The First 250 Project: “Divergent”

F250-Divergent

Last Friday, I introduced today’s weekly feature The First 250 Project. If you forgot what this project is all about, every Friday I’ll be breaking down the first 250 words of bestselling novels in the industry to see what makes them tick.

Today we’re going to be looking at Veronica Roth’s YA Sci-Fi/Dystopian “Divergent”.

I wanted to go into this analysis pretending that I had no previous knowledge about the book’s premise in order to simulate the feeling of seeing this opening for the first time. However, I did keep in mind the genre since that is almost always something that accompanies any first 250-word pitch.

So let’s get down to it. First I’ll give you the excerpt. Then I’ll break it down piece-by-piece to highlight the elements that I felt were important to take note of.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how calm she looks and how focused she is. She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can’t say the same of myself.

I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention—not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose—I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen. The other factions celebrate birthdays, but we don’t. It would be self-indulgent.

“There,” she says when she pins the knot in place. Her eyes catch mine in the mirror. It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection. I frown a little. Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?

“So today is the day,” she says.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Are you nervous?”

Several elements of story are packed into this first 250. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

There is one mirror in my house.

We open with a line of simple description to set the scene. However it’s important to note that this scene setter isn’t just some arbitrary object. Roth could have selected any number of things to open with. But she chose a mirror; but not just any mirror. The ONLY mirror in the house. This detail is important and immediately sets the tone for the kind of world we’ve just dived into. It’s simple and without doing a lot of work, Roth has set the general scene and has started building the world.

Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

Next we’re given some strange jargon, the word “faction”, which serves as a world building element. In addition, we’re given some more detail that solidifies the kind of world we’re in.

When scene setting, especially in a place that would be very foreign to the reader regardless of knowing the premise, this kind of information is important to include. However, it’s also important that this doesn’t turn into an info-dump. Note how brief this is. Roth kept this to one simple and loaded sentence.

Additionally, beyond world building, which adds context to our 250, there is one more key element at work here, which is inducing curiosity. By making the reader aware of how strange this new world is to their own, Roth has created a feeling of suspense to push the reader onward.

The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

Here we learn that the MC is blonde. What makes this a solid example of well executed description is that the information is weaved into the exposition, as opposed to interrupting the narrative to give a boring breakdown of what our MC looks like. Furthermore, the narrator doesn’t take several sentences to say HOW blonde her hair. Her diction is careful and particular. The MC’s hair is dull. It’s not shimmering gold. It’s not glistening honey. It’s freaking dull.

This is also the first instance that the reader is given insight into what the character thinks of her appearance, which helps the reader relate to her. She feels insecure about her appearance. It’s almost a guarantee that the reader will be able to sympathize with a person feeling insecure about themselves, thus an element of emotion has been inserted into the first 250.

F250-Divergent-Pin

I note how calm she looks and how focused she is.

To save on word count, “I note” could have been edited out, it is also filtering so it should have been edited out anyway and would have been easy to do so in this instance.

She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can’t say the same of myself.

Here we’re given some character introspection. While the dull, blond ring hinted at the fact that our main character felt insecure in her appearance, now we see that she may not think too much of herself in general although she certainly admires her mother. This tidbit is a character developing element and helps to make her multi-dimensional.

I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention […]

The detail that the main character feels like she needs to sneak a peak at herself adds a hint of suspense and tension because we’re once more reminded of the world we’re in. So this is both a world-building element and a character building element.

[…] not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months.

The character is talking to the reader and seems eager to clarify that she isn’t vain but curious. This is in line with everything we’ve seen from this character previously and it now makes sense that she interprets herself in such a light. So this is a character building element but it also serves as an element of introspection. Because she’s admitting to being a curious person despite the fact that this “faction” she’s in seems to be very strict. This is where curiosity of the reader is piqued. I now question how this kind of character fits into this kind of society since it doesn’t really seem like she would.

I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose […]

Some more detail to show us what our main character looks like gets woven into the narrative. Note the word choice, “narrow face”, “wide, round eyes”, “long thin nose”; all of these words further develop the main character and her negative image of herself.

I still look like a little girl—[…]

She wasn’t particularly kind to herself in her own description, which built on the character element. However describing her face as narrow doesn’t mean as much and has very little impact overall until we see how she feels about it. And now with this piece, we know.

