Friday, June 22, 2018

The Hunger Games: Sequence Two Breakdown (Gathering the Team, Mentor, Into the Special World)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I'm finding my breakdown of The Hunger Games scarily relevant in this week of forcibly taking children from their parents and incarcerating them to use as pawns in a chess match of authoritarian control. And other dire consequences of giving power to insane game show hosts.

If you missed Sequence One, here it is.

And on to Sequence Two, which begins 20 minutes in.


In a sequence that begins with very strong echoes of the first Harry Potter book/movie, Katniss and Peeta journey to the Capitol (sic) by high-speed train. 

Katniss and Peeta are escorted by armed guards to the train, and we get another image that echoes the Holocaust: they first enter into just a metal box/boxcar – an ominous, fear-filled moment. That entry then opens up into a luxuriously appointed lounge car. Stepping into this lounge is the first INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment: we see Katniss and Peeta reacting the shocking luxury of the car, the gleaming metal and saturated colors, the sumptuous food (however, we can still see the stark metallic walls; the luxury is just set dressing for the cattle car that train is.).

This visceral moment is especially effective because of the deliberate visual CONTRAST to the ORDINARY WORLD, the bare-bones, subsistence-level poverty of District 12 that we saw in Sequence 1. Remember, drama loves contrast, and visual contrast is a great technique for engaging the interest of your reader or audience.

Just as in the first Harry Potter, this train scene GATHERS THE TEAM: Haymitch, the MENTOR, Peeta, the ALLY, and the ever-unhelpful magenta nightmare, Effie, who will nonetheless be able to help with endorsements.

And Peeta vocalizes the next element of the PLAN: he and Katniss need to get as much information out of their designated MENTOR as they can. After all, he did once win the Games.

MEETING THE MENTOR: One of the many, many things this story does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, that often-crucial character archetype - so-called for the original mentor, named Mentor, in the Odyssey.

Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices—I mean Tributes—from his district to victory in the Games. But in this scene on the train, Haymitch is clearly hungover and goes straight for the alcohol on the bar. (In the book he’s even more pathetic: we meet him as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk. In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV. He has a reputation as a complete buffoon.)

Peeta makes a valiant try to get some helpful information out of Haymitch, but Haymitch responds violently and gives them mocking advice instead: “Accept the fact that you’re going to die and there’s nothing I can tell you to help.” Then he stalks off to drink alone in his room.

Not a great omen for his protégés, right? But doesn’t that up the SUSPENSE incredibly? How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this antagonistic loser to guide them?

[25:00] Peeta goes after Haymitch to try to reason with him, and Katniss goes to her own room, where she watches footage of an old Hunger Game being broadcast and analyzed by the commentators on TV (continuing the THEME of the Games being broadcast and analyzed as reality TV and the prescient condemnation of evil reality TV hosts). One tribute kills another to win the game, and we see Katniss’s INTERNAL CONFLICT: she is sickened by the idea of having to kill. This raises the question and FEAR: Can she kill to survive? And the important moral question: Do we actually want her to?

The next morning she leaves her room and finds the dining car, where Peeta is deep in conversation with Haymitch. Katniss has another brief flashback of the rainy day, Peeta feeding the pigs. He sees her shivering in the rain, and turns his back on her to go inside the house. Again, Peeta is being set up as a potential OPPONENT (which he literally is, because only one tribute will survive the Games). 

Haymitch taunts Katniss by telling her the most important skill in the arena is making people like you. This introduces another key point in the PLAN (and SETUP for PAYOFFS down the line): Katniss and Peeta must win endorsements in order to get emergency deliveries of food, equipment, medication during the games. Katniss finally gets Haymitch’s attention by flaring up at his dissolution, grabbing a cheese knife and plunging it into the table between his fingers. We see Haymitch is impressed.

This is the beginning of an important SUBPLOT: Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and Katniss will learn at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance. They will develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the Games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins (MENTOR AS MIRROR). In the end, Haymitch is the first one she will run to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.

Then we get another CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment as the train enters of the Capitol – the contrast of city to village, hugeness to shacks, garish color to earth and natural tones.

And we see the aspect of celebrity, a running THEME in the story: citizens of the Capital are lined up to catch a glimpse of the tributes. Peeta shows his SPECIAL SKILL of evaluating a situation and working it to his advantage as he smiles and waves to the crowd, making them like him, and setting himself up as an OPPONENT to Katniss, who lacks social skills (her WEAKNESS, and SET UP of her CHARACTER ARC). Peeta encourages Katniss to join him, but Haymitch hands her back the knife and says, “Better keep this. He knows what he’s doing” – underlying the threat Peeta is to Katniss’s survival.

