Hello writing community of reddit.
I've had hard time being able to make my first chapter work well, so I had to step away from draft 5 of chapter 1. I decided to analyze Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games (don't run away from this YA because chapter 1 of the book structurally is one of the best out there) to see what made it work and how I can improve my chapter. I thought all of you would like to learn what elements were used and how they made chapter 1 work. And yes, analyzing chapter 1 helped me break through my chapter 1 slump.
The Hunger Games Chapter 1 Analysis
It is no secret that The Hunger Games had become a phenomenon around the world that captivated the hearts of millions of people through the books and films alike. It all started with an idea that turned into a book which then turned into what became the next big thing compared to Twilight and Harry Potter series, and rightfully so. The intense plot is powered by actions of an extraordinary character and allows the reader to feel emotions and react to obstacles along with Katniss herself. Before all of that starts, however, there is a driving force of the first chapter that captivates the reader into turning pages and establishes just enough information to make enough sense. Let’s look at what makes the first chapter of The Hunger Games (THG) so special.
You can open this link to download the first chapter of THG from an official Scholastic website to follow along with this analysis.
There are many elements that make the first chapter of THG work like a well-oiled machine. The first thing that we come to see is the hook. It’s the first introduction to the novel and the story.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 3)
The hook shows us the main character wake up from sleep only to find someone missing on the other side of the bed. It hooks the reader enough to want to learn who the main character is, why the other side of the bed is cold and who was supposed to be on the other side of it. It's isn't elaborate or creative. It gets the point across and intrigues enough to want to continue on reading.
The hook starts a series of questions and answers between the reader and author to establish the writer-reader contract (this deserves an explanation of its own in another post). It allows the author to lay everything out for the reader to determine if the reader would agree to the terms and would want to continue reading the next chapter. That’s what Collins is trying to do in this chapter so eloquently that it doesn’t feel forced. She allows the reader to see what the novel will entail and decide if it’s worth reading. She only has one shot to convince the reader to continue on and she does her best to convince us that our time is worth this book.
If we continue reading the paragraph we get the answer as to why the bed is cold and get introduced to other characters and false conflict.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 3)
Again, we are starting to ask questions even though now we know a little bit more. We would want to find out what is the reaping and why it gives nightmares to the girl. It also establishes what the chapter is going to be about. The reaping is what will drive (not the entire story) this chapter only and would allow the reader the get immersed into the world of THG. I like to call it a false conflict. As we learn later, it generates problems at the end and in this scenario it eventually acts as a catalyst, but it is not the premise of the book. It only drives this chapter forward and yet acts as a conflict. The real conflict and the premise of the novel are THG themselves, but what gets our main character there is a false conflict.
It allows the author to accomplish several important things throughout the entire novel.
– It allows the main character to show us values, goals, the true desire of the heart
– It establishes stakes
– Hides exposition
– Establishes the status quo
All of these elements will be discussed later on. I simply wanted to show that the false conflict is a very important element that will not only allow the author to get to the heart of the story, but allows to skillfully establish and hide important information. It is important that false conflict follows the domino effect and actually causes trouble and moves the story along towards the catalyst. Without reaping and Prim being chosen, Katniss would never have been able to go to THG.
In the next paragraphs we get a little bit of exposition and get to see the backstory of Buttercup – a seemingly unimportant character that will have lots of symbolism later in the books. What Collins accomplishes by introducing Buttercup is she lets the reader learn what Katniss is like as a person.
“… I tried to drown him.”
“The last thing I need is another mouth to feed.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 3)
This makes us think Katniss is cruel and heartless, but we quickly find out that she had no choice. She had to become cruel and heartless to provide for her family. She hid her true self from the world to do what she had to do to protect her loved ones. It speaks volume about her values and establishes her as a character to the reader. We are going to spend an entire novel in her head. It is important for us to know who she is, be able to relate to her and like Katniss, otherwise we won't want to read the book.
Some world building is being masterfully woven as we see Katniss get out of the district to hunt in the woods. This gives Collins an opportunity to not only show us her world but also drives the story forward. Things don’t just happen to Katniss. She actively does things to move the plot forward. She has a clear goal of hunting and she acts on it.
With the goal of hunting we right away see what’s at stake for her.
“…if the officials found out he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 5)
With every goal/conflict there are consequences. Katniss has things to loose. If she gets caught for hunting, she would be executed. If she gets chosen to go to THG, her family will loose a provider. If her sister is chosen, her world will come crushing down. Every conflict needs to have things at stake and/or consequences to move the plot forward.
The reason behind Katniss wanting to hunt and risk herself being hung ties deeply with her values to protect her family and make sure they are taken care of. It might be out of necessity, but Katniss fights to keep her family well instead of succumbing to circumstances.
As we move on, we get more world building and more character development. After all, Collins is trying to convince the reader that her characters are worth to stay for. They are relatable and easy to understand. If the reader is interested enough they will continue reading after the chapter is done instead of putting the book down.
