Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: The Hunger Games

So if you’ll recall, I vowed to read the opening chapters of twenty novels I loved, and see what I could glean from them.  As my problem is that I tend towards doling out too much worldbuilding in my novel starts, which short-circuits the compelling characterization.  So how did other people with complex worlds parse out the knowledge so the reader wasn’t put off by the density?

What I suspected I’d find was this:

By the end of the third paragraph, we’d know why this character was doing whatever they were up to in their first chapter, and what their emotional drive was.

I know that because Cassie Alexander had told me that this was something agents looked for – that quick jump towards answering the reader’s eternal question, “Who is this putz, and why am I interested in what they’re doing?”  I also suspected I’d find that the flashiest parts of the book would often not be in the opening chapters – which is to say that the parts of the world that we, as readers, tend to think of as the vital parts of the universe don’t show up until well after we’d been grabbed via other reasons.

(For example, Hogwarts is an essential part of the Harry Potter mythology, but I’m willing to bet we don’t learn about what it is until we’re a couple of chapters in.)

So that’s what I assumed.

What did I find?  I’ll tell you as we go through, book by book.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. 

Opening Sentence: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist?  Emotionally, we discover it by the end of the first paragraph: her sister Prim is having nightmares about the Reaping, and so has gone to sleep with her mother.

The fascinating thing about the opening chapter of the Hunger Games is that it is very long.  It was 237 pages long on my Kindle, which is probably close to twenty-five pages on a normal book.  And, in terms of plot, not much happens: Katniss gets up, hunts in the woods with her friend Gale, trades the food in for goods, waits for the Reaping.  The stakes are surprisingly low to start, aside from this nagging question of the Reaping.

But what sells this is two really good techniques that keep the book going.  The first is the constant refrain of the Reaping.  Prim has left a Reaping gift for her sister.  The mining town is closed due to the Reaping.  Gale and Katniss consider leaving before the Reaping starts.  Collins milks a lot of tension out of us not knowing what the Reaping is, yet having an entire culture warped around it…

… yet the other thing Collins does with supreme power is showing the abundance of tiny humiliations that come with living under an oppressive and not-particularly-efficient government: the electrified fence around the woods so the citizens can’t hunt for food, the way she has to hide her bow (a weapon) in the woods so they can’t take it from her, the way her father would have been executed for the public square if they’d known he’d made it, the way her fellow citizens turn a blind eye at her hunting because it benefits them, but that they might turn her in if it saved their ass.  There is a constant undercurrent of all the ways the Capitol is different and yet hostile, from the way Gale mocks the Capitol accent to the way they’re dreading the pretend celebration they have to have afterwards.

In many ways, what Katniss is doing is not particularly interesting.  But the way Collins keeps frontloading all the accurate details of life in a police state draw you through, because she’s not just hunting, she’s quietly pressing up against all the rules.  Katniss is not overly affected by this – she’s too beaten down to question – but as a reader, you keep thinking, Jesus, this poor kid.

And hey, do you remember the mayor’s daughter?  I sure didn’t.  But she shows up in a pretty dress, just in case she’s chosen, and Gale snaps at her because she has fewer tickets and almost certainly won’t get chosen.  The mayor’s daughter is solely there to showcase how rich people have fewer entries into the Reaping, whereas Gale and Katniss have had to take a lot of entries in order to save their families.  I’d forgotten all about the mayor’s daughter, and I don’t think she shows up again, but this random encounter does a good job at explaining how the system works without degenerating into infodump territory.

(Plus, in traditional Collins strength, Katniss immediately notes that the system is designed to get District 12’s rich fighting with the poor, highlighting the class distinctions that Collins lavishes.)

And here’s the big question: The Hunger Games is notorious for being about a bunch of teenaged kids thrown into a huge televised game show to kill each other.  Out of 237 iPhone-sized pages, what point do you think that information appears?  Page 3?  Page 40?  Page 150?

No.  That piece of information does not appear until page 216.  We literally don’t know what this Reaping thing is about until this longish chapter’s all but over.

And that works.

Thing is, if Collins had put that information up-front, we wouldn’t have believed it.  It would have seemed implausible; why would a government do something so ridiculously unfair?  But by showing us a hundred tiny oppressions first, she lays the foundation for us to believe the big oppression – one that only shows up almost 3,700 words into the book – and gives us an undeniable hook to lead into whatever Chapter 2 is.

It’s not a technique that everyone can use, but The Hunger Games is almost entirely about class warfare and envy.  Katniss has it rough because someone has made it rough for her, the kind of world where the government is basically hoping you’ll inconvenience them so they can get rid of you… and no, she’s not much of a hero at this point.  She’s a survivor.  She’s literally not doing anything interesting beyond trying to eke out a living, and as such that opening chapter is not about Katniss, but about what it’s like to live in that town.

We get enough of Katniss that we know who she is.  But it’s not character-driven; it’s setting-driven.  Which is ridiculously hard to pull off.

4 Comments

  1. mightydoll
    Feb 25, 2014

    She totally shows up again. She gives Katniss the Mockingjay pin, for starters…

  2. Celendra
    Feb 25, 2014

    I know I’m probably not the first to let you know, but the mayor’s daughter does actually come back in to play. She’s the one who gives Katniss the Mockingjay pin, in the books. There’s a strong implication, from what I can remember, that she has rebellious sympathies. It’s also during a visit with her in Catching Fire that Katniss sees the first news reports (because only the mayor really gets to see the news in District 12) that there are uprisings.

    Love the analysis of character driven vs. setting driven. I’ll be on the lookout for that!

  3. Abby Goldsmith
    Feb 26, 2014

    Thanks for this analysis. I’m also struggling to learn what makes a blow-away opening. I notice that it seems easier with first person POV books such as The Hunger Games. But it’s interesting to note that agents want to see the protag’s emotional motivation ASAP. Also interesting that her long first chapter dances around the question of What Is the Reaping?

  4. Amber
    Feb 26, 2014

    This is a wonderful analysis. It’s very nice to think about it in a different way after reading all of the novels and watching the movies. It really is amazing how effectively she captures the reader’s attention, I think I finished the first novel in a couple of days.

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