Riveting Our Readers By Using the Death Factor

I finally did it. I caved in and read The Hunger Games. As I’ve said before, YA Dystopian is not my usual genre of choice. But . . . I was sick, and I wanted an easy, entertaining read. The book was convenient—I downloaded it onto my Kindle in less than a minute. And as far as books go, it was priced reasonably.

So I read the first book in the trilogy. And as I delved deeper into the story, I was pleasantly surprised that my internal editor was silent. Like most writers, my internal editor likes to barge out uninvited when I’m reading. It brings a red sharpie and critical eye even when I try to restrain it.

But it wasn’t until I’d clicked the last page of the book that finally my internal editor crept out of the deep offices of my mind. I began to mull over the book and ask myself these kinds of questions:

“What made this book a bestseller?”

“What kinds of techniques did the author use to draw me in?”

AND “Why did my internal editor snooze through the whole thing?”

I’m sure there are already plenty of posts out there that have unlocked the secrets of The Hunger Game’s success. So I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll simply point out the thing about the book that struck me the most, and it was this: Death was a constant threat.

Yes, the threat of death loomed at every twist and turn of the book. The main character is forced to play a cruel, national “game” in which twenty-four teenagers are pitted against one another in a televised survival show. They must kill each other. And the last one left standing wins.

So obviously when we write our novels, most of us aren’t going to have the barbaric gladiator-style death menace that haunts the pages of The Hunger Games. But . . . we can utilize the concept of death as a threat no matter our genre.

In fact, after reading the book, I stopped and took a hard look at the plot I’m developing for my next novel. And as I examined my pages of research and ideas, I jotted several notes in the margins—some ways to increase the Death Factor.

1. Find a valid death threat the characters must face. Of course, a physical threat to our character’s life is usually one of the best ways to increase tension. But there are other death threats—emotional death and depression, danger looming over someone our character loves, or the loss of something incredibly important to our character.

2. Let someone or something hunt our characters. When our characters are on the run or are being chased by antagonists, ghosts, memories, or whatever, then we push our readers to the edges of their seats. We can close the gap during the hunt, let our characters almost get caught, perhaps allow them to get hurt, but then let them get safely away again in the nick of time, until the next chase.

3. Throw elements at our characters. If it’s hot, make it really hot and dry. If it’s cold, make it bitterly so. Floods, droughts, snowstorms—whatever natural elements we pit against our characters, we can make them as deadly as possible (of course without sacrificing believability!).

4. Have our hero/heroine protect someone more vulnerable than themselves. When our character is working to save the life of a weaker character, it not only increases reader empathy, but now we’ve given our readers more than one person to worry about.

5. Give them a fight for liberty against injustice. If we have an outside force at work to destroy, enslave, or oppress our characters, then once again we add another dimension of the Death Factor. Our characters have to battle for freedom against cruel oppressors or be trampled and destroyed.

All of the above elements were present in The Hunger Games at one point or another. And believe it or not, as I thought about the story I’m currently planning, I was able brainstorm ways I could potentially include the various Death Factors.

No, I’m not switching to thrillers or dystopian. I’m still writing historical romances. My point is that if we want the kind of book that keeps a reader riveted to the page, then no matter the genre we can make use of the Death Factor.

What about you? Are you including an element or threat of death (literal or not) in your story somewhere? And if you read The Hunger Games, did your internal editor take a break too? Why or why not?


  1. Love the death factor breakdown, Jody! My 14 yr old daughter begged me to read this series a while ago, and I had no idea what it was all about—other than I knew a lot of writers whose opinions I valued had raved about the writing.

    How nice of your internal editor to hold off with its opinion until you finished the book. But what a helpful list it compiled afterwards. ;-) All excellent tips to remember as I go through plot edits on my WIP. Thank you.

    Are you planning to read books 2 and 3? (Just curious.)

  2. Hi Jody, as alwaysfrom you good, downright helpful writing advice. I'm still not sure of I'll read The Hunger Games, but I might!
    Cheers :)

  3. Hi ladies! Marianne, NO pressure to read it! It's a pretty intense book--largely because of the death factor hovering over every page. And the tone is grim. But the characters (especially the heroine) are well done and very likable. I'm sure that's added to the success of the book too.

    Barb, I haven't read the second or third books yet, but have read the reviews. I'll probably read book 2 at some point, but not sure about 3. I like HEA and so from the sounds of it, I probably won't like the way the series wraps up.

  4. Interesting perspective! I used the Death Factor a little in my book coming out without realizing it, but now I'll be thinking about it more.
    Glad you liked the first book. Do you think you'll read the rest?

  5. I love your perspective on the Hunger Games, Jody, and I love this break down of the death factor. Because I write suspense where the physical threat of death is always present, I have to conciously remind myself to remember the other "death factors," because I think those threats are just as important throughout a story.

