MOVIE BIOLOGY – Dissecting HG Act One


Movies, like books, typically have three parts, or acts. Each one (in my opinion) should contain certain elements to be successful.

How is success measured? By our readers. If they stop reading, we’ve failed.

The same is true for editors. If they pick up your book and aren’t hooked in the first few pages they’ll throw your manuscript in their slush pile and never look back. Brutal truth.

That’s why I believe the first act is the most important. It sets up the foundation for the rest of the book.

So, what goes into the first act that makes a novel successful? Many things. But I don’t want to make this boring. There’s a funner way to learn this. (Funner isn’t a word, but it should be. I love it.)

Watch a movie. Dissect it.

Analyzing movies is a great way to study the necessary elements. (It’s fun for me, but my family cringes when they watch a movie with me. Maybe it’s because I blurt out the parts and tell them what’s going to happen. It’s a bad habit. Just ask them.)

Remember this: If you can learn to dissect movies you’ll be one step closer to writing a better novel.

Let’s dissect ACT ONE in THE HUNGER GAMES.

(Caution: Potential spoiler alert.)

ACT ONE (Is typically about 15% of the book if the book is 100,000 words) 

In the beginning of every story the reader should see the main pov (point-of-view) character in her Ordinary World—this can be a physical, emotional and psychological place.  We see Katniss with her family in her home, the forest, and her city. We see a typical day in her life.  It’s her “normal.” But it shouldn’t take long to show this.

Check out how much we learn in just the first two paragraphs in HG:

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.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a s fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

What did you learn?  The 5 w’s. Remember those?

Where she lives. They’re all sleeping together in one room so we know the house is small.

Who she lives with. We get the feeling that she’s concerned about her mother and her sister. That she’s the “man” of the house. We wonder where her father is and if she has one. We don’t know Kaktniss’ name yet or if she’s a he or a she. But curiosity makes us read on. (I thought she was a boy until much later in the book. Shame on me for associating hunting with only boys.)

What’s coming—the reaping. What’s that? We don’t know, but we get the sense that it’s bad.

When—it’s morning.

Why—We’re not sure why there’s a feeling of doom, but it’s the mystery that makes us want to keep reading.

By the third page we know what Katniss is good at—hunting.

We also know what she fears— her family and her district starving to death. Why is knowing what she fears important? Because as authors we want to make sure our character’s worse fear comes to life somewhere in the story. (This makes me sound brutal, doesn’t it? It’s awful making our character’s suffer, but what’s our goal again? To keep readers reading.)

Did you also notice in the first chapter Gale calls Katniss by her nick-name? This is a great trick for romance writers. The hero gives the heroine a nick-name.

There’s a hint of hope in this chapter when Gale and Katniss laugh together in the forest and share their dreams.  When Gale says to Katniss:

(We could…)Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale.

This statement is an Invitation to Change the way things are. As readers, we root for this to happen. It’s a screen shot of their “happily-ever-after”. (My fave ending–a happy one.)

Foreshadowing: There’s plenty.  Here’s one example:

Anyway, Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker.”

This excerpt makes us wonder if they’ll die and if so, will it be a quick death?

The Stakes–This is what drives your reader through the story. Hinting at the stakes in the beginning will give your reader something to fight for. Ask yourself what’s at risk if your character doesn’t get what she wants? In Katniss’s sake the stakes are both public and private. If she doesn’t find food for her family they’ll starve. But once she goes to fight in the HG she’s also fighting for food for all of District 12.

“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.”

Inciting Incident – THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ACT ONE—Something must happen TO your main pov that takes her out of her normal world.  If there isn’t something that jolts your protag out of her everyday routine then you’ll have NO kick to your plot. And stories need kicks!

Have you ever read a book and thought “so what? I don’t care.” It’s probably because the stakes weren’t high enough and there was no inciting incident.

The inciting incident in HG happens at the end of chapter one when Effie Trinket reads the name of the first tribute from District 12—Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’s sister. Prim is the girl chosen to fight to her death.

When Katniss voluteers to go to the HG in place of her sister her entire ORDINARY WORLD changes. Her physical, emotional and psychological state are altered.

This sends Katniss on her Quest—to fight the HG and win. The quest is when the hero (Katniss) recognizes what’s at stake and ventures down a path that hopefully leads back to her normal world. She wants to regain her status-quo. (Not to complicate things, but the quest can be to return to a different “ordinary world,” too.)

Now–go watch a movie, and dissect the parts in Act One so you can ensure your novel has all the necessary parts. Check back next week for dissection of Act Two.

And may the odds be ever in your favor!


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