How books work

Here’s an old post from The Intern’s long-defunct post: How Books Work: The Hunger Games.

Someone asked a question on Quora that reminded me of this post, so I went and found it. I’m glad it’s still available. It’s a great post. The Intern’s blog used to be an entertaining and informative resource and I’m sorry it’s no longer active, but glad the posts are still available. Here’s how this post starts:

If you’ve read The Hunger Games (or been in the mute and intensely focused presence of someone in the process of reading it), you know that it’s practically impossible to put down. Stephen King compared the book to an arcade game that keeps you helplessly plugging in quarters round after round, and after reading it herself INTERN can say that that’s a fair approximation.

What exactly is Suzanne Collins doing, on a sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph level, that makes this book such a terrifyingly addictive read?

To shed light on this question, INTERN repaired to her secret basement Book Lab, where she soaked a randomly-selected chapter of The Hunger Games in a bath of chemicals designed to reveal the exact function of each sentence.

Oh, and what an exciting experiment it was! Within seconds, the words themselves melted away, leaving only bright colors representing the following things:

This is a great thing to try. I particularly like the way internal and external conflict are broken apart and the way that action resulting from conflict is broken out of general action. Also, what a great choice of books to try this with! The Hunger Games is indeed a highly compelling novel. The Intern goes on to show images of a few pages after color coding every line. This is fascinating to look at just to see the high proportion of action and external conflict and the way the internal narrative is slipped into the story in tiny bits. But even better are the Intern’s overall observations based on the selection:

New discoveries prompt internal conflict. Pale blue sections (in which Katniss is seeing, hearing, tasting things) are often followed by dark blue sections (internal conflict).

(Almost) every internal or external conflict results in a decision. Red and dark blue sections (external/internal conflict) are almost always followed by dark green sections (action/decision).

Some decisions result in further conflict. See the alternating red and green patches on the second page? 

Internal narrative is slipped in with the action. Notice how those little grey patches tend to appear in the middle of light blue ones?

The chapter ends on an unresolved conflict. See how the last two sentences are highlighted in red? 

This is a fantastic post; click through to read the whole thing. Don’t you immediately want to get a (cheap, used) copy of a handful of especially compelling books and mark them up with highlighters? I have never done this, but I certainly think it would be fascinating. Maybe compare them to a handful of novels that you found boring and did not finish.

I need to go back and re-visit other posts from the Intern’s blog. I now recall how much I appreciated her analytical way of looking at storytelling.

The Intern blogged anonymously for several years. Finally, when her first novel was published, she revealed that her name is Hilary T. Smith. that book is Wild Awake, a literary YA novel. I picked it up on the basis of her blog, but never read it because it really does not sound like the sort of story that I like. Here’s the description from Amazon:

In Wild Awake, Hilary T. Smith’s exhilarating and heart-wrenching YA debut novel, seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd has big plans for her summer without her parents. She intends to devote herself to her music and win Battle of the Bands with her bandmate and best friend, Lukas. Perhaps then, in the excitement of victory, he will finally realize she’s the girl of his dreams.

But a phone call from a stranger shatters Kiri’s plans. He says he has her sister’s stuff—her sister, Sukey, who died five years ago. This call throws Kiri into a spiral of chaos that opens old wounds and new mysteries.

That final paragraph of the description puts me off. Spirals of chaos that open old wounds are not something I’m all that keen on generally. Nevertheless, revisiting Hilary’s blog makes me want to at least open it up and read the first bit and just see how it goes. I’m pretty confident the writing will be excellent; it’s just the type of story I’m not sure of.

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