The Hunger Games story arc shows how a very successful novel relied on story structure to tell a powerful story.
What is a story arc? How do we create one? Which elements of a story need to be included in order for a story arc to work? These are questions that new—and even experienced—authors often ask themselves when planning, writing, revising, and editing.
There are two actions that I see as key to learning how to write a great story arc. The first of these is to learn and understand the key scenes of a story arc, their purposes, and when they should appear. The second is to look for and analyze the key scenes in stories you experience, whether that be in novels, movies, television, and so on.
What is a Story Arc?
The story arc is, in simple terms, the path a story follows. It is the spine of your story, providing structure to everything that happens.
Regardless of which method or structure is used to outline, plan, edit, or analyze a story, there are certain elements that all stories must contain. The study of numerous stories over many eras, and across various cultures, proves the necessity of including the essential elements of a story if we want our story arc to be powerful and complete.
To see two examples of how this is true, take a look at, Story Arc: Definitions and Examples in the Fictionary Blog. In this article, Fictionary founder and CEO, Kristina Stanley, demonstrates how these elements are evident in both the ancient epic poem Beowulf and the more recent novel—which I’m sure everyone has heard of—Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer.
Further, studies have shown that our brains expect certain types of things to happen at certain points in stories, and that these points fall within certain ranges. If they do not, the reader, listener, or viewer will be dissatisfied. They will know that something feels “off,” even if they can’t name what it is. This is the concept that author Lisa Cron explains and explores in her books, Wired for Story and Story Genius.
A good story arc includes the five key scenes. These are: the inciting incident, plot point 1, the midpoint, plot point 2, and the climax. To show this at work, I will break down these key scenes in the first book of The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins.
Many of you have either read The Hunger Games novel or watched the movie. For those of you who have not, be warned: spoilers ahead!
Story Arc of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
At the opening of The Hunger Games, we see the protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, waking up and wondering where her sister Prim is. We learn about her family’s struggle for survival and that Katniss regularly breaks the law to go outside the district perimeter to hunt for food. We also learn that people in her district, District 12, are tense, because they know the reaping is coming soon.
During the reaping, a young girl and a young boy between the ages of 12 and 16 are chosen to represent each district as Tributes in the upcoming 74th Hunger Games. This is a to-the-death, televised competition held each year as a reminder of what happened when district 13 rebelled against the Capitol. Out of the 24 Tributes—24 children between the ages of 12 to 18—that start out in the competition, only one will survive.
1. The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the point in any story where something happens that dramatically disrupts the protagonist’s world as they know it. To be most effective, the inciting incident should occur before the 15% mark.
For Katniss, this is when her 12-year-old sister Prim, who she adores, is chosen as District 12’s female Tribute. Katniss panics, knowing that sending Prim into the Hunger Games would be tantamount to signing her death warrant. So Katniss steps forward to volunteer as Tribute in Prim’s place. Directly afterwards, she and the male Tribute from her District, Peeta Mellark, are escorted to the Capitol by their chaperone, Effie Trinket, and their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy.
The scene where Katniss steps up to volunteer as tribute happens at the 6% point of the novel.
2. Plot Point 1
Plot point 1 is the point of no return for the protagonist. There is no way that character can go back to the life they had before and expect it to be the same. This scene should happen at around the 25% point of the novel.
In The Hunger Games, this occurs after Katniss does her demonstration for the Gamemakers. She is the last to go, and most of the Gamemakers are no longer paying attention. Katniss gets angry and aims an arrow at the Gamemakers’ table, shooting an apple out of a roast pig’s mouth and pinning it to the wall.
Afterwards, once she has cooled down, Katniss worries that she or her family will be punished. Instead, the Gamemakers award her with an unbelievable 11 points. This plot point occurs at around the 27% mark, which is a perfect placement.
3. Middle Plot Point
The middle plot point is the place where the protagonist moves beyond simply reacting to the things that happen around her—and to her—and decides to act. This scene should ideally occur at the 50% mark.
In The Hunger Games, this is the scene where Katniss and Rue, now allied, decide to destroy the stockpile of supplies the “careers” have made near the cornucopia. Katniss uses her arrows to set off the booby trap of mines, blowing up the entire pile.
This scene in The Hunger Games novel happens at the 57% mark, which is a little late, but still acceptable.
4. Plot Point 2
Plot point 2 of a story is where “Your protagonist must work hard to get what she wants or lose everything,” as Kristina Stanley describes it in the article, Story Arc: Definitions and Examples. It should occur around the 75% mark of the story.
Plot point 2 in The Hunger Games occurs when Katniss, who is caring for a deathly ill Peeta, goes to a “feast” at the cornucopia, where Gamemakers have promised that something will be left for each Tribute that they “desperately need.” Katniss is hoping this will be medicine that can save Peeta.
When she is almost there, she is captured by Clove, who pins her down at knife point and taunts her. Just as she thinks that she’s going to die, Thresh, the other Tribute from Rue’s district, shows up unexpectedly and kills Clove. He tells Katniss that he helped her just this one time, to pay her back for what she did for Rue.
The scene occurs at the 75-76% mark, so right where expected.
4. The Climax
The climax of a story is the highest point, with the most tension, conflict, and emotional upheaval. It should occur somewhere between the 85% to 95% mark.
Katniss and Peeta, running from their lives from the mutts, arrive at the cornucopia and climb on top. Only, Cato is there too, and they are the last three tributes alive. Cato grabs and tries to choke Peeta. Katniss shoots Cato in the hand with an arrow as Peeta shoves him off the cornucopia. Cato is mauled by the mutts, but not killed. In the morning, Katniss shoots him with an arrow to put him out of his misery.
Now the only two tributes alive, Katniss and Peeta are the victors… Or are they? This is a “false victory” that occurs at the 90% mark.
At this point, the Gamemakers make a dirty play: They announce that they are now reverting back to the old rules where only one Tribute can survive.
Katniss remembers the poison berries and she and Peeta decide to take them together. At the last moment, the announcer calls out for them to stop and names them both victors of the 74th Hunger Games. This scene occurs at the 91-92% mark.
For help in understanding and creating story arcs, why not practice by identifying the key scenes in your favorite stories? Also, for tips on how to create solid story arcs in your own stories, check out, What is a Good Story Arc, on the Fictionary Blog. In this article, you will find tips for creating your own story arc, as well as another example broken down for you in the classic fairy tale story, Cinderella.
Post Written by Sherry Leclerc
Sherry Leclerc is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor, Fictionary content creator, Writer’s Digest certified copy editor, and independent author. She is a member of Editor’s Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), and The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Sherry holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a B.Ed. She is the sole proprietor of Ternias Publishing, through which she offers various editorial services. She also has a YouTube channel where she has a vlog about writing and editing, titled The Mythic Quill. You can find it on Youtube .
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References and Further Reading:
Collins, S. (1 September 2009). The Hunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 1). Scholastic Press; Reprint Edition.
Cron, L. (9 August 2016). Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Ten Speed Press.
Cron, L. (10 July 2012). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed Press.