Tuesday, February 7, 2012

12 Writing Lessons from THE HUNGER GAMES: Stakes and Characterization

There was a movie on USA the other day, THE CONDEMNED (2007) starring Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Nathan Jones, Robert Mammone: "A fight to the death against nine other condemned killers from all corners of the world, with freedom going to the sole survivor." Haven't heard of it? That's okay, I hadn't either. But the premise was similar enough to the idea of Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES that I tuned in to watch.

It was a great example of the power of perspective and motivation.

Because it was a movie, the POV naturally bounced all over the place. We got to know several characters in the production company making the film. And naturally, we saw the battles between the criminals who all had ankle bracelets laced with explosives that their opponents could detonate. Naturally, this took place on an island that was prepositioned with cameras. Naturally the prisoners all had GPS trackers. Naturally there were a few blindspots on the island. And naturally, the show was about ratings and money. Like in THE HUNGER GAMES, there were drops of weapons and supplies to specific prisoners, and there were alliances between individuals and factions.

I watched while two prisoners died. I was singularly unimpressed. I didn't care if the production company made millions. I didn't really care which of the horrible people killed each other.

And then.... Finally it happened. One of the prisoners chose not to play by the rules. He showed glimmers of humanity, charity, and morality. Someone in the FBI tuned in and checked who he was. Naturally, it turned out there had to have been some kind of a mistake. Jack Conrad was a retired Delta Force black ops guy who'd been caught while on a mission and imprisoned in Central America with a false identity. His ethical behavior made a woman in the production company begin to question the ethics of the show. That intensified with escalating confrontations between the prisoners, but the others in the production company shut her down. (See the B story and subplots developing?) A super-villain emerged. One of the prisoners engaged in acts of brutality so heinous, he clearly became the guy to beat. The head of the production company became so unethical and money grubbing we had to hate him. Finally, I had a protagonist to root for and a someone to root against, and I knew who would be in the ultimate showdown. Finally, I cared a little more. But I couldn't help comparing the execution of this story to THE HUNGER GAMES, because it was all very formulaic. And though I cared, I didn't CARE.

The lesson here? You can have a GREAT idea and still F it up.

To make me care, a great plot has to begin with great characters who themselves care deeply about something. The more unjust the situation is for them the better, but they have to be vulnerable in some way--there has to be a hole inside them. Jack Conrad, the Delta Force guy, was great. Moral. Capable. Cool. But at first, he didn't love anything. Or I wasn't aware that he loved anything. It wasn't until he escaped, got to a phone, and called his girlfriend later in the story that I saw a glimmer of vulnerability, and by then, for me, it was too late to invest my heart.
The action got hotter. The tension ratcheted up. I continued to watch because THE CONDEMNED was a good B-movieish action flick.

It could have been so much more.

I'm eager to see how they handle the screenplay for THE HUNGER GAMES, but I know it will be stronger because the characters we care about are built into the concept. Katniss is vulnerable and admirable from the beginning, no matter how strong and capable she appears to be. She is the underdog. We know her sister loves her. We know Gayle cares for her. Peta cares for her. We know she is admirable and willing to sacrifice herself to save her sister.

We know all this before we are dropped into the action.

THE HUNGER GAMES had one other thing that THE CONDEMNED didn't. It had a no-win setup.

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.

I recently read Maggie Steifvater's THE SCORPIO RACES, which had the same no-win setup. The two point of view characters each had equally compelling reasons to win the race. As they fell in love, you knew that whatever happened, the winner was going to lose because the other would suffer. That made for a compelling, unputdownable read.

So. A no-win ending. THE HUNGER GAMES and THE SCORPIO RACES had one. THE CONDEMNED did not.

The addition of this type of an ending can elevate a concept. It can add a whole new layer of tension. It can make me want to think about, talk about, care about, the characters and the story long after I put down the book or turn off the television.

So what are the lessons here? For me, four things jumped out as I compared THE CONDEMNED and THE HUNGER GAMES. I came away with four conclusions.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
High concept is great. But in the end, high concept is not enough. Enduring stories, the best stories, are about characters. And even when, as writers, we have a great high concept idea based on a great cast of characters, we can miss opportunites by not revealing what we know about those characters until after the audience needs to know it.

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?

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Loved, loved, loved this post! Both of my YA works, one complete first draft and the other in progress, are great and I love them. BUT, both seem to be missing something...you nailed it with this post.

    Thanks for the ah-ha moment and great examples!

  2. There is a great chapter in The Screenwriting Formula that shows exactly how to write high concept the right way. It's definitely worth reading. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Excellent post. I'm printing this one for reference. Thank you.

  4. Not only is this an awesome post, you've just sold me on The Scorpio Races. :D

  5. I remember watching The Condemned just because it had Stone Cold Steve Austin. Thinking back, I can totally see the similarities you mention.

  6. Timely reminders for me as my second novel is taking shape in its early stages. The first novel I think hits the right notes in the right way, and I want to make sure the sequel does as well. Thank you for this analysis. Spot on.

    As I write this comment, I'm sitting here thinking about that no-win situation. I started out thinking that yeah, it helps Hunger Games, but it's not critical. But the more I think about it, the more I see it drives the whole story forward. Even when it's not in the foreground, it's always in the background. There's an inevitability to the entire story. If it were just Katniss against 23 others, we'd anticipate a final showdown against the biggest baddie and figure Katniss will win because it's a successful YA book. But this inevitability is different, and the tension is elastic as she has to keep Peta close but distant. We know the plane will run out of fuel 50 miles short of the coastline, but we keep flying right to the end to see what the MC will do when that time comes.

    And as I look at my new WIP, I see that I have plotted that kind of situation into the story, but I haven't exposed it early on. Thanks, reading this and thinking about it has helped. Seriously.

  7. Candy, I'm so glad this helped. I LOVE when it happens so we hear just the right thing at just the right moment! Just wish there were more of those things :D

    Kate, I haven't read that one. Adding it to my list right now. Thanks!

    Chuck and Linda, thank you for taking the time to comment. You rock and I really appreciate it.

    Stina, I adore THE SCORPIO RACES. Not only does it have Stiefvater's gorgeous prose, great characters, and a kick-ass, high-tension plot, she also takes a myth, pretzels it, and weaves it into her story world so tightly that it is completely new and undeniably alive.

    Angela, I know, right? :)

    Peter, love your point about the inevitability and the early set-up, and I agree. Those are critical points in the success of THE HUNGER GAMES and you put it beautifully. I wish I had discovered this earlier for my own work. Good luck with your story planning!

    Thanks so much, everyone!


  8. This is one of the most helpful breakdowns I've seen in some time. We all know the importance of tension and high stakes, but the no-win situation is really very effective. Thank you!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  9. Interesting post! I haven't read THE SCORPIO RACES yet but I really want to.

  10. I'm with Stina and Ghenet. THE SCORPIO RACES has appeared bright on my radar. Great post. If we can't connect and relate to some aspect of the character, why go on a journey with them?

  11. I loved this post. It is so true and you did an excellent job showing us that a writer can have a ggreat concept and still "F" it up if we don't care about the characters or what they stand to lose (above & beyond their own life even). This was awesome. I am a new follower & will be back often.


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