Plot Structure And The Hunger Games (Part 1)

When I plan a novel, rather than creating a detailed outline I use a five-point story structure. In this article I’ll talk about how the book The Hunger Games illustrates the first three points.

I’ll cover the last two in next week’s article, but here's a list of all five:

  • Story Spark
  • One-Quarter Twist
  • Mid-Point
  • Three-Quarter Turn
  • Climax

Warning: Spoilers below. So if somehow you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the film, do that first.

Conflict On Page 1

Before we get to the plot points, almost every good book starts with conflict on page 1. Sometimes that conflict relates directly to the main plot, sometimes not.

In The Hunger Games it does.

In the very first paragraph, Katniss realizes her little sister, Prim, has climbed into bed with their Mom. Katniss guesses Prim’s having bad dreams and isn’t surprised because, as she tells us: “This is the day of the reaping.”

While we don’t find out until later what the reaping means, we know from the very first lines that it gives Prim nightmares and worries Katniss. That conflict draws the reader into the story.

Volunteering And The Story Spark

In the beginning of a novel, the protagonist is going along with her normal life when something major changes. That change usually comes from outside and sets the entire story in motion.

That’s the Story Spark, also known as the Inciting Incident.

In The Hunger Games, while we know right away that it’s the reaping day, we still see Katniss hunting in the woods as she normally does and selling her game. Also, as awful as the reaping is, the ceremony is an annual part of life in District 12 where Katniss lives.

During the reaping ceremony the name of one girl and one boy from the district are chosen to fight in an arena to the death.

The Story Spark occurs when the name of Katniss' little sister, Prim, is called. That happens the end of Chapter 1 on page 20, about 5% through the book.

(I’m using a paperback edition of The Hunger Games that is 374 pages long. The story doesn’t start until page 3 and the last page includes very little text, so that’s about 371 pages of story.)

The Tributes And The One Quarter Twist

Everything after the Story Spark flows logically from it. At the One-Quarter Twist (which happens, not surprisingly, right around the first quarter of the book), something outside the protagonist raises the stakes and sends the plot in a new direction.

Because of it, the protagonist must change course as well.

In The Hunger Games, responding to the Story Spark, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place. She then says goodbye to her family and friends and takes a train to the Capitol (the governing city) with the boy tribute from her district. We learn some of the back story between the two. Together, both grapple to understand what’s happening and take in the new and overwhelming world.

While they are wary of one another because only one tribute can survive the games, they stick close together. The team of people assigned to help them presents them as a united front.

On page 92, one-quarter of the way through the book, though, the story shifts.

Katniss meets the other tributes and begins training to beat not only them but Peeta. She can no longer afford to think of him as an ally, though they still present a united front to try to get sponsors.

The story now focuses on Katniss winning sponsors, learning survival skills, impressing the game makers, and finding safety, food, and water during the early part of the game.

More conflict occurs between her and Peeta. She mistrusts him and questions his every move. He asks to be trained separately.

The Mid-Point Reversal And/Or Commitment

At the midpoint of a well-plotted story the protagonist makes of vow or commitment to the cause, often throwing caution to the wind. The protagonist also may suffer a major reversal of fortune.

Page 183, halfway through the book, finds Katniss literally up a tree.

She climbed up to get away from the career tributes (young people who have trained all their lives to fight in the arena). She is badly injured, hungry, in pain, exhausted, and sees no way out.

This desperate situation is her mid-point reversal.

Over the next few pages, she also throws caution to the wind and commits when future ally, Rue, points out a hornets’ nest. It contains hornets whose sting, at best, causes hallucinations. Swarms of them kill.

Despite the danger to herself, Katniss saws off a branch, sending the nest plummeting to the ground.

Releasing the swarm causes two deaths, marking the first time Katniss kills anyone in the games.

This midpoint propels the story forward, which I’ll discuss more next week.

That's all for today. Until next Friday when I'll finish this discussion of plot and The Hunger Games

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the five-point plot structure, or want to try applying it to an outline or rewrite of your novel, check out these Free Story Structure Worksheets.

