But it all started with a book, the first in a series, actually. Late to the party as I am, I started reading it over the weekend – and would probably have finished by now if I didn’t have other things to take care of. As I was reading, I found myself mentally switching signals between reading for entertainment and reading for technique, especially during the first few chapters.
It’s a nice exercise to try, as a writer, to try to pick something apart and se how it works (or, figure out why it may not be working for you as a reader). Normally, it’s probably recommended to do this with a project you’ve already experienced (already gotten the “pleasure reading” element out of the way). Trying it on a work you’ve not encountered can sometimes make those lessons pop off the page in ways that might surprise you.
I started with the basic items – POV and tense, but also paid attention to the more shadowy elements of world building and pacing, and here’s how it struck me (Caution: spoilers – but only through the half-way mark since I haven’t finished the book):
POV (Point of View)
The second word of chapter one is “I,” so out of the gate we know it’s a 1st person story. We start seeing the world through the eyes of the character right away, and are quickly drawn into the subtle world building (more later). My only issue is that it takes a couple of pages to actually know who we are following – name and gender. Note, though, that it’s part of the nature of the selection. Had 3rd person been used, we (should) already have a name and gender identified long before it’s been revealed here. By going with 1st and using a “closed” moment to start the first chapter (read: it’s all internal monologue and observation until Katniss gets into the woods), if she gave us the DMV details it wouldn’t have rang as true – Katniss would be presenting the details for the benefit of the reader, which breaks down the impact of the story. It also plays in with Tense choice…
This is more of what struck me, and really started me looking at how the story has been built. A lot of stories use the past – “let me tell about this one time…” Games, though, is written in present, which lends itself to the nature and immediacy of the plot’s conceit. Everything is new, immersive, and is happening to Katniss as we are reading it. Tied with the 1st person, we get the double-barrel roller coaster of living the experience through the narrator. It also helps to anchor the reader into caring about Katniss (more, later).
Why POV & Tense Matter – playing What if..
If Collins had kept the 1st person but used Past tense, we would already be able to guess that Katniss has survived the games – which would deflate close to 99% of the tension the central conceit carries by using Present. Collins could have used 3rd person Past, but both of them together would have made the distance between reader and central character that much greater, which would make it that much more difficult for the “emotional buy-in” to be found.
Often referred to as “the hook,” another way to think about it is giving the reader a “reason to care” about the protagonist and their story. Katniss mentions her love of her younger sister, and how protective Katniss has been since their father died, throughout the first chapter. By the time the sister’s name is drawn as the “tribute” for the year, and Katniss volunteers to take her place, we are already emotinally invested in Katniss, which lends itself to pulling for her to make it through the games, to return to her sister.
Is subtle. There are a few large chucks of exposition early, but they come through Katniss reflecting on life as she prepares for the reaping and what the games signify and her opinions of it all. It’s an info dump, yes, but presented in a manner that still flows with the narrative – it doesn’t stop, force a time out in the flow of the story, then force you to think “Where were we…?” when it’s over. Nuggets are also dropped in throughout, but only as they are needed (like the “tracker jackers” that are encountered during the games).
Thinking in terms of chapter breaks, they are designed as cliff-hanger moments. Chapter 1 ends with Katniss’s sister being announced as the tribute. Chapter 2 closes at the end of the selection ceremony. Chapter 3 ends right after a moment during the train ride to the Capital. Chapter 4 ends as the train arrives at the Capital. Each moment, each sequence designed to make the reader go, “Oh, crap, now what?”
If you’ve been living under rocks, like I’ve been, go check out the book for yourself. As a writer, you’ll be able to look at technique, and as a reader, you’ll get one hell of a ride.