Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Hunger Games and the rule of “Show, Don’t tell”

Welcome to my series on speculative fiction! For it, I will be focusing on three different series of books, highlighting three different lessons that readers (and writers) can learn from some of the best science fiction writers in the business. Since whole series are taken into account, I won’t be focusing much on plots, but rather on what unique lesson we can learn from each series as a whole. Also, beware of spoilers, and enjoy the second entry, The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

To begin with, a disclaimer: I love The Hunger Games. I’ve brought the books up frequently on this blog because I love them so much, especially the first. I love Katniss. I love Peeta. When I first read the series, I was just beginning to come out of a phase where I hardly read anything for pleasure. I’d been too swamped down by school reading and it had sucked the joy out of the written word for me for a time. The Hunger Games was an important part of breaking that cycle and for that, I will always love these books.

I say this because the point of this blog post is basically to give the third book of the series, Mockingjay, a whole lot of crap.

The thing is, whatever I accuse The Hunger Games of, I think Suzanne Collins and her books can take it. They’re good and they’re wildly successful. Nothing I say is going to hurt them, but possibly there are some good pieces of constructive criticism I can offer that might point to where the strengths and weaknesses of the series are, because they definitely speak to common issues that plague most writers and so a great deal of fiction.

To begin, the rule of “show, don’t tell.”

There are a few “writing rules” that get passed around in the community. Some have catchy little names like “murder your darlings.” Others are more to the point like “cut your adverbs.” Both of those rules apply during the editing stage of writing, and so you rarely think about them in a first draft. But if there’s one “rule” that is necessary to think about at every stage of the writing process, it’s “show, don’t tell.”

This “rule” is essentially a reminder that readers don’t want to be “told” something, but rather, “shown” it. What is meant by that? Let’s take the first novel in the Hunger Games series as an example. Katniss spends the first half of the book confused as to what Peeta’s motives are and why he is being kind towards her. Most of his kindness she misinterprets as somehow self interested – he’s only kind to Haymitch because he wants favoritism. He’s only kind to her to weaken her resolve. However, the reader is able to watch his actions and reinterpret them. By the time Katniss realizes his sincerity, Suzanne Collins has already given us pages and pages of compelling evidence that Peeta is kind and good and worth saving.

One of the reasons this is such a powerful example of “showing” rather than “telling” is because Collins is using the shown aspect of the story to undermine what is being said explicitly by her narrator, Katniss. Ultimately, the things that we are “shown” turn out to be truer than what was explicitly stated.

For another example, look at the way Collins describes the action in the first book. Every horror Katniss experiences, the reader follows along in step. She doesn’t say things like “I hallucinated because of the trackerjacker venom” but rather, we get to watch her hallucinations in real time. We watch her lose her hearing in her ear. We watch a fire ball explode onto her jacket. Over and over again, the reader is right next to her as horrible things happen to her.

And this is incredibly important to the story. Katniss is not a particularly “likable” person. She’s prickly and short tempered. She holds people at a distance. She’s bad at expressing feelings other than annoyance. But she is resilient. That resilience is incredibly compelling, and as a reader, we feel it every time she pulls herself through another horrific tragedy. Despite her sour disposition, it’s so hard not to empathize with her and root for her. Because haven’t we all felt that way? Put upon and beaten down, but determined to still keep going? It’s a situation we yearn to identify with, because at those moments, we are our best selves. And for all Katniss’s weaknesses, she is someone who keeps fighting no matter the cost.

But something unfortunate happens in the third and final book in the series, and I think it’s one of the biggest weaknesses the entire trilogy has. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the final book. I’ll list a few potential problems:

1) The pacing felt so slow. It took forever for anything to actually happen.
2) The story felt kind of dark and pointless. Too many people died.
3) Katniss seemed like she’d just kind of given up. This isn’t the Katniss I loved.

These were all things I complained about too in one form or another, but I don’t think any of them is the problem. As I reread the book this past semester, I realized something. First, the pacing isn’t that bad. There actually is quite a lot going on in the book. It just doesn’t make an impact. Second, most of the deaths do make sense from a story telling perspective. They just don’t resonate. Third, Katniss is still fighting the capitol. She has her moments of doubt, but they aren’t that extreme, when you consider everything she’s going through. But for some reason, she just feels whiney.

In fact, all of these issues have the same root cause: Collins, who so excelled in showing rather than telling in the first book, forgot to SHOW us what everything was like any more.

Think again about the scene with the trackerjackers in the first book. The reader spends a long time with Katniss after the wasps sting her. She stumbles around, grabs arrows, sees a strange vision of Peeta, starts hallucinating out of control and, by the time she finally collapses, is convinced ants are digging through her eyes and she’s landed in a pile of bubbles. It is trippy as Pink Elephants on Parade. Similarly, when Rue dies, we watch her sing, decorate the body, pay tribute to District Eleven, go through the motions of staying alive and then snap in shock when she realizes she also killed Marvel that day.

Now let’s look at some transitions from the third book.

1) Katniss finds out District 12 has been bombed! Her reaction is – never mind, fade to black. We’ll start the third book a month later when she’s had time to process.
2) Katniss is terrible in front of the camera! We can tell because... because... because Collins says she is.
3) Peeta lunges at Katniss! Her reaction is – hey look! She’s waking up in the hospital a while later! We’ll talk about the strangulation with distance now.
4) Katniss is shot in Disctrict 2! Her reaction is – whoops, nope! We’re back at the hospital. Glad that’s over.
5) PRIM BLEW UP IN FRONT OF KATNISS! This must merit an intense reaction! This must mean – wait? We’re fading to black again? You mean we aren’t going to be with Katniss in the first minutes, then hours after Prim’s death?

Does this look at all like a pattern? In some books, this might not have been a problem. Some books thrive on emotional distance and making the horrific seem trivial by making it seem small. But that was never the angle of The Hunger Games. Our empathy for Katniss is largely derived by how real and immediate her danger feels. But over and over again in the third book, the audience is being kept out of her most traumatic moments.

Remember how in the first book, you wanted to cry for poor Katniss when they said she won the games, but at the sight of Peeta being taken away in a hovercraft she beat against the doors trying to get to him? Remember how she almost passed out from dehydration? For every emotional and physical trauma she suffered, we were there right with her.

The trauma is still there. Collins is still telling us that Katniss has been strangled and shot and devastated. But we’re not there with her through crucial points in those events. One or two “fade to black” moments wouldn’t have been so bad, but there are several. Any time the story got messy, Suzanne Collins backed us up out of the deep, immersed perspective of Katniss’s immediate reactions to her surroundings.

Now, you’ll notice that one of my observations was that the third book seemed dark, and my suggestions are, on some level, to actually make it darker. To show the pain. But I do think it would have helped, because it would have made it so the darker parts of the story didn’t seem needless. If we had been made to feel the pins Katniss walked on, we would have been glad to walk with her. We would have never told her she was complaining too much. We would have reached out to comfort her when her sister died. And at the end, when she finally finds the will to move past that grief, the relief would have been all the sweeter.

Again, I think the whole series is wonderful. There’s so much I could point to that Collins did well. And the ending is dark. I think perhaps she wanted to spare us from it. But ultimately, the honesty she showed before about Katniss’s pain was what we needed then. We needed to be there with her and feel the weight of just what she lost.

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