    Now, you have to finish the trilogy!!!

  6. Yep, I like to throw a few trackerjackers at my MC. ;)

    #4 really resonated with me. There's something innate in all of us that longs to protect. I'm thinking Holden Caulfield. This kind of compassion in the MC stirs something in readers and as you said, gives them more characters to care about.

    Great points, Jody.
    ~ Wendy

  7. Very helpful post, (one to Bookmark)! A friend has been suggesting I read "Hunger Games." You've encouraged me to check one out.

    Thanks, Jody!!

  8. Thank you for the helpful post Jody:) I've never read Hunger Games, but I can totally understand that with the threat of death looming on most pages that your internal editor would hit the snooze button! I'm experimenting on my current WIP, which is a historical romance with #2 and #5 of your points. My heroine is being hunted so she's on the run but is also battling for external and internal freedom. Thanks for making a list of ideas that would keep people turning the pages:-)

    thanks Jody:-)

  9. Great list for upping the stakes for our characters, Jody. It always benefits me to get this craft stuff filtered through other writers' wisdom and experience. I love it that you do this so often (and kudos to you for keeping up this blog with such consistently strong content. It ain't easy!). Have you ever stopped to consider all the future novels you are helping to strengthen? I just did. :) What a good thought!

  10. You're so right about these, Jody! I especially loved how Katniss did it all to protect Prim, and to keep her promise to her.

    My MC is facing threats from someone from her past, someone who not only threatens to reveal the truth about her past to her daughter but also threatens her physically with harm.

  11. Personally, I prefer it only to have suspense like that if I'm reading a book in the suspense category. I expect the book to leave my heart in my throat etc. If it's a romance I want most of the suspense to stay away. If I want to read a heart-pounding (scary) book I will read a suspense/mystery. I read romance because I want something more light-hearted/passionate.

  12. Actually, Jody, I think you did that well in the Preacher's Bride. At the end of the book I remember how exciting a read it was because I was actually truly concerned about death despite the fact it was a romance and should give me the HEA.

  13. Hi everyone! Loving your thoughts today on this topic!

    Thanks for the encouragement, Lori! I appreciate that! :-)

    And Melissa, Thanks for the kind words about The Preacher's Bride! I do think it's possible for even romance writers to offer some of the death factor, perhaps to a lesser degree than a suspense or thriller or dystopian. But having that element of impending death is part of what keeps readers turning the pages!

  14. I think--luckily, it seems--one of the earliest writing books I read talked about different ways to hang the "Death Factor" over your character. They treated it as an essential part of the plot.

    That said, I know I can always do a better job of making that threat real for readers. Thanks for reminding me just how important those stakes are!!!

  15. It's weird, my usually very opinionated and loud internal editor was silent during this book too. She had plenty to say after I finished, but while I was reading I was very sucked in. This is a good possible explanation for it :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  16. I do have a death factor in my actual death. I came to the point where I knew, to make the story realistic, I had to kill off a sympathetic character. Once I figured that out, I had to put the thing away for a few weeks before I could make myself write it. It was hard, but I think/hope, it make the story better.

  17. Oh story has a group of teens that have to battle the supernatural in their dreams. If they are killed in their sleep, then they will never awaken.

    But I do find it hard to keep that suspense up. I don't want my teens trying to kill each other! But in the series, they will have to help others battle for their lives.

    That's what makes a story fun! :)

  18. I usually read books with a stack of post-it notes and a pen in hand so I can jot down all the things I want to mention in my review, but with The Hunger Games I didn't even think about it until I was finished reading. It was just so fast-paced and suspenseful that I couldn't put it down for even a second.

  19. My internal editor stayed miraculously silent when I was reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy.

    And excellent thoughts on the Death Factor. The two novels that are currently at the foremost of my mind--a two part series--deals with this a lot. The first book is done, and being released next week; I'm working on writing the second one, and both of them are full of stakes and the threat of death or near death--and you're right, it doesn't have to be (and it isn't) always physical.

    Thanks for sharing!

  20. Great poiints about the death factor and I agree. Putting this in my notes for my outline of my WIP.

  21. Ok, I'm putting this on my to-read list now.

    However, I agree with what another commenter said - I think I prefer the death factor to not be intense if its not essential to the romance, or not historically accurate, or otherwise necessary to the plot. I find that my internal editor goes on high alert when I find death threats and drama in situations that doesn't warrant it (I like to call it "made up drama). For me, this is worse for the story than having no pressing death factor at all. In my opinion not all books can make use of the death factor, nor should they.

  22. Jody, you said: "I do think it's possible for even romance writers to offer some of the death factor..." I've read about this elsewhere, too. Maybe an "emotional" death or "professional" death. Could you give examples of this in regards to a romance? Having a hard time applying this idea of a "death" of some sort to my women's fiction novel, which has a strong romantic element. thanks.

