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.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Giver Quartet and the Power of the Written Word

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 first entry, The Giver.

The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry

When Lois Lowry first wrote the Newbery Award winning first book in her quartet, she meant for the book to stand alone. It has a complete arc, an ambiguous but satisfying ending, and a clear message. Subsequent books weren’t really needed in this case.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. Her fans didn’t so much agree.

First they clamoured for sequels that told them what happened to Jonas and Gabe, whom the ending of the first book left dying, but close to the homes of people who could save them. When I first read The Giver as a child, no one was really sure if they would live or if Jonas was maybe just dreaming of their rescue. My theory as a child had always been that the vision was real and Jonas did get them to the village, but that he died of exposure protecting Gabe.

 So Lois Lowry wrote Gathering Blue. And answered none of those questions. Touché, Lois. Touché.

The answers did come later – in Messenger and Son – but Lowry was clearly less interested in writing a series than she was in writing books. Each book in the series more or less stands on its own, following new characters in a new city, somewhere within the remains of the post-apocalyptic world Jonas grew up in. It’s only in Son that the reader finally returns to the old Community of Jonas’s youth and, luckily, the experience as a reader is once again horrifying.

If I had to identify Lowry’s two greatest strengths in her series, it would be those two things – that each book stands somewhat separate from the others, and that at their best, the strongest books in the series have this slow building sense of dread. And those two reasons are why The Giver was meant to be read more than seen.

For a book I’ve loved since childhood, I cannot tell you how not excited I was to hear about when it was finally adapted for film. The stories just don’t lend themselves to the razzle-dazzle, Katniss Everdeen style battle sequences and special effects we currently associate with YA dystopias. Jonas isn’t in a life or death situation. Death, in some sense, is an acceptable outcome for him, since his death would still force the memories he holds to revert back to the Community. It would have been a kind of noble sacrifice. So there are no life-or-death stakes in the book, no point in threatening his family and no emotions.

Let me repeat that. THERE ARE NO EMOTIONS. Well, there are some, but they’re vague approximations of the real things, or they’re new and fragile. They’re not grandiose. No one is threatening anyone. No one is falling in love. Turning this sort of story into a film would require a pretty restrained and sophisticated hand. I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that it would be incredibly hard and the current YA film market was not up to it.

On top of that, while yes, there is an ongoing series, it’s one that kind of eschews the whole notion of a franchise. There are four separate main characters. There are long time lapses between each book. By the end of the series, twelve-year-old Jonas has aged up to his mid-twenties, has kids and has kind of retired from the whole “saving the world” thing. If they wanted to keep Jonas as the focal point, there’s a lot of shifting around that would need to be done to the later books. He doesn’t even make another appearance until Messenger. And if they did do that, the movies would stop feeling like adaptations so much as full-on rewrites.

“But Emily!” you say, “surely you’re being too narrow minded! Surely something about these wonderful books could still make it onto screen!”

And to that I say, yes, it could, but a lot of the books best moments by necessity couldn’t. The series is best suited to the written word, no matter how you look at it. In fact, some of what made it so powerful results from techniques that are only available to the written word.

The first book in the series relies on a reader creating their own idea of what Jonas`s world looks like. We get plenty of details about this stark world, where everyone cuts their hair the same and wears the same clothing. We can tell it`s bleak and empty. But how bleak and empty we know not, until Jonas starts receiving the memories of the past. Startled by what he is experiences, he asks the Giver for an explanation and in return, he hears one of the most powerful lines in literature.

“You’re beginning to see the color red.”

I remember at twelve what a knife to the gut that line was. I’d never noticed that in the whole front half of the book, Lowry never used a single color to describe her characters. Blue eyes were “light” eyes. Nothing more. There isn’t even any black or white or gray. There’s just an absence. The reader is denied color just as fully as Jonas is.

And this is something film could not replicate. Filming the movie in black and white tips you off that something is wrong. Again, the world ISN’T black and white. It’s colorless. The characters lack the ability to understand the contrast. The whole devise relies upon the reader needing to imagine the world on their own. The moment a film maker’s vision intervenes on behalf of the reader, the power of the revelation is dampened.

Oh yeah. This clearly looks normal. This CAN'T be symbolism!

Personally, this is something I love about The Giver. We live at a time where people use movies to substitute for reading. Or where people rely upon films to visualize stories. Sometimes it can be hard to argue with them that the best way to experience the visual aspect of a story isn’t through visual media. To me, The Giver is potent proof that the power of a reader’s imagination is even greater than the power of film.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Writerly News: Masters of the Universe


So the blog has been a bit sparse for updates lately, but for good reason.

Right after I wrote my last post - the one mentioning my course in seriated speculative fiction (oh, how could you forget?) I got a nice surprise in terms of current "life trajectory." My older sister needed some help with her children, due to her husband getting a long distance job. He would be commuting for the next several months, home only on week-ends, and so poor big sis would be all by her lonesome.

EXCEPT SHE WASN'T!!! Why? Well, because instead, yours truly flew to the other side of Canada to be with her. What resulted was a whirlwind trip where I finished my Masters, wiped my nephew's noses, helped my sister move from Montreal to Ottawa and then, to cap it all off, I flew out to Halifax to celebrate Christmas with my brother's family.

So with my past several months amounting to a "who's-who" of Canadian cities, I didn't have much time for blogging. With how limited my free time was, I tended to need to be either working on school assignments, or plugging away at revisions on other manuscripts. I do enjoy keeping this blog, but at the end of the day, I'm a fiction writer and that has to serve as my priority. Also, I figure you're all so used to my erratic update schedule that in some sense, I would "get away with" these blogging transgressions.

Oh and did you notice something up there?

Behold the thesis!
So technically I defended this thesis all the way back in April and this photo is almost a year old, but whatever. I do my Master's in my own order. The point is that I am done! Yes, the day you are waiting for has come. You may all refer to me as "Master and Dark Lord of the seven realms of Children's Literature." I'm pretty sure Chatham stipulated somewhere that this was the official title given to graduates of my discipline.

Obviously, this is an exciting time. I'm thrilled to be done, and yet still close to those I shared my program with. I'm thrilled to have been a part of Chatham. And it also means that now I'm looking forward to whatever comes next. I'm still in eastern Canada, and we'll see how that goes. Maybe there's something exciting for the Little Writer That Could to do here. Like drown in the snow.

What does that mean for this blog? Hopefully more regular updates. And luckily... I still want to do the series I promised you! So stay tuned for those promised posts on seriated speculative fiction. Don't worry. You'll get all the goods from me. You'll be sick of it in no time.