Plot and Setting: Why Bigger is Not Always Better (A Continuation of My Thoughts on the Divergent Series)

(Warning: Spoilers for the Divergent series and the Hunger Games  series.)

As I mentioned in my quick review of the Divergent series, the first problems with the story began to appear in the second book, Insurgent, where it felt like the author decided that the story needed to be ‘bigger’, and went about expanding it the wrong way, which got much worse in the final book, Allegiant, where the story exploded in an uncontrollable and illogical way. In going over what I feel the series, particularly Insurgent and Allegiant, did wrong, I hope to get out my own thoughts on the idea of making a plot or setting ‘bigger’.

So, as I said in my review, Divergent was a great ride, the setting interesting and well crafted, and the plot was tightly focused, which gave it the sense of urgency that made the book enjoyable. The setting was simple: in this dystopia, everyone has to choose, at the age of 16, which of 5 factions they want to join. (Or to be more correct, they’re tested and told which faction is the best fit for them, and they usually go according to the test.) This is technically very simple, but it sets up great tension (what will our heroine be told to do? will she accept what she’s told, or rebel, as seen by her early doubts regarding her current faction?). And as simple as it is, it leaves room for more to be revealed about the factions and their relationship. It’s also revealed early on that it’s possible to ‘fail out’ of your chosen faction and become ‘factionless’, cut off from the community and higher quality of life that the factions have built. Throughout the book, we see her struggle to earn a place in her chosen faction, Dauntless, while discovering what it means to be divergent, as well as some of the undercurrents of faction dealings. The book’s climax then features a conspiracy arranged by some Dauntless members and the Erudite faction to eliminate another faction, Abnegation, because they feel that a change in leadership is needed.

This was a great, clever plot twist and climax, and it set up a full-blown inter-faction conflict…which we never really got. Insurgent focused too much on the ‘secret’ that the Abnegation leaders had been hiding (that of course being the knowledge of the experiment). This focus seriously hurt the story, as it now became Tris and Four versus everyone, especially as we are introduced to the other factions and the factionless, all of whom we’re supposed to see as morally gray. The addition of the factionless as a, well, faction, was good. It makes sense that this large, marginalized group would seize the chance to rise up. So the story should have focused on that.

Also the plot thread of the Erudite being obsessed with the divergent and the serums (the favorite word of this series) detracted from things, as it was tied to the big secret, which again we didn’t need. The introduction of the factionless was enough of an addition to the plot and tension here. If they’d been introduced as supposed ‘good guys’, only to later reveal that they just wanted to seize power and impose their own harsh rule, we still would have had a good trilogy, with a simpler but more focused plot. The important things are the factions and the city, and Tris’s navigating through it (even more than her being divergent–it really should have just been treated as a superpower instead of an important plot device).

When we get to the last book, Allegiant, the plot and setting finally explode–both literally and figuratively. At the start of the book we learn the grand secret–the entire city we’ve been set in this whole time was some sort of experiment. What? Really? Did the story need this? No. Nor did it need everything that takes place outside the city. I do think that the minor plot thread of ‘what’s outside?’ had promise, and it does make sense with the setting (it would’ve worked better if the focus had been solidly on the city events, which would make the idea of going outside more interesting.

But the real problem is everything relating to the outside. Once we leave the city, we are introduced to not one but two new factions, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare and another group that is against their silly ideas of genetic purity. As a result, we spend more of the book outside the city than in it, which hurts the story. It feels like in a desire to make the story bigger and more expansive, we lost focus. Similarly, the plot, in being so rapidly and needlessly expanded, becomes a confused mess, with too many threads, too many things to focus on. In the first books there were fewer major players (even in book two where we meet the other factions, they’re not major players in the story, whereas here we have the factionless, the Dauntless, the Bureau, and the anti-Bureau people, none of whom we’re meant to identify with.)

In making things so much ‘bigger’ for this final installment, the story sacrifices both logic and our ability to care. Everything about the Bureau makes no sense, from the really silly idea that they could ‘fix the genetic code’ by setting people up in a quarantined city with a new society to the ‘genetically damaged’ prejudice. I don’t think genetics work that way. And also, this society they set up quickly seems to have decided to kill the very ‘special’ people that the ‘experiment’ was supposed to create. Great job running your experiment, guys. And regarding the idea of prejudice against ‘genetically damaged’ people…it’s silly. There is a reason that in the real world almost all serious prejudices are against a group that can be easily identified as part of it. The only way to tell if someone is ‘genetically damaged’ is to take a blood test. True, that isn’t so hard to do, but it’s still a stretch, especially when there are few, if any, noticeable differences. Maybe this would have worked if the series had had another book or three to flesh it out, but in this one book it’s simply too much, too quickly, with no sense.

