First Chapter Analysis: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

story structure
First Chapter Analysis: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

If you want to write a novel that hooks a reader’s interest, you had better write an engaging first chapter. But how exactly do you do that?

Since I’ve already provided resources on how to write a solid set of opening pages and the big mistakes to avoid when writing your opening pages, I thought it would be fun to step back and analyze the first chapter of a popular published novel. 

So, in today’s post, we’re going to look at the first chapter of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And we’ll look at the chapter in two different ways:

  1. Macro: How does this chapter give readers insight into what the story is about? 
  2. Micro: How does each scene advance the plot and character development? 

This way, you’ll be able to see the first chapter from a big-picture lens as well as on the smaller scene level, too. And ideally, you’ll be able to implement some of what you learn into your own first chapter as well.

A special note for listeners of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast: In the episode that goes along with this blog post, I’m joined by an extra-special guest and the host of the LitMatch podcast, Abigail Perry. If you want to hear our full discussion of this opening chapter, you can tune in on either of our podcasts.


Chapter 1 Summary

Here’s a quick summary of the first chapter before we look at the high-level analysis of each scene within the chapter:

Katniss wakes up expecting to see her younger sister, Prim, sleeping beside her. Once Katniss realizes Prim’s in bed with their mother (probably because it’s Reaping Day and she likely had nightmares), she sets off to hunt with her best friend Gale even though it’s illegal and they have to do it on the sly. They meet up in the woods and share what they consider to be a delectable meal of warm bread and goat cheese before setting off to hunt and fish. They talk about the reaping, and Gale suggests they run away together in an effort to avoid the reaping, but Katniss can’t even fathom the idea of leaving Prim. After all, who would provide for Prim and her mother now that her father’s gone? And speaking of her father, we get some context around why he’s not here anymore. He died in a mining accident when Katniss was young, and she’s been the sole provider ever since. Katniss and Gale go to the market and the mayor's house to exchange what they hunted and gathered for other things, and then they separate to get ready for the reaping. Once back at home, Katniss jumps in the bath and gets ready for the reaping. She tries to soothe her sister, who is very nervous about the Reaping. They head to the square, sign in, and line up. Propaganda plays on the big screen highlighting the “greatness” of the Capital and reminding everyone of the ecological disasters and global conflict that gave birth to the districts. Effie Trinket pulls the female tribute’s name first, and it’s Primrose Everdeen. 

Now, when analyzing any opening chapter, whether it's from a published novel or a messy first draft, the first thing I look for is a glimpse of the big picture. So, what is this story really about? 

Big Picture Macro Analysis

As writers, we must set expectations at the beginning of our stories and then work to deliver on those expectations throughout the middle and end. In other words, we need to show readers exactly what kind of story they’re in for and then deliver that story scene by scene. 

Let’s take a look at how Suzanne Collins did this in the very first chapter of The Hunger Games. And to do this, we’re going to use seven questions from Paula Munier’s book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings

1. GENRE: What kind of story is it?

I like to look at genres in two ways—commercial vs. content genres. For this first question, I usually think in terms of the commercial genre. So, where would this novel sit on a shelf in a bookstore? And how does this first chapter set up the readers’ expectations from a commercial genre standpoint?

The Hunger Games is a Young Adult Dystopian novel that takes place in the future, sometime established sometime after a series of ecological disasters and a global conflict brought about the collapse of modern civilization. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen as she navigates this world and fights for her life in the arena. 

2. PLOT: What is the story really about? 

For this question, I like to look at the content genre of the story. So, what is the story really going to be about? The Hunger Games is primarily an action (external) story with an (internal) worldview arc. Katniss must figure out how to survive in an arena that’s literally designed to kill her—alongside 23 other tributes who want to kill her as well. 

This opening chapter raises a lot of important questions. What’s going to happen to Katniss now that she’s volunteered to take her sister’s place in the games? How long will she survive? Is it possible she could actually win? In other words, this opening chapter does a great job of raising these questions in the reader’s mind—and it perfectly sets up our expectations for an action/worldview story.

3. POV: Who is telling the story?  

This story is written in the first person from Katniss’s perspective. This choice makes sense because it’s truly Katniss’s story. Yes, Peeta also goes into the arena. And yes, he’s her love interest. But Katniss has the most at stake, and she undergoes the biggest internal shift. First-person is a popular POV choice for YA novels because it creates an immediate bond between the protagonist and readers. In this story, the first-person POV keeps us close to Katniss and her emotions—and because of this, we only know what Katniss knows. Specifically, Katniss doesn’t know who to trust in the arena, and neither does the reader since we’re limited to her viewpoint.

4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?

