I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideas and presentation recently.
In my summer reading plans I have, of course, gotten sidetracked, but in a good way. I will admit though that my job has distracted me as well, however; I began this entry on the back of a map while working at an information desk, taking in turns scrawling half-ideas and in others answering questions.
But the fatigue that I feel is also somehow a blessing. After I picked up The Hunger Games, I felt overcome by a desire to consume words, to fill myself with them, to appease a renewed hunger to read more and more. So I picked up the next book in the series, and then the final one.
Despite the agitations I felt toward some of Suzanne Collins’ style of writing—primarily her habit, especially in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, to frequently use fragments rather than full sentences for “effect”—I was pulled forward by the story. The Hunger Games series is exceptionally readable because it is written at a fairly low reading level. (On the Scholastic website, the books in The Hunger Games series are listed at a 5.3-5.4 grade level equivalent.) I finished reading the series in a little over a week, but I’ve know people who have said they did in a weekend.
For much of the first and second books in the trilogy, the storyline remains active and unbroken in its flow. With short chapters in all of the books, it is easy to move quickly through the novels. Collins planned almost every chapter to end on a suspenseful note, dragging the reader into the next one. For this reason I generally found stopping points mid-chapter.
The fragments and reading level may be explained as Collins attempting to write in the voice of the narrator, the novels’ main character, Katniss Everdeen. In this regard Collins is successful. By the end of the series, Collins was using fewer fragments, but I was also very accustomed to Katniss’ narrative voice. I think it is a mark of a good story that, once I had finished the last book, I knew I would miss the closeness the reader maintains with Katniss throughout the series.
While at the beginning I felt I had some things in common with Katniss, as well as envy for some of her abilities, over the course of the story the reader remains privy to her intimate thoughts, worries, and gut feelings. Collins’ minimalistic style keeps pace with Katniss’ down-to-earth appeal and her straightforwardness, but the frankness of Katniss’ voice never wavers into absurdity. These are not the only reasons why Katniss is a well-crafted character, however; in addition to “growing on” the reader, Katniss is also a dynamic character.
In the final book of the series, Mockingjay, Katniss is on edge, questioning her perception, feeling less sure of herself, and seeming to frequently lose consciousness. I won’t give away any plot details, but Katniss has serious psychological/emotional trials in the final installment of the series. In general, she seems to glow less brightly, but that is no surprise; Mockingjay illuminates the worst crimes of the Capitol, and Panem in general. While the plot still has a lot of action, these less physical struggles become more of the focus.
I will admit I was disappointed with the ending to the series. Where the epilogue of the Harry Potter series disappointed me most, in this case the epilogue smooths over and ties up the end of the series rather well in my opinion. However, the last few chapters of Mockingjay introduce tragedy that almost seemed unnecessary, and further political corruption barely hinted at before; the latter of these may have developed into a further book, had Collins chosen to drag it out that way. In comparison to the rest of the novel, both felt like hasty additions.
Immediately after finishing Mockingjay, I picked up John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. Let me just say—wow. This is, without a doubt, my favorite book I’ve read in a while. Connolly’s novel takes World War II-era England, multiple fairy tales, the loss of a parent, and growing up, throws these topics into a mix, and then paints it with the sparkling gloss of a love for stories that any avid reader will adore.
Before beginning The Hunger Games series, one of my friends had cautioned that I would take issue with some of Collins’ writing. Perhaps this is why presentation was so much in the forefront of my mind while reading both authors’ works. Although I understand to some extent Collins’ style (re: audience, Katniss’ narrative voice), I still wondered how much better the series could have been if written differently. People say that’s the curse of seriously studying anything you love—it makes you more critical, considering different ways one could have done things. While The Hunger Games as a series presents an amazing story, and I have to credit Collins with a wonderful imagination, a story is just an idea until you tell it.
Although Connolly’s novel also does not come without its flaws, reading it immediately after Collins’ novels stirred this ponderation of ideas and presentation further. Collins’ idea may be more unique than Connolly’s, but I have always thought that a major part of writing is not dreaming up the newest storyline—post-Modernists would say that there are no new ideas. If we are to give this credence, then it is the presentation, the literary craft, that makes a story what it is. Perhaps there is a similar percentage to the old saying that talent, or ideas in this case, are 1% of the equation, where effort, or writing, are 99%.
Connolly’s novel presents one of those remarkable experiences I’m sure other readers have encountered where the author expresses a deeply felt sentiment one has carried for a long time. Near the beginning, he writes:
“Stories were different though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read… They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.”
While Connolly is writing about the reading aloud of stories, I also feel that he is referring to the initial crafting of tales, of bringing an idea into existence in the form of a story, novel, etc.
You can argue that Collins’ writing style in The Hunger Games either remains flat, or that it represents the narrator’s voice in an honest and character-appropriate manner; I can see both sides of this debate. As a reader, I appreciate good ideas, but as a writer I delight in the telling. It is the marrow within the bones, the frosting between the layers of the cake.
Have you read either of these novels? What did you think?
What are your ideas about ideas and presentation?