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I’m learning how to write a great first chapter for my novel by studying the openings of successful books. And in this essay, I’ll dissect how The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins hooks readers with a compelling premise, and brings that premise to life.
Summary of Chapter 1
Katniss Everdeen wakes up and gets ready for a day of hunting. She heads out of her community, a grimy place called District 12, where the main work is coal mining. Her father died in the mines when she was eleven. Now, five years later and in his absence, Katniss is the provider for her family. It’s a responsibility that’s made her resilient but standoffish. Even the family cat can’t stand her.
She sneaks out to the wilderness, and recovers the bow and arrows she hides from the authorities. The oppressive rule of the government has left District 12 starving. But if the situation makes her angry, she doesn’t show it. She’s learned to put up a wall between herself and others, and she keeps her political opinions to herself.
She meets up with her friend, Gale, “the only person with whom I can be myself.” She and Gale wonder what today—“the day of the reaping”—will bring. They daydream about running off into the woods forever, but quickly remember how their families depend on them for survival.
After foraging and fishing, they trade their wares at the market. Everyone is anxious because of the reaping, which is a mandatory, yearly lottery or draw. As they have before, Katniss and Gale voluntarily put their names in multiple times, more than what’s required by law. In return, they’re awarded more food rations, but it’s still not enough.
At home, Katniss and her twelve-year-old sister, Primrose, get ready for the reaping. Soon, the whole community gathers in the square. Television crews set up cameras and screens for the event. Kids from the ages of twelve to eighteen arrange themselves by sex and by age. Their families, meanwhile, watch from the sidelines.
Then, the reaping begins with a history lesson: after droughts and disasters, North America fell, and the nation of Panem rose. The new nation’s outlying districts fought against the rule of the Capitol, and lost. Because of this, the Capitol forces the youth of the districts into an annual televised competition called the Hunger Games. Here’s a quote from the book, which I’ll come back to in a minute:
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
That winning tribute, and their district, are showered with food for a year.
For the viewers in the Capitol, the Games are a big, entertaining show. The people of the districts, though, recognize the Games for what they really are: an elaborate public execution. It’s a reminder of the Capitol’s overwhelming power.
The draw for District 12’s participants is set to begin. Through the crowd, Katniss and Gale silently wish each other luck. Then the first name is drawn. It isn’t Katniss or Gale. “It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
A high concept
In 2014, Amazon released a list of the most-highlighted passages from the books in its Kindle store — so, basically, all of literature. That one passage giving the rules of the Games — the one that defines the central concept of the book and its title — was Number 3 on that list.
Now, I take that with a grain of salt. Hunger Games mania was still very much a thing in 2014; nineteen of the top twenty-five highlights came from the Hunger Games trilogy. Even so, there’s something about that passage that resonated with readers.
In my essay on Harry Potter, I mentioned how J. K. Rowling rewrote her opening chapter fifteen times; she said her early drafts gave too much plot away. But the crazy thing is that Suzanne Collins does the exact opposite in that passage of The Hunger Games. She gives away the core plot of the book.
We can think of stories defined by a clear plot concept as plot-driven. There’s actually another term for this kind of story. It’s a term that’s often used in film and TV, but which also has some use in publishing: the high concept.
So, for example, a high-concept film like Jurassic Park can be boiled down to “It’s Frankenstein, but with dinosaurs!” The crime thriller Seven is also built on a high concept: a serial killer inspired by Christianity’s seven deadly sins.
There’s more nuance to a high concept than that. (Here’s a Writer’s Digest article that gives a definition specific to publishing.) But, basically, a high concept is built on a catchy premise — whether it’s completely original or a twist on an old formula.
For Suzanne Collins, that meant modernizing the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It also meant blurring the lines between reality television and war reporting. And it meant placing her story in a dystopian world, like Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Handmaid’s Tale. All that turned into this concept of a poor 16-year-old girl fighting in a futuristic gladiator arena.
The language in Chapter 1
But coming up with a wacky premise isn’t the hard part — any editor or agent will tell you ideas are a dime a dozen. And even though a similar idea had been done before, The Hunger Games still struck a chord. There are lots of reasons for that, but I want to focus on what happens on the page, where the idea is brought to life.
So how does Chapter 1 do that? I mean, the actual Hunger Games are further off in the story. Well, before we get to the arena, the language in Chapter 1 triggers imagery about character, conflict, setting, and genre.
We meet Katniss Everdeen. She has “hunting boots” and a “forage bag” and “a bow and sheath of arrows.”
The huge dystopian world narrows down to her immediate surroundings. It’s a setting that creates daily conflicts for her: it’s where you can be “executed for inciting a rebellion” by “Peacekeepers,” and “where you can starve to death in safety.” Hunger isn’t some game to her; it’s her life. But if she can deal with daily hunger, she might also have the force of will to survive the Hunger Games.
So the chapter builds up our expectation that this tough hunter, Katniss, will be picked. And in all that build-up, Katniss quietly confesses, “I protect Prim in every way I can, but I’m powerless against the reaping.” So, naturally, the chapter ends with an inciting incident: an attack on Katniss’s weak spot. That sets her on the path to the arena.
And, sure, there’s later conflict with the other tributes, but that’s all a smoke screen for the real antagonist. As Katniss thinks, “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,” to fight each other instead of rebelling again. The Capitol uses the Games to punish the districts, to keep them divided. The Games are a message: “If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you.” Maybe not ironically, the district citizens don’t lift a finger: they lift three.
The book’s concept had such an effective mix of ingredients like these that, for years, the young-adult market tilted toward dystopian series with similar recipes. One librarian I spoke to described how the market shifted away from introspective, issue-based stories. For better or worse, not everyone connects with complex social and psychological issues. But everyone gets a girl with a bow and some arrows fighting for her life.
Maybe concentrating characters and plots into simple ideas is, I don’t know, the death of art or whatever. Then again, Papa Hemingway believed a story should be like an iceberg: only about one-eighth of it is visible, and the rest is implied. So the trick is to bring the essential elements of the story concept alive in fifteen pages instead of fifty or five hundred. And if we can do that — as Suzanne Collins did — we might just get readers to stick around for more.
I hope this look at The Hunger Games helps you build a compelling concept in your stories. If so, I’d love to hear how. Leave a response or Applause, or Follow me to be notified of my future essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books. And drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video.