Thursday, February 18, 2010

Think Like a Writer (1)

I am working on a Directed Creative Writing Project with a professor this semester, writing a dystopian YA (maybe) novel. Let me tell you, I had NO idea how HARD writing dystopian fiction is! It's essentially a subgenre of science fiction, which is some respects could be harder than writing fantasy, because while in fantasy you can introduce elements into your story and explain their existence with the different "rules" of that fantasy world, science fiction is a reimagining of our world as we know it, and thus you have to take into consideration our past, present, and this future that you're describing. You must be aware of the "ripple effect" (which actually doesn't just go for sci-fi), in that everything you introduce to your dystopian world has to be logically sound according to the rules of our world, and actually probable. And, perhaps most importantly, you must express this world, this genre, the fact that this story is a possible future for our world, all in the first few pages, or else the reader will be confused and will not be as immersed in the story as you want to be.

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!


  1. I am definitely a fan of this feature, it's awesome! Collins really did amazing things with those first few paragraphs. Good luck with your creative writing project, that sounds amazing and I am super jealous!

  2. I love this! It's all so well written (your explanations!) and I can't wait for more. I just began this book and I felt the same way! I really think she did an amazing job with it and so far, I'm having a hard time not reading this book (I have homework!)

  3. Take your professor and lock him up in a closet. A college writing professor that actually ENCOURAGES genre writing? And YA to boot? OMFG KEEPER! Such a rarity at the college level. And I'm not being facetious.

    Writing any fiction is hard. Fantasy comes with its own pratfalls. While creating a whole new world where you can start from scratch may sound easy, it still has to follow its own science, rules, society. You need to be able to explain the whats, whys whens wheres and hows of EVERYTHING that's going on without it all being on the page. Real world thinking still applies to fantasy worlds. Those same butterfly effects that exist in dystopian also exist in fantasy.

    Not to belittle dystopian at all. Every genre has their pitfalls where you want to rip your hair out just thinking about writing it.

    Is it obvious I'm a fantasy writer?

    Great segment, by the way. It's a good way to hone your craft!

  4. Ooh, this is such a great feature! I'm loving how you digest the paragraphs/sentences. I'll be looking forward for more of this feature. I love analyzing! :)

  5. Great analysis Steph, and perfect choice! Man, Suzanne Collins gives me hives she's so amazing!!!

  6. Good luck with your new writing project! I'm already loving this new meme. :]

  7. I really enjoyed this analysis of the first few sentences of The Hunger Games. I do not analyze while reading, so I have never stopped to consider the meaning behind each word, but you have shown me that it can be a worthwhile activity. I hope you continue to share your analysis with us!

  8. *blink*

    I knew you were smart but DANG. xD that was some analytical stuff. xD I would try That would not be pretty.

  9. Wow, I LOVE this feature! I hope you do more posts like this, I loved reading your breakdown on everything. Very eye-opening and now I'm even more impressed by Collins.

    Dystopian is one of my fave subgenres, but I can see why it would be difficult to write. Good luck with your novel :)

  10. I love this post. It's really interesting and I love your analysis.

  11. Brilliant post. This is certain to help in the understanding of how a fantasy/ dystopia/ sci-fi book introduces us to the world.

  12. omg I love this new feature. Nice breakdown of the opening for Hunger Games. lol I haven't done close reading analysis for prose writing stuff since I walked away from my English Major, but this reminded me of how fun it can be if I'm doing it for a work I enjoy. =D

  13. I loved this book and the writing, but I never stopped to analyze why. Excellent post, and I agree on all counts!

  14. Very cool. I love going back and re-reading sections to dissect what an author was doing. I never noticed these things when I read Hunger Games, but they set a feeling even if we don't consciously think of them. It takes a lot of skill to do that.

  15. Very cool. I love going back and re-reading sections to dissect what an author was doing. I never noticed these things when I read Hunger Games, but they set a feeling even if we don't consciously think of them. It takes a lot of skill to do that.

  16. OMG too awesome! Thank you for this! :D I'll be waiting for more ;)

  17. I'm really glad you wrote this! Not only is it a really original concept, but it definitely helps some of the younger readers at your site develop better analysis and critical thinking skills when it comes to literature. I think THE HUNGER GAMES just goes to show that there are more complex YA books out there that should be treated with a little more respect :) I'm definitely looking forward to more!


  18. What a great feature! I think whether we are readers or writers, it's interesting to stop and take the time to think about what we read, how it's written and what it tells us. I'll be looking forward to the next posts like this!

  19. That was executed so well. I like your analysis a lot. You were spot on, especially about the opening lines. Good luck with your dystopian! How far along is it?

  20. You did a magnificent job with this post! I love it, and I will be looking for more "Think Like a Writer" posts.


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