We get to see true Katniss and see inside of her soul a little bit when she talks about the woods and the only person that makes her feel like her true self.
“In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 6)
We get to see the trust they share and the love they have for each other through this paragraph. It allows us to sympathize with Katniss and gets us to like her more.
“I never smile except in the woods …”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 6)
This sentence shows us a status quo moment. This is where Katniss as we know her begins her journey. She will have to overcome her flaws, obstacles and conflicts to change from this point. It also does tie back into he showing her true self. She is herself in the woods. The status quo moment shows us everything before the journey begins and establishes a starting point.
It’s been mentioned often (through various writing tips) that a character would need to come back to the status quo to see how much he/she had changed and to find the true theme of the story. It happens often in books and does not actually have to appear in order to get the same idea of internal change. We do however see Katniss come back into the woods in the second book. A bit delayed, but it is present. She no longer hunts for survival and she has a target painted on her back. The biggest change is how she acts/presents/feels. The topic of change deserves a post of its own one day.
In the next paragraphs we see more world building and backstory until we come to the truest desire of MC’s heart. It is an interesting concept and often ties in with values and motivations, but I do think it is the only thing that can serve as a driving force behind many decisions your MC will make.
“How could I leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 10)
Prim is the closest thing Katniss has. She is the only thing in the world that matters to her. The truest desire of her heart is to keep her sister safe no matter what. The desire to protect Prim would motivate Katniss to have to make a decision when her sister is chosen in the reaping. It's also interesting to note how the fears of Prim being chosen plays out in the story. The exact thing Katniss did not want to happen did happen. Many other works utilize this method of building suspense by introducing fear and actually executing it, raising the stakes higher with each passing action.
As we read on, we get introduced to a false idea of conflict resolution.
“Tonight. After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children have been spared for another year. But at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 10)
This false ending gives us an idea of what the outcome to the conflict might be. It can be a conflict of the entire novel or a false conflict like in this situation. We are told that if all goes well at the reaping Katniss and Prim will go home and celebrate. It gives us a false hope. I’ve checked a few other books to see if they had this element and it surprised me to find that they did.
I don’t know exactly how this element works and why it has become an interesting tool, but it definitely serves a purpose. Many authors whether intentionally or not used it in their work.
We also get a glimpse of foreshadowing about the outcome of the reaping when we are told that families will have to figure out how to survive. We get another glimpse of foreshadowing of what is going to happen to Katniss on page 15.
“… she’s worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 15)
We should be sure by this point that someone is going to THG and it will somehow be Katniss. I should mention that Collins did an interesting job of sending Katniss to THG. Her name did not get chosen. She stepped in for her sister. It was an interesting twist and was less straight forward than Katniss being chosen outright. As you read on, pay attention how Collins takes certain elements/tropes/clichés and twists them in an interesting way. She is also great at utilizing plot as a vehicle for her character to actually make decisions instead of being thrown around, like many novice writers (myself as well) tend to do.
There is a lot more world building and explorations of the characters until we stumble upon a paragraph on page 18.
“The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 18)
This is the premise of the entire novel. Katniss will go to the arena and will compete with tributes. It is interesting to see how the premise is clearly stated and very easily identified. It is also the main conflict of the entire novel. The world building, expressed value/desires, false conflicts and other elements all come down to the juice of the novel, the real deal. And it was clearly stated for the reader to know what they are getting themselves into.
As we continue to read on we understand that there are two oppositions in this story: tributes and the overarching enemy – the Capitol and President Snow. While not actively present in the first chapter, they are mentioned. We need to know who our hero is going to stand against and who as the readers we should not be rooting for.
By this point the reader knows about whom they are going to follow on what kind of journey. They have been told enough to either be invested or disinterested in the story. All of the key elements of the writer-reader contract have been laid out. The reader simply needs to make a decision of whether they would want to continue reading or would like to put the book down.
At the end of reaping, a name is chosen. The one that had the least chance of being picked. The name that will shatter Katniss into small pieces. The truest desire of her heart has been threatened.
“It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
(The Hunger Games. Collins. 20)
It is interesting to see how Collins took Katniss’ fear and turned the notch up. She made sure that the unimaginable happened. Not only is it an interesting twist, but it also shows us a very effective case of character moving the story forward. Things are not just happening to Katniss. She is actively making decisions for better or for worse. I am emphasizing this point again because it is important and many writers forget to let their characters make decisions.
This also solves a false conflict that was present in the chapter. It came to a conclusion and generated a new goal/conflict. Katniss now has to react to her sister being chosen at the reaping. We all know that Katniss volunteers to go instead and the false conflict resolves completely only to be replaced by the actual conflict of the novel. Katniss is going to The Hunger Games.
Collins accomplishes a good amount in this chapter. She introduces us to characters, sets the tone of the novel, tells us who the opposition is, flashes out the characters and gives us just enough information to keep us wanting to learn more.
I hope that this analysis had helped you identify key elements present in THG that made it so special. I’ve learnt a lot by analyzing the chapter and I hope you did, too.
Source: reddit post