Very slowly this character is opening up to us as the reader and is letting us in on her emotions. This is an element of character introspection. When she compares herself here, it’s also the first real instance of her voice ringing through.

[…] I turned sixteen.The other factions celebrate birthdays, but we don’t. It would be self-indulgent.

Here we’re given some more world building elements to set the scene. The information we learn does a few things, we are grounded in who our main character is, making her seem more real and for our YA reader quite possibly more relatable based on her age alone.

There is tension already built into this information because the main character reveals that other factions exist and she is comparing her own to the others. But we’re also given a bit of her voice even if it is a bit muted.

What makes this MC difficult to pin down in the first 250 is her seeming indecisiveness or unwillingness to “speak up”. It’s like she’s uncomfortable with her own voice. Perhaps it’s a result of the “faction” system however if it continues for too long into the book, I know that this kind of indecisiveness will grate on me as a reader and make me want to stop reading.

I believe that solidifying the MC or the narrator’s voice is important in the first 250. It’s one of the main things that grabs and keeps my attention.

Lucky for this 250 so far, I’ve already been intrigued enough by the strangeness of the world we’re in. So based on that alone, I’ll keep going for now. However, if all a book has going for it is that it’s “out there” yet character voice is lacking, then I’m likely to DNF it.

Let’s take a look at that paragraph again as a whole, because it does some pretty heavy lifting in such a small amount of space:

I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention—not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose—I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen. The other factions celebrate birthdays, but we don’t. It would be self-indulgent.

To recap everything we are shown or learn in this paragraph: we learn what the MC looks like, what she thinks of that, we learn that she is curious, we learn her age, we learn that there are other factions aside from the one that the main character is in and we learn that the MC seems to have a problem with her own faction or at least has some sort of ambivalence towards the rules of her faction. We’re given character development, some voice, tension, world-building, setting and emotional content all in one paragraph. I call that a pretty element heavy paragraph that’s executed fairly well.

Her eyes catch mine in the mirror. It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection. I frown a little. Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?

Here we get the sense that the main character doesn’t understand her mother. Though she admires her, she doesn’t get her. This adds an unexpected dynamic to their relationship and some tension.

“So today is the day,” she says.

And here seems to be our inciting incident, or at least a hint towards it. Now, as the reader, we know that something is going to happen. This is an important story element because once more that feeling of suspense comes in. Immediately we’re forced to ask ourselves what’s so special about today, which serves to pique curiosity.

“Are you nervous?”

We end on a note of conflict. Is the main character nervous or not. So far she seems conflicted as a character. The muted voice and the MC’s propensity to be very self-critical would hint that this character might not be nervous. Or maybe all of her muted behavior is really just a show. Perhaps her cold, stony exterior is just a facade to hide that on the inside she’s really burning with fear. I don’t know from the first 250 alone, but as a reader I’ve been sufficiently intrigued to want to know more and continue reading. Ending on a note of conflict, tension, or suspense is an excellent example of how to end the first 250.

Some things that this first 250 missed:

Introspection

The character didn’t do a lot of thinking about herself or how she impacted things around her. She explained a lot, told us how things work in her world but she didn’t tell us how any of this made her feel. So right now, I don’t really have a strong sense of who she is as a person.

Voice

The lack of voice made it difficult for me to pin down the type of person she is, along with the lack of introspection. By the end of the 250 I’m still unsure but I’m intrigued enough by the world that I want to know more. Is she or isn’t she nervous about whatever is about to happen. Now I want to know.

Filtering

There was a bit of filtering with “I look” and “I see” which could have been edited to save word space if this were being submitted to a first 250 competition where each word counts. However, being such a small detail it didn’t make a difference in reading enjoyment or push me out of the story or tell me how to interpret the world around me which is usually the issue with filtering.

Some things that make this first 250 great:

Simplicity

Notice the simple language. The short sentences mixed with the longer more descriptive ones. Each word is purposeful and precise, very minimalistic in style.

