Red blue red blue yellow red blue red blue yellow green ____ blue
You’ve already filled in the blanks in your mind, haven’t you?
That’s because we recognize patterns. And, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we like structure. Everyone appreciates things that are reliably consistent. We appreciate that we don’t float up and hit our head on the ceiling when we get out of bed; the laws of gravity assure us that we will be able to walk with our feet planted firmly on the floor. We trust the structure of a chair when we sit in it, and appreciate the fact that we don’t crash through and end up with our backside on the ground.
We appreciate the fact that our shampoo will clean our hair and we expect that the plumbing in our homes will provide us with clean, safe water. In fact, when we’re at home, we should be appreciating the function of structure every second. If it weren’t for solid workmanship and the use of quality products, with codes followed, our home could be a deathtrap. We need support beams installed properly. We need safe wiring, without old and new wires twisted together, and no live wires left hanging loose in a wall.
We need a foundation that’s going to hold the house up and not let it sink into the ground.
When you wait for a bus, you expect it to follow the schedule and be on time, don’t you? Okay … reasonably on time. And if it isn’t, you’ll complain, right? Because you have an expectation of structure.
Structure is a very important part of our lives. It’s reliable structure that enables us to complete most of the tasks we face in our day, yet in spite of our reliance on structure, when it comes to writing, many newcomers will shun the idea of structure in the novel.
Imagine you had been dating someone for a few months. You’d been swept up in the initial euphoria. Every fleeting second is spent thinking about them. You send a text or email just to say hi. Every moment possible is invested in dates and being apart for as much as one evening seems impossible. You’re counting the minutes until you can see your special someone again.
Now, imagine that your special someone stops returning your texts. Stops emailing you back. Doesn’t answer their phone.
Their Facebook account shows nothing new on their timeline.
One day passes. Then two days pass by. And three.
What would you be thinking?
Better still, consider a new parent. In those early days, sleep is often scarce between the frequent demands for changing and feeding. As the baby grows, the length of time between demands increases.
If you’d spent the last few months getting up twice a night to feed or change the baby, and suddenly woke with a start, realized you’d been in bed for seven hours straight, and hadn’t heard the baby cry, what would your initial response be?
Probably fear, or panic. Most people in that situation would rush to the nursery to make sure everything was okay.
As human beings, we’re conditioned by structure. Structure forms the basis of our expectations, and our dependencies.
When aspiring writers decide to start their debut novel, structure is often the last thing they’re thinking about. In fact, many go so far as to snub the idea of using a structure for their manuscript. They think it makes a work predictable, boring, unoriginal. And it can, but that is just one side of the story.
The problem is that, whether the writer wants to admit they’re conditioned by structure in their lives or not, readers are conditioned this way. And as a result, readers have expectations. They may not always be able to vocalize them, but they do exist, and ignoring the expectations readers have undermines the ability to sell a manuscript or have it reach its full potential audience.
One of the most popular works a decade ago was The Hunger Games. For the purposes of analyzing structure, I’m referring to the movie version of the story; that way, it’s possible for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story to access the movie on Netflix or to rent it, and it will only take a few hours to follow the structural analysis.
The Hunger Games is a typical example of a story that follows a classic quest structure. The quest structure is one that’s existed in storytelling for thousands of years, and can be found in stories such as Homer’s Odyssey and tales of Greek mythology.
Setting the Goal
The first step in a quest is to set the goal. Establishing the goal for the character defines the purpose of the story. In The Hunger Games, the opening explains what the games are. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we see contrasting views of how the games are seen. The Haves view the game as entertainment, while the Have Nots view the games as a death sentence, and it’s a terror that looms over them day to day.
The way the Have Nots view the games is seen through Prim’s nightmare and her terror at the thought of the Reaping – when the contestants for the games will be chosen.
Establishing the Present Reality
One of the things it’s important to do early on is establish the typical day-to-day existence for the protagonist. In The Hunger Games we see Katniss as the caretaker in her family. She is poor. Her family is poor. They live in a simple shelter without running water. She’s a rule-breaker. She goes out of bounds and hunts, but she does what she has to do to survive. She takes charge and reassures her younger sister while commanding her mother.
In a quest story, the protagonist usually has special powers that will help them on their journey and enable them to complete their quest. By the four-minute mark, we’ve learned that Katniss can hunt. She knows how to use a bow and she knows how to tell how strong the wind is so that she can adjust her aim.
It’s common for the hero in a quest story to be tempted to abandon their quest or reject their calling. In The Hunger Games, before Katniss knows what will happen at The Reaping she talks with Gale about the desire to run away. Whatever dream Katniss has about living outside the control of the cities is tempered by her need to take care for her sister, and that’s why she always returns home and will prepare for The Reaping.
By the seven-minute mark of the movie, Katniss’s special symbol – the Mocking Jay – is introduced. She gets the pendant for her sister and gives it to her before The Reaping to try to reassure Prim that her name won’t be picked to play in the games.
Before The Reaping, a video is shown that explains how the games work, and that the winner will receive riches.
At the 14 minute mark, Prim’s name is called for The Reaping. Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place so that Prim won’t be killed in the games.
