In the first book, by the time that we got into the Hunger Game itself, we realized (along with Katniss) that if she won, Peta had to lose. In other words, Katniss would lose even if she won. She would lose her ability to live with herself afterwards, and also there would be people at home who would hate her for winning.
So. A no-win ending. THE HUNGER GAMES and THE SCORPIO RACES had one. THE CONDEMNED did not.
- Even the most dramatic story concept needs characters the audience can care about, and the sooner you expose vulnerability and give the audience a reason to care about those characters, the better.
- The question of survival itself isn't sufficient to make an audience care--the character needs to display redeeming qualities and care about something more than he/she cares about herself.
- External time pressure is good: a competing player out killing other characters, race day coming up, some kind of ticking clock. But the pressure of the ticking clock has to escalate as we go on. The desire to win or survive has to be coupled to something more altruistic that is in some way tied to love. The mc needs the desire to save something besides her/himself.
- Creating a no-win situation where the love interest or someone the mc cares about will lose if he/she wins really ups the tension. A situation where the loss will ultimately hurt the mc and may, potentially, damage the mc more than the loss itself creates the potential for a twist. We can see victory coming. We can anticipate that the mc may overcome all the odds and defeat the challenge. We can be pretty sure that in some way, he or she win. Unless he or she decides to lose on purpose because there is a compelling reason why he or she might want to lose.
In THE CONDEMNED, Jack Conrad is an admirable character. There is a twist beyond what I led you to believe. There are lessons for the viewer, themes that raise questions about what is wrong with our voyeuristic society. There are characters we can care about, and other characters we can hate.
In THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss is an admirable character even if she doesn't know it herself. The audience knows it because Suzanne Collins shows it in time to make us want to root for her when disaster strikes.
As writers, we know everything about our characters and our stories. We have to; it's our job to know. And we fall in love with our characters and stories because of what we know about them. The trick is that we have to find ways to share that knowledge with our readers in a way that will make them fall in love as thoroughly and deeply as we have.
Have you discovered that in your own work? Or have you seen a concept that's a near miss where almost the same idea succeeds in the hands of another artist/writer? Why? What made the difference?