World building in The Hunger Games

On Wednesday I wrote about the Hunger Games and mostly what I didn’t like about the trilogy (despite liking the trilogy, and loving the first book especially). I focussed there mostly on Katniss and my problems with her.

Today I’m going to talk a bit more about it, focussing on the world building and tips for writers exploring their own worlds.

Don’t Overwhelm With Facts

There’s a tendency for writers, especially in speculative fiction, to give huge info dumps about their world. “The characters live in this city. Here’s the entire history of the city.” They do it because the history of the city is actually really cool, and also¬† they spent a lot of time developing the world and want to share all their hard work.

The problem is that it’s an info dump. Most of the information has nothing to do with the story or characters and is just a distraction from them. It’s not interesting to a reader. I don’t want to read three pages about something I’ve not been made to care about through story, through narrative. (Tolkien does this a lot in The Lord of the Rings; I love the story of the books, but can’t get through the prose half the time.)

The trick is to seed the information subtly. Reference it without explaining every detail to show me that there’s a rich world behind the story without bogging me down in trivia. Give me the information I need to know to understand the characters and plot but don’t confuse me or bore me.

This is something I think The Hunger Games does well. There’s a whole history to the world that we only glimpse at first, which is revealed more and more as you continue in the story. We learn what we need to learn without being overwhelmed.

But Don’t Spring Important Details

On the other side of the coin is the danger of too few details. If we don’t even know there’s a gun in Act 1, then the sudden appearance of a gun in Act 3 comes across not as “you now need to know there’s a gun because it’s about to be used” as it does “oh shit, I suddenly need a gun in this scene. Uh…. there was one there all along! Yeah, that’s it. Wink, wink.”

This is actually something I don’t think The Hunger Games did well. There were a lot of moments when we learn about something just because it’s suddenly improtant (example off the top of my head: the Quarter Quell).

It makes the writer immediately visible. (Like, “Oh shoot, I need some way to get Katniss back into the Games. Uhh… every 25 years there’s a special thing that lets the president do whatever he wants! Good thing it just happens to be this year…”) The last thing you want as a writer is to be visible. It comes across as deus ex machina.

The trick is to seed that information early on. Mention something about the Quarter Quell in book 1 — canny readers might think, “Wait, that’s next year! Dun dun DUN…” and it’s foreshadowing (then, when it happens, they feel rewarded for having picked up on it). Others won’t realize until it happens, but then they’ll think, “Oh yeah, I remember them mentioning that. By golly, Suzanne Collins had this planned out the whole time! Well played, Collins. Well played.”

Instead, I was immediately left thinking, “Seriously? Seriously? All we’re doing is book 1 all over again. You couldn’t come up with something new?”

I don’t doubt it was planned from the beginning. But give the reader a hint so it’s not out of the blue. And you can show them how smart you are.

I found this a number of times throughout the books, not just with the Quarter Quell. We’d get details about the world that just served to explain the very next thing that happened, and it comes across like that world detail only exists to make sure that thing happened. If you have a rich storyworld, give us more hints. If, as you’re writing, you need to invent a new detail to explain the very next thing that happens, go back in a rewrite and seed that information earlier.

World building is key, especially in speculative fiction. Don’t overwhelm your reader, but at least bring them along for the ride.

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  1. I’m revising a manuscript right now, and it’s definitely something I have to do. I have a whole world in my head for this science-fantasy, and as I re-read it, I see places where I am //way// too heavy handed with my infodumps. As I revise, I have those marked so I can rework the scenes and add in others that will more gradually let the reader experience the world instead of being told about it.

    I did the biggest mistake I could in the opening paragraph. Not only is it an infodump about the setting and where the characters come from, but it’s also about (are you ready for this?)…the weather. Yeah. So I have a major revision to the beginning of the book just waiting for me.

    Thanks for the kick in the pants to reinforce what I was already muddling through.

    • Glad I could help out! Sometimes the kick in the pants is all you need — that’s why I love the workshopping process so much. It’s also true that sometimes that first draft needs to be crap; you have to get the information out of your head and onto the page. Only then can you look at what you have and figure out how to make it, you know, good. :)

  2. Oh yes. These were some of the things I thought too when I read the book. Especially about the Quarter Qwell being tossed in there. I assume that she knew, but I’m only giving the author the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, I wondered why she didn’t say anything about it in the first book. Why didn’t she say that the games Katniss was a part of were the 74th games? That would have been a tip. Or she could have mentioned that their trainer was from the 50th games/second Quarter Qwell. That would have been another subconscious tip. But she didn’t, and that info sprung on us added to my feeling that it was really all nothing more than filler to help stretch out the books.

    And the info dumps, that’s a good reminder. Thank you. It is rather common to run into those info dumps. Sometimes I enjoy them, and sometimes it’s very tedious to read through the history of a place that’s slapped in the middle of a chapter. It’s become as common as a first person narrator looking in a mirror and describing what they look like to him or herself.

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