bookmark_borderWriting Review: Divergent, and other YA

More results from my project of working through some top reading lists. Next up: Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

Blog posts in the category

Divergent comes right after Looking for Alaska, and having speed-read The Hunger Games the weekend before seeing the first movie, and Blink & Caution a year or so back, all good YA genre novels. Blink & Caution is probably the most challenging read because it’s written from two alternating perspectives— those of the two main characters — and one of the voices is written in second person, a POV that some readers find difficult to digest, plus the characters live a marginalized (runaway) life, which I suspect is less appetizing if the setting is not a dystopian future like The Hunger Games or Divergent.

Now that I think about it, there were a few others as well. Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles which had interesting characters and kept generating mental images of Futurama, The Perks of Being a Wallflower which I couldn’t get interested enough to finish, The Book Thief which looked to be well written but I couldn’t bring myself to read another Nazi/WWII story, Bloodlines, a decently written vampire story with (to me) more interesting characters than I remember Twilight having, though I read that years ago, Crossed (Matched) which was so-so; not offensive but not interesting either, the world feels similar to Cinder but not as entertaining to read, and City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments, Book 2) which, maybe because it’s a second in a series, I couldn’t get absorbed in it and aborted it after ten pages. The writing/voice is also too simplistic; air-headed in comparison to some of the others and maybe it’s supposed to Y rather than YA.

I think that’s all the YA that I’ve attempted in the past year or so as part of my cross-genre reading list reading. Ten attempted (not counting Twilight; I don’t remember how much I read; I may have stopped and just watched the movie instead), most finished, most decently written, lots of dystopian futures


I don’t know that I have a favorite genre to read. I know YA is not one of them; it tends to fall in the looking-to-kill-time reading situations, like when I picked up an Andrew Greeley novel while waiting for my flight to board. Greeley is not YA, but like YA I wanted something inoffensive to kill the hours in the plane. Action is a genre I can enjoy if the author hits it right for me, which I why I’ve read all of Robert Ludlum (hey, for the action, not for the quality of the writing) and a lot of Lee Childs, while Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler do nothing for me. SF is similar; certain authors I seem to always like, others bore me.

Divergent worked for me, in a way similar to reading Ludlum or Heinlein; the characters, setting, and story drew me in and I became so invested that, while still reading, I worried about the ending, hoping that it would be good enough to not leave me disappointed. It achieved a level of enjoyment that no YA has reached. At the opening, the factions as tribes/units/groups seemed typical, but when Tris, the central character, opts, after the choosing (kind of like Harry Potter’s sorting hat scene) to join the wild/protector faction, the internal struggles, the physical challenges, and the self-discovery really pick up. Of course, she learns that she may have special abilities (like any hero/heroine in a dystopian society) and that there are other forces at play within the group and within the society and that she may have a destiny to fulfill. Tris goes from fighting her fellow initiates to fighting for a bigger cause; the escalation/expanded growth testing plot structure. I’m now started on the sequel and it’s possible that this one won’t have the same attraction for me because the central character has become defined, but, we’ll see how it goes. I’d hate to see her role expanded to the point that she becomes a politician/ruler.

Another thought that occurred during the reading; my investment, my desire to get to finish the book before the end of the day, my enjoyment epitomized what genre writing should try to be, should try to accomplish, in my view. Satisfaction, from what has happened, pleasure, from the act of reading, anticipation for the next page. Again, I don’t know how much is due to my connection with the character in those specific discovery/growth situations that can only mostly take place in the first novel. Jason Bourne (not quite the same character and very different storylines between the novels and the movies) was a fun character to read in the first novel of the series and still fun in the second and third. We’ll see how Tris holds up.



Later edit: The writing didn’t hold up. In the first book I noted an instance of beginner-ish dialogue; two brothers, one inserting “brother” into his sentence, the other referring to “our mother” rather than “Mom”. At the time, it seemed so out-of-place weak that I thought it would turn out to be meaningful; that they weren’t really brothers. Not so, and the second book has many instances of writer-wants-you-to-know dialogue rather than natural dialogue, as well as a plot thread (when Tris has to kill a drug-manipulated friend who will otherwise kill her and afterwords the author milks the killing for guilt/not-telling because she needs it for a later discovery/conflict purpose) that seems an unrealistically long lasting obsession, given all the killing and dying and deception that is constantly going on.

