By Steve Weddle
You might have heard about this already, but that Dan Brown guy has a new book coming out this week, Tuesday, September 15. My heartfelt condolences to anyone else with a book dropping this week.
The prologue and first couple of chapters of THE LOST SYMBOL have already appeared in print and the book will top the bestseller charts for a long damn time. That’s a given. Also a given is that plenty of ink will be spilled about how Brown isn’t a great writer and still sells zillions of books and how bad he is for the industry because it puts the focus on the blockbuster. Yeah, yeah. I’m not here to bury Caesar. I’m here to tell you how Caesar rules the kingdom.
I’ve read or listened to all of his books so far, and I’ll swing by the bookstore to get this one on Tuesday. Why? Well, I’ll be near the bookstore that day anyway, so I might as well be a part of the madness. Oh, why have I read all his books? Yeah, because the dude can write. I don’t mean he can sculpt a sentence or layer a paragraph. He’s no Richard Powers. He doesn’t create characters that instill daydreams and fantasies in generations of readers. Oh, Mr. Darcy. I'm not necessarily a Dan Brown fan, but I am a writer. I want to understand what this bestselling author and publishing phenomenon does. So what does he do? The dude writes one chapter that gets you to the next. He writes page-turners. And I’m gonna tell you how he does it.
A few years ago, in that whole HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL holy moley lawsuit, Brown filed a “Witness Statement to the High Court” in which he detailed exactly how he writes his books and what “themes” he works into them. “For me, the ‘must have’ themes include codes, puzzles and treasure hunts, secretive organizations, and academic lectures on obscure topics,” Brown said in the filing. THE DA VINCI CODE had plenty of this, as did the one with the icebergs and the one at the NSA and the other one about the Catholic church. Yeah, but the puzzles and secrets are only part what makes the books page-turners.
Early on in ANGEL & DEMONS, Robert Langdon is talking with some scientist who tells him, in passing, that one square foot of fabric can slow a falling object at such-and-such a rate. Langdon says something like, “Little did I know that half a world away 18 hours later that piece of information would save my life.” You’re not going to turn the page now? C’mon. Don’t be like that. You may call it gimmicky, but this sucker moves. And yeah, the plots in Dan Brown’s books have some similar elements, particularly the whole “oh, you mean that guy we’ve trusted for the past 300 pages is actually the bad guy?” kind of stuff. In that court filing, Brown himself lists these similarities between the two Langdon novels: “ the murder, the chase through a foreign location, the action taking place all in 24 hours, the codes, the ticking clock, the strong male and female characters, the love interest.” Take what works, add in some changes and people keep reading the books and can’t put them down. And there’s a simple reason why.
The books Dan Brown writes aren’t great literature; they’re page-turners. The key here is that when you get to the end of a chapter, you want to keep reading. Those old Saturday matinees your grandpa still talks about. That season-ending episode when Picard got taken by the Borg. You want to know what happens next. And the way Brown accomplishes this is piece by piece. In THE DA VINCI CODE, they’re not looking for the Holy Grail as much as they’re looking for the answers to the puzzle that will lead them to the next puzzle that will lead them on to the Holy Grail. Only, that just leads to another puzzle. But they’re closer to the Grail. And the bad guys are closer to them, too. And it’s all closing in on them. Then they’re about to solve the piece and the chapter ends. Heck, you have to keep going. Here's the end to Chapter Six in THE DAVINCI CODE:
"You saw the photograph," Fache said, "so this should be of no surprise."
Langdon felt a deep chill as they approached the body. Before him was one of the strangest images he had ever seen.
Dan Brown tends to end his chapter with the first lines of novels. No, he’s no Richard Stark opening a Parker novel, but that line at the end of the chapter makes you want to know what happens next. And then you’re sucked into the suspense. Yeah, they’re just about to solve that puzzle, so you turn the page. Oh, man. That puzzle was just a clue for the next puzzle. Well, they’ve almost got that one solved. But what could it be? Does it tie in to what that guy said a few chapters ago?
Dan Brown isn’t the only writer to end a chapter with a doohickey that gets you to the next. He’s not the only writer to put little puzzles throughout. He’s not the only writer to create characters solely to advance the plot. But he is the guy millions of people read.
The reason people read Dan Brown because they HAVE TO FIND OUT. His books are tons of fun because they’re not about the characters or sentence structure. His books are all about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
And for Dan Brown, what happens next is selling another zillion books.