Disclaimer: The purpose of these posts isn’t to recommend books for readers; it is to help writers learn from fiction. I only review books I happen to love or find particularly interesting from a craft perspective. I don’t promise to avoid spoilers unless the book hasn’t been published yet.
I’m not going to make a habit of reviewing books I’d rate under a four on Goodreads. I have some major criticisms of this book, but since it was just made into a movie, I feel like it can take it. I wanted to talk about this book in particular because I think it has some plot downfalls that make an interesting case study.
The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken takes place in the United States after a virus kills most children and causes the survivors have telekinetic abilities. All surviving minors are locked up in “rehabilitation camps.”
These abilities are characterized into four colors. Our MC Ruby is an orange, the most dangerous kind, with mind control abilities. She keeps this under wraps while at camp, but after she escapes and comes across a group of four other kids, she eventually learns to embrace her abilities.
The set-up feels a bit contrived and gimmicky. It’s just another dystopia that uses a weak explanation for why society is horrible. However, the strong character development kept me reading. . . all the way until the midpoint, where I felt the plot points hitting me like hail.
Let’s take a look at this story through the lens of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. For more on this method, read here. I’m using it because it’s one of the most popular plotting systems. I got these numbers from Beat Sheet Calculator, a super handy site for plotting.
Here’s where the important beats actually showed up in the novel:
The Setup: Ideal: 1-44; Actual: 1-45
We’re introduced to Ruby and her life in camp.
The Catalyst: Ideal: 53; Actual: 46
After being hospitalized from a signal meant to only affect oranges, a mysterious doctor leaves Ruby a note. If she takes the pill taped to the note, she’ll help her escape.
Debate: Ideal: 53-111; Actual: 47- 99
First Ruby waffles between taking the pill and playing it safe. She takes the pill and wakes up already outside the camp in a car with the doctor. Then she waffles between staying with the doctor (who is part of The Children’s League, a group that uses children as weapons) and trying to make it on her own.
Break into Act II: Ideal: 111; Actual: 100
When Ruby sees a girl younger than her, she chases after her, leaving the Children’s League behind.
B Story: Ideal: 133; Actual: 101-233
Here’s where the plot starts to get fuzzy. Ruby meets a group of four other children with telekinetic abilities. They all get to know each other and travel in a van together, dodging the agents who would try to get them back to camp or involve them in The Children’s League. There is a slight romantic subplot between Ruby and the leader of the group, Liam. There’s also tension as Ruby attempts to disguise herself as a green instead of a “dangerous orange” from the others.
You’ll notice that this is a single page in the model beat sheet, but these pages felt too heavy to be “fun and games.”
Fun and Games: Ideal: 133-244; Actual: 234-265
This section is pretty light. The gang go to a shopping mall, exploring and having fun. They come across a group that Liam knows, and they gather information about “East River,” a supposed haven for kids like them.
Midpoint: Ideal: 244; Actual: 266
Ruby deduces the location of East River and they set out, exhilarated to have a place to go.
The Bad Guys Close in: Ideal: 244-333; Actual: 280-287
A couple of agents find the group and Ruby is forced to use her orange powers to escape, revealing herself to the rest of the group.
All is lost: Ideal: 333; Actual: 288-300
Ruby remembers when she accidentally erased her parents’ memories. She fears that the others will disown her because she’s dangerous. Instead, they stand by her side.
Notice how this is about 30 pages early? To be fair, I’m not quite sure this is the “All is lost” beat. But it sure feels like it should be.
If this book were plotted traditionally, this is where Ruby would lose the trust of her friends. She’d go on to have a Dark Night of the Soul beat before finding her inner strength, winning her friends back, and finding the East River haven.
Instead, there’s an anticlimactic forgiveness scene and they keep traveling on.
What is happening?!?!?: 301-414
By this point, the plot goes completely off the rails for oh, just about 100 pages.
They make it to the East River and have a bunch more Fun and Games. They make new friends and settle into their roles at the camp. The leader of the camp turns out to be an orange, and he mentors Ruby to hone her abilities.
One of the main characters deserts the group. The leader turns out to be a sexual predator and psychopath. Now the three remaining from the original group plan to escape the camp. Then Liam gets hurt and their plans are foiled. Now there’s a dangerous militia setting the camp on fire.
Gah! It’s too much. It’s way too much for a story that, up until this point, was mostly a group of highly skilled teens hanging out in a van in the forest. These are fine plot points, but they were smothered by being put too close together at the end.
Dark Night of the Soul: Ideal: 333-377; Actual: 415-453
Ruby and Chubs (another one of the kids from their original group) manage to survive the fire set by the militia. Everything seems ruined and destroyed. However, they find Liam and a working computer that they can use to contact their parents.
Break into Act III: Ideal: 377; Actual: 454
The three survivors hit the road, hoping to be reunited with their parents.
The Finale: Ideal: 377-488; Actual: 454-488
Chubs stops to deliver a letter to his dead friend’s father. He is thanked by being shot in the chest. Ruby signals agents from The Children’s League, desperate to get Chubs to a hospital. All three of them are captured. Ruby erases herself from Liam’s memories so that he will abandon her to The Children’s League.
Final Image: 488
Ruby thinks about the two people she is becoming: who she wants to be, and who she is now.
So many important plot points were squeezed in at the end. Thus, they didn’t feel organic and there wasn’t enough space between important events to give readers a chance to rest. The characters were so well-drawn, but because the plot didn’t form a cohesive arc, the characters’ actions stopped making sense in Act II.
This book is long (my print version is 488 pages), and I think a lot of the middle could be trimmed. It’s a lot of the ensemble cast driving around and making snarky comments at each other.
Read The Darkest Minds to see if you are as unnerved by the unusual plot structure as I was. Reading this book made me think a lot about reader expectation and frustration.