In the third book we start seeing through a male character’s eyes as well as Tris’ and I found him flat and uninteresting from the first person POV. I speed-read most of the third book just to get to the ending. I wonder whether the author had different beta and proof readers for the first novel, or whether the success of the first generated too much need for sequels, or whether the discovery/growth process of the character was so crucial to the first novel that sequels were doomed to fall short.

This makes me interested in re-reading Ludlum from a dialogue/plot perspective. He was an actor and voice-over man before he started writing, which leads me to wonder whether his dialogue might be decent. It’s been a long time since I read anything of his, and there is a big time gap between the last Ludlum I read and the point when I started analyzing fiction from a writing perspective.

bookmark_borderUsing alternatives for ‘said’

When you’re writing, do you use ‘said’ over and over, or do you go for variety by looking for alternatives?

I had an internet discussion with a fellow writer (who turned out to be fifteen years old, the relevance of which I’ll get to in a moment). He argued that ‘said’ is a bland, weak word and that I should be using stronger alternatives. I argued that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are accepted as bland tags and that the overuse of colorful alternatives is not in fashion these days.

Later I brought up this discussion at the dinner table, and my partner suggested that the use of colorful alternatives is fostered by school teachers trying to get their students to liven up their creative writing assignments. For research we grabbed a bunch of books from our shelves.

I wanted to check out some YA to see if the use of alternatives is common, and in the Percy Jackson series I found some pretty heavy doses. The book that I looked at was the first in the series but I wanted to quote in here from something available on the internet, so here, from “The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)”, by Rick Riordan, page 11, an excerpt of which is available on Amazon:

“I…I am a freak?” he asked me.

“No,” I promised, gritting my teeth. “Matt Sloan is the freak.”

Tyson sniffed. “You are a good friend. Miss you next year if …if I can’t …”

His voice trembled. I realized he didn’t know if he’d be invited back next year for the community service project. I wondered if the headmaster had even bothered talking to him about it.

“Don’t worry, big guy,” I managed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Not the most extreme example, but even in this excerpt we go from asked to promised, followed by the action sniffed, to the most difficult one to swallow, “I managed.” That last one is pretty gross, imho. Even promised feels like a situation where someone has reviewed the novel with the specific objective of trying to replace every said with an alternative.

In a different extreme I have wondered whether D. H. Lawrence was allergic to attribution tags. The generally accepted rule is to not go more than five statements before clarifying for the reader who is speaking, but here from “Sons and Lovers” (available from the Gutenberg collection) the identities are kept clear by 1) having only two persons in the scene, 2) short statements, and most of all by 3) clear cut objectives and positions of each of the two; one constantly pushing away and the other constantly questioning:

“I have been thinking,” he said, “we ought to break off.”
“Why?” she cried in surprise.
“Because it’s no good going on.”
“Why is it no good?”
“It isn’t. I don’t want to marry. I don’t want ever to marry. And if we’re not going to marry, it’s no good going on.”
“But why do you say this now?”
“Because I’ve made up my mind.”
“And what about these last months, and the things you told me then?”
“I can’t help it! I don’t want to go on.”
“You don’t want any more of me?”
“I want us to break off—you be free of me, I free of you.”
“And what about these last months?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not told you anything but what I thought was true.”
“Then why are you different now?”
“I’m not—I’m the same—only I know it’s no good going on.”
“You haven’t told me why it’s no good.”
“Because I don’t want to go on—and I don’t want to marry.”
“How many times have you offered to marry me, and I wouldn’t?”
“I know; but I want us to break off.”