And then we add to this the previously mentioned problem of too many factions. In the first book, we had the 5 official factions, and the conspiracy of the Erudite and part of Dauntless against Abnegation. The second book added the factions allied against Erudite, then the factionless. But it didn’t stop there, as by the end Tris and friends were essentially yet another faction, as they go against everyone trying to reveal the big secret. Then Allegiant added the Bureau and those people who hate them. And again, Tris and friends are on a side all their own. When there’s one group after another, one revolution on top of another, with no group to identify with, there’s no reason to care. And Tris and friends make too many stupid decisions, but that neither here nor there.

Now let’s contrast this to the Hunger Games series (which has plenty of problems itself, though they are different ones). Suzanne Collins does a fine job gradually expanding the world and plot in a way that makes sense (with really no major missteps until book 3). The first book shows us a rough picture of the dystopia, and the titular Hunger Games. A very simple, effective story of survival in an awful world. The second gives us a bigger picture of what goes on behind the scenes; what happens after winning the games, more about the Capitol and the districts. The new characters also provide more insight to the world.

And it expands the plot, with the brewing revolt, and Katniss’s role in it, with the threats by President Snow added in for added tension. Added to this we have the well done behind the scenes conspiracy (keeping Katniss in the dark helped make it all the more effective for the reader). Then the book ends exactly where it needs to, with the revelation of the conspiracy and the fact that the revolt is in full swing.

Finally, the third book expands the plot with the revolution itself, and both the setting and plot with the introduction of District 13. Here we have only one added faction (here they’re also shown as morally questionable, but it seems more focused on the district’s leader, President Coin, than on the whole faction). It’s clear, makes sense (for the most part), and I still have a side I care about, not just individuals,

Am I making sense here? I hope so, especially as I’m realizing how long this post is going. To sum up, one of the biggest failures of the Divergent trilogy was that it kept trying to one-up itself, make the story and setting bigger, but this came at the expense of the overall story, resulting in an illogical mess. There was no need for the outside the city stuff to take such a central role, when there was still plenty to work with there, and the continued addition of new groups we weren’t even supposed to like further over-complicated things while causing me to stop caring.

Expanding a story and setting are crucial in writing a series. The stakes have to raised, new things have to be added, and things have to get more complex as the series moves forward. Without making the story and setting bigger the plot feels dull and the tension can be lost, and not making the world bigger can make it feel too static and simplistic, which hurts the believability aspect. But it has to be done properly, balancing those needs along with the need for a coherent story that makes sense and keeps the reader caring.

That’s it for now, I hope my point came through in this post and I didn’t just repeat myself over and over. It’s one of those things that feels easier to articulate verbally than through writing, but definitely doable. I hope you found this informative and interesting. Coming soon, I will make another Divergent­-centric post, this time on the topic of death. That’s all I’ll say for now. (It might not be my next post here, as I’ve got another post partially done already, but it will definitely follow that one, and I may do one final post in this little series some time afterward.)

So until next time, keep on writing, and reading! Even if something we read has problems, it can still prove extremely valuable in improving our writing, sometimes doing more than a superb book would! [And books with problems also give opportunities to rant, which everyone needs. 😉 ]

5 thoughts on “Plot and Setting: Why Bigger is Not Always Better (A Continuation of My Thoughts on the Divergent Series)

  1. That’s how I felt about the first one. The second was significantly worse, but not terrible, and the third…by that point I just decided to push through to the end; it only took me 2 or 3 hours to read anyway, A good friend of mine though couldn’t even get through the second one though. He got too annoyed somewhere in the middle, at which point I filled him in on the rest. He doesn’t regret giving up where he did.

  2. Really well written. I have only read the first two books in the series, and wasn’t planning on reading Allegiant, so I was fine with reading this post.
    Sounds like the third book was a mess, haha. Writers should always be careful of over-complicating things, I think, because it can definitely harm a good story.

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