Language • A look at which words are used most frequently and which are most distinctive in comparison to similar authors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This weekend, millions of preteens are flocking to theaters to take in the "Hunger Games" sequel, "Catching Fire," just as millions of preteens flocked to each of the five "Twilight" movies. For the most part, however, these will not be the same people. Of the tens of millions who identify themselves on Facebook as fans of either of the two series, less than 20 percent are fans of both. Though both series are set in fantasy worlds and feature female leads, readers and moviegoers seem to ally themselves with either Team Stephenie or Team Suzanne, but not both.
Why might a reader take a shine to one series and not the other? The content, of course, differs considerably: "Twilight" is filled with fantasy romance, "Hunger Games" with fantasy violence. But what about the authors' approach to writing? Do their word choices, sentence structures and other elements of their prose differ significantly? Is loving "The Hunger Games" but not "Twilight" a matter of style as well as substance?
To answer this question, I could have read all of the books and offered my opinion on the authors' styles. But that's so unscientific. (Also, who has the time?) Instead, I conducted a comprehensive textual analysis of the best-selling series. And to benchmark the comparison between Meyer and Collins, I decided to throw into the mix another wildly popular young adult series: "Harry Potter" by J.K. Rowling.
"Textual analysis" sounds complicated, but it's actually quite simple a better term for it might be "counting words." In 1963, statisticians Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace published one of the most famous "counting words" papers of all time when they determined, through analysis of word frequencies, that James Madison most likely wrote 10 of the anonymously penned Federalist Papers. Using similar methods, but with help from a modern computer, which makes the "counting" portions of a "counting words" study much easier to perform, I conducted an equivalent analysis of the fantasy series in question.
Once the words have been counted, the most obvious question to ask is: Which words are used most frequently by each author? But this returns uninteresting results, as basic words like the, a, and and turn up most often in every author's work. The more interesting question is not which words are used most frequently, but which words are used most frequently in comparison to similar authors that is, which words are most distinctive to a given author's work. While studying the Federalist Papers, Mosteller and Wallace found that Hamilton used the conjunction while, as opposed to Madison, who preferred whilst, a distinctive word choice that, in combination with others, could be used to tell the writers apart. Here is a table listing the most distinctive adjectives used by Collins, Meyer and Rowling. Words that were used by only one author or less than 10 times total among the three authors are not included in the lists, as they might only appear because they're so rare, not because they're characteristic of an author's writing.
These lists give us a sense of the authors' proclivities and reflect the general tone of each series. "The Hunger Games" is a technical dystopia relying on detailed descriptions of the action (thus the prevalence of words like "intensely" and "electronic"). "Twilight" is wrapped up in emotion (thus "anxiously," "unwilling" and "unreadable" the last is typically used to describe a character's expression). "Harry Potter" is an exploration of a world by turns wondrous and frightening (thus "dreamily," "terrified"). Collins' adjectives are often used in a utilitarian manner, to describe processes (as in "One of the heaviest days of betting is the opening, when the initial casualties come in."). Meyer, meanwhile, is more likely to use her adjectives to describe people (as in "he asked in his silken, irresistible voice").
There are interesting patterns and contrasts among the authors to observe at the sentence level as well. A table here shows the top 10 most used complete sentences by each author.
Textual analysis has its limitations, of course, but word counting can illuminate the tendencies of writers in a way that word reading may not. Not all of Collins' tics will be on display in this weekend's movie version, but if you go, don't be surprised if you see Katniss "repeatedly" make "last-ditch" efforts to save her skin when "something is wrong."
Of course, each series is made up of individual books, and there are variations within a series as well. Applying the same methodology to just the Hunger Games trilogy, I isolated the most distinctive adjectives for each of the three books. What I found was a transition from "weak," "wild," and "furious" in "The Hunger Games" (in which Katniss must endure the "Hunger Games" competition) to "mental," "physical" and "ridiculous" in "Catching Fire" (in which Katniss must handle both a second competition and a rebellion) to "glad," "lucky" and "funny" in "Mockingjay" (in which Katniss struggles through a series of unfortunate events but ultimately finds a measure of peace). In other ways, however, Collins' books are remarkably consistent: The three books have a word count of roughly 101,200, 101,900, and 102,700, indicating she sticks to a precision formula for young adult success. By comparison, none of the four "Twilight" books have a word count within 10,000 words of one another, and the last "Harry Potter" book is more than twice as long as the first.
Like the distinctive word lists, these sentences suggest something about each author's style. Rowling's betray her reliance on suspense: "Harry looked around," "He waited," "Harry stared." (A list of her most frequently used sentences could be repurposed into a script for an absurdist play called "Waiting for Voldemort.") Meyer's sentences "I sighed," "He sighed" show a text focused on the emotional lives of her characters. Collins' declarative sentences telegraph her books' relatively spare descriptions of the action.
Looking at Meyer's sentences, you get the sense that she may be using similar sentences again and again a pitfall, perhaps, of writing a series of such length. To determine the relative repetitiveness of each author, I first made a list of the 50 most common three-word sentence openings each author used throughout her work. For example, Collins' three most common openings were "I can see," "I try to" and "I have to." Then I calculated the percentage of all sentence openings (not necessarily the whole sentence) that come from each author's most used opening list:
J.K. Rowling • 2.35 percent
Suzanne Collins • 2.69 percent
Stephenie Meyer • 4.42 percent
Clearly, Meyer's sentence variety is lacking compared to Collins and Rowling. But in her defense, repeatedly starting sentences off the same way doesn't mean the prose is bad it just means it's repetitive. Hemingway uses the same 50 openings ("There was a," "He did not") in 5.3 percent of all sentences in "The Sun Also Rises."