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Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Diversity - Character Diversity - Diversity in Fiction - Minority Main Characters in YA Fiction - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle - Christi Gerstle

Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

Packing Emotional Punch: Connecting with Readers

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Packing Emotional Punch Connecting with Readers Emotional Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle

Children’s Concert by George Iakovidis via Wikimedia Commons

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The stories that stick out the most in my memory tend to be stories where I related to the characters somehow, really felt for them.  Creating this feeling for your readers is not just about putting your characters through some tough times on their way to triumph (although that’s generally a key ingredient in plot).  We pack emotional punch by helping the reader to connect with what the main characters are going through.  If the reader doesn’t care a lick about what happens to the characters, your story is dead in the water.

How do we pack emotional punch?  How do we connect with readers?

Build tension bit by bit.  The main characters’ reactions to and actions within crisis situations must build up through the story.  In The Shining, wife Wendy at first treats husband Jack with kid gloves when he starts to lose his marbles.  If we didn’t have these build-up scenes of gradually growing tension, it wouldn’t be quite so scary when Jack (inevitably) starts running around the empty hotel with an ax.  Because the tension has been building, piece by piece like a little Jenga game, we’re all the more scared by the time Jack is chasing wife and kid with an ax and a look of glee.

Have a “Save the Cat” moment early in your story.  Blake Snyder’s fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat describes this more in detail, but the gist of the idea is that your main character(s) must have a moment early on in the story that gives us a reason to care about them.  They must do something that, essentially, reminds us that they are human.  In Hunger Games, Katniss volunteered to take little sister Prim’s place.  In Matilda, little Matilda has a very sweet conversation with the local librarian exposing her innocence and insatiable curiosity.

Include humanizing details.  The Save the Cat moment will go a long way to create this, as well as character tags and general details about your character.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood does a beautiful job of both creating curiosity and building a relatable character by, early on, hinting at how much the narrator is afraid to think about.  We get bare hints of the narrator’s past, and, in addition to building curiosity, it helps make the narrator more human than the robot the book’s society is trying to create.

Give the characters a clear goal (or goals).  In addition to being nearly vital to plot, this gives readers something to root for.  If the main character is working toward a clear goal, this gives the character an opportunity to grow and – you guessed it – be more relatable.  You can up the ante even further by giving a secondary character a goal in direct conflict with the main character’s goal.  Sparks fly and create more opportunities to grow and be eminently relatable.  Fun times.

Don’t be overly dramatic.  Melodrama causes us to laugh at characters rather than laugh with them.  If you want to be like Voltaire or Alexander Pope, have at it.  Otherwise, we should all try to remember to temper the dramatic scenes with action or humor scenes in between; action and humor, done properly, can tell us just as much or more about a character as dramatic bits.

Keep it moving.  Time frame (or the perception of time frame) keeps us involved in the story.  If every event is happening one after the other, it matters more than if there’s lots of lag time between important events.  Exposition creates the perception of lag time, whether time is actually lagging or not.  Relevant action keeps the story moving.  If that action is years apart, sum up the intervening years in a few sentences.  Relevant action keeps us involved in the story.

How else can we pack an emotional punch or help our characters be more relatable?  What’s a great story you’ve read that packed an emotional punch?

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Raising the Stakes

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Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

With National Novel Writing Month looming (frequently known as NaNoWriMo), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about outlining.  Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo without an outline, and the results were less than stellar.  Having an outline helps me write the nitty gritty of the story itself more quickly and more cleanly.

There are all kinds of resources out there to help you outline, but what matters most is what you put inside the outline.  One of the most important things holding your plot together will be the stakes and the ensuing tension those stakes develop.  The stakes for the same situation will be completely different depending on your character.  All of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice had a strong stake in finding good marriages – as soon as their father passed on, they would be penniless and basically homeless if they didn’t have a (good) husband.  On the other hand, Jem in Rachel Ward’s Numbers had no such stake in a good marriage; in fact, I can imagine her scoffing at even the idea of getting married.  The stakes are completely different based on your characters and their objectives.

According to former literary agent Mary Kole, author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, there are two different types of stakes, public stakes and private stakes.  Private stakes impact your character’s core identity.  Your main character may become completely torn up when her family loyalty is put on the line and she is unable to fulfill her role as the protector of her family (think Katniss in Hunger Games, contemplating her death and what will happen to her family if she dies).  Public stakes, on the other hand, bring in the larger world and the character’s relationship with it.  If the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice don’t get married, and get married to the right kind of men, they will be pitied as burdens on the community in addition to being penniless.

Many of the best kinds of stakes are a mixture of public stakes (relationship with the world) and private stakes (personal identity).  In Numbers, if Jem doesn’t share her secret, she may not be able to unravel the mystery in time to save Spider; however, if she does share her secret, people may not believe her, causing further consequences.

It’s important to ratchet up the stakes little by little as we go along, but we also have to take care not to go too far overboard.  Too far overboard can make us move into the realm of melodrama.  Melodrama happens when the characters’ emotions run too high to match their objectives.  If Johnny scratched his hand on a rock, he’s probably going to be irritated but not irate.  If the emotions run too high to match what’s happening, we may lead readers into farce.  Sounding like a sketch on SNL by accident is much worse than sounding like one on purpose.

