Saturday 21 April 2012

Writing like nicotine (or sex)

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942 (Wikipedia)
This sounds like one of those adverts in the back of a newspaper: 'Do you want to know how to write a bestseller?' I did, so I read The Hunger Games with an eye to how it works.

Of course, if I were really dedicated, I'd have read lots of commercial novels and collected the things they all did. But a lot of commercial novels are not very good, and I don't want to spend ages finding out how to write something not very good. They probably use the same tricks, though, as these will keep someone reading even if they recognise the book is not good. The aim is to make the writing like nicotine - even if people know it's really bad for them, they can't stop. I'm not suggesting you write a book that's bad for people, of course. Perhaps that should be, 'make your writing like sex' - once started, hard to stop before the end.

Some of what I found from dissecting The Hunger Games is incredibly obvious, some much less so. You don't need to have read The Hunger Games to understand this.

1. You need a stunning, original premise ('high concept', in publisher speak).

2. You need one or two characters we really care about, but they must not be perfect - we can't identify with perfect people.

3. If you have two central characters and they are not protagonist and antagonist, there must still be points of conflict between them. The conflict can be based on a misunderstanding - it doesn't have to be sustained antipathy - but it must be convincing when it happens and we must not know, as readers, that it's misplaced.

4. Whether or not it's a first person narrative, the point of view must be closely aligned with a character we care about.

5. The protagonist must face an overwhelming challenge that they can't avoid.

6. The protagonist must show a high level of autonomy - they must exert power in the story.

7. The last two look as if they contradict each other - they don't. The best 'can't avoid' is if the protagonist's character compels them to undertake the challenge. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is incapable of letting Primrose be the tribute, so she has to volunteer. Internal compulsion strengthens the character, whereas external compulsion weakens the character.

8. Very important point here: you don't need internal conflict if a strong aspect of the protagonist's character works in the antagonist's favour. So Katniss doesn't need to struggle internally with her decision to volunteer as tribute. Katniss has very little internal conflict - all her hostility is directed at the authorities and (to a lesser degree) the other tributes.

9. Doing away with major internal conflict means your story can move more quickly and simply and doesn't get mired in indecision or non-narrative turmoil.

10. Narrative speed is essential.

11. The structure of the story should be like a Mandelbrot pattern - a fractal pattern that reproduces itself in smaller and smaller versions of itself. So there is a large challenge, which is then broken down into smaller and smaller challenges which are tackled in order and resolved in reverse order - a small challenge is resolved, then there may be another small one set and resolved, before the next largest is resolved. This means that there are narrative challenges on every page - the reader wants to know what will happen and keeps reading, even though the larger challenges take a long time to work through. The largest challenge faced and resolved in The Hunger Games is for Katniss to survive the games.

12. If you want series potential, the overarching challenge must not be resolved. Although Katniss has challenged the authorities, she has not won outright at the end of the book. She has scored a small victory which has antagonised them and alerted them to her as a threat.

13. You need a twist. We can guess Katniss will survive - but there is an aspect to it that we can't guess (and I won't say because it's a spoiler).

14. The style must be lucid and evocative, but not hold up the action. So imagery is concise and striking but relatively simple.

15. You need to draw the scene clearly but have no lingering descriptions that slow the narrative. Description must have a sense of urgency. Most of the description in The Hunger Games is presented as Katniss evaluates the landscape looking for threats or clues - so description IS action. Even in the city, the description serves the survival imperative as she is calculating how to work the system.

16. The Hunger Games uses a lot of very short sentences. But this leads to a jerky, paratactic style that is hard to concentrate on, so add some longer sentences. The longer sentences must not be convoluted, as that takes effort to decode. Don't use lots of subordinate clauses, and certainly don't nest subordinate clauses.

Here's a bit of The Hunger Games (picked at random):

'And that's when I get my first clue to his whereabouts. He couldn't have survived without water. I know that from my first few days here. He must be hidden somewhere near a source. There's the lake, but I find that an unlikely option, since it's so close to the Careers' base camp. A few spring-fed pools. But you'd really be a sitting duck at one of those.'

Chapter 19

See? Lots of very short sentences, but a a longer one - 'There's the lake...' - to break up the staccato rhythm. The longer one is still sequential and follows the train of thought.

This paragraph explains how Katniss chooses which way to go, but it does so by presenting her reasoning as a narrative, showing how one thought leads to another. It's causal, not contemplative, so doesn't feel static. 

Everything in this style is geared towards forwards movement, keeping the reader going. Starting the paragraph with 'And' draws the reader in and makes a firm link with the preceding paragraph. There is no pause between paragraphs. The opening sentence sets up the expectation for the rest of the paragraph - we know we're going to find out where Katniss will look for Peeta and want to read the paragraph to have that question answered. We're back with the Mandelbrot pattern: the larger challenge for the paragraph is find out where to look for Peeta; the smaller challenges are What will he need? Where will there be water? What's wrong with this source of water? What's the next source? What's wrong with that? Answering those leads to an area to start searching, and moves the story on. It's never static, even when Katniss is hiding and waiting or standing and thinking.

17. Using the present tense makes it easy to make the action immediate and compelling. A first-person narrator using the past tense has obviously survived the traumas of the narrative, so that reduces the tension slightly. Some readers hate the present tense, though, so be aware that it's rather a high-risk choice.

18. You need strong supporting characters drawn with a broad brush - don't waste time on developing their subtleties, but it must be easy to distinguish between them and they must each serve a clear purpose.

19. If you move from one major setting to another (from the district to the arena, in The Hunger Games), have enough reference back to the first setting and its characters to keep it relevant. Katniss thinks of Primrose, which reinforces why she is in the arena. The compulsion to volunteer is given validity and is made convincing because Katniss thinks about her later. The initial compulsion is carried on - she has to survive for Primrose's sake, so there is continuity to her motivation.

20. Tie up loose ends, but if you want a sequel leave more than one tantalising possibility hanging. There are major issues that are not resolved at the end of The Hunger Games, and those will make people buy book 2. The issues specific to the book must be completed, though, so that readers are not frustrated. So make your book like sex with someone you want to have sex with again - hold back some of your tricks, but make it clear you have some tricks.

OK, this blog is not about how to write, so that was a bit of a digression. You need to go to Nicola Morgan if you want to know how to write. I didn't apply for a visa before straying into her territory, so I hope I'm not going to be extraordinarily extradited now.... Back to the usual stuff next time!

18 June: Such was the response to this post that I have started a whole new blog for book criticism: Book Vivisection.