A lot of times when you read young adult fiction, the author withholds pertinent bits of information to keep the tension high.  Take HARRY POTTER for example.  You don’t really learn all the important details about the night Harry’s parents were killed until book five!  In TWILIGHT, we don’t really start getting the dish on what it means to be a vampire in Washington state until 2/5 of the way through the book and you don’t discover how a human is turned until 4/5 of the way.  I’m not talking here about legitimate plot turns; I’m talking about something one of the characters in the book knows and really should be revealing.  You bet I’m going to keep reading to find out what Dumbledore knows or what Edward is hiding, but you can also bet that I know I’m being strung along.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins doesn’t have to string you along.  The author came up with a premise so interesting and compelling that she didn’t need to withhold anything.  It’s all right there in chapter one.  How the lottery system works.  What the Hunger Games are.  By the end of chapter two, we know who the tributes are.  No secrets.  No twists.  Because she doesn’t need it.

The characters aren’t unpredictable, either.  We know that Katniss is good with a bow and arrow and good in the woods and we know why.  We know Peeta is sly and smart.  Heck, we even know that Rue is “very hard to catch”.  Maybe a bit of an understatement, but still, not a secret. Again, the author doesn’t need hold stuff back.  The Hunger Games, by their very nature, are going to be unpredictable.  The characters don’t need to be.

This is a great lesson for me as a writer.  Sometimes I like do what I call “over-decorate” my plots.  What I’ve got going on doesn’t seem interesting enough, so I invent some secret parentage or unknown half-sister or weird talent to dress up a dry plot.  Or–worse yet–I have to invent some complicated reason why my character is doing what I need her to do to further the plot (No, really…she goes to this experimental school that takes yearly trips to the North Pole.  Nobody cares how dangerous it is because it’s such a good learning experience.  And, no, she doesn’t know her dad disappeared while in the North Pole; she thought he died in a diving accident in the Florida Keys.  But when she finds that pair of spectacles lying in a snow drift, they seem familiar.  She doesn’t know why.  But she holds on to them anyway.  And they’re the key to everything!  Really.).  Come up with a simple, compelling premise and you can leave out all the decorations.

Here’s another thing: Ms. Collins has made the stakes so high that she doesn’t need any more tension.  What stakes are higher than a life and death battle?  Why would you need to ramp up tension after that?  It’s part of her world-building and the reader accepts the horror of it.  The Hunger Games become the antagonist of the story.  It’s brilliant, really.  We don’t need a mustache-twirling bad guy.  The government, and the Games they promote, force children to fight to the death. Two of those kids, Katniss and Peeta, we know and like.  But they can’t both survive and that’s a fantastic conundrum through a huge portion of this book.

So, the lesson I learned about story-telling from THE HUNGER GAMES?  Come up with a clean, simple plot, create some strong, likable characters, ramp up the stakes and voila!  Literary magic.  Easy as calculus.

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