5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy

Originally published at The Whisper Project.

My wife picked me up a copy of Veronica Roth’s Divergent over the weekend, which reminded me how much I loved this series. Without providing any spoilers to those who haven’t read the books or seen the two movie adaptations that have come out, I’ll sum up the Divergent trilogy as the story of one teenage girl living in a dystopian future who discovers that the world she inhabits isn’t what it seems and her role in it is more significant than she realizes.

Photo Credit: Katherine Tegan Books

I read Divergent a couple years ago, but I waited until Insurgent and Allegiant were out before I finished reading the trilogy, and I was blown away by the depth and scope of the story. I remember closing Insurgent with this buzzing anticipation and finishing Allegiant with the feeling that Roth is a serious storyteller with a lot of courage (You’ll have to read it to find out why).

Because I’m both a fan and a writer, I couldn’t read the Divergent trilogy without wishing I could write a story that resonated with people the way Divergent does. And because I think Veronica Roth is a skilled storyteller, I think there’s a lot that writers can learn from the decisions she made with the divergent trilogy.

So here’s my spoiler-free take on the five things I think writers can take away from the Divergent trilogy.

1. World Building

What immediately comes to mind for me as I remember reading the series is the story world that Roth created in which her story takes place. It’s Chicago, sometime in the distant future, and society has changed drastically. It’s a dystopian society completely unlike the world we live in where people are divided by factions based upon five dominant character traits. Then there are the factionless, those who don’t belong in the elite society of the factions. And, of course, the divergent, people who don’t quite fit the mold of any one faction, but have to keep their divergence a secret because it’s a threat to something very important (Read the books to find out what).

Because the story takes place in Chicago, you can’t help but wonder what’s outside the fences. As I was reading Insurgent I felt drawn to find out what’s behind the fences, and I think Roth designed the reader experience that way. Because there is a world outside the fences, and it is another example of Roth’s ability to build a unique story world that takes the reader to another place.

If you learn nothing else from the Divergent trilogy, you should learn that building a detailed and interesting story world is vital to your story.

2. Present Tense Action

I don’t know how much people really consciously think about this, but novels are typically written in past tense using past tense verbs. It gives the feeling of a narrator recalling events that happened sometime in the past.

Look at this example (not from the book):

Sam woke up to the piercing sound of a car alarm outside his window. He jumped out of bed and threw the shades open to get a look at what was going on.

Notice all the past tense verbs above?

Divergent is written entirely in present tense using present tense verbs. It gives the feeling that the narrator, in this case, the main character of the story Tris, is describing the action as it’s happening.

Notice how the feeling conveyed changes when the verbs are changed to present tense:

Sam wakes up to the piercing sound of a car alarm outside his window. He jumps out of bed and throws the shades open to get a look at what is going on.

Present tense completely changes the feel of the story and makes you feel like you’re living out the experience with the narrator as it’s occurring.

It also gives the story a cinematic feel, which makes sense because screenwriters write scripts completely in present tense because they have to describe actions as they’re occurring now because that’s what we experience when we’re watching a movie.

If you want your story to feel like it has a quicker narrative pace and make the reader feel like they’re experiencing the story as it’s happening, try writing in present tense.

3. Backstory

Dystopian stories always make you wonder what happened in the past to make society the way it is in the present day of the story. Divergent is no exception. This isn’t just the coming-of-age story of Tris Prior; it’s the story of the world she inhabits. And that world has a history.

It used to be said that backstory should be kept to a minimum in a story because it slows the story’s pace down and the reader loses interest. Stories like the television show LOST showed that people do care about backstory when the backstory is interesting enough and plays a significant impact on the modern story’s plot.

Roth reveals more and more about the backstory of Divergent’s Chicago as well as the rest of the world surrounding it as the stories go on, and the backstory is very compelling. There is also significant backstories for many of the characters that are equally as interesting as you read the story.

This ties in well with developing a unique and compelling story world because the world’s history is a part of world building. Writers can learn a lot about the value of interesting backstory from Roth’s approach to the series.

4. Characterization

Divergent wouldn’t be the interesting story that it is without its characters. The whole story is told from the perspective of Tris, and we, of course, get to know her well, including her insecurities and the ways her emotions often influence her actions. But we also get to know Tobias, her love interest in the story, as well as several of her fellow faction members and the villains of the story.

Roth’s strength as a writer in the area of characterization is that she revealed character primarily through the actions of the characters instead of feeding us information about character traits.

If you want to write a story that resonates as well as Divergent, you need to carefully and thoughtfully design the characters of your story and show the reader who they are rather than telling them.

5. Deep Thematic Questions

Divergent doesn’t shy away from some very significant questions and issues. This is a story about classes of people, about prejudice, and about what makes a person good or evil.

As a story that deals with deep thematic questions, the characters involved face some very challenging decisions at times. The stakes are high, and Roth makes no promises about whether this will be a story that ends in victory or defeat.

At the same time, the story doesn’t pummel you with its moral argument. The themes are well communicated through the narrative of the story.

Tom Farr is a blogger, storyteller, and screenwriter who teaches English Language Arts to high school students. He loves creating and spending time with his wife and three children.

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