Summary of this month’s movie:
Every year as punishment for a failed revolt, the twelve districts of Panem are forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to fight to the death in the annual televised Hunger Games until there is only one survivor. When her younger sister is chosen to fight for District 12, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place. She and fellow tribute Peeta travel to the Capitol, where they must train and work to gain sponsors, who can provide potentially life-saving gifts during the Games.
Only eleven tributes, including Katniss, Peeta, and the Careers–the tributes from the two richest districts–survive the first day. Katniss tries to stay away from the others, but when the Careers corner her, she uses a nest of genetically modified venomous wasps to drive them away, thanks to a tip by the young tribute Rue. Katniss is also stung a few times, and as Rue helps her recover, they become friends and allies. Katniss later finds and frees Rue from a trap, but another tribute kills Rue. Her death triggers a riot in her district.
To pacify the public, the head of the game, Seneca, changes the rules to allow two winners provided they are from the same district. After the announcement, Katniss finds a gravely wounded Peeta. Another announcement promises that what each survivor needs the most will be provided the next morning. Despite Peeta's vehement opposition, Katniss gets medicine for him, narrowly avoiding being killed in the process. The medicine heals Peeta overnight.
Genetically modified beasts force Katniss, Peeta, and Cato – the last three survivors – to climb onto the Cornucopia's roof. Cato gets Peeta in a headlock and uses him as a human shield against Katniss's bow. Peeta directs Katniss to shoot Cato's hand, enabling Peeta to throw him to the beasts below. Katniss kills him with an arrow to end his suffering. When Seneca revokes the rule change allowing two victors, Katniss convinces Peeta to eat poisonous berries together. Just before they do, they are declared co-victors, but Katniss has made enemies through her acts of defiance.
Carly: Jeni, what did you think of this movie?
Jeni: It was a lot of fun to rewatch this now that it’s achieved “classic” status. With the new movie coming out, it seems like YA dystopian is coming back around, which means new, fresh twists. Which, by the way, listeners, if you’re one of the authors working on a YA dystopian right now, it might be helpful to listen to our episode on retellings. Not that yours is a strict retelling, obviously, but it can help you think about how to make sure yours does feel new and fresh. ANYWAY it was really great to go back to this story for a solid YA dystopian. The acting is amazing, the costumes and sets are fabulous. I know the Alicia Keys song “Girl on Fire” isn’t about Katniss, but that’s what I always think of when I see her in that fire dress. Seeing baby Jennifer Lawrence was awesome too. Okay, but the truth is, this was a hard rewatch for me because I knew what was coming, and I had to skip all the stuff with Rue because I am still kinda traumatized from the first time I saw it. Like, that hit me HARD. The whole premise of this is already horrific enough when you stop and actually put some thought into it, but man, that part just guts me. Which I know is the point. But I would still be huddled in a ball in the corner sobbing right now. Beyond that, love the movie. What did you think?
Carly: Ugh let’s not talk about Rue, too heartbreaking. But beyond that, it was really fun to rewatch it. I feel like Hunger Games had become a bit of a rote thing in my head. Something that has been riffed on so much that it lost its allure. But rewatching it I was like, oh right, this is actually really good and enjoyable and interesting. I forgot how good it is. Which I feel like can happen with a lot of new classics. You go through a period where you’re sick of them or so overly saturated with them. So it was nice to get refreshed on it. I did spend the whole time thinking about Cinna’s future though and being sad. Also I really liked knowing the growth some of the characters would go through, like Effie Trinket and such. Anyway, all good stuff, definitely worth a rewatch or a watch for the first time if that’s somehow possible.
So, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Okay, so since this movie is the mother of YA dystopian, it only feels fitting that we talk about how it uses the mother of all story structures. Yes, friends, I’m talking three act structure. We’ve been talking a lot about structure the last few episodes, but I realized we’ve never just gone over basic three act structure. So, it’s past time. Like the other structures we’ve discussed, three act structure has a series of story beats or plot points that guide the story. But unlike some of the others, three act structure splits these plot points up evenly over the course of the story so that there’s an important shift in the direction of the plot every 12.5%. Then between plot points, the tension builds as more obstacles come up in the protagonist's path as a result of their previous actions.
