Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vital details

One of the pleasures of reading, and especially of rereading, is seeing the significance of little clues sprinkled early in a story. And watching the natural development of character and plot in unexpected, and yet somehow inevitable, directions.

I'll use The Hunger Games as an example because it's been so widely read (but I'll include my SEMI-SPOILER warning here, even though I suspect I was the last person to read this book). Anyway, here we go:

From the 2nd sentence: "My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth ..."  The main character's attachment to her sister, Prim, is one of the driving forces of the trilogy. It sets Katniss's participation in the Hunger Games in motion, and it is the reason for Katniss's actions at the end of the series. So it is fitting that we learn about Prim immediately.

Two paragraphs later, we meet Buttercup, Prim's cat. We will see Buttercup rarely in the series, but always at critical moments, where he will symbolize something precious. (Ironically so, since Buttercup himself is a pretty rough customer.)

Early on in this fictional world, we discover that Katniss and her friend Gale are both good hunters. Katniss is especially skilled with bow and arrow, Gale with traps and snares. At first, we think these details are shown to us just to give the characters depth, to make us feel that we know them. But Katniss's skill plays a critical part in the Hunger Games and in several subsequent events in the trilogy. And Gale's skill turns out to be far more important than we could ever imagine, playing a critical part in the climax of the entire series. Things could not have happened the way they happened in book 3 without that crucial detail.

I love the way Collins used these character traits in the plot. Stories are not collections of random events and details--in that way, they differ from life. We choose only those details that have meaning. It's like constructing a building: the foundation, beams, bricks, windows, and stairs all have purpose. We won't usually have a random piece of wood sticking way out of the building at an angle, serving no function. We won't lug bags full of stones up to the roof and dump them there and do nothing with them. We may have decorative elements, but we choose them to fit the atmosphere of the building.

Everything in a story belongs. And ideally, each detail is brought in early enough so that it is a natural part of the world, and doesn't look like a bad retrofit.


  1. Great post, Jenn.

    I totally agree.

    In a novel events must have a cause/effect relationship.

    That's why I think it's important to have an outline. Or else you have to be willing to revise. A lot.

    1. I tend not to use outlines, but I embed the details in either of two ways:

      On the rewrite, I can go back and seed important facts in earlier scenes.

      Or better yet, I find that little details I stuck in as I write serve me perfectly as important tools in later scenes. Serendipity!

  2. Hadn't thought of Buttercup's role. But yes, everything should serve a purpose.

    1. When I looked back at the beginning and saw how much space was devoted to Buttercup, I realized how a certain scene at the ending was foreshadowed.

      And the use of Gale's skill was just brilliant.