[28:00] There are more ESTABLISHING SHOTS of the Capital, emphasizing the decadence in fashion and people. The architecture and set design is Romanesque, harking back to the gladiator games and also the fall of a corrupt society.

Now we have a MAKEOVER SCENE (very common in the TRAINING SEQUENCE, especially in romance genres) in which along with the other tributes, Katniss is primped, coiffed, and beautified by a team of stylists. But the laboratory setting and the cold, clinical efficiency of the technicians make the obviously painful beautifying seem a bit more like assault than a trip to a day spa.

Finally Katniss is left lying on a table, alone in an exam room.

She meets her key stylist, Cinna, who will become another MENTOR and ALLY, perfectly played by the beautifully empathetic and Lenny Kravitz. There’s an otherworldly kindness here that makes Cinna a true fairy godmother. He immediately apologizes to her, that this his happening to her, and praises her bravery in volunteering to save her sister. We see Katniss soften for the first time as she realizes he means it.

Cinna is there to dress her for the opening ceremony, the Tribute Parade. It’s customary to dress tributes in costumes of their districts, but Cinna has something bigger in mind. He’s going to help her make an impression. (He repeats an important aspect of the PLAN: to stand out so she can get endorsements).

30:48 The CLIMAX OF SEQUENCE TWO is the Tribute Parade, with the chariot ride and the flaming costumes. Again, the Roman columns and decoration, and the chariots in which the tributes ride are visual echoes of the gladiator games. Also all of this is broadcast over huge screens with elaborate multi-camera shots, continuing two VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS. One emcee trills: “The importance of this event cannot be overstated!”, announcing the STAKES for the scene.

And this climax employs other climax-building techniques we saw in the climax of sequence one: a huge crowd gathered, an elaborate set, special costuming, a long preparation for the event, the spelling out of the stakes (Katniss must win over the crowd to get endorsements and improve her chances of winning).

We get brief glimpses of the other Tributes who will be Katniss’s OPPONENTS (and one ALLY, Rue).

And we meet a key ANTAGONIST, President Snow, in person as he is introduced at the ceremony. He watches the parade of chariots imperiously as the MCs babble excitedly. And then everyone sees the final chariot. Katniss’s and Peeta’s capes look like they’re on fire.

The emcees are thrilled with the spectacle. But Snow is disturbed by it, and by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction. He knows he’s got a problem on his hands. It’s always a powerful moment when the antagonist of a story recognizes the strength and implicit threat in the heroine (see The Silence of the Lambs for another great example.)

Again showing his media savvy, Peeta grabs Katniss’s hand and lifts it in triumph. When she tries to pull away, he says, “They’ll love it”, and she reluctantly goes along. And as they ride to the cheering of the crowd, Katniss looks up into a reflective banner (or maybe it’s a screen with a close-up on her face, I’m not sure) and sees herself as regal, surrounded by flame: a SET UP of who she is to become, and a great glimpse of her inner power.

The chariots come to a halt in a semicircle (and the fire of the capes goes off) as Snow gives his speech. Note that Katniss is carrying a red rose, which puts her in visual opposition to Snow, who is visually associated with white roses. Red roses vs. white is a historical reference to the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in the 1400’s for control of the throne of England between the House of Lancaster – red roses – and the House of York – white roses. Also symbolically, fire opposes snow. Snow is filmed from high above, looking down on the tributes and the entire arena, magnifying his power.

In the tag to the scene, Effie is effusive about how they’re in the game, now. Katniss makes a barbed joke about Haymitch’s drunkenness and Haymitch is about to scathe her back, when he catches a glimpse of Cato, one of the professional tributes, who train their whole lives to win these Games. Cato’s arrogance and Aryan looks make him an obvious SECONDARY OPPONENT (and his Roman name aligns him with the Capitol and Snow). Instead of disparaging Katniss in public, Haymitch opts to take them up to their suite (CHARACTER ARC).

