M Logan
  • The Catch by T M Logan
  • One by One by Ruth Ware
  • Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear
  • Stone Cold Heart by Caz Frear
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot #4) by Agatha Christie
  • Shed No Tears by Caz Frear

I really enjoyed The Holiday and loved the setting of the South of France. I have read all of T M Logan’s books now and they are fast-paced and very enjoyable psychological thrillers. I thought the relationships between the friends and their children was very well done and the way the different story strands came together at the end was perfect. I was less keen on The Catch, mostly because I didn’t quite ‘buy’ the premise – an overprotective dad who pretty much stalks his daughter’s boyfriend.

Ruth Ware is one of my favourite writers and the comparisons with Agatha Christie are justified. This was a ‘closed-door mystery’ about a group of colleagues trapped in a luxurious ski chalet by an avalanche. This wasn’t my favourite Ruth Ware but enjoyable none the less.

I had read Sweet Little Lies a few years ago when it first came out but thought I would re-read it in preparation for the next two by Caz Frear. It is the detective in this series – DC Cat Kinsella – that really holds your attention, rather than the individual storylines, but I really enjoyed all three police procedurals, particularly Shed No Tears.

SPOILER ALERT!

I already knew the killer in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it is often used as an example of the unreliable narrator and the ‘shock twist’. Even when I was reading it, I was doubting myself though as it is so well done. As always, Christie delivers a masterclass in red herrings and intricate plotting.  

In February, I am moving away from thrillers and planning to read:

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
  • The 24-hour Café by Libby Page
  • If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin
  • Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis

Sadly, lockdown has cut off my Agatha Christie supplier (AKA my mum) so I may have to wait until I see her before I continue my Hercule Poirot marathon with The Big Four.

What are you reading? Is lockdown making you read more or less than usual?