What are our takeaways?

  • Ratchet up the stakes little by little
  • Include a mixture of public and private stakes
  • Don’t be melodramatic

What else would you add about raising the stakes?  How do you include stakes when you’re outlining?

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Getting Reluctant Readers Reading: the Grown-Up Edition

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An Interesting Story by Leon Perrault via Wikimedia Commons

If you Google “reluctant readers,” you’ll find quite a bit of material on very young and middle grade readers.  These ideas are absolutely important; however, recently, I’ve been thinking about grown-up reluctant readers.  About 25% of adults will actually go an entire year without reading a single book (craziness!), and most read 6 books or less per year.

Although it would be a whole other post to go into the intricacies of this (see here to start), in my humble opinion, reading enhances everyone’s life, not just the lives of the person who is reading.  Readers become more well-informed, more sympathetic, and more well-rounded than non-readers.  They develop better problem-solving skills from exposure to different ideas.  They develop better communication skills.  We could really go on for a while, but if you’re already here reading this book-related blog, you’re probably already on the same page.  What I’m getting at is that the more we can nudge non-readers into reading, even if it’s just a smidge more than they’re reading now, the better our world will be.  I’m always a fan of making the world a better place.

So how do we encourage others to read more and therefore improve our larger world?

  1. Do not (publicly) judge what others are reading; it doesn’t pay to be discouraging.  It might horrify me a bit that my teenage cousin is reading some disgusting political propaganda book, but at least she’s reading something.  I’m sure there are some five dollar words in there somewhere to build her vocabulary.  It might be disconcerting to sit next to someone on the subway reading 50 Shades of Gray, but at least they’re getting back into the habit of reading books.
  2. Ask about books that they have read.  If you can get someone talking about a book they read that they loved, it might remind them how much they miss reading.
  3. Recommend easy “transition” books (e.g. transitioning from not reading).  The book that finally got my man back into reading was Hunger Games (he picked up my copy, of course, after seeing me wrapped up in it a few years ago).  He spent a number of years after undergrad just reading accounting textbooks and movie scripts (he’s an accountant who used to work in the film industry), and he says that Hunger Games was just like a movie script.  It hooked him, and he stayed up until 2am one night finishing it.
  4. Talk about books you love.  Enthusiasm is infectious.  My mom, my dad, my boyfriend, my best friend, my friend’s mom, and a coworker –among others – have all been talked into picking up The New Geography of Jobs after my enthusiastic description of the book’s awesomeness and its applicability to everyday life.  When I first read Hunger Games, I was similarly excited – though I still haven’t talked my mom into it.  She’s afraid it’s too violent (and she’s into Game of Thrones!  Talk about violence!).
  5. Recognize people for reading.  This may sound silly, but people need to be validated.  A simple “That’s awesome you make time to read!” goes a long way.

How have you been successful in encouraging friends to read?  What could we add to this list?

5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

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The Ramifications of Time Travel via tapiture.com

There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

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Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot

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Sparkler by Josh Wickerham via Wikimedia Commons

What’s an inciting incident and what makes it so important?  Why are writing teachers always talking about them?

First of all, let’s get on the same page about what an inciting incident is.  It is that moment at the beginning of the story when something changes and sets the plot in motion, or, as Mary Kole puts it in Writing Irresistible Kidlit , it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”  This usually takes place at or around the end of the first chapter, sometimes sooner.

In Natalie Whipple’s Transparent (yes, the book I mentioned a couple weeks ago – it’s awesome!  Check it out!) Fiona’s father is trying to force her hand to get her to murder someone, and she has to run away or become a killer.  This catapults us into the story.  Although invisible Fiona has done her dad’s bidding before, she’s never had to kill anyone, and this pushes her and her mother to take action and run away.  It pulls Fiona and her mother out of their normal and into a world of conflicted plot awesomeness.

In Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, Emma and Josh log on to the internet for the first time – and discover their Facebook pages, fifteen years in the future.  Facebook hasn’t even been thought of yet, but their careers, spouses, kids, and status updates are all there.  Every time they change something in their present, something in their futures changes, too.  Aside from the fact that this is such a cool concept, it also causes Emma and Josh to act very differently in order to create the futures they want.  They just don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.

In Ender’s Game, Ender is accepted into Battle School, and his life completely changes.  He is not allowed to see his family again for several years, and he’s going to be trained to be an isolated child warrior.  This moment defines him.

Why are these incidents so important?

  • They give the reader a feeling for the flavor of the book
  • They tell us something about the main character – and if they don’t tell us something about the main character, they should.
  • Most importantly, they kick off the plot of the story.

What are your favorite inciting incidents?  What else is important about this moment at the beginning of the story?

P.S. One of my favorite inciting incidents is the Reaping in The Hunger Games (awesomely plotted, Suzanne Collins!).

P.P.S. Check out my guest post over at The Art Abyss, How Perseverance Helps Creativity Blossom.

Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

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