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?