This is one topic that movies in general are a great resource for because almost all movies follow this structure, even the ones that might otherwise not get any love from awards shows and whatnot. This is how Save the Cat came to be so popular among novelists–the original was written for screenplays, aka movie scripts, and it focuses on three act structure but breaks it down into much more specific beats. So, I’m not going into all the specifics here because we are going to break down all those plot points in a bit.
But before we get into all that, let’s talk about the percentages for a minute. In discussions of three act structure, there’s always a big focus on the percentages, which can make the whole thing feel really unapproachable. So, the percentage refers to the placement of a certain plot point or beat in the story. It’s easy to get hung up on that and whether those are exactly where they should be because they are such precise numbers, but that’s really missing the point. The percentages are a guide to help you make sure the pacing is on point. They’re intended to ensure that your story has something important happening, some twist in the main plot, at regular intervals to help you establish that nice peak-and-valley feel to the tension. You can look at the percentages as fractions instead if that helps, which means you split the story into quarters and then split each of those in half. They can be page count or word count, whichever works best for you. It’s okay if the beginning of the scene with the important plot point is at the exact percentage. It’s okay if the percentage is the end of the scene, the point where the importance of the scene hits the character, etc. But if it’s way off, you might need to step back and evaluate. So, even though the numbers are incredibly precise, they really are still more flexible than it feels, and it’s really more a way to quantify and externalize the feel of the pacing. And as always, this is something that’s often best done in revisions, especially if you’re a pantser.
Carly: Okay, so we’ve referenced three act structure a lot. And you’ll probably remember that Jeni and I both like to say: it’s really four act structure because act two is split in two. And it’s annoying for our brains. If I slip up, that’s why. Anyway, let’s look at what those plot points are.
Jeni: Okay, so let’s break down the plot points from the movie so we can show really clearly how these come together.
Act 1, 0-25%. At the beginning, we see Katniss in her everyday world. She takes care of her little sister as almost more of a mother than a sister. In the hook, we see her strength as an archer and also get hints that she’s a rule-breaker when another character, Gale, stops her from shooting a deer.. There are hints about the worldbuilding, shown through interaction with Gale, and the bleakness of life in their poor district. The conflict in this portion is more about how hard their normal life is, but there are hints about the main conflict–Prim’s dream, talk about how many times their name is in for the reaping, the mockingjay pin, which slowly gets us oriented toward the main plot.
The inciting event happens when Prim’s name is called at the reaping and Katniss volunteers to take her place. I want to point out that we don’t know everything about the hunger games and the world or even these characters when this happens. We just know what we need to know: Katniss’s motivation in her deep love and responsibility toward her sister, a general disdain for the reaping, that Katniss is clever, a bit of a rebel, and has survival skills.
Then the first plot point/end of act 1 is when Katniss and Peeta are officially introduced as tribute on the televised show and decide to play to the cameras for the sake of getting sponsors. This really cements her as someone to watch in the games and sets up an important aspect of the main plot that will carry through the whole story, which is the relationship with Peeta.
Carly: Act 2A, 25-50%. This is also called the confrontation or rising action or even the response. This is where things are really beginning to happen. Everything is getting spicy. We’re in the Capitol and we’re prepping for the games as act 1 comes to a close. So now we need to up the tension, raise the action so to speak. Act 2 starts with the first pinch point - in this movie it is the interview where Peeta admits his feelings for Katniss. While it is Peeta making this confession, it is really the further realization that they can’t win that is the antagonistic force here. Peeta is either actually in love with her (spoilers he is) or he is playing the game. Either way, it is a shitty situation that they are in and it forces Katniss to examine the situation. She is stuck here with very little power. And she is being confronted with a lot of emotions, She is basically reminded that if she is to survive, everyone else must die, including Peeta. Then we get the Midpoint - this is the first day, and Katniss almost dies getting supplies. The games have begun. She goes against their advice and doesn’t immediately run and hide, she goes for some supplies (which honestly isn’t a bad call). But in doing so she is nearly killed. It is only due to luck that someone kills her killer, allowing her to escape. There couldn’t be a more overt change to her circumstances. The games have begun and everything has changed.
Jeni: Act 2B, 50-75%. This is still act 2, but as Carly said, everything changes from the midpoint. In the movie, Katniss tries to stay away from the other tributes. She’s basically focused on surviving, which is not a bad strategy. But unfortunately, the other tributes find her eventually. This is where she finds an important ally–Rue.
In the second pinch point, Katniss releases the wasps on the Careers thanks to a tip from Rue, and their friendship/alliance begins. This is a bit of a victory, but as a result, Katniss is also stung and could potentially die. But Rue nurses her back to health, cementing their alliance. Rue brings up a lot of Katniss’s feelings about her little sister, and you know she’s kinda deluding herself into thinking maybe she can get her and Rue both out of this alive.
You can see how this leads to the second plot point/end of Act 2, which is when Rue dies and Katniss has this huge emotional moment and the riots break out in Rue’s district, aka the part I skimmed through because my old lady heart can’t take it haha This is Katniss’s dark moment when the full weight of all of this really comes down on her, when she realizes the awfulness of her situation.
Carly: Act 3 is from 75-100% and is all about resolution. This is where you really want to make sure that your characters have a hand in the resolution, in finishing the story out. We don’t want a Deus ex Machina to solve the conflicts for your characters. That is how your reader will often feel cheated, they want the characters that they’ve grown attached to to take action and help resolve the conflict. So, act 3 starts with the beginning of the climax - which is Katniss and Peeta being chased by genetically modified creatures. Peeta even literally says “the finale has begun” when they hear the creatures howling. So thank you Peeta, for that specific pointer to this structure. Here the game master has begun to accelerate the games to their conclusion, and that is what you as an author must do. We need to accelerate the plot into the climax so we can get our exciting end of the book.From there we get lots of fighting with Cato and the beasts. Next we get our climactic moment - this is when Seneca announces haha just kidding, they can’t have two winners after all and Katniss and Peeta decide they are going to take the poison berries together. If they can’t both win, then the games will have no winner. Katniss knows they need a winner, everyone has been saying it to her throughout the story (oh hey a callback that threads everything together!). The climax is the big exciting moment where your character finally overcomes the main obstacles of your plot. The main conflict is resolved. And finally, we have the denouement. Unfortunately, you have me saying it instead of Jeni, but you get what you get. So a denouement is literally the “untying of the knot.” It is the end of the story where everything is resolved. Plot threads all come together, the conflict is over, things are explained. While I confusingly mix metaphors, it is wrapping up your plot in a nice bow, it is at the same time unraveling all the knots, mysteries, unknowns, obstacles that you have put in your characters’ way. Happy to make that muddy and confusing for you. In this movie we’ve got Katniss appearing on stage again to say how much she was in love, we’ve got Haymitch and Cinna explaining to her how to cover for all her actions, how to make sure everything is okay for them going forward. We get a nice montage of them wrapping up business in the Capitol and heading home on the train with a nice voiceover. And of course we get to see that Seneca is punished for how he ran the games. The end!
Jeni: One of the things I’m always saying is that most story structure comes back to three act structure. So I just want to talk for a minute about how that works with a couple of the more common ones.
Like I said before, Save the Cat is already based on three act structure, so I’m just going to talk about where those beats line up with what we discussed here. The Opening Image is like the hook we discussed, and then there are a bunch of smaller beats that make up the rest of Act 1. The end of Act 1 is the same as the B plot beat in Save the Cat. Then Act 2A is pretty much all Fun and Games, and the midpoint is the same. Yay! Pretty much all of Act 2B is Bad Guys Close In, and then All is Lost is the same as the dark moment/dark night of the soul/end of Act 2. Then Act 3 has a bunch of smaller beats again, and the climactic moment is like your finale and denouement is your final image.
Story Circle also has 8 areas, but instead of it being specific plot points, it’s more like these are what happens overall in that percentage. So instead of it focusing on turning points, it focuses on the time between turning points. So, for example, the portion of the story that’s 0-12.5% is called “in a zone of comfort.” Then at the 12.5% mark, it shifts to “desire something” until the 25% mark. But it’s still essentially the same steps, just with the focus shifted.
Four act structure is literally the same as three act structure, only instead of Act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3, it’s set up as Act 1, 2, 3, and 4. But everything else is exactly the same. And honestly makes a lot more sense to my brain but whatevs.
Then lastly is 5 act structure. Here, the midpoint is called the climax because that’s that pivot point in the story where so much changes. Otherwise, the story is split into Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement. The same plot points apply, but they’re split into these 5 areas of action instead.