SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing a specific scene in the second book of The Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire. You have been warned.
It’s one of our favorite moments in any story, the moment when a secret is revealed. It doesn’t matter who is revealing the secret, whether it’s a lover who reveals he’s known his girlfriend has been cheating all along, or a villain revealing something our hero thought had been long forgotten about their past. This scene is a turning point, the cards are laid out on the table and what follows will have significant impact on the rest of the story.
As a writer it’s a moment you want to get right, and often it can be going pretty well until one of your characters utters a line like this:
“Oh by the way, I know about the kiss.”
A little context, the speaker of this line is President Snow, leader of the country of Panem, the fictional nation in the Hunger Games trilogy. He’s just revealed to our heroine, Katniss, that he knows her romance with fellow Hunger Games contestant, Peeta, is a sham. He’s been spending a number of pages outlining how this knowledge if it became widespread in the Districts could lead to rebellion, and is outlining what Katniss must do to protect herself, and the stability of a nation. The scene is told from Katniss’ perspective, and at some point we find out that she has shared a kiss with her hunting partner, Gale, and is worried that the President knows.
Well, it turns out he does.
There’s a couple of problems with this starting with “Oh by the way…”. I’m sure if an actor is reading this line there would be a beat between the two halves of the sentence, but on the printed page it all runs together. President Snow has been outlining the complex geopolitical consequences of Katniss’ actions, and is impressing upon her the need for her to convince the nation she’s in love with someone she’s not. It’s sophisticated, complex, and interesting. And then all of sudden it reads like something out of a soap opera.
Secondly, President Snow doesn’t seem to have a reason to lay this additional card out on the table. He’s already insinuated he knew something about her true relationship with Gale earlier in the scene. To emphasize specific knowledge serves no purpose but to tip his entire hand. He’s already convinced her with threats, personal and societal. This is just rubbing it in. Now I’m not saying a character wouldn’t do this, but I don’t believe this character would.
It’s hard not to overwrite a scene. I have a number of conflict dialogues that I’m revising and it’s tough. You have to read it out loud to see if it works, while also considering how the reader sees it. You want memorable lines, catch-phrases, something that everyone who reads the book will remember. You want to hearken back to something that happened earlier and bring it into sharp relief. Or you want to surprise your reader. When I draft a conflict I write quickly, and often have to cut out about half the lines to not make my characters seem like comic book villains.
We all write bad dialog, and then we cut it, stuff it in a drawer or in our recycle bin, and hope no one ever reads it. Collins is good, and I’m holding off reviewing any individual book until I’ve read the whole trilogy. I have other problems with the story she’s telling, but I want to wait till I see where she’s going. She’s writing for a YA audience, and so maybe you need to be a little obvious at moments, but I think at any age certain lines are just hokey.
Oh by the way, I know about the pink flamingo. Shame on you!