Chip MacGregor

July 30, 2015

Writing Lessons from The Hunger Games (a guest blog)


Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader. But the second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see.

That, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.”


I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?


Josh Kelley is a speaker, writing coach, and author of Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus (Harvest House). As a writing coach, he uses an affordable “single session” model. If you’d like more information, visit his website:


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  • Lancia Smith says:

    I loved the books and was criticized by some folks for doing so. It is startling to me how many people assumed that these books were “promoting” the idea of child killers rather than making a statement about our own real condition. The books hold up well even to re-reading and the ending of the third book still grips me every time with the power of her style and conclusions.

  • Great insight into an outstanding series. I’ve read Hunger Games three times through! The story is so today, and people sheltered here in the good old US of A, where even though we are politically polarized, no one could contemplate a world where children are killing other children to survive…

    The sad part is that in the 10/40 Corridor this is the reality of every child, especially the Christian children of those areas that are forced to join Boko Haram, or the south Sudaneze children that are forced to recant Christianity or lose arms or legs…or their lives. So no I’m not squeamish about the subject matter, and the story is a greatly redemptive allegory of self-sacrifice for love.

    Outstanding series. Gives me hope for those with the strength to press forward with Jesus as their fortress, against all odds.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    I use The Hunger Games for teaching Creative Writing in middle school. I use it for the lessons you list and also because It’s so popular among kids. They immediately pay attention. I felt the same way about the book and her writing as well. Because I teach preteens, I also discuss how Collins said the games were also a metaphor for how cruel teens are to one another in the great arena (school, social media, etc) and how adults (media, commercial advertisers, etc.) tend to control the arena for gain while sacrificing children. My students can easily see the connection. I connected to this notion as I read the book. Many lessons to learn from this successful series!

  • sarahbates says:

    Bravo! This blog hit home like no other. In fact, I’m forwarding it to my writers group colleagues. Thanks for this one. Yep, thanks a lot!

  • Dana Mentink says:

    I completely agree about the story…riveting! I just couldn’t embrace the series because of the kids killing other kids aspect. I guess as the parent of two teens, I just couldn’t stomach it, but I do agree that the writing/plot is compelling. Thanks for the post. 🙂

    • Josh Kelley says:

      I’m a parent of two daughters, so I understand! But for me, part of the power of the series is the empathy it gives me for children put in horrible situations (such as the child soldiers in Africa). The Hunger Games are not entirely fictional…

    • Dana Mentink says:

      Good point. Not for the squeamish reader like myself! 🙂

  • Josh–Love your line, “If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.” When I coach speakers I tell them the top three rules of success are “Practice, practice, and practice.” I quickly learned that my first book which I thought was ready to be published–wasn’t. That writing practice with great coaches made the difference though.
    Great insight on why The Hunger Games was successful.

    • Josh Kelley says:

      Agreed! A good coach (or even a critique partner) can shorten the learning curve quite a bit.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    After hearing and reading so much negativity about The Hunger Games, I’m glad to read a post that celebrates it.

    I read The Hunger Games to experience a great story, and I was not disappointed.

    My intent was entertainment and not education, so I can’t say much about Collins’s writing style other than to note that the writing did not get in the way of me enjoying the book, which I think should be the goal of every writer: for the author and even the words to fade away as we become fully enmeshed in a truly engaging story.

    Now, thanks to this post, I realize more of why I like the book so much!

  • Johnnie Alexander says:

    I guess I’m a late adopter, too. After seeing the first movie, I put Hunger Games on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. (It’s a long list!) The sentence about the miners is definitely compelling. Thanks for your insights..

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