Conflict/Tension

We feel the tension throughout the first 250, and it builds as we move on. There is tension between us, as the reader, and this new system of “factions” that is so foreign to us, which serves to propel us forward out of our own curiosity. There is tension in the way that the character is self-critical and seems to lean towards being a reflective insightful person if not a bit harsh on herself. There is tension in the relationship between the mother and the daughter as it seems the daughter admires her mother but doesn’t understand her. There is tension in the way the main character talks about her faction. She doesn’t seem against it, but she doesn’t seem happy with it either. We end on a sense of urgency that something big is about to happen, an inciting incident, which will no doubt bring out conflict in the story. There is a feeling of tension all over this first 250 which makes this great.

Setting/ Detail/ World-building

We’re reminded of the foreign nature of the world through the details that are woven into the narrative. It flows naturally and doesn’t disturb the exposition so we’re able to move from one detail to the next seamlessly.

Overall, the first 250 of “Divergent” is wonderfully done. It’s easy to see what draws the reader in so quickly and in such a small amount of space. The key to this first 250 is that many of the sentences and paragraphs do a lot of heavy lifting by incorporating several elements of story into one.

Source: Roth, V. (2013). The Divergent Series Complete Collection: Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Did you like today’s post? Do me a solid and click those share buttons down below. Or better yet, send me a shout-out telling me your thoughts on social media! Let’s connect.

Discussion: What elements of story did you notice? Do you think they were well executed? As a reader, what story elements keep your attention most?

Until next time!

Keep Reading and Keep Writing,

❤ Nicolette

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25 thoughts on “The First 250 Project: “Divergent”

  1. You are so great at breaking it all down!
    It’s been a very long time that I’ve read the books, but I remember being really curious about the factions and how a society could be so self-less.
    I didn’t so much feel like there was tension between the MC and her mother though, as I felt that her mother was a little bit of rebel. Not following the rules of the factions exactly and not reprimanding her daughter for something that she should have.
    I don’t mind filler words like “I note/see/etc.” in this context though.
    This was so great to read, especially because you were on point, also foreshadowing some of the things that might or might not come later in the story. I can’t wait to read your other 250 posts!

    1. I’m so glad that you like the breakdown! Thanks for pointing out the rebel thing! You’re so right, I didn’t pick up on that but it’s definitely there. I love how different aspects can be picked up on by different readers! I think for me the biggest “curb appeal” for the first part of Divergent was definitely the faction system. I totally wanted to know more and was super curious to learn about the system Roth had built! Also, once Four came onto the scene I was so one board! I’m such a hopeless romantic, as soon as a love interest is introduced I’m hooked. Lol. >.<

      1. The rebel thing could just be because I know the rest of the story, I am not sure I really sensed that when I first read it though hahaha
        I am a big sucker for romance as well! I loved Four in the beginning but that series declined fast for me. By the time Allegiant came around, I didn’t feel like Tris and Four really belonged together all that much anymore. :/

      2. It’s been so long for me too!

        All I can really remember is being so heartbroken for Four. Like I connected to him and I wanted what he wanted. So he wanted Tris and I was like *shrugs* sure, I’ll root for that” lol.

      3. Yep, I think I liked Four better than Tris sometimes. But I did not like how his voice in Allegiant sounded exactly like the one of Tris. I was like, what’s the point of a double POV, if there’s no difference?

      4. Yeah there should be a difference, I totally agree!!! It’s funny, I don’t remember not being able to tell them apart… I think maybe because I wasn’t a reviewer when I read it and because of that I didn’t catch as many of those kinds of details back then, as opposed to now where that stuff definitely grates on me!

  2. A great start to this project! I haven’t read Divergent and know very, very little about it, but this captured my interest. It’s amazing how much just 250 words can do. It’s a bit hard to catch on to her character, as you said about the voice, but I still liked the beginning. She seems a bit insecure and lost, but it makes me want to know more about her. Thank you for sharing, I feel this project will not only help me find new cool books to read but also help me write my own!

    1. I am truly thrilled that you found this a good start to the project! That makes me so happy! The first 250 is always stressed in these big competitions online and while I’m not sure if I’ll enter into any of them again when my ms is polished, I do enjoy looking closely at literature and breaking it down to understand all it’s elements. I hope you’ll read Divergent at some point and will enjoy! You’ll have to let me know your thoughts! I haven’t read in a while and I remember really liking Tris’s character and understanding her. I don’t recall connecting to her emotionally but I feel like I could see where she was coming from, if that makes sense, lol. 🙂

  3. I really liked this, and think it is a great idea. It’s a wonderful way to introduce readers to books, and maybe help them figure out why they know instantly whether they like a book or not. Awesome! Cannot wait to see future 250 posts.

    1. Hi Fallon! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I’m so excited that you’re here and that you like the idea for the project!

      Initially the project was aimed towards writers and, of course, me being a silly goose, I didn’t see the potential it had to help readers until other commenters like yourself mentioned it! So I’m just really humbled and feeling all the feels right now with all the support and positivity!

      I look forward to seeing you next week! ^.^

  4. This is such a great idea for a post! It’s always interesting to me how powerful and important the first few pages of a book can be. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this! Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous post! ❤

    1. Zoe!! Awww, you’re so sweet! What a wonderful thing to say! Thank you so much! ^.^

      I usually give books more than the first 250, of course, but for comps and such a lot of the time all the judges will even look at is the first 250. I’m so glad that you like the idea! Thanks so much for stopping by and for being so wonderfully supportive! ❤

  5. While it is a interesting concept to break down the first 250 words as a writer,as a reader,I go way past that limit. Not every book needs or should have a instant “hook” to get one into the story. I think its more like a page count that sets the tone for the reader. Maybe YA is different to publishers because they feel the attention span of a teen is shorter….rest assured,it isn’t. They like stories with depth and feeling and don’t mind taking their time getting there. I think crafting the perfect 250 words is a goal but shouldn’t be the rule. *s*

    I’ll be back for the next entry….

    1. I definitely agree that readers are willing to go beyond the first 250. I definitely do! And I know a lot of readers will slog through books that they don’t even really like in the hopes that it’ll get better. I also kinda don’t think that publishers perceive their YA readers to have short attention spans. IDK maybe they do??!?!!?! Which I think isn’t fair, but hey, that’s their deal.
      There are no hard rules in writing, so I totally agree that crafting a great 250 should be a goal and not a rule. Every writer should be able to take what serves them and use it and grow from it! That’s the beauty of writing 🙂

  6. Ooh, I do so love how you’ve done this!! And I’m secretly pleased that you “edited” it a bit too. ;D I do that while I read and then feel massively guilty, because haven’t the professionals worked on this?!? hehe. BUT STILL. And while I do love this series immensely, I’m 100% annoyed that the first page was a MIRROR DESCRIPTION SCENE OMG. Like that’s the #1 most cliche way to have a character describe herself?!? And I honestly don’t think Tris’ voice is very strong either. I love the Divergent world, but not so much Tris.

    1. HAHA!!! OMG, you totally caught me!!! (The Writing Specialist in my couldn’t resist making edits!!!! >.<) We're the same! I make edits and then bound back and forth between feeling guilty and then saying to myself that they should have hired me…. lol!!

      I really did love this series too. I think I may have liked Four more though!?! IDK. Lol.

      OMG, totally agree with you!! Mirror descriptions!! I've seen some amazing self descriptions that don't involve mirrors that completely changed the way I saw self decription so now when I see mirror descriptions I think, "Come on!". Lol. I know that's probably harsh, but it is cliche.

      I was talking to Niina above ^^ about Tris and I don't remember thinking Tris's voice was ever something I "heard" but I do remember thinking I could like "understand" her. Like she was logical to me so I got where she was coming from, I couldn't connect to her emotionally, but I got her motivations and I connected to that, which was more than enough for me. IDK, if I can't understand a character and their "reasons" for doing stuff I get thrown out of of story. Do you know what I mean?

  7. I LOVE THIS!
    I never stop to analyze in details the books I’m reading. This puts things into perspective and somewhat changes my reading habits. I will definitely be on the look out for the first 250 words the next time I start a book 😀

    1. I’m so glad that you liked it! I think because I critique at work all day that when it comes to reading I can’t turn the switch off. So I notice all these things immediately and if they’re not there then I pass the book up immediately. That’s not to say that I won’t give a book a shot once it’s hooked me, like if it gets draggy later on, bc I totally will stay on board for the story but the beginning really does HAVE to be attention grabbing and engaging or I’ll write it off immediately as not my kind of book.

      I’m so glad that you liked this post though! The next one I plan to do is the first 250 of Red Rising! ^.^

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