Listening For Ideas

Finding ideas for your novel often presents a challenge. But whether you are starting a new story, are stuck in the middle, or are looking for a new plot twist listening can help.

Sounds Inside And Out

I earned a Writing/English degree from Columbia College in Chicago. During our fiction writing classes our professors often had us sit in a circle in complete silence.

The professor directed us to listen first to sounds inside the classroom and the building. Next, because our windows opened onto Wabash Avenue, a busy street, we listened for sounds from outside.

Eventually as we kept listening the city noises and sounds prompted us to imagine scenes. After 15 minutes or so of quiet the professor had us describe each of our scenes to one another. We were pushed to include not only what we saw and heard but what we (or our characters) smelled, tasted, and felt.

The last step was to write as fast as we could in our notebooks the scenes we'd imagined.

Some of the scenes sparked new stories. Others became part of ongoing projects. Still others (probably most of them) I forgot.

I admit that when I was in college this exercise struck me as being as much about filling class time (our class sessions were over 4 hours long) as about generating ideas. Since then, though, when I've gotten stuck I often try this exercise and it helps.

It's also pretty relaxing.

Your Friends, Foes, And Family

Another great place to find ideas is through day-to-day conversations.

The next time you talk to a friend, family member, or coworker, practice really listening. So often during a conversation we rush to say what's on our minds. (Now that I spend most of my time alone writing, I notice even more of a tendency to do this.)

Instead, try setting aside your own concerns and hearing what the other person says. Ask questions to encourage that person to share more about the issue, the feelings it prompts, and the circumstances around it.

You can also try taking a breath after you think the other person has finished talking and before you speak. That may allow the other person to finish a thought or elaborate on an idea. And if your conversation partner has truly finished, it will make the conversation more relaxed and comfortable for both of you.

I'm not in any way suggesting that you put these conversations directly into one of your novels. That's an almost certain way to get people angry at you.

If you're like me, however, you'll find that bits and pieces of what you hear from others spark ideas about conflicts that could become novels or scenes. You can take day-to-day issues and exaggerate them or put them in other worlds, whether that literally means on another planet or simply in another profession or family situation.

Also, the more people whose points of view you truly listen to and understand the more diverse characters and situations you can create.

Listening To Strangers

I'm also a fan of listening to conversations of strangers out on the street, on the train, or in a crowded coffee shop.

I don't sneak up on people and eavesdrop (though I admit sometimes I'm tempted). But these days given how crowded Chicago sidewalks are and how often people talk on the phone right behind me outside, on public transportation, in stores, or in restaurants, it's often impossible not to hear. So rather than feeling constantly annoyed by it, I listen.

As with day-to-day conversations you have with people you know, overheard conversations are great sources of ideas for novels. You'll also gradually develop a better and better sense of other people's speech patterns.

So next time you are walking down the street, rather than putting in earbuds and listening to audio or making a phone call yourself, pay attention to what is going on around you. It may just spark a great idea for your next novel.

That's all for today. Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly


Your Character’s Past, Present, and Future

Usually I create an outline for a novel and race through the first draft. The resulting manuscript, as I noted in Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel, usually has tons of plot holes and characters who are more like stick figures.

I'm okay with that because that's what rewrites are for.

Sometimes, though, what I don't know about a character keeps me from moving forward.

Characters Who Don't Drive The Story

Because I'm a fan of writing first drafts fast I don't worry too much about side characters.

For example, in my current novel (The Fractured Man, the third in my Q.C. Davis suspense/mystery series) a character named Dan appears in an early scene. He's a suspect in the murder at the heart of the book.

But I already know he'll be eliminated as a serious possibility pretty early on. Also, while he'll get in my main character Quille's way as she investigates, doing that won't depend on who he is as a person.

Because of that, right now he doesn't have a whole lot of personality. Or backstory.

When I'm done with this initial draft, I'll expand his character to fit what I need him to do and be. If he's meant to be a red herring and mislead the reader, he may very well end up a three-dimensional, compelling character.

Sometimes readers end up loving those characters. Maybe because I have so much fun creating them after I've nailed down the plot.

For now, though, it's fine for him to walk in and do what the plot requires.

The Characters Who Matter Most

Other characters, though, propel the story forward. The most obvious is the protagonist.

For The Fractured Man, my main character Quille continues from book to book. I have a good sense of who she is. For that reason, I thought I'd write the third book in the series pretty fast once I had the plot figured out. (I do a rough 5-point outline and make some notes, and usually it's enough.)

I rarely worry about whether any one scene is exciting or dull at this early stage because it's easier to figure out what's working and not when I have a whole novel in front of me.

But if a major character lacks motivation, or I'm unclear how two people relate to each other and their feelings ought to drive the plot, everything falls flat.

Past Present Future Character Tarot
A Character's Past, Present, and Future in Cards

Which was happening with The Fractured Man.

I found myself rewriting early scenes and struggling with momentum. I finally realized it was because I didn't have a good feel for what was happening with Quille and her best friend from childhood, Caleb.

He comes to her for help after dropping out of her life when they were both twenty years old. For me (and therefore the reader) to believe Quille would do him a major favor after over a decade of silence, I needed to know how they felt about each other.

Not only right now but in the past.

Past, Present, and Future

Sometimes if you know a character well enough in the present, you can fill in the past as you go. Other times who that character was as a child makes a vast difference to who the person is now.

Think about Stephen King's It, for instance. My love for the characters as children had a huge amount to do with why I found their story as adults compelling.

But the more I thought about Caleb and kicked around ideas in my head, the more frustrated I became. I could picture him, but I couldn't quite get in touch with him.

So I took out some tarot card decks, which I use as creative prompts only. (Despite having written some horror fiction, I'm not a believer in the supernatural or the occult.) If you're not comfortable with tarot decks, you can buy any sort of deck of cards with striking imagery.

I laid out a card for the past, the present, and the future from the Robin Wood tarot deck and did the same for an Angel tarot deck.

Without looking at what the cards supposedly mean, I wrote a few notes with my reaction to the images and card titles alone. I found the cards in the Future column most compelling.

Character Notes from Tarot Cards

The Sun seemed to me to portray Caleb's whole personality. He sees himself as the center of the universe with everyone revolving around him. The upside down card The Lovers demonstrated what I saw for him in future relationships. Basically that he comes at love, friendship, and family relationships in an upside down way. Looking for what he can get first and then wondering why he doesn't feel close with anyone.

From there I moved to the past and then the present. Though I'd thought I might write about his friendship with Quille, in the end I wrote only about Caleb.

Have I solved every issue, and filled in every blank, for Caleb? No. But it's enough that I feel confident that I can keep writing from where I am, which is about one-fifth through the story.

What are your favorite ways to learn more about your characters?

That's all for today. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for more help creating characters? Download Free Character Creation Worksheets.

Choosing Amazon Categories For Your Book

It's hard to find time each day or week to market your books. Especially if you're also working another job. One thing you can do once to help books sales is to add Amazon categories.

When you upload your book on the KDP Dashboard (which you can use to publish a Kindle ebook or paperback edition) you'll be asked to choose two categories.

But where do you check out other books in those categories?

And are you limited to just two?

Number Of Categories

About a year ago at a writing conference a speaker said that if you contact KDP support, you can request a total of up to ten categories. So that's eight in addition to the original two.

While I haven't found an official rule confirming that, when I've requested additional categories, they've been added.

You do that through the KDP Help once you're signed into KDP. You need to provide the ASIN for the Kindle edition of the book, its title, and the categories.

What's New

The first time I asked for additional categories, I copied them from the sales page of books that I thought were similar to mine. A KDP support person added most of them.

For a couple, the support person advised that categories had changed but added my book into similar ones.

I still think this is a good way to get ideas.

But when I requested categories this week, I discovered I hadn't conformed with current requirements.

In my first request for my latest non-fiction book Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Lead A Calmer, Happier Life, I asked for these categories:

  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Self-Help > Stress Management
  • Books > Self-Help > Anxieties & Phobias
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Personal Health > Healthy Living
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Mental Health > Mental Illness
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Pathologies
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Mental Health > Mood Disorders
  • Books > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Mental Health > Mood Disorders
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Counseling & Psychology > Pathologies > Anxieties & Phobias

KDP Support responded that I needed to choose specific, current Kindle categories, which apparently I hadn't done.

Where To Find Them

It turns out you find the current categories on the New Release page.

The email also advised that the categories are different for each Amazon company. So the U.K. might have different categories than the U.S.

On the U.S. page I found on the left hand side toward the middle a broad list of categories. Clicking on each expanded to sub-categories.

Sometimes there were multiple layers of sub-categories. I had to drill down quite a bit to get to ones that struck me as worthwhile. Doing that took me over an hour.

Better Something Than Nothing

In a perfect world I'd investigate the top books in each possible category. Ideally, my book would be similar to those in the Top 20 or so. Also, I'd want books in the Top 20 that didn't rank so high (say in the Top 5,000 overall) that I'd need massive sales to get there.

I'd also want ones where the Top 20 books didn't rank so low (say 200,000 and up overall) that probably no one is browsing those categories.

One Category Worked Great On a Recent Free Day

But because I'd already spent over an hour, I had other things to get done (including write), and it's better to do something than nothing, I skipped that research.

Instead I picked what I thought were the best categories based on the topics and the number of reviews the books had. I requested the following:

  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Self-Help : Stress Management 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Self-Help : Happiness 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Health, Fitness & Dieting : Counseling & Psychology : Mental Health : Mood Disorders 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Health, Fitness & Dieting : Counseling & Psychology : Pathologies : Anxieties & Phobias 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Reference : Words, Language & Grammar : Reference 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Reference : Writing, Research & Publishing Guides : Writing Skills 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Reference : Writing, Research & Publishing Guides : Nonfiction 
  • Kindle Store : Kindle eBooks : Reference : Writing, Research & Publishing Guides : Publishing & Books 

I left researching other countries for another day.

It may not be the perfect list. But at least there will be more places where U.S. readers may come across the books.

That's all for today. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly


Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing

Do you wake at night, stomach churning, worrying you said the wrong thing to a family member, forgot to do something vital, or failed to prepare enough for tomorrow's meeting with your boss?

Do you ask yourself What If something awful happens over and over even if you know it’s unlikely?

When you finally get a day off does a worry about work, family, or your latest novel make it hard to enjoy yourself?

You're not alone.

Anxiety and Creativity

Happiness Anxiety And Writing Book Cover

Many writers and other creative people, including me, feel that way.

Sometimes the creative part of your brain –  exactly what helps you write stories and imagine scenes – goes into overdrive when it comes to daily life. The writer’s imagination we value so much can, unfortunately, also trap us in endless loops of anxiety.

That’s something I’m very familiar with.

Rewriting Your Life

For years I struggled with anxiety, and the more I tried to think my way out of it, the worse it got.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

My new book, Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life (Kindle, Workbook) shares ways I learned to use imagination and my writing skills to become calmer and happier instead.

In it you'll learn:

  • Techniques to derail anxious thoughts you otherwise repeat
  • Ways to talk to yourself and others that promote calm rather than reinforce worry
  • Specific, targeted exercises to direct your creative mind and imagination in a positive way
  • How and when to write and rewrite the best parts of your life for greater happiness
  • And more

Part memoir, part How To, Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing explains clear, simple steps to lower anxiety and stress, solve problems, and increase happiness. It includes examples from my own journey from being gripped by anxiety to a more relaxed, healthier life.

If you struggle with anxiety or worry, I hope you'll check it out.

That's all for today. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Happiness, Anxiety, and Writing: Using Your Creativity To Live A Calmer, Happier Life is available in a Workbook edition. Or download today in ebook format at the following retailers: