book by Suzanne Collins
annotation by Kate Maruyama
The premise of Annotation Nation is that every book we read holds something useful for us as writers. The Hunger Games was no exception. I took the excuse that I’m working on a middle grade fiction book to delve into the best selling YA, but it was a thin excuse (my book is reality and history based). Then I used the fact that I need to take my twelve year old to the movie, so I’d better read it first. Then the fact that most adults I talk to who’ve read it say “OhmyGod” and roll their eyes in bliss at the mention of the book.
Long and short, I gobbled up all three books within the space of two weeks and went into mourning for the series passing in a way I haven’t experienced since I was fifteen. But you can get reviews of The Hunger Games anywhere online now. The question for an annotation is: How does the author do what she does and what makes it work?
Hopped up on caffeine and talking about this series with my friend and AN partner, Diane Sherlock, I realized one could probably write a dissertation on this series, it would of course go off into speculative fiction, dystopian futures, allegory, etc. But for the sake of keeping the annotation at least readable, I’m going to deal with mechanics.
Suzanne Collins gives us a fully realized world, the scope of which is limited due to its being a totalitarian state with controlled information—our view of this world grows, with our heroine’s, over the course of the books, but in bite-sized chunks. The fully-realized world of District 12 includes, textures, smells, structures, wildlife, diet (and lack thereof), rules, and is seen through the eyes and told in the strong voice of our heroine, Katniss.
Katniss isn’t interesting because she’s the sparkling heroine of a bestselling series, but because she is very human in her petty desires, foolish choices, and lack of expertise. Collins plants us firmly in a real person who knows her inadequacies, constantly misreads situations and people and, soon after making rash decisions, realizes the trouble she manages to get herself into. The rawness and suddenness of Katniss’s realizations not only make her interesting, but keep the reader completely aligned with her throughout the story, enabling the trove of surprises Collins’ has up her sleeve to remain surprising.
Throughout the story, which follows a typical hero’s journey, and in which we expect a proper hero to be built—Katniss is learning, but she will achieve greatness, right?–but Collins keeps her human. Her heroism is accidental. In the sequels, her rise to being a political player are accidental as well and she realizes she’s being built into something that she’s not. Her awareness of her shortcomings are brought out through her admiration of another character (left nameless to keep that first read of the first book entertaining), whom she knows is a truly good person with only heroic motives. Katniss’s understanding that her choices are often selfish or self-saving humble her at the hands of her noble friend. And this awareness keeps us, as readers, completely in her court. If she were the superhero who went off to save the world, we might not be so fully aligned.
Collins also has a unique knack for subverting expectation and it is this talent that makes The Hunger Games series so readable. She frequently uses the old YA trick of making the last line of a chapter a cliffhanger, “She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body.” (232) “The ants bore into my eyes and I black out.” (194) This trick gets almost comical in the two sequels with that last line zing so pronounced, but remains artful nonetheless as each zing is supremely original and completely subverts the expectations Katniss had in the prior paragraphs.
Where Collins really excels is in the actual surprises of plot. I’m a reader/filmviewer who tends to spoil my own fun by figuring out the rest of a plot halfway through any book/movie. But in The Hunger Games, which seems as if it should be formulaic and predictable–every moment you think you’ve figured out the plot and which way it will turn, the author changes loyalties, expectations, and the game itself, dodging and weaving so that you keep turning the pages, following her lead, guessing where it will go next. And, despite these tricks and turns, the reader never feels betrayed. So often stories take so many twists to baffle the reader that the author loses our trust. But in this book, each plot turn is in accordance with the characters and the world Collins has created for us. The moment you ask, “How could they?” a part of you answers, “but of course.” For it seems no other way would have worked.
It doesn’t hurt Collins’ YA audience that she has a flair for describing fashion and food and the bedazzling world of the capitol. The rich description creates a sense of wonder and fascination, but elicits disgust from our heroine, accustomed to near-starvation conditions in her poor district. My inner teenager was completely sated by clever futuristic costumes, described down to their concept and execution, by rich, unending food and our heroine’s need to eat up against starving in the games, and by complete makeovers. We’re allowed to revel in the rich world and its trappings, because, with Katniss, we are also allowed to feel superior to such frippery. Deftly handled.
As writers, we so often fall into patterns. I adore it when my characters lead me in an unexpected direction, but so often, I’m trying to force plot and expectations onto them that they become clumsy and plodding. Often I have to delete pages on pages when things get predictable. I think that if we listen to our characters and, when at a plot crossroads, ask if perhaps we should bang a left instead of continuing straight, we may find ourselves in territory new not only to our readers, but to ourselves. We can’t go into our prose and inject chapter cliffhangers—particularly in grownup books, and we can’t wedge in fashion knowledge and sumptuous meals if they aren’t already innate in our knowledge (Collins claims to have been fascinated with fashion as a teen), and we may not even have a calling to writing a dystopian future. But Collins has other lessons for writers to learn.
Dystopian future is neither my calling, nor my province, I leave that realm for other, more suited, friend and relative writers (Kit Reed, Nicole Sconiers) to carry out. After all, at least according to NPR, it looks like there’s a market.
But Collins has much to teach us as far as character, realm (owning it, no matter where or when it is) and plotting. If we can think of each book–no matter how reality based– as its own world, if we can make its mythology solid and its characters true and human, we can reap the benefits of the tools laid out for us in this extremely popular YA novel.