After volunteering, Katniss meets her first ally in the games. Effie will help guide Katniss as she prepares for the competition.
At the 16-minute mark, Katniss’s male counterpart is called. Peetah will be competing in the games with her. As the two representatives from District 12, they will be viewed as a team initially. Flashbacks hint at the fact that Peetah had shown Katniss kindness in the past, by giving her food when she was caught out in the mud and rain.
At the 18-minute mark, the talisman is returned to Katniss. Prim gives it to her to help keep her safe in the games.
Secondary Goals and Absent Helpers
At the 19-minute mark, Katniss sees Gale. Her first, primary goal is to win the games. Her secondary goal is now established; she wants to come back and see Gale again. He is an absent helper. Katniss asks him to care for her family and trusts him to look after them while she’s gone.
At the 20-minute mark, Katniss crosses the threshold, leaving her present reality, and embarking on the journey.
At the 21-minute mark, her mentor, Haymitch, is mentioned. A minute later, he’s introduced. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is still rejecting her mission. She’s going to the games because she has no choice, but has not fully embraced the need to play the game and win. While Peetah adapts quickly so that he can learn as much as possible from the mentor, Katniss initially rejects him and his help, and goes to him reluctantly as her new reality sinks in.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The next several minutes of the movie introduce various tests. In addition to learning the social aspects of playing the games, Katniss will learn to sharpen her skills and develop new ones that will help her survive. From the arrival at the capital, where Peetah shows an ability to woo the crowd and Katniss doesn’t, she seems to be one step behind, and as they meet the other Tributes, she learns of their strengths and abilities.
Another ally introduced is Cinna, and he will continue to be an important ally for Katniss as she deals with the social aspects of the games.
Her obstacles and enemies include President Snow, and one of her main obstacles is her tension with Haymitch.
As Katniss approaches the main part of her quest – the Games – there are many obstacles. These include things like the display screen in her room, which increases her homesickness, and Peetah’s declaration of feelings for her, which she’s unable to accept or comprehend.
The ordeal in the quest is typically described as the major hurdle or obstacle, typically a life or death crisis. Katniss goes through several situations like this during the games. She is hunted by an alliance that includes Peetah, and when she manages to escape, is injured and delirious for some time. She is helped by Rue, who then becomes her first main ally, but during one of their attempts to attack the main group, Rue is killed. A change in the rules prompts Katniss to look for Peetah, who is injured. She risks her life to help heal him, and in the process is injured herself. In a final desperate act, when the gamekeeper changes the rules at the last second, Katniss and Peetah are about to commit suicide under the rule change is recanted, and they’re both declared victors.
Katniss and Peetah are declared victors of the games, and receive rewards in the form of material wealth, housing and access to food, and fame.
The Road Back
This includes the train journey back to their district.
This is when the hero faces a final test. Typically, it will require the hero to use what they learned on their journey in order to triumph. In The Hunger Games, this isn’t executed in a conventional fashion. However, President Snow is suspicious of Katniss and dislikes her because of what she’s come to represent. There are hints at threats and repercussions for Katniss and her family if it’s discovered that she and Peetah deceived the Haves with their relationship, and the awareness that she is still being watched. Since this is part of a series, this aspect of the quest manifests itself in the sequel; however, with sequels, the dynamics of the quest are often adjusted. Katniss will have, without necessarily realizing it, become a symbol for rebellion, and her true quest will ultimately be to ignite a revolution that will free the people in the districts from the poverty and oppression they face daily.
Return With Elixir
This is in the form of food and wealth, and perhaps more significantly, Katniss has instilled in her district a belief that they can succeed, since Haymitch had been the only games winner to come from that district before Katniss and Peetah.
The structure of The Hunger Games affords a sense of comfort and familiarity, while the dynamics of the games and events within each aspect of the story provide the surprises and enticements for the audience. Many writers make the mistake of thinking they will be unique and original and be appreciated for it. In reality, because our minds are conditioned to patterns – from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun daily, to the change of seasons from spring to summer to fall and winter – we can often be disoriented by an absence of understandable pattern.
With three-act structure, the story is basically divided into four parts. The first quarter of the story sets the stage for the significant events that will occur. The audience is introduced to a protagonist who faces some significant challenge. A major event occurs at the 25% mark. The next two quarters of the story contains the main story as the protagonist seeks to resolve the challenge, with a main event occurring at the 50% mark. Another twist occurs at the 75% mark, setting the stage for the climax and resolution.
In The Hunger Games, not only was the quest structure employed, but Three Act Structure is also used. The movie is 2 hours and 16 minutes long, which means that significant events should occur approximately every 34 minutes.
At 31 minutes, Katniss and Peetah are formally introduced in the capital, and face their opponents. This marks the transition in their quest, from answering the call and leaving their ordinary world. Prior to their arrival in the capital, the idea of miracles and victory seems more possible. Upon arriving and viewing their competition, the chances of success seem to fade in their minds, and the viewers are exposed to the increasing odds against them, and left to wonder how they might pull off a victory.
