My new favorite young-adult series is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books literally grabbed me from the first page. I’ve been mulling over the stylistic and artistic reasons why I think these books were so good, particularly since I’m not a big fan of first-person narrative. Ironically, I think it’s the first-person voice that grabbed me.
For many writers, the first-person narrative is a mechanical vehicle for engaging readers by shifting the point of view. Rather than an out of body, third-person perspective, the reader gets to see the world through the eyes (or, more appropriately, lens) of the lead character. This technique is moderately successful, IMHO, but most writers don’t really exploit it effectively.
Collins does, however, because she has infused the first-person narrative with a distinctive voice and perspective: 16-year old Katniss Everdeen. The language is broken, littered with dependent clauses where sentence structure often seems incongruent. In short, she’s writing like a teenager thinks and talks. Take the first two paragraphs from The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough convas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed togehter. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a fresh as raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Short sentences, short clauses, some strung together, some on their own. Throughout, Collins mixes present tense with past observations by the character. Again, these are techniques for pulling the reader actively into the story and Katniss’s character. As the story progresses, Collins infuses more of Katniss’s way of thinking into the book, including self questioning and the kinds of dilemma’s anyone would face in such as situation. And it’s all teenager, not adults writing like teenagers.
Where did she get this fresh approach? I think it has a lot to do with her experience writing screenplays for children’s television shows. Screenplays are all about dialogue and developing distinctive characters. That’s a critical stylistic building block for these books, and a good lesson for writers more generally.
So, voice, character, and perspective are wrapped together in a very fresh first-person narrative. And the rest will be history….