  23. I haven't read Hunger Games, but I've heard good things about it. I agree with you about the death factors; I think that's partly why the Harry Potter series was (and is) so popular.
    My main characters don't have any literal threats in terms of death, but they do have to deal with antagonists. Like you said, antagonists make the story more interesting. I once read a book I disliked because there weren't really any antagonists. There were a few people who seemed like they could cause problems, but they were (too) easily dealt with so they didn't seem very threatening.

  24. Good point in (1) that the threat doesn't have to be physical to be compelling. Not every story has to hinge on literal life-or-death decisions.

  25. Handy Man, Crafty Woman asked: Could you give examples of this in regards to a romance? Having a hard time applying this idea of a "death" of some sort to my women's fiction novel.

    My thoughts: The Death Factor doesn't have to be a physical threat to our characters (although that's usually the most riveting). James Scott Bell in his book PLOT & STRUCTURE talks about 3 types of death: physical, professional, and emotional.

    For example, in my latest book, The Doctor's Lady, as my character travels west in a covered wagon, she faces physical death threats all along the way--from the elements, Indian threat, even the danger of traveling with the mountain men (one accosts her at one point). But she also faces emotional death too when she loses a young adopted child she's grown to love. I wanted the emotional death to be just as threatening to her well-being as the physical threats.

    I think we look for ways to bring our characters to the as close to the "end of the rope" as we can, but then pull them back.

    Hope that makes sense!

  26. My internal editor was not snoozing--she was wide awake with me, saying, "Let's just read *one* more chapter before going to sleep." :)

    And that is largely because of the Death Factor. At the end of each chapter, Collins reminds the reader of the Death Factor, or adds yet another threat, compelling us to read on.

  27. Fascinating twist on the umpteen Hunger Games analyses out there!

  28. Great post on the "death threat" tension in the Hunger Games. I think tension is an important factor in every book, but it doesn't have to be a physical death threat . . . it could be a threat to something important to our characters.
    In my Christian fantasy WIP, my character is faced both with the "death factor" several times as well as a spiritual "death factor" that she has to face with faith.

  29. I saw the trailer for The Hunger Games movie and it reinforced my conviction that it probably wasn't a book I wanted to read. Now I have to rethink my decision! I do agree that the threat of losing something is an important element in our stories. It's all part of the necessary "conflict" aspect.

  30. I have a death threat that hangs over my heroine's head in my debut novel, and when people ask why I set my book during the French Revolution, I think to myself "Well, there is that frightening guillotine my characters are running from. And where else could I find a society that wanted to kill people for being highborn?

    That said, I have a question. How do we have our characters be running from an external threat or person without allowing that external person to control the story? I tried to create dastardly villain with my second novel, and ended up with a villain who controlled too much of the plot. Your characters need a goal, but if that only goal is to run from the bad guy, isn't the book motivated by the wrong character? At the same time, you always hear to make your villain stronger than your protagonist. How do you do this and still have your protagonist control the story? Maybe giving your protagonist someone weaker to defend plays a role here?

  31. Hi Naomi,
    Great question!! I'm not sure that I can completely answer it since I'm not sure how your story all fits together. But if you think of the plot as being broken into three strands (for a romance), then you would have your external (with the antagonist), the spiritual/emotional (in which your characters are growing and overcoming some personal issue), and then the relational strand (in which your characters are overcoming relational barriers in order to be together). Perhaps your external strand has become too big, overshadowing the other two? In that case, you could look for ways to strengthen the emotional and relationship strands so that they are equally important. When you're braiding all three together, you'll want them all fairly even. In fact, for a romance, you might even want the strongest one to be that relationship strand. Hope that makes sense and helps, Naomi!

  32. Nice post, Jody, with excellent writing tips!

    I, too, was surprised by The Hunger Games. I was looking for something light to read across the Christmas holidays, and wound up reading the whole trilogy back-to-back.

    While I cannot say it was the most insightful series ever read (or other such claims), it was certainly entertaining, and kept me turning pages.

  33. Thanks for the explanation, Jody. I've read your post on the three-fold cord of a plot before. Thanks for reminding me, I hope it helps in the future. And I did get my story straightened out. Sadly, I had to rewrite the majority of it in the straightening, but it's looking good now. Thanks again for the advice!

  34. I was so invested in the characters of HUNGER GAMES that I wanted to go on the terrifying journey with them. The death stakes kept me on edge through the whole series.

  35. This is dead on (sorry for the pun). It definitely has me thinking about raising the stakes in my current WIP. Of course, the threat of death is compelling but it doesn't have to be that threat. Being constantly threatened in any way would probably suffice--if done well.


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