My professor encouraged me to look at the beginnings of successful sci-fi novels, and I thought it would be a neat idea to turn it into a meme of sorts. In Think Like a Writer, I examine the first few paragraphs/pages that I think work extremely well in setting up the setting, story, genre, characters, and conflict. After all, this isn't just a reading blog, but also a writing one.
Of all YA dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is probably the best and most famous (and rightfully so). The concept may in fact have been used before in books such as Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, but let's take a look at the first few pages of The Hunger Games to see how amazingly well Collins sets up this dystopian world now, shall we?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
Well, stop right there. Assuming that the reader knows this is YA, from this one sentence alone, we are already given the sense that Collins is writing about a world that is different from ours. After all, how many teenagers do we know share their beds with someone else?
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.
No need to write "my sister Prim," as Collins is aware that that is a fact that she can easily give us in less "telling" terms. The roughness of the mattress suggests a struggling setting, and calls to our minds related images such as cottages, dirt floors, and similarly rough canvas clothing. All with just three simple, yet expertly placed, words.
Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Here, our minds linger on the word "reaping." What is it? All we know right now is that it's something that gives Prim nightmares. Thus establishes its ominousness.
In the first paragraph alone, we get a sense of the setting (an illuxurious world), the main character's living arrangements and essential surface facts (with her family, so most likely not an adult), and a potential social conflict (the reaping). All of these we can glean just from the first paragraph, so much more information, and all just from the careful selection of words on Collins' part. Amazed yet? Let's continue.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Here we get confirmation of Prim's sibling status, plus how the narrator feels about her. We also get the idea that the father is, for some reason, not in the picture. And the last two sentences about the narrator's mother reinforces the idea we got from the first paragraph that this is a different world than many of us know, and that this family has fallen on hard times.
Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the world's ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower.
Already we have had several mentions of flora: primroses, squash, and buttercups. This first-hand knowledge of wildlife is not something most readers will have, and further establishes this story's world as lower-class, perhaps, located in a place where wildlife knowledge is common even to young people.
He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser, even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.
Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.
I've often wondered why this paragraph about the cat is necessary, but I think I come to the conclusion that it's to show us Katniss' nature without explicitly telling us so. The difference in Katniss and Prim's reactions to the mangy cat tells us a lot about the two of them. It establishes Katniss as the practical "breadwinner" of the household, and Prim as her opposite, her "foil," the character that brings out Katniss' nature for us readers. Also, mice and rats are apparently problems in this world.
I'm going to stop there, because that took a lot more time and energy than I had thought. But you get the picture. This is only a little more than the first page of the first chapter of The Hunger Games, and it packs an incredible amount of information in such a small space. This kind of non-explanatory, "everything is off but in a way that makes sense" feeling is so important in YA sci-fi/fantasy and is one of the reasons that distinguish an average book from an exceptional one. That's all for now; more fun next time!