Friday, November 12, 2010

Pacing in "The Hunger Games"

Each chapter has a story arc. You've heard that, right? In view of some comments about pacing in my own writing, I did some studying in The Hunger Games. Look at these chapter endings-

Me in red and my sister and some of our kiddoes hanging off a cliff. Get it?
Ch 1- Effie trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it's not me.
It's Primrose Everdeen.
Ch. 2- Peeta looks me right in the eye and gives my hand what I think is meant to be a reassuring squeeze. Maybe it's just a nervous spasm. We turn back to face the crowd as the anthem of Panem plays. Oh, well, I think. There will be twenty-four of us. Odds are that someone else will kill him before I do.
Of course, the odds have not been very dependable of late.

Ch. 3- Just then, Haymitch staggers into the compartment. "I miss supper?" he says is a slurred voice. Then he vomits all over the expensive carpet and falls in the mess.
"So laugh away!" says Effie Trinket. She hops in her pointy shoes around the pool of vomit and flees the room.

Ch. 4- All of the pieces are still fitting together, but I sense he has a  plan forming. He hasn't accepted his death. He is already fighting hard to stay alive. Which also means that kind Peeta Mellark, the boy who gave me bread, is fighting hard to kill me.

Ch. 5- Peeta is planning to kill you, I remind myself. He is luring you in to make you easy prey. The more likeable he is, the more deadly he is.
But because two can play this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.

Ch. 6- I pull the covers up over my head as if this will protect me from the redheaded girl who can't speak. But I can feel her eyes staring at me, piercing through the walls and doors and bedding.
I wonder if she'll enjoy watching me die.

Ch. 7- the arrow skewers the apple in the pig's mouth and pins it to the wall behind it. Everyone stares at me in disbelief.
"Thank you for your consideration," I say. Then I give a slight bow and walk straight toward the exit without being dismissed.
Okay, is that enough to get an idea of what she does?

My big breakthrough came when I realized that if I were writing THG, my chapters would have kept going. On. And ON. Primrose's name is called? I wouldn't have started a new chapter. I would have made that whole scene, with Katniss climbing the stairs and Effie congratulating them one continuous scene.

Suzanne Collins doesn't follow the classic story arc inside her chapters. She is continually cutting us off right at the climax. Then the next chapter finishes the scene up, if necessary, or if the reader can easily guess what will happen, she starts at the next scene.

Her chapters tend to be briefer than I go, also: 17, 12, 13,12, etc. Low teens, not low twenties.

I was giddy as I read through and figured it out. I promptly printed the last page of each chapter with the plan to find those high tension moments and insert a page break! Except the moments weren't there. They were back a page or two...or five.

Sometimes I found that the end of the scene was necessary and kept it. Other times, it was just me trying to wrap up all my loose ends. Which is exactly what I don't want to do! Delete! Delete! Delete!

No loose ends=no tension. No reading on to find out what happens next.

I'm not suggesting that we all have to structure our chapters that way; every story is different. But Suzanne Collins knows how to keep the reader turning pages, and I found it helpful. I hope you do too!

Any other tips on pacing? Any other authors to check out? Thanks for reading.

PS- My kitchen is now pistachio pudding green, and the foyer will soon be a buttercream. I love it. Plus the two hundred bulb I bought are in the ground. Yay!


  1. Excellent point! I don't remember who it was, but some famous author said something along the lines of, "Readers get to the end of the chapter so they can put the book down and go to bed. I make sure to end my chapters so they don't want to do that." Ever since I read that, I restructured my chapters, like you. A scene does not have to end at a chapter ending and a chapter does not have to end at a scene ending. In fact, that's what makes it easy for people to put the book down. And sometimes it helps us see that we can end the scene sooner - that the parts that "finish" the scene, bring it to a close, really aren't necessary and only slow things down.

  2. She is amazing at getting readers hooked for sure. Gah. Now I want to read THG again!
    (Your house sounds cute!)

  3. I like what you've done here, Kelly. Another good one to read is Stephen King's earlier works. He knows exactly how to lure you in and leave that cliff-hanger statement at the end of the chapter.

    Great job of showing how it works!

  4. Hmm. I sometimes have the opposite problem, but maybe it's not a problem after all. I get to a point in many scenes where I can't write anymore because it feels like the end, even if I was planning to go on. Usually, I was trying to say things that I oughtn't have said anyway.

    Isn't it fun to delete? It's so cathartic.

  5. I try to be conscious of ending my chapters on sort of a cliff hanger. I want my readers to go "Just one more chapter". You are right that Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of it. I think I need to tighten mine up a little too, though.

  6. Hey everybody- great comments.
    Kristie- I've heard that quote before, but can't think of who said it either. It's a good one though.
    Colene- just reading the ends of the chapters made e want to reread it, too. That's pretty good writing!
    Teresa- Thanks! I realized I meant to link to your article on pacing. I'll do it in the next post!
    Ben- deleting is sooo cathartic, but I have to be in a mood. Same mood that compells me to go through my junk drawer. There's good stuff in there, but a lot of trash, too;)
    Abby- It's easy to recognize if we're looking. I find it harder to accomplish, but just focusing on it has been a huge help.

  7. This reminds me of one of Mary Kole's recent posts. She blogged about the importance of beginning and ending chapters, explaining that those sentences are prime real estate in a manuscript and you want to make them stand out.

    Let's see if I can find that post... Oh, here it is (and not quite as recent as I'd thought):

    Good luck with your revisions. I hope you start querying again soon, though... :)

  8. Thanks Krista- I'm going right now to check out that link.

    I'm getting antsy about querying too. I just want to be done with this part, know if it's yes or no. I saw a few of your comments on querytracker. Good luck with your queries, too!

  9. Thanks, Kelly. The querying's going pretty well so far (noticeably better than it did with my last manuscript, anyway). And just remember, you've already done quite well, too, so press on.

  10. Great post! I've already heard that there are three ways to end a chapter that will keep readers interested. The cliffhanger, of course. Or a negative emotional low. Or a positive emotional high. I've been trying to alternate my chapters that way, so that the reader has a chance to feel everything, and keep turning pages.

  11. Hey Elana- I hadn't really thought about it as emotional highs and lows before, but I can see that's true. Thanks for the tip!

  12. Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.