Friday, April 20, 2012

Creating: The Magic of The Hunger Games, by Randy Ingermanson

I believe that every novelist should be reading the current bestsellers.
You should definitely be reading the bestsellers in your own category.
You should also be reading the massive breakout bestsellers that are selling millions of copies per year, even if they aren't in your category.
Every novelist should read THE DA VINCI CODE. Every novelist should read THE SHACK. Every novelist should read the Harry Potter series and TWILIGHT and THE LOVELY BONES and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
These should be no-brainers. If you want to write for the modern reader, then you need to have a feel for what the modern reader actually reads. Yes, even if you think popular fiction is crap. Even if you write literary fiction. Even if all your favorite authors died in the 19th century.
Every novelist should read THE HUNGER GAMES. I've taught on the craft of THE HUNGER GAMES at a couple of recent conferences and was shocked to see that many of my students hadn't read it.
Seeing the movie isn't enough. Any novel has interior monologue and interior emotion that the movie won't capture. Any novel has a voice that generally will get muzzled or lost in the movie. Any novel has scenes that will be dropped when adapted to a screenplay.
Once you've read any of these novels, you may find it useful to analyze them -- to figure out what makes them tick.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a great book to analyze because it's extremely well written (not all mega-bestsellers are). I can almost guarantee that if you analyze THE HUNGER GAMES, you'll immediately see ways to improve your writing.

I generally use my well-known Snowflake method to analyze a book. Many writers (but not all) find the Snowflake helpful in designing their story before they write the first draft.
But anybody should find the Snowflake useful when analyzing a story that has already been written. Why?

Because most of the steps of the Snowflake correspond to time-tested methods of analysis that writers have been using for hundreds of years (in some cases for thousands of years).
The ten steps of the Snowflake are summarized here: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/art/snowflake.php

The first step in the Snowflake is to summarize the storyline in one sentence. This is sometimes called your "elevator pitch." The one-sentence summary of your novel will serve you well as a selling tool forever.
Here is my one-sentence summary of THE HUNGER GAMES:
"A 16-year-old girl volunteers to take her sister’s place in an arena where twenty-four teens will battle each other to the death."
That's 25 words, which I consider the upper limit for a one-sentence summary. I prefer to see a one-sentence summary in the range of 10 to 15 words.
The goal is to tell the main idea of the novel in as few words as possible. Shorter is always better, if it captures the story.
The shortest one-sentence summary I've ever seen is the summary for my friend Tosca Lee's forthcoming novel ISCARIOT. Here it is: "Judas".
That's one word and it tells you everything you need to know about Tosca's book.
The purpose of a one-sentence summary is to tell people whether they're interested or not. That's all.
Notice that I didn't say that the purpose of the one-sentence summary is to sell your book. That would be crazy. Most people are not in the target audience for your book. If they're not in your target audience, they probably won't like it, and there's no reason you should want them to buy it.
You want a one-sentence summary that immediately gives the hearer enough information to know whether they're in your target audience or not.
If you like suspense fiction, then the one-sentence summary I gave above for THE HUNGER GAMES immediately tells you that you're going to love this story. If you don't like suspense fiction and the thought of teens killing teens makes you sick to your stomach, then you'll probably hate the story.

A one-sentence summary should hit emotive hot buttons.

Notice the hot buttons I hit in the summary above:
* "A 16-year-old girl" -- All adults can remember being 16. It's generally a crazy mixture of really great things and incredibly horrible things. This is automatically a hot button.

* "volunteers to take her sister's place" -- Self-sacrifice is always a hot button for readers. Most of us are only altruistic when it doesn't cost us much. But we would like to be altruistic on a heroic scale.
* "arena" -- This has been a hot button ever since the Romans put the first two gladiators together.
* "battle each other to the death" -- Single combat to the death is wired into our emotive genes. The idea was already old when David faced Goliath three thousand years ago. You may wish we were more civilized than that, but we aren't.
A great one-sentence summary is focused. Notice what I left out of my one-sentence summary. Not a word about the romantic subplot. Not a word on politics. Not a word on the dystopic future. All of those are great elements, but they're not central.

The central story is combat to the death in an arena.

Less is more when you're writing a one-sentence summary of your novel. You achieve perfection in a one-sentence summary when there is nothing more to remove.

One final point about your one-sentence summary. It should focus on what happens early in your story.

It will often focus on the so-called "inciting incident" -- the incident early in the story that kicks your characters out of their ordinary world. That's what I've done here.
It may sometimes focus on a disaster that happens as much as one quarter of the way into the story. Rarely will you need to tell anything beyond that in a one-sentence summary. You don't want to tell too much.

Your purpose in writing a one-sentence summary is to create a "story question" in the mind of the hearer. A "story question" is always of the form "Will she or won't she _______?"

In THE HUNGER GAMES, the story question is "Will she or won't she survive the arena?"

Your story question depends crucially on what category you're writing.

In a mystery, the story question is generally, "Will he or won't he find the murderer?"

In a romance novel, the story question is almost always, "Will she or won't she marry That Guy?"

One thing your one-sentence summary should NEVER do is to give away the ending. The one-sentence summary is a selling tool. It ignites curiosity. It never satisfies that curiosity.

The whole point of a one-sentence summary is to get one of the following two responses:
* "Sorry, not interested." (This will be the most common response. Sorry, but most people just won't care one peanut for your novel.)
* "Wow! That sounds cool! Tell me more!" (This is the response you should expect from your target audience, and from nobody else.)

There is a third response you may get from your one-sentence summary:
* "Hmmmm, sounds pretty good." (If you are hearing this, then you either don't have a story or you haven't yet figured out what it is. "Pretty good" is a death sentence for your story. You want people to love it or hate it. If your one-sentence summary is "pretty good" then kill it or fix it, but don't keep it.)

We've now got a one-sentence summary of THE HUNGER GAMES. Have you written a one-sentence summary of your own novel? Does it do the job? Can you make it better?

Should you kill it and create a new one?

Next month, we'll look at the large-scale structure of THE HUNGER GAMES -- the so-called "three-act structure."
Your homework: If you haven't read THE HUNGER GAMES, read it before next month and then summarize it in a paragraph of no more than five sentences.

This is harder than it sounds. A lot harder. Unless you're a professional novelist, you'll find it almost impossible to write a one-paragraph summary that does the story justice.

My challenge to you: Try anyway. It'll be good for you.

Hard work makes you strong.

*This article is reprinted by permission of the author. Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 30,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/

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