Or, this excerpt from later in the same novel where a conversation between two characters has become between three, yet Lawrence uses the bare minimum of attribution tags in a three way conversation:

They looked into each other’s eyes, laughing. At that moment they became aware of Miriam. There was a click, and everything had altered.
“Hello, Miriam!” he exclaimed. “You said you’d come!”
“Yes. Had you forgotten?”
She shook hands with Clara, saying:
“It seems strange to see you here.”
“Yes,” replied the other; “it seems strange to be here.”
There was a hesitation.
“This is pretty, isn’t it?” said Miriam.
“I like it very much,” replied Clara.
Then Miriam realised that Clara was accepted as she had never been.
“Have you come down alone?” asked Paul.
“Yes; I went to Agatha’s to tea. We are going to chapel. I only called in for a moment to see Clara.”
“You should have come in here to tea,” he said.
Miriam laughed shortly, and Clara turned impatiently aside.
“Do you like the chrysanthemums?” he asked.
“Yes; they are very fine,” replied Miriam.
“Which sort do you like best?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The bronze, I think.”
“I don’t think you’ve seen all the sorts. Come and look. Come and see which are YOUR favourites, Clara.”
He led the two women back to his own garden, where the towsled bushes of flowers of all colours stood raggedly along the path down to the field. The situation did not embarrass him, to his knowledge.
“Look, Miriam; these are the white ones that came from your garden. They aren’t so fine here, are they?”
“No,” said Miriam.
“But they’re hardier. You’re so sheltered; things grow big and tender, and then die. These little yellow ones I like. Will you have some?”

Lots of asked and replieds rather than saids, but that’s the nature of this particular conversation. More importantly, note all the dialogue that has no tag in spite of the fact that three people are present. Lawrence has used the absolute minimum number of tags for this given dialogue and yet it is always clear who is speaking.

For our research we also pulled out some detective novels, some Alice Munro and others that I can’t remember. And later I also took a look at “The Hunger Games”, by Suzanne Collins, another YA novel but one that had been recommended to students by my daughter’s high school, to see if that one might be the same or different from The Olympians series. We found no other examples of (what I would call) overuse of alternatives.

The results of my survey: unless you can’t help it, don’t overuse alternatives to ‘said’. Unless, perhaps, you’re writing for an audience that won’t complain and who can take the sensory overload. School teachers might still push their students to consider alternatives, but overusing tags makes the writing stilted, and overusing colorful tags makes the writing garish.

I don’t think Robert Ludlum would be too offended with the description that I have indirectly applied. 🙂

bookmark_borderWriting review: The Hunger Games

My writing reviews have been focused on fiction, but in this case I want to look at “The Hunger Games (Book 1)“, not so much the novel as the movie version. I read the book recently and then saw the movie this past weekend. As always there are the issues of discomfort over what is left out of the novel when it is turned into a movie, but for me in this case I wasn’t too concerned; the novel was borrowed so I speed-read the novel in 36 hours total time, less actual reading time when you deduct 8 hours for sleeping and 9 hours for work and so on, so my memory for the details was not precise to begin with.

But what was interesting to me was how the movie writers dealt with the second half of the novel. The second part is the competition itself and much of the time Katniss is alone in the forest. Because the novel remains in limited third person POV that means all that time alone is written from inside Katniss’s head. Presenting this as a movie means that you either introduce a pet for her to talk to constantly or you do voice overs of her thinking or you have a pretty boring section of movie. What the writers did instead was to add a number of scenes outside of limited third person; scenes with Haymitch talking up sponsors, with District 11 rioting, with Gale watching, with the head of the games in discussion with President Snow. Some of these incidents are clearly implied in the novel but are never shown because of the restriction of staying with limited third person. I thought that the choice was a good one.

It’s similar to “Brokeback Mountain”. I saw the movie before reading the short story that it was based on and I knew that the script writers were aware that they needed to add material in order to build a full length movie from a short story. They chose to add background material; events and stories and family members that could take place outside of the mountain to draw the characters more fully.

In both cases it’s not a matter of scenes that were missing from the novels. It’s a matter of specific situations that require or could use more story and how and where does this material come from? Is the story better with those changes? Maybe, maybe not. But what is important is that the movies work as movies with the addition of those materials. And my point is that, as a writer, there are many options and choices to make and here are two examples of two different versions of the same story using different options.