I finally saw The Hunger Games movie this week, and while I wasn’t breathless over it (I didn’t really expect to be), I did enjoy it as a film . . . and as a way of thinking about writing and keeping readers (i.e. viewers) invested in a story. So here are the five things The Hunger Games film taught me about writing.

1. Color is important. Writers often talk about details, but we don’t always talk about color – how the use of color can help create mood and be subtle, yet powerfully symbolic. In the film, the Reaping is shot always entirely is shades of blue and gray. There is a coldness to the scene, a somberness that is remarkable set off by Effie Trinket’s bright, almost fuschia outfit. The screenwriters didn’t have to say that Effie clearly doesn’t get it; her outfit shows it.

2. The fantastic can be believable, if it’s honest. It’s easy to think that we have to write something people will consider “normal” for readers to relate to it, but The Hunger Games and a wide swath of books and films that contain a sci-fi/fantasy element belie that idea. The key is honesty. We believe that all of human society could take entertainment from watching teenagers try to kill each other because we know that we are capable of this (and in my opinion, our recent fascination with MMA fighting seems to point strongly to this interest in rather intense violence). It’s not that readers won’t accept the fantastic; it’s that they won’t accept it if it’s not grounded in the true complexities of humanity.

3. A character’s ability to change is crucial. This is a maxim of all writing. If a character stays stagnate, then we lose interest; we find her unbelievable and boring. In the film, both Haymitch and Katniss undergo transformations, and while the film short-shrifts these changes much more than the books do, we are still able to see Haymitch come to a level of affection and commitment for his charges, and we see Katniss move past some of her pride and accept the help and love of the men around her. As readers, this change gives us something to root for, and it’s something as writers we need to look for in the characters we put on the page, even if those characters are ourselves.

2. Strong themes are not bad things. The Hunger Games is rather overtly dealing with ideas of scapegoating and oppression, of the unjust distribution of wealth, and of definitions of entertainment, and because the story and characters compel us, we keep watching and reading. It’s when there isn’t a balance between story and theme that we get bogged down. If a writer tries to hard to teach a lesson but doesn’t use a story as the vehicle for that lesson, we feel like we’re hearing a sermon, but if the story is simply story with no greater ideas or themes behind it, we grow bored or worse yet read the story and then promptly forget it. Balance between theme and story is crucial.

1. There’s something to be said for writing what is popular. I, for one, really enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ books because they were engaging in plot, character, and theme. I didn’t study them as literature; I just let myself sink into them as good stories. These books have taken a lot of heat (as have the Twilight books), and while I certainly can think of more “literary” works, I commend Collins and Meyer for writing something that has captured the imaginations of millions of people. Sometimes as writers, we can to write the next “great” ____________, and we often define that greatness by some standard of language and complexity. But these books and this film have reminded me that there are other definitions of greatness, and sometimes, that definition is “a really good story with characters we can love or hate.”

If you’ve seen the film or read Collins’ books, what do they show you about writing? Things you might want to try? Things you might want to avoid?