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
- Three-Quarter Turn
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—
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.