In her high-tech room (more luxury), Katniss uses a remote control to change the wall-sized screen to various views of locales. She stops on an immersive video of a forest, and we see her homesickness (but also are reminded that she is at her best in a forest). Then emotionally, she turns off the screen. [36:45]


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

Friday, June 15, 2018

Sexual harassment at book festivals and conferences

Conference season is almost upon us, with Harrogate, Thrillerfest and Romance Writers of America National Conference next month, Bute Noir in August, Bloody Scotland and Bouchercon in September (please add other conferences!). You may be aware that there is a fierce debate going on in author circles and on festival boards over the need to have sexual harassment policies in place. 

The book world is a warm and intimate community, and it’s easy to feel safe at conferences because the vast majority of authors, readers, publishers, bloggers, etc. are genuinely wonderful people.

But there are a few predators who do routinely attend these conferences and who use their standing in the book world to harass and prey on vulnerable members of our community. 

Many festivals have no anti-harassment policy in place whatsoever, and no place for conference attendees to report predatory behavior. 

The boards are queasy about legal issues, obviously, but authors and readers are arguing that festival organizers also have a duty to provide as safe a space as possible to conference goers.

Several conferences have put anti-harassment policies in place: here are links if you’re interested in reading:

Authors and other book people who have been around for a while have another dilemma. We KNOW who some of these habitual predators are, and we can talk to each other and warn our friends, but unless a conference has an anti-harassment policy (including meaningful repercussions) and clear guidelines about who to report to, we have no way of reporting past predatory behavior and repeat offenders to anyone of authority who can or will do anything about it. The more we talk about it amongst ourselves, the more alarming it is that we are just about to launch into these festivities and there is still no way to warn first time attendees about the dangers that we know exist.

I’d like to ask for feedback and suggestions. Were you aware that there are known harassers and predators on the festival circuit? Were you aware that there is no policy in place against sexual harassment at many of the conferences and festivals, and no way of reporting these behaviors that result in consequences?

Authors, publishers and festival organizers know specifically about authors and publishers who are harassing people, touching aggressively/inappropriately, pressuring other attendees for sex, lying about marital status to rack up conquests, spreading STIs, aggressively hitting on younger attendees obviously too drunk to make consensual decisions (these are just a few of the behaviors that are well known).

Here is a partial list of specific situations I and female author friends have experienced at various crime conferences.

Each one of these was a different man – either an author or a publisher. Some of the behaviors have been reported about more than one man.

I’ve included nothing that I haven’t personally experienced, witnessed, or been told by the woman/women involved, and I haven’t included some of the more serious accusations I know of. And I’m going to phrase this as a question to men, because I think part of the problem here is that even the most woke of our male friends and colleagues have no idea what goes on, and are putting themselves through emotional contortions thinking, “Wait, have I done it?”  My answer to the good guys is NO, you haven’t done it – just check yourself against this list.

At a conference, have you ever….

-       Stayed late in the conference bar chatting up the youngest and drunkest woman in the place, to the point that other authors have had to intervene and escort her home safely?

-       Taken photos of a woman’s body parts without her knowing?

-       Stood outside the hotel window of a woman who just turned you down at the conference bar?

-       Stroked the leg of a woman you’ve just been introduced to, saying you like her tights?

-       Had a conversation with a woman without once lifting your eyes from her chest?

-       Followed a woman you were attracted to around a conference telling everyone “She’s so sexy” and trying to talk to her even when she is in the middle of a conversation with others, on the phone, or obviously otherwise engaged?

-       Shoved a woman up against a wall, held her there and kissed her without her consent?

-       As a publisher, told a female author who just won the Edgar that "women belong barefoot and pregnant"?

-       Comforted a friend going through a nasty divorce when she’s broken down sobbing at the bar - by walking her up to her room, then closing and chain-locking the door and trying to kiss her?

-       Draped yourself over a woman, just to be friendly?

-       Touched the arm of a woman you don’t know two dozen times during a group conversation about sexual harassment and rape?

-       Pursued and started relationships with three different women you met at a con without telling any of the others about the others – or informing any of them that you have a wife, a steady girlfriend on the side, and a serious STD?

I’m asking you all as members of this community – how would YOU want to be informed about these dangers? Do you have suggestions about how we can make our community and these occasions safer for everyone?

Thanks so much for your comments!

-       Alex

And on the subject of sexual abuse:

All five books in my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series are also on sale for $1.99 US - a perfect chance to catch up before Book 6 comes out this fall.

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer. This time, the predators lose. 

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Hunger Games - story breakdown

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So today we’ll get into a breakdown of THE HUNGER GAMES (the movie) – SEQUENCE I, the SETUP, and work through the story elements up to that all-important PLAN.

If you’re not familiar with the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure of film writing, you’ll want to review this post, or better yet, buy the book: STEALING HOLLYWOOD, which has many, many examples of this structure and its story elements, and includes ten full story breakdowns.




The movie starts with a placard that briefly spells out the history of the Hunger Games, that in punishment for their rebellion against the Capital, every year the twelve districts of the country of Panem must draw a male and a female child tribute from each district to compete to the death in the Hunger Games. Only one tribute will survive.

Opening scrolls or placards give us the sense that this is an Important Story, maybe even epic. (Think of these opening scrolls from classic movies: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young at Heart, and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”) This placard also gives a sense that the story is history rather than fiction. And it’s the first of many tricks we’ll see the filmmakers use to set up the RULES OF THE STORY WORLD – it's really important to be clear about these in dystopian, SFF or paranormal stories.

One other note: the name of this fictional country, Panem, is a historical reference to the Roman Empire strategy of panem et circenses, ie. “bread and circuses”. Cynical politicians knew they could keep their populace from questioning the Emperor and the Empire’s corruption by distributing free food and staging violent spectacles like gladiator fights and chariot races. Sound familiar?

Then we have the OPENING IMAGE: on a TV screen, two flamboyantly dressed men chat on a talk show, a surreally magnified stage, discussing the upcoming Hunger Games, and again detailing the RULES OF THE WORLD. This is our introduction to two key characters: The Master of Ceremonies/Game host and the Gamemaker, both secondary opponents, and a running THEME of the story: reality TV used as a distraction from the authoritarian cruelty of the country.
In a small, dilapidated house, a young girl (Prim) awakes screaming from a dream. Her older sister Katniss races in to comfort her. This is a premonition, a classic suspense technique. Prim has dreamed that she was chosen as the tribute. Katniss soothes her by singing to her. (PLANT – this song will come back at a key moment to heighten the emotion of and Katniss’s rage over the death of her ally Rue). 

Katniss goes out hunting, and as she moves through the village (ORDINARY WORLD) we see images of poverty and hunger (influenced by classic Depression photos by Dorothea Lange). Katniss shows she’s a rule-breaker by going through a fence into a forbidden district, the forest. The image of Katniss in her huntress attire and bow and arrow in this forest setting is an echo of the Artemis archetype, the ancient Greek wilderness goddess of the hunt who defends women and children. (Linking a character to an archetype is one of the classic methods of creating a larger-than-life character. Also, in superhero/ine stories, the characters’ WEAPONS are a key character device and TALISMAN).

In the forest we see Katniss’s SPECIAL SKILLS: running, archery, tracking – she can and will kill for survival. It also shows how comfortable she is in the forest. Her gorgeous friend Gale appears and spoils her shot at a deer (INTRODUCTION OF LOVE INTEREST). As they talk and we see their deep affection and companionship,

this intimate moment is broken by a harsh sound and Katniss and Gale have to hide from a huge dirigible above. The dirigible above sets up a recurring theme of constantly being watched from above, and adds to the dystopian sense of an oppressive society. The dirigible brings a SECONDARY VILLAIN to the town: Effie Trinket, who represents the Capitol (sic). The Capitol is a non-human ANTAGONIST – typical in dystopian stories, where society is the true villain.

Gale expresses a THEME of the story: “If we didn’t watch, they wouldn’t have a game.” (And also made me wish the whole rest of the movie was about him, alas...). This idea also is a SET UP for the solution in the FINAL BATTLE). He proposes that they could take off together, just leave and live in the woods (again emphasizing their survival SKILLS. Katniss says that Prim couldn’t survive, and if they were caught, “They’d cut out our tongues” – FEAR AND STAKES.) This scene also builds dread over the possibility that Gale will die: he has 42 tokens in the Reaping lottery, presumably because he has volunteered for more tokens in exchange for food for his family.

Back in the village, Katniss stops at a market to sell a squirrel. A woman at the market gives Katniss a mockingjay pin which becomes a TALISMAN: first, the kind woman gives the pin to Katniss (and by implication, to all the child sacrifices) like a witch or fairy godmother, then Katniss gives it to Prim to keep her safe, then it becomes metaphorically infused with Katniss’s love when she offers herself as a sacrifice for her sister, then Prim gives it back to her to keep her safe, and then later Katniss’s mentor/fairy godmother Cinna sews it into Katniss’s jacket, also infusing it with love. And later it will become the symbol of the revolution that Katniss leads.