As readers, we definitely latch onto Katniss in this first chapter. Even though she’s only 16, she’s taken on the responsibility of providing for her family now that her father’s gone. Not only that, she lives in the worst district in Panem, and it’s Reaping Day! When she volunteers to take Prim’s place in the games, we wonder things like—Will Katniss survive? Will Gale really be able to care for Katniss’s family as well as his own? And these are precisely the questions Suzanne Collins answers throughout the story!

5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place? 

This chapter takes place in District 12 of Panem on Reaping Day. Have you ever heard the advice to “start your story on the day your character’s life changes?” Well, The Hunger Games is an excellent example of how following this advice can help pull readers into your story. Imagine if the story had started three days earlier. Yes, we would have built up to the reaping day, but it’s much more shocking and effective to drop us right into District 12 on Reaping Day.

6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?

There are three main emotions I think we all feel when reading this first chapter–curiosity, concern, and a smidge of wonder. We’re concerned about Katniss’s chances of surviving the arena—and about her family’s ability to survive without her. We’re curious to learn more about Katniss’s world and the Hunger Games themselves. And because we’re in a world different than our own, we can’t help but feel a smidge of wonder, even in this dystopian society. If you consider the rest of the book, these are the perfect feelings to evoke in readers from page one. We read forward to get the answers to our questions and to satisfy our curiosity and concern. 

7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next? 

We care about Katniss because she’s an admirable character. At 16 years old, she volunteered to take her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games! How could we not root for her to succeed? We read forward to find out IF she’ll survive and HOW she’ll survive. Will she be the winner? Or just another fallen tribute? 

So, as you can see, Suzanne Collins definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know it’s going to be about Katniss’s fight for survival inside the arena. It’s a fantastic opening chapter—one that sci-fi and fantasy writers can learn a lot from! 

Micro Scene Structure Analysis

Now, let’s dig into the structure of each one of the scenes within this chapter so we can see how and why everything works. To do this, we’re going to use the scene structure I laid out in this article. If you’re a fan of The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, you will recognize this structure.

Chapter #1 - Scene #1 - Katniss’s POV

In this scene, Katniss’s goal is to hunt and bring home food to provide for her family. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in Katniss’s way as she pursues this goal: 

  1. Inciting Incident: Prim is not in bed when Katniss wakes up.
  2. Turning Point: Gale mentions running away together.
  3. Crisis: Should Katniss leave District 12 and live the rest of her life in the woods with Gale? Or stay to provide for her family despite how terrible District 12 is?
  4. Climax: Katniss can’t fathom leaving her sister; she brings Gale back to reality.
  5. Resolution: Although Katniss had a successful hunt, she’s going into the Reaping emotionally distant from her best friend.

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with whether or not Katniss achieves her goal of catching game or gathering berries to provide for her family. She does accomplish this goal—in fact, Katniss and Gale have a pretty successful day of hunting and gathering. However, there’s a gloomy mood hanging over the day (because it’s Reaping Day), and the two fight. Unfortunately, Gale’s bad mood doesn’t lessen, and they part ways to get ready for the Reaping, a tad bit upset with each other. This might not seem like the most impactful scene, but it does a great job of highlighting Katniss’s worldview at the start of the story. “But what good is yelling about the Capitol in the middle of the woods? It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make things fair.” In the beginning, she doesn’t think taking action will change anything—by the end, she has inspired rebellion throughout the districts.

Chapter #1 & 2 - Scene #2 - Katniss’s POV

In this scene, Katniss’s goal is to get through the Reaping (and soothe her sister, Prim, as this will be her first Reaping). So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in Katniss’s way as she pursues this goal:

  1. Inciting Incident: Prim’s name gets chosen as the female tribute for District 12.
  2. Turning Point: Katniss sees Prim being dragged up to the stage (CH 2).
  3. Crisis: Will she let Prim participate in the Hunger Games and die? Or will she volunteer to take her place and risk her own life? (CH 2).
  4. Climax: Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place (CH 2).
  5. Resolution: The crowd salutes her; Katniss must maintain her composure to avoid appearing weak on camera (CH 2). 

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with the Reaping! The conflict surfaces when Prim’s name gets chosen, and it increases (for Katniss) as the shock ripples through her body and she sees Prim being dragged up to the stage. By volunteering to take Prim’s place, she’s officially put herself in danger. And, unfortunately for Katniss, it’s only going to get worse (and more dangerous) from here.

Final Thoughts

So, can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts the characters involved? And how, ultimately, this first chapter does everything that a first chapter should do?

I encourage you to look at your first chapter through this macro and micro lens to make sure that you’re delivering enough of the big picture to your readers. This is also a fantastic exercise to do with the opening chapter of your favorite novels, too. 

Want to hear Abigail K. Perry and I break down other popular stories? Click here to check out past scene analysis episodes!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →