Friday, May 14, 2010

Spending Every Emotional Cent

I just finished re-reading two books. And I never re-read. There are too many good books in the world that I haven’t read for me to think about re-reading, and still I re-read these stories.

Why? The two books were The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. If you haven’t read the books (which I have recommended before in this blog), get yourself to the library or the bookstore. The stories are wonderful. The setting is a dystopian future where the government punishes the population for its past rebellion by making some of nation’s children participate in once year Hunger Games—a sort of modern equivalent of the Roman gladiators only with children. The point is to remind the people what awaits them if they ever try to throw off the yoke of the Capitol again. The story has everything you’d expect from a great young adult novel. Action. Suffering. Bravery. Romance.

But all of that is not enough to make me re-read. What brings me back, is the writing. First class, word perfect writing. And in my mind, these books had two strikes against them before I started reading—I am not fond of novels written in present tense, especially first person, present tense. Usually the verbage gets in the way of the story because it’s such a difficult tense to write in, and it ends up drawing attention to itself instead of propelling you into the story. But instead of pushing me away, it drew me right into the story. In this example, 12 year old Prim has been chosen to fight in the Hunger Games and the narrator, Prim’s sister Katniss, can’t bear it.

“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately, allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.
“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”

The immediacy of first person present leaves no distance between you and Katniss—you’re rushing forward with her, sacrificing your own life to save your little sister. In the right hands this point of view and verb tense is a powerful tool.

The second book, Catching Fire, takes up where the first book ends. No spoilers, but let’s just say that things are looking pretty good for Katniss and her family. But we readers are in the hands of a good storyteller, and things aren’t what they seem. If you thought things were bad before, they’re going to get worse. This go-for-broke approach to storytelling is one of the secrets to great novels. You can’t hold anything back. You can’t think, “Hmm, this might be something to save for the next book.” You have to spend every cent of emotional money you have for the novel. Your reader will know if you don’t. Ms. Collins has spent every bit of “cash” she had for each of these books and I can’t wait for the next one Mockingjay because I know she won’t disappoint me. I even have it pre-ordered.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re a Hunger Games fan, I’m totally rooting for Peeta. If you don’t know who he is, you’d better find out soon, Mockingjay comes out in August.


  1. I keep hearing about these books--and I think I need to read them! Thanks for pushing me over the edge--I'm going to the library tonight :)

  2. That is on my library list! I just read 1984 and would prefer a *good* dystopian book for once...

  3. You're the second blogger I've learned of today who's also a pastor's wife. Thanks for your prayers. They mean the world.

  4. The skill of taking a story and weaving it into an incredible experience has something that storytellers have been refining for centuries now. I've always wished I had that kind of skill, but I just don't have the talent. My hat is always off to those who manage it, as well as those who try.

    (@Grace Duke)
    I also just read 1984. It was okay, but I did find it a bit mature for me.

  5. Would you say this book is good for reading out loud? We've been having to re-read certain series, since we're running out of ideas.

  6. David-
    Yep, these definitely could be read aloud. We did Catching Fire that way.

  7. @Andrew McPherson
    Yeah, I did not like it at all. But it was mandatory school reading...

  8. @Grace Duke
    Same here. Heh heh.

  9. I don't like dystopian books much, so I actually haven't read The Hunger Games.

  10. The title "Hunger Games" reminds me of my brothers at the table...after lacrosse practice..

  11. What's with all the 1984 hate? Can't take a bit of grit? WIMPS.

    There's also "Battle Royale", a modern Japanese novel, which has basically the same plot as the Hunger Games, but without the discretion vis a vis the violence.

  12. I just finished reading "The Hunger Games" yesterday. I feel a little put off because they didn't spend every emotional cent. They left me hanging. She didn't solve the whole emotional/love interest muddle and left me very confused. I enjoyed it though. Very fun. Very exciting. Also very sad... Oh well. We have Catching Fire on hold at the library now.