Breaking a Promise to the Reader

Before we start into this week’s blog post, we wanted to announce an e-novella promotion this week. From December 17th – December 19th, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL will be FREE! So if you wanted to try out the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, this is your chance to do so, risk free. You can find it here: NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL.

And now onto our regularly scheduled blog post. . . .

**This post will contain spoilers for Veronica Roth’s ALLEGIANT. If you would prefer to remain unspoiled, then please skip this post.**

I recently finished the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. First of all, let me say that I’m not a regular YA reader. I’ve read some of the big ones—like THE HUNGER GAMES—but I have two teenagers at home and don’t need any more teenaged angst in my life, especially not in my reading material. So, by and large, YA doesn’t do much for me (it’s never good when you want to grab the protagonist by the shoulders and shout ”Snap out of it!”). But DIVERGENT got a lot of buzz so I admit I was curious, even though I came to the series late. I enjoyed DIVERGENT, and moved right on to INSURGIENT. I then had to wait about six months before I got to ALLEGIANT. But I watched friends who were extremely invested in the series get more and more excited as the release date for ALLEGIANT approached and then arrived. Then I watched them implode when they actually read the end of the trilogy. One friend even said she spent an entire evening sobbing. I know what investment in a fandom is like, and I know what it’s like when that investment crumbles because the storyline goes in a direction you can’t stomach. So I really felt for her, but from a writer’s point of view, I was more curious than ever about what exactly happened.

Now that I’m finished the book, I think what it essentially comes down to is that a promise was made to the readers and Ms. Roth and her editors broke that promise (which is totally within their rights to do, but this is the fallout as a result). Making and keeping promises to the reader is one of the points the Writing Excuses team comes back to again and again—when you make a promise to your reader, even if it wasn’t overt, you should absolutely keep that promise.

So where did Ms. Roth go wrong from that perspective?

  • She killed off her main character: The first two books in the series were first person narrated by Tris Prior. Hers was the only head we were in. Four/Tobias played a major part in the book, but only through Tris’ eyes. The third book started with dual POVs between Tris and Tobias. From a writer’s perspective, this clearly looks like a tool to allow the story to continue once Tris was killed with 20% of the story still to go. For me, this was the biggest promise broken. Normally, when you have a book written in the first person, as much trouble as that character might encounter, you know he/she is essentially safe or else the story cannot continue. The promise made in the first two books was that Tris’ life was safe. She might be injured or emotionally damaged, but she couldn’t be killed. Dual POV’s in the last book solved that little inconvenience. This is on scale with killing off either Matt or Leigh in our series, and, for us, this is absolutely forbidden. It’s like watching the TV show Castle—yes, Rick and Kate may get into trouble and we’ll go on the rollercoaster ride with them, but we never actually think either of them could die as it would kill the premise of the show (as an aside, the only showrunner this doesn’t hold true for is Joss Whedon. With Whedon, all bets are off and no single character is safe, something the community understands). Clearly, Roth’s readers felt a promise had been made and then shattered with Tris’ death.
  • The romance ended as a result of that death: For many readers, the main draw of the series as a whole wasn’t the conflict between the factions or the great overarching story with the Bureau; it was the developing relationship between Tris and Four/Tobias. That relationship was fully realized in the final book, just before Tris’ death. The readers were given what they wanted, only to have it cruelly snatched away, leaving Tobias destroyed and alone at the end of the story. Honestly, I’m not sure what most readers would consider the greater blow, Tris’ death, or the end of the Tris/Tobias romance, but I suspect it's the latter.
  • Hated characters were allowed to live: This issue is totally wrapped up in the concept of emotional justice. While Tris died, the brother who betrayed her lives on in her place, and Tobias’ abusive father is not only unpunished but goes free. Peter, a cruel compatriot of both Tris and Tobias, essentially gets a ‘get out of jail free’ card when his memory gets reset—essentially giving him a clean slate—and David, the man who kills Tris, while having his memory reset, remains in charge at the Bureau. It doesn’t feel like there was enough emotional justice in this book. Uriah’s death was handled emotionally and well (better than Tris’, truth to be told), but other than that, the deaths that occurred and the lives that were saved didn’t seem even remotely balanced.

Did Ms. Roth make a mistake in concluding the series this way? Not necessarily. As an author, it’s her prerogative to write the story in her heart. But from the readers’ perspective, I’d say she made a significant mistake. If you look at her reviews on Amazon, she has 1,283 one-star reviews vs. 1,193 five-star reviews. Of the one-star reviews, a very large number of them say that they’ll never pick up another book by Ms. Roth again, nor will they go see the upcoming DIVERGENT movie. Whether she meant to or not, Ms. Roth made certain promises to her readers, promises she did not keep. Because many readers are “once-burned-twice-shy”, this translates into sales and future writing potential. From the author perspective, I know I wouldn’t be able to do that with our characters. Abbott and Lowell readers, let me assure you, they are in safe hands!

Ann and I are going to be taking a couple of weeks off to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the season. Best holiday wishes from us to you, and we’ll see you in the new year!