At the 60-minute mark, Katniss receives special instructions from Haymitch. Her mentor expresses his confidence in her ability, and gives her encouragement. After this, a tracking chip is inserted into the Tributes. At 62 minutes, CInna reveals the talisman, by reuniting Katniss with the mocking jay pin, 30 seconds before the games begin.
By the 65-minute mark, Katniss is in the game “arena” and separated from Peetah. She’s alone and the theoretical fighting of the training has now become brutally real, as the first tributes fall, and Katniss faces the temptation to go for the resources available, but knows that doing so poses a significant risk. She’s almost killed, but cannot bring herself to kill one of the other tributes.
Following the three-act structure, the next significant turning point should occur at approximately 102 minutes. At the 95-minute mark, following a supply ambush against the main group, an opponent throws a spear at Katniss. It narrowly misses her; however, the spear hits Rue, her ally, and Rue is killed. Katniss takes time to mourn Rue and respect her in death, and at the 99-minute mark makes the three-finger symbol to the cameras, which sparks a riot in Rue’s district. Outside of the arena, Haymitch is lobbying for Katniss’s life, and tries to sell her as an underdog.
At the 101-minute mark, the rules of the game are changed, and players have been given a reason to believe that two tributes can win, as long as they come from the same district. This prompts Katniss to find Peetah. The rule change provides hope at a time when she was ready to give up, after losing Rue.
It is Katniss’s alliance with Peetah that marks the transition from playing the game, to bringing the game to a conclusion.
The Hunger Games employs both the quest model and three-act structure, and the foundation of the story is a critical component of the film’s success. People appreciate familiarity, and they appreciate it when expectations are met. There’s comfort in rhythm and routine, and these are not necessarily bad things. Many people feel when they first start out writing that following a pattern makes something predictable. In reality, the structure is only one facet of the story. A familiar structure can be used to greatest effect when matched with details of the story that themselves surprise the viewers.
In The Hunger Games, there are several other critical aspects of storytelling that work together to make a memorable story. One of the most crucial reasons for the film’s success is the likability of the protagonist. Katniss is tough, but vulnerable. She’s a fighter, but also a caretaker. Here are some of the reasons she presents as likeable:
- She’s relatable. She’s at an age where rebellion is understandable, and she has understandable temptations.
- She’s level headed. Her desire for rebellion is tempered by her responsibilities. Her love interest isn’t the primary focus of her life, and she’s careful not to indulge herself by pursuing her own desires because the situations she faces – even in her district day to day – are life and death situations. She knows what it is to be hungry, she has a mother who isn’t reliable, and she has a sister who is unable to fully face the cruelty of the world in which they live. As a result, Katniss is very disciplined and focused.
- She’s a fighter. Despite the losses she’s faced with her family and the challenges of providing for them, Katniss doesn’t give up. She tries to reassure her sister and find things of simple beauty for Prim to enjoy, like the mocking jay pin.
- She has humility. She doesn’t go into the games thinking she’s the best competitor, and she doesn’t delude herself into thinking she is better than her competition. She’s aware of her shortcomings, which helps her focus on using what she knows to her advantage, rather than trying to be something she isn’t.
- She maintains her humanity. Rue’s death is the crucial moment in the movie that separates her from the others. Her care and concern for Rue is enough to earn her mercy from the other tribute from Rue’s district.
- She doesn’t let the games change her into something she isn’t. As much as possible she avoids killing. In the end, when the rules change again, she refuses to kill her ally, instead willing to die with him rather than compromise her principles.
This is no sex-starved romantic who’s full of herself and her ideas and her vision of the world. Katniss is, in many respects, a reluctant hero. She wouldn’t have volunteered for the games if her sister’s name hadn’t been drawn. She also didn’t set out to be a symbol to the people of the districts, although that’s what she becomes. She comes a symbol of rebellion just by being herself and refusing to be what the game wanted her to be for the sake of entertainment. She showed how much she cared about Rue, and she avoided direct attacks on other players as much as possible.
This is significant, because the night before the start of the games, Peetah tells Katniss he doesn’t want the people of the capital to change him, to become something he isn’t, or be forced to do things he doesn’t want to do. “If I’m gonna die, I want to still be me.”
Katniss admires his resolve, but tells him she can’t afford to think like that. She’s still thinking about her sister, and her responsibility to her family. It’s only during the course of the games, through facing the loss of Rue and the deception of the game as the rules changed and changed again, that Katniss fully realizes she must hold firm to who she is, because the game isn’t fair, and will deceive her and destroy her, one way or another.
It’s only when she’s embraced death in the game that she’s able to force their hand and end the game on her terms, with both Katniss and Peetah declared victors.
It is true that readers will read about an unlikeable protagonist, but it’s more difficult to maintain a readership if the protagonist has no qualities the audience can appreciate. A protagonist can be tempted, but usually is stronger than a typical person and resists those temptations, particularly in stories where they have special abilities or powers that are crucial to the story.
A reader must want to make the journey with the protagonist, and as a result, how they’re portrayed through the story is a critical factor in whether a story is successful or not. If Katniss wasn’t likeable, and relatable, The Hunger Games would never have enjoyed the success both the book and movie have enjoyed.