A short review follows with comments on how the book relates to standard writing advice.
Divergent is one of the current crop of dystopias, perhaps inspired by Hunger Games, where teenagers fight each other and sometimes kill. Divergent offers a society inhabited by people like us in a world detached from time and place. It might be a future Chicago since there are a few references like Michigan Avenue and the Hancock Building, but the location doesn’t matter. The technology in this world seems about like ours (although fluorescent lights are called “ancient”) except with more advanced mind manipulation techniques.
In this world, citizens are separated into five factions that dislike and distrust each other. The factions are based on the virtues they venerate – Candor values honesty, Abnegation – selflessness; Dauntless – bravery; Amity – peacefulness; and Erudite – intelligence. But an individual’s personality also has an influence. At age sixteen, a virtual reality test is given to determine if the teen fits their parents’ faction and only the teen is supposed to know the test’s outcome. Then they must choose the faction they will live with the rest of their lives.
The hero of the book is a girl who changes factions and must struggle through a training and initiation period that is both mentally and physically grueling. Most of the book follows her through these trials with the friends and enemies she makes along the way. Eventually she discovers a dark plot brewing and must move beyond her own problems. Towards the end, some adults actually take positive roles.
Thousands of reviewers on Amazon love this book. A comparative few simply couldn’t accept the premise or didn’t like the characters, or felt Divergent compared poorly to Hunger Games. Some felt “there are way too many books about kids killing each other these days.” (Lisa Babcock).
The book kept me reading right along. This is clearly the first book in a series, and some interesting elements, like “factionless” loners, were introduced (I assume) to be used in the next book. The book does, however, have an ending of its own. Perhaps if you’ve ODed on teen dystopias, you should give the genre a rest. But otherwise this is a good read.
I’ve been trying to learn something about writing science fiction as I read successful novels.
I found it interesting that the world of Divergent only adds one “high-tech” improvement – mind manipulation. Fists, knives, and guns form the weaponry. Everything from transportation to food seems pretty mundane. This may be a wise choice. Trying to introduce and explain multiple technologies may produce a pedantic book. Ignoring explanations may leave readers bewildered. It’s a tough call because, for me, experiencing a different world is part of the fun of science fiction and obviously the future (or an alternate universe) will be different from my world in many ways.
A writing tip I’ve seen is to grab the reader with action in the first 250 words. Divergent begins with the hero (first person narration and present tense) looking at herself in the mirror and thinking. Suspense is added shortly after as she worries about her aptitude test and we begin to learn about her world. Did it work? Even some of the book’s fans say it starts slow. The start didn’t stop me from reading, but then, personally, I don’t need a James Bond movie sort of first scene.
In Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall recommends:
- Build suspense with the immediate preliminaries,
- Avoid prolonged stretches of blow-by-blow description,
- Provide a surprise – (something happens that is outside the fighters’ control) and a climax when the character may be close to giving up or being defeated.
- Depending on how realistic the story, an aftermath should take stock, feel pain, and check injuries.
Divergent follows this advice fairly well across a series of fights, though without the surprise/climax. Like most action adventures, I suspect in reality the characters would be reduced to hospitalized immobility by some of the action scenes, but we all seem to accept that in movies so why not in books.
I am closer to understanding “show don’t tell” advice. When Roth writes
“The houses on my street are all the same size and shape. They are made of gray cement, with few windows, in economical, no-nonsense rectangles”
I think she is showing me the street via description. “Show and Tell” also relates to pacing: To write “I try to smile convincingly” takes fewer words than describing her appearance. How would you even describe that face so readers would easily understand?
Some adverbs do creep in violating the advice to choose a better word rather than add an adverb. But I think even Stephen King slips an adverb in occasionally.
As for “saidisms,” Roth mostly sticks to “say” and “ask.”