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