At home while Prim and Katniss’s mother dresses Prim for the Reaping, we get hints of Katniss’s backstory: her mother’s breakdown when her father died in a mine explosion after which Katniss became the head of the family. (Layering in Katniss’s leadership and maternal skills: she will become the mother of the revolution). The filmmakers use this backstory as a subplot line, giving us parts of it throughout the story). Katniss gives Prim the mockingjay pin and promises her nothing bad will happen. In storytelling, a PROMISE is a commitment that must be honored.

10:11 Mothers all over the town prepare their children for The Reaping, dressing them in pale clothing – there is a haunting sense of preparing sacrificial lambs to the slaughter which actually made me weep, and I’m not a crier.

A whistle blows, like a scream, summoning the village to the Reaping.

The color scheme and the arrangements of the crowds throughout this scene are very reminiscent of photos from Nazi Germany: the ghettos, the concentration camps, the sense of evil and dread.

Gathering for the Reaping is the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, and it’s a stellar example of how to build to an effective climax. It’s a huge crowd scene in a SETPIECE arena, made epic by the visual tie in to a horrific historical event. The suspense of Prim’s premonition; our fear for Prim, Katniss and Gale; and the ritual preparations of the children for sacrifice create dread, and the huge STAKES have been clearly spelled out: being chosen in this lottery means almost certain death. Prim has a panic attack on the way in to the arena, increasing the dread. It’s a nice technological touch that the children’s identities are checked by pricking their fingers (also a fairytale image of doom – see Sleeping Beauty) to draw blood for DNA testing).

In the arena Effie struts around on stage, a magenta nightmare of banality, as the history of the Hunger Games is repeated and embellished in a film projected on huge TV screens (DETAILING THE RULES OF THE WORLD, and the THEMATIC VISUAL of combining/contrasting a backward, village society with futuristic technology). The uprising of the districts (12 districts against the 13th, the Capitol) is an obvious reference to the revolution of the original thirteen colonies of America, again, grounding this created world in real-life history. Also 12 is a powerful fairy tale number, giving the story an extra boost of archetypal resonance (don’t underestimate the storytelling power of numerology – see the Harry Potter books and movies for fantastic examples!).
-->The film is narrated by President Snow, a main villain/antagonist, who is the human embodiment of the dystopian society that is the true OPPONENT.

Effie draws names from a huge glass bowl, choosing Prim for the female tribute. Katniss is horrorstruck, then impulsively volunteers to go in her place. [16:01} As she stands on the stage in a daze, Effie asks for a round of applause. Instead, the children of the village lift their arms in a forbidden rebel salute - SETUP of Katniss as the leader of the revolution against the Capital, and also importantly setting up the sense that the desire and will to rebel is there in the people of the District. Katniss will be the match to light that fire.

Almost as an afterthought, Peeta is chosen from the boys as the male tribute. We get a brief FLASHBACK from Katniss’s point of view of Peeta throwing bread to pigs while Katniss shivers in the rain, an ambiguous beginning to a SUBPLOT thread of flashbacks of their backstory. We don’t know if Peeta is her enemy or her friend, but it doesn’t look friendly at this point.

In the very important tag to the sequence, Katniss is allowed just a few minutes under guard to say goodbye to her family and Gale. Katniss berates her mother: “You can’t check out this time. Not like you did when Dad died,” and says that Gale will feed them (LOVE PLOT). Prim tells her desperately, “Just try to win.” This is a clear, simple statement of the PLAN that drives the entire action of the story: Katniss must win the Hunger Games. Katniss promises Prim she’ll try. (Making this a PROMISE scene underscores the PLAN.) Gale starts to detail that PLAN and what will become the two main components of it just moments later, when he hugs Katniss goodbye and tells her, “Get a bow. Make one if you have to” and “They want a good show.” Katniss reminds him of the odds: 24 kids competing and only one comes out alive. Gale says, “It’s gonna be you.” 

This tag on the scene gives us a clear statement of what the audience should HOPE: that Katniss will win the Games.

ASSIGNMENT, if you're so inclined!
Take a minute to answer these questions about The Hunger Games, and then try asking yourself the same questions about your own story!

Who's the hero/ine?
What does s/he want?
Who is standing in her way?
What is her plan to get it?

What is her weakness?
What are her special skills?



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here: