Breaking Through the Expectation Barrier

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SPOILER ALERT!
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There will be spoilers ahead for some quite popular YA novels, namely The Hunger Games series and the final book of the Divergent series. If you want to avoid spoilers, then consider yourself warned.

In my review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, I wrote about how for me, some of the tension was taken out of the novel simply by having the story written in first-person POV. It was hard to feel too much threat to a character who you knew would survive the horrific events around her simply by virtue of the fact that she was telling the story. When it’s a fight to the death, the character speaking about it all is the one you know is going to come out on top.

That’s one of the flaws I’ve noticed in many action-packed YA novels these days, especially post-apocalyptic or dystopian stories. The very thing designed to put you, the reader, in the front seat with all the action barreling toward you at break-neck speed is the very thing that ensures a happy ending. Well, maybe not happy. But you can rest assured that while the character may be injured a time or two, they’re going to lose loved ones while staying alive at the very end. The thing intended to bring the story closer to home is the very thing that separates you from the tension of it. You can’t really fear for the main character’s life in dangerous situations they face. You know, by virtue of the viewpoint the story is told from, that they’ll be okay in the end.

Enter the final book of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, Allegiant.

The first two books of the trilogy are told from Tris’s POV, so you come to expect that in the final book too. But then you see that it’s actually done with dual viewpoints, Tris’s and Tobias’s. This wasn’t a big reveal for me. I’ve seen series go from a single viewpoints to multiple viewpoints as the story got larger and the need for other views became apparent. It was a gimmick, but nothing that gave away the ending.

Then the ending hits, and you see why it was done. SPOILER ALERT! Tris dies at the end.

Without Tobias’s viewpoint, the story would have just stopped when Tris sacrificed herself. Or else it would have jumped back to a jarring third-person viewpoint to tell the rest of the tale. Neither would have been particularly good options, in my opinion. I think the dial viewpoints served the book quite well.

Now here’s the thing. Tris’s death is the very reason why so many people are ticked off at Roth right now. It ruined the series for them. The character they’d followed through the whole story is gone, her boyfriend is left alone and struggling to put his life back together, and it’s not exactly a happy ending.

That’s why I like this book the most.

It wasn’t a story where good triumphs because good triumphs, and it wasn’t a story where you can sit back and rest assured that everything will come out okay in the end. It wasn’t like damn near every other YA dystopia I’ve ever read! It stood out. It made a name for itself. It essentially sat readers down and gave them a frank talk about how just because you like a character, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to live when all the odds are stacked against them. It tells readers that sometimes people intend to sacrifice themselves and actually do sacrifice themselves, instead of someone pulling a daring rescue at the last minute. Having Tobias’s point of view shows that sometimes in war, your loved ones die, and you’re going to feel like dying because they’re not coming back, no matter how much you wish for that surprise ending where it was all a dream or technology revives them or they wake up at the morgue all confused about how they got on a cold metal slab in the first place. The fact that this book didn’t rely on the happily-ever-after trope and broke every expectation I’d come to have through the reading of other similar novels is why I think Allegiant was such a strong conclusion.

Did I want Tris to die? No. Was I happy that she was dead? Not at all. Was I impressed with the fact that Roth chose to break the mold and tell a different story? Absolutely!

In my eyes now, Roth stands out as someone who won’t pander to the expectations of an audience when she’s got a story to tell. I see an author who’s willing to put some unpleasantness into her books and shock the reader out of accepting standard fare in their reading material. Sadly, this seems to have cost her some fans. But from where I stand, it made me curious to see what she’s going to do next, and how many more of my expectations she’ll break along the way.

Presenting readers with something new is part of a good author’s job. They challenge how we think, challenge what we expect, give us something to enjoy that we didn’t even realize we’d enjoy until we were. If we wanted to read the same books we’d already read before, well, we’d be reading them. Similarities and comparisons are one thing, but when a genre gets formulaic, it starts to die. All stories are just retellings of the one before it. Different setting, different characters, same story. Nothing new under the sun. And when that’s all we get, not only does the genre start to stagnate, so do the readers. How many times have I heard so-and-so say they loved the Twilight series and now that’s all they’ll read? Or insert the name of any series you like there, really; it amounts to the same.

I used to be that way. I’m throwing stones while standing outside the glass house I used to live in. I loved to read… but I read much of the same thing. Over and over again. I reckoned that if I liked it, then why risk reading something I wouldn’t like and end up wasting my time? Why try something new when what I knew I liked was so close at hand.

Then I branched out, in no small part due to starting to review books, and I had my expectations for novels blown right out of the water. My literary world expanded. I read things that surprised me, challenged me, were vastly different from the stuff I had come to expect in my novels, and I like to think I ended up changed for the better.

So I see it with the ending to Allegiant. I think what many people dislike about it wasn’t that they actually think it’s a bad or a weak ending, but that it was different than what they’d come to expect. It wasn’t following the status quo, it didn’t give people the happy ending they’d grown so used to in other similar novels, and they came to the conclusion that this was somehow a Very Bad Thing.

Destroy my boundaries, authors. Break through the barrier of expectations set in place by those who’ve come before. Be unique. And make my reading experience that much more awesome in the process.

2 comments on “Breaking Through the Expectation Barrier

  1. I completely agree! I respect Roth so much more because she made the hard choice to kill off Tris, and I feel that by doing so she stayed much more true to the story she was telling.

  2. Pingback: November in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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