The Flaw in Catching Fire

[Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t read Catching Fire, book two of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, you will want to correct that deficit before proceeding.]

Fiction writers:  beware surprise.  It is a two-edged blade that ships, by default, without a hilt; a poorly trained cobra that stingeth like an adder; and, all too often, a cheap thrill purchased at the expense of characterization and the internal logic of a story.  Catching Fire is an example of a book that got burned when it went chasing after a surprise of epic proportions.

The surprise in Catching Fire is that there is an escape plan:  a plan that will get both Katniss and Peeta, as well as various other tributes, out of the arena alive.  In order to surprise the reader with this, Katniss must be kept in the dark regarding the plan.  That, in turn, requires that Haymitch be a dolt, introduces fake conflict and tension in place of the real commodity, forces Katniss to act out of character at a critical moment, and requires a variety of coincidences in order for everything to turn out (more or less) according to plan.  That’s an expensive surprise.

Could the surprise be abandoned?  Is there an alternative?  There is, and the real surprise is how little the book changes as a result.  Imagine that Haymitch tells Katniss and Peeta about the plan sometime after they arrive in the capital.  Taking that approach, the first half of the book remains exactly the same.  Inside the arena, the dangers remain the same as well:  we still have the poisonous fog, the jabberjays, the mutated monkeys.  Which is to say, the bulk of the time in the arena remains unchanged.

We would lose Katniss planning to kill Finnick, which is good, because the reader (certainly by the second time through) knows this is a false concern.  We would lose the bizarre scene where Finnick tells Katniss to run to the beach just before the lightning strikes, followed by Johanna bonking Katniss on the head so as to dig the tracking device out of her arm.  Losing that incomprehensible sequence of events is wonderful, because none of it makes any sense.  At a minimum, bonking Katniss on the head at such a critical moment places the entire operation at risk.  What if she hadn’t recovered in time?  What if she’d gone chasing after Johanna, looking for revenge?

With Katniss ignorant of the plan, there are too many coincidences that have to line up in order for the operation to succeed.  She can’t kill Finnick.  She has to swim after the tube of golden wire, with her only motivation being that the weird, geeky guy seems to think it’s important.  Worst of all, when she returns to the lightning tree, she has to stop and mull over the golden wire, an action which is out of character for her.  As far as she knows, the alliance has been ruptured, the plan to electrify the beach has failed, and now Peeta is gone.  Why in Panem would she stop to investigate this wire?  The answer is:  she wouldn’t.

If we eliminate the surprise, then in place of the false plans to kill Finnick, Katniss would instead have to worry about her performance.  Acting isn’t her strong suit, but if her behavior in the arena isn’t convincing, the whole operation might be blown.  She also has to worry about Prim and her mother, Gale and his family, as well as Peeta’s family, because if she escapes from the arena, retaliation of some sort is guaranteed.  Best of all, when Katniss ties the wire to her arrow and shoots it through the force field, she is making a conscious, informed decision to pursue rebellion rather than race after Peeta.  It’s a wrenching decision, one that saddles her with the guilt for Peeta’s capture.  But it’s a decision she might reasonably make, so long as she understands the larger picture.

Keeping the main character ignorant of critical bits of information is a time-honored approach to writing fiction, but this approach should be used sparingly, because the surprise that results can actually weaken the book as a whole.  It can be painful to watch characters thrashing around cluelessly, lucking into the right solution in spite of – rather than because of – their best efforts.

The next time you’re tempted to withhold some critical piece of information from your protagonist so as to perpetrate a surprise, take another look and make sure the result is worth the cost.