Saturday, August 16, 2014

Writing An Effective Opening Paragraph: An Analysis of The Hunger Games

C. D. Verhoff

Writer, Teacher, Blogger

This is a follow-up to my article, Common Newbie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

If you recall, I wrote about the all-important opening scene and some of the associated cliches, including the overused ‘Wake Up Scene’. This is when the novel begins with the protagonist waking up, usually stretching and groaning. Some versions of the 'Wake Up Scene' feature the protagonist throwing the alarm clock or struggling to remember last night's events. Just as often you will find him or her shuffling off to a mirror, which is the inexperienced author's favorite way to work in the character's physical description. If a novel opens with any of these elements or a combination thereof, it’s probably the work of a new writer. There are always exceptions, of course, which brings me to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. 

This dystopian tale begins with the proverbial 'Wake Up Scene', but it works beautifully. Happy accident? Not a chance. Collins knows the rules of the writing fiction and usually follows them. When she breaks them it's a carefully thought-out and deliberate decision.

Before I explain why the ‘Wake Up Scene’ works so well in The Hunger Games, let's look at at the duties of an effective opening paragraph. 

The opening paragraph should: 

1)  establish the mood and setting; 

2)  introduce the main character; 
3)  build empathy or make the protagonist interesting; 
4)  give the protagonist a problem to overcome.

If the first paragraph is set up with these four essentials, your readers will care about the main character and want to see how he or she conquers the problem at hand. In their eagerness to find out more about the main character and her situation, they will keep turning the pages until there is nothing left to turn. So finally, let’s examine the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games

The story is told from the point-of-view of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the novel. Below is the first paragraph of chapter one:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

This opening paragraph is deceptively simple. As we dissect it line-by-line, you'll quickly realize that this isn't just a random 'Wake Up Scene' the author pulled out of a hat; it's a carefully crafted beginning to an extraordinary story.

Line 1: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. Not the greatest line ever, but combined with the rest of the paragraph it's diligently working at building character and setting. When the main character notes that the other side of the bed is cold, the reader knows that someone who brings warmth to her life is missing.

Line 2: My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattressIn this one ordinary gesture of having Katniss reach out for her sister, the author has done an amazing amount of character and world-building. For instance, the close bond between the sisters is instantly revealed. The way the protagonist is drawn to her sister's warmth shows her vulnerability and the need to connect with another human being. At this point, readers are already feeling a connection with Katniss, even if they don't realize it.

As the story rolls along, we will see that life has already hardened Katniss around the edges. She can be a cold fish at times, but not when it comes to Prim. Little sister is the one ray of warmth in her cold and dreary life. Prim physically relies on Katniss’s survival skills, while Katniss relies on Prim at an even deeper level. Prim is the emotional anchor of the family—Katniss's reason for living.  

This same line also give important clues about the setting. The fact that Katniss shares a bed with her sister hints that the Everdeens are impoverished. We already know the house is cold, so there’s another clue. The cover of the mattress isn’t cotton or linen—but canvas—and it's rough. That’s not exactly living in luxury. By line two of the book, the reader comes to understand the family's depressed economic state.

Line 3: She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. The small sentence does double time by adding vital information about the setting and the conflict. When Prim climbs into bed with mother, but no father is mentioned, it begs the question...where is he? The father's absence is a stark mystery. At the same time, it establishes another piece of the settingKatniss lives in a household headed by a single mother. Then there is the bad dream, indicating that Prim is afraid and trouble is afoot. The reader wants to know what has poor Prim so upset. The mood of the paragraph invokes a sense of fear and anxiety, which leads us closer to the conflict.

Line 4: Of course, she did. This simple line emphasizes that the bad dreams are not simply the product of a young girl's overactive imagination. Katniss herself seems to agree that the bad dreams are warranted. Oh my, the reader wonders, what terrible thing has everyone so worried?

Line 5: This is the day of the reaping. Bam. Collins smacks us in the head with the conflict. At this point, we don't know exactly what “the reaping” entails, but that doesn't matter. Prim's dreams indicate that the reaping is a bad thing and it's going to happen today. 

Did you feel your empathy growing with every sentence? I know, I did. When I read the Hunger Games for the first time, at this point I was thinking, “I must find out more about the reaping and why the Everdeens fear it!” 

In other words, I was hooked. Helplessly compelled to turn the next page and I kept turning the pages deep into the night. When I got to the end, I didn’t want the book to be over. That's because Collins knows how to manipulate readers in a good way. This is why she can get away with starting a novel with a 'Wake Up Scene', whereas most newbie writers shouldn’t even attempt it. It’s a marvel how she imparted so much information in a mere five sentences. 

Notice how Collins plays by the rules most of the time. Her first paragraph includes all of the four essentials, but it's done within the confines of a verboten 'Wake Up Scene'. Yet, it works like a charm. My point is that there are no rules, just guidelines, deviate from them at your own risk. As writers, breaking from the mold should be an intentional choice, not a mistake born out of ignorance. If you understand that 'Wake Up Scenes' are generally a bad idea, but remain convinced that your character waking up makes for a killer hook, then by all means go for it.  

Purchase The Hunger Games Here

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