If you've read The Hunger Games (or been in the mute and intensely focused presence of someone in the process of reading it), you know that it's practically impossible to put down. Stephen King compared the book to an arcade game that keeps you helplessly plugging in quarters round after round, and after reading it herself INTERN can say that that's a fair approximation.
What exactly is Suzanne Collins doing, on a sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph level, that makes this book such a terrifyingly addictive read?
To shed light on this question, INTERN repaired to her secret basement Book Lab, where she soaked a randomly-selected chapter of The Hunger Games in a bath of chemicals designed to reveal the exact function of each sentence.
Oh, and what an exciting experiment it was! Within seconds, the words themselves melted away, leaving only bright colors representing the following things:
Here is what Chapter 12 looks like following the experiment. If you have a copy of The Hunger Games handy, you might wish to read along. If you don't have a copy (or haven't read the book), skip down to the very end of this post for a summary*.
Notice anything interesting? Here's what INTERN sees:
New discoveries prompt internal conflict.
Pale blue sections (in which Katniss is seeing, hearing, tasting things) are often followed by dark blue sections (internal conflict).
Katniss is constantly being forced to question things: is this berry safe or dangerous? Is this information true or false? Is this person a friend or an enemy? Every new input is a cause for internal debate. As a result, there is near-constant tension.
(Almost) every internal or external conflict results in a decision.
Red and dark blue sections (external/internal conflict) are almost always followed by dark green sections (action/decision).
Katniss doesn't idly speculate about how to resolve a conflict—she takes action. Sometimes the action is internal (deciding not to trust Peeta) and sometimes the action is external (flinging away the poisonous berries). Whichever action she takes pushes Katniss further along her path. She's always in motion.
Some decisions result in further conflict.
See the alternating red and green patches on the second page? Here, Katniss encounters an obstacle (thirst), takes an action (asks Haymitch for water), and fails (water doesn't appear). She's forced to make a second decision (keep on searching, even though she's nearly dead of exhaustion). Conflict isn't necessarily resolved in one try—instead, it escalates and gets worse.
Internal narrative is slipped in with the action.
Notice how those little grey patches tend to appear in the middle of light blue ones? In fact, there's only one place in this chapter where an entire paragraph is shaded in grey. That's because the author is doing an expert job of weaving in nuggets of memory, backstory, and "telling" without slowing down the pace of the story.
The chapter ends on an unresolved conflict.
See how the last two sentences are highlighted in red? That's a cliffhanger. Katniss is woken up by a raging forest fire (external obstacle!). Dun-dun-duuunnnnnnn...
You can try this experiment yourself with any book you admire. What is the author DOING at any given moment? What purpose does each sentence achieve? Do any of the patterns suggested by this experiment hold true for other chapters in other books? Which other patterns can you find? What's the visual ratio of description to internal narrative to conflict?
These things are worth studying. Or at least, they're fun to study, if your particular brand of insanity is anything like INTERN's.
Happy experimenting! And don't forget to enter the International Sh*tty First Draft Week contest next week!
*INTERN doesn't want to risk copyright infringement by posting the actual chapter here, but here's a quick summary of what's going on for those of you who don't have a copy of Hunger Games handy:
[2 sentences establishing Katniss’ present position in a treetop]
[1 line dialogue Katniss overhears from treetop]
[2 sentences describing what Katniss sees.]
[internal conflict: Katniss questions Peeta’s motives/integrity]
[action based on internal conflict: Katniss decides not to trust Peeta]
[action: Peeta moves out of earshot, Careers discuss him]
[2 lines overheard dialogue]
[3 short sentences showing Katniss’ internal reaction to said dialogue]
[a little more dialogue]
[action: Peeta returning]
[3 sentences dialogue]
[action: Careers move away, Katniss changes her position in tree.]
[internal conflict: if Peeta really is on the “bad” side, why hasn’t he told the Careers about Katniss’ secret skill?]
[action: birds fall silent and hovercraft appears to take away dead body.]
[action: Katniss comes down from her hiding place in the tree.]
[internal conflict: Katniss knows the cameras are watching, so she has to act “on top of things” and not let any fear or confusion show.]
[action based on internal conflict: Katniss smiles at the camera]
[internal conflict: Katniss remembers her snares—is it too dangerous to check them?]
[action based on internal conflict: Katniss checks the snares and is “rewarded with one fine rabbit."]
[action: Katniss guts and roasts the rabbit.]
[action: Katniss camouflages her pack, eats some rabbit, goes off in search of water.]
[internal conflict: Katniss speculates about what people in the Capitol are making of her and Peeta’s “relationship,” tries to suss out her best plan of attack.]
[action/description: Katniss is getting thirsty, day is getting hot, etc.]
[external conflict: finds berries, but they’re unfamiliar—are they edible? are they a trap?]
[action based on external conflict: flings berries away.]
[action/description: Katniss is becoming exhausted.]
[internal conflict: the need for water is overpowering even Katniss’ fear of the Career pack.]
[action based on conflict: Katniss makes tentative decision to return to the lake in the morning.]
[action/description: Katniss wakes up foggy-headed and in dire straits.]
[external conflict: Katniss will soon die of thirst if she doesn’t find water. She weighs several different possible plans for getting water, but rules each one out. Then she realizes that Haymitch could send her water.]
[action based on conflict: Katniss says “water” in hopes that the cameras will pick it up and Haymitch will send some.]
[external conflict: why isn’t Haymitch sending water? Is he trying to make her suffer? Is there something wrong? etc.]
[action based on conflict: Katniss realizes Haymitch is sending her a message, and decides to keep looking.]
[internal narrative: Katniss recalls years when she watched the Hunger Games on TV, thinks of her little sister Prim watching her on TV this year.]
[action: Katniss falls down out of exhaustion/dehydration]
[internal conflict: Katniss thinks she has “misjudged Haymitch” and that he doesn’t mean to help her after all.]
[action/description: Katniss smells the air, strokes the ground, feels mud, realizes she’s reached water. purifies the water and drinks it.]
[external conflict/cliffhanger: Katniss wakes up to the sound of stampeding feet and the smell of fire.]