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Fiction technique: The setup-one-two punch of revelation, via Suzanne Collins

September 21, 2012

In a 350-page  novel, wasting a page is a sin against the gods of fiction. Every page needs to serve multiple masters: to be sure, it has to help build the plot, advance the story, and turn into lived-through synopsis in the reader’s mind, but it also has to offer the reader something special, something specific to that page, a local reward, a thrill of horror or a stirring of beauty. However, fiction is an expectations game; if you merely arrange pretty things for the reader to sample but don’t take their expectations into account, you will create less pleasurable local pleasures.

Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, is a master of setting reader expectations, which she does through point of view. Here’s a close-reading of a sequence from near the end of the book with the technique highlighted. After all but three of the twenty-four children in the Battle Royale Hunger Games have died (including one charming young psychopath named Glimmer), the final three are cornered by dog-like mutant monsters called “muttations”; they shelter on top of a structure, preparing to defend:

“The mutts are beginning to assemble. As they join together, they raise up again to stand easily on their back legs giving them an eerily human quality. Each has a thick coat, some with fur that is straight and sleek, others curly, and the colors vary from jet black to what I can only describe as blond. There’s something else about them, something that makes the hair rise up on the back of my neck, but I can’t put my finger on it. [this is the setup]

“They put their snouts on the horn, sniffing and tasting the metal, scraping paws over the surface and then making high-pitched yipping sounds to one another. This must be how they communicate because the pack backs up as if to make room. Then one of them, a good-size mutt with silky waves of blond fur takes a running start and leaps onto the horn. Its back legs must be incredibly powerful because it lands a mere ten feet below us, its pink lips pulled back in a snarl. For a moment it hands there, and in that moment I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. [trigger 1] The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. [trigger 2] The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number … it’s Glimmer.”

The revelation continues, as the heroine realizes that all the mutated monsters are based on the dead children (and may be stitched together from their reanimated corpses). From a purely high-level-plot perspective, the events are simple: the monsters appear, they turn out to be parodies of the dead children, and the fight commences. You could write that in a paragraph. But it would suck. Suzanne Collins knows much better than that.

The key to the trick is the setup, but the masterful flourish is the breaking up of the revelation. The setup line tells us that something very bad is about to be revealed, but doesn’t tell us what. We’re left to imagine something bad. It’s worth noting that a close third or a first person POV could both use this technique–any point of view where you can restrict what the reader knows to what a character knows–and that one of the pleasures of those close viewpoints is the constriction of information, the way revelation can be dramatized in this way. So: we, with the heroine, know that some awful revelation is coming, and we’re trying to imagine what it can be.

Then we get the first half of the revelation, and we were sort of expecting something like that. “They’re part-human bioengineered monsters with human eyes” is pretty horrific, but it’s not something beyond our expectations. We think we know what kind of monsters we’re dealing with; we relax a little.

That sets us up for the other half of the revelation, which is rendered more shocking by the little release of the first half. We’re not expecting another revelation, so it’s more startling. It’s a one-two punch, something the reader will experience and remember.

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