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

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.

The Road to Publication: Remember, the first draft is always sh*t

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just start writing and everything that came out of your head arrived in beautiful prose? That the ideas just kept flowing, and it all made perfect sense? How do other writers find it so easy?

The answer is they don’t. Most of the work to produce a novel comes after the first draft, in the seemingly endless rounds of edits.

The best piece of advice I ever received about writing was from a tweet by Caitlin Moran describing her first draft as ‘word vomit’. The idea that a first draft is always sh*t is quite reassuring.

The problem is that you are probably comparing your first draft to a published book which will have gone through several drafts and editorial stages. The finished product on the shelves looks very, very different from the first draft on your computer.

So, let your characters change age, name and gender half-way through. Relax when your setting changes from the South of France to Southport, when your plot veers in strange directions and hangs on unlikely coincidences, when you’re convinced that what you’re writing makes no sense whatsoever and never will.

In your first draft you can leave out scenes altogether and skip to the more interesting parts. You can add backstory that you know you will end up cutting. You can type XXX when you need to do some research. You can bring characters back to life if you killed them off too early. You just have to keep going!

I am nearing the end of the first draft of book three. I hope to have it completed by the end of January. And it is very much ‘word vomit’. It’s not something I would ever let anyone read.

But it’s easier to edit 80,000 of word vomit than it is to edit a blank page.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The road to publication: hitting ‘the wall’

After a month away from book three to concentrate on editing book two, I returned to it at the start of November raring to go!

I considered using NaNoWriMo to catch up with the time I had missed but decided against it. In case you have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is a writing challenge to write 50,000 words in November. The idea behind it is to write quickly, not worrying too much about the quality, and then you have something to edit by the end. 50,000 words is not really long enough to be a novel but it’s a very good start.  

Some of the benefits of NaNoWriMo are the companionship of others taking part in the challenge, word sprints where you aim to reach a certain number of words in a short space of time, and writing prompts on social media. I know a lot of people who use NaNoWriMo successfully, but I have only tried it once and it wasn’t for me.

I like to plod along, adding to my word count slowly and steadily. I decided instead to aim to write 1,000 words a day for three days then have the fourth day for planning and research so completing around 5,000 – 6,000 words a week. This was considerably more than I was writing in October.

At first it went well but then my lack of planning meant I ground to a halt. I literally did not know what happened next in the plot. My characters were in a dilemma but then they were kind of stuck there and nothing was happening. I knew the ending, but I didn’t know how I was going to get them there.

I took a few days off, brainstormed a few ideas, and then carried on writing. I asked myself what was the worst thing that could happen to my characters now, and what was the best thing? What were they hoping for? What did they fear? Nothing was off the table. I told myself it would be OK to include an alien invasion if that’s what needed to happen to move the plot along. I came up with a few scenes. I wrote some more words.

And then nothing. I have never really experienced writer’s block, and I’m not sure this even counts, but I just couldn’t find any enthusiasm to write. My story was stupid, no-one would want to read it, why was I bothering? I had hit ‘the wall’.

I took the weekend off. I gave myself permission to give up writing altogether or start something new if I wanted to. I felt miserable and tired. I rested. And then this morning, at 3am (thanks insomnia!) I woke up fuelled with ideas. The words started flowing again. I have a feeling it’s going to be a rocky road ahead but at least that word count is heading in the right direction.

What do you do to keep going if you hit a wall? Any tips?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The Road to Publication: Writing a first draft

I am currently writing the first draft of Book Three, as yet untitled.

Every writer is different, but I usually take around six to eight months to write my first draft. I aim to write 3,000 words a week for around 30 weeks, but life sometimes gets in the way.

I started writing my first draft on 1 July and so far, I have written 24,000 words so I am about on target to finish by the end of January / early February.

I will then take a break for around six weeks while I do some research before tackling my second draft. It’s usually after the third draft that I feel comfortable showing it to anyone.

You may have heard of ‘pantsers’ and ‘planners’ but I’m neither. I like to have an outline to work to, but I don’t plan my books too much before I start. Otherwise I feel like I have already written it and I quickly lose passion for the story. Likewise, I can’t just start writing with no idea where I’m heading so pantsing doesn’t work for me either.

I like the snowflake method of writing. If you haven’t heard of it, there is a very good ebook available which explains the method. You basically alternate between developing character and plot and work from the very essence of the novel outwards, writing and plotting as you go.

I have also recently read Save the Cat, so I am trying to structure my book according to the 15 story beats. A lot of writers struggle with a ‘flabby middle’ (where nothing really happens in the book), so I think it’s important to have a good midpoint twist. I’m quite excited about mine!

I’ll keep you posted how I get on!

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash