Monday, September 14, 2009

The Dan Brown Code

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.


Paul D Brazill said...

I'm with you. I was given the Da Vinci Code a couple of months ago by my girlfriends aunt. She'd found it in a second hand shop here in Poland. I read it just to be polite. A couple of days later, I'd finished the book and had a great time while I was reading it. If you compare it to The39 Steps, since it follows that template, or North By Norhwest, it doesn't stand up as well. If you compare it to Proust or John Updike it may not stand up but I wouldn't know as I've never read more than a couple of chapters of both of those writers' work. I've a million other books that I want to read & Brown's are way down the list -if they're on the list at all - but I'd be happy to start one of his books and am prettty sure that I'd finish it with pleasure.

Dave White said...

But remember, before DaVinci he was a midlist thriller writer. Then he pissed off the Catholics. That helped. I liked the history of the DaVinci Code, but the thriller aspects did move the book along.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, anything that gets people into bookstores is good.

But just for fun, here's an editor's take on a little of the new book.

Chapter One.

Chapter Two.

Just for fun.

Randy Johnson said...

The problem I have with Dan Brown's books are that he seems to keep writing the same story.

My first was The Da Vinci Code and I liked it well enough that I went to Angel & Demons. Okay. I moved on to Deception Point. As I was finishing that one, it struck me. I;d read this before. Three times.

So when I started Digital Fortress, his first published book, I decided to see if I could pick out the villain that was the driving force behind all the events in the book. By page twenty-five, I had my suspect. lo and behold, I was right.

The only variation is that in two of the books, the villain is missing and presumed dead until he pops up at the end of the bbok for the final showdown.

For that reason, I'll not read the new one. I already know the plot and how it will end.

Jay Stringer said...

one of my main issues with Dan Brown may not even be with Brown himself.

There is this idea of blockbusters getting people into stores and starting them reading. Many, many times that is the case. Say what you (and i!) will about book clubs like Oprah and Richard&Judy, but they DO get people in and reading.

I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter books. I don't think they're well written. But many people love them and there's no question that those books have gotten people reading. Not to mention the numerous great teen fiction authors who've been given a chance in its wake.

Russel may disagree with me here because he's still in bookselling. But in my time manning the tills and shelves, i didn't see THE DA VINCI CODE creating new readers. I saw people coming in to the front of store, picking that book up off the front of store, buying and leaving. They would come back for Browns other books.

Publishers started repackaging other books to look vaguely like THE DA VINCI CODE, and a few of those would sell. But i didn't see any real attempt by the author or publisher to attract new long term readers.

That's why his new book is such a big deal; because having done so little to sell other authors and titles, they NEED a new Dan Brown.

But hey, that's just me gobbing off. Going back to Steve's original post, i can see what he's saying. Brown does know how to hook a reader into the next chapter.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, I think it's true that books like this and the Harry Potter book satisfy different emotions in the readers than the books that I like (at least try to)go after.

George Lucas once said it was easy to make people cry; show them a puppy and then kill the puppie.

Now, George may be trying to avoid that easy emotion too much, so clearly finding the balance is very hard.

Jay Stringer said...

Good point John. Especially since I was trying to find a way to make people cry in my current chapter....

Scott D. Parker said...

I've only read Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Liked A&D a bit better. What I marvel at with Da Vinci in terms of the page-turning aspect is this: Chapter 1 features Character A and ends on a cliffhanger. You HAVE to turn the page. Chapter 2 features Character B and ends on a cliffhanger. Well, shoot, you have to read chap 3 to figure out what happened after chap 1 but then you ALSO have to read chap 4 to figure out what happened after chap 2. Four hours later, it's 2AM on a weeknight and you know your workday has just been shot.

Dana King said...

THE DA VINCI CODE lost me in the first chapter. The curator has been eviscerated, but, instead of calling the police of trying to stop the bleeding or writing a note in his blood, he takes the time to display himself as Da Vinci's drawing, assuming someone will know what it's supposed to mean. I read it because someone asked meto comment on it for them, but it was a slog.

The cliffhangers got old, too. manipulative. The best I've read at creating a page-turning impulse in me is WEB Griffin. Every chapter ends by leading into the next. Not necessarily a cliffhanger, but so that continuing to read is a natural consequence of how he set you up. (He ends Chapter 1 by telling you Charcacter A has to confront Character B, and opens Chapter 2 with the confrontation.)

Mickey Spillane once said your first chapter sells this book; your last chapter sells the next book. I think it breaks down even deeper.The first paragraph (or two) gets you to read this chapter; the last couple of paragraphs get you to read the next. If these dovetail properly, the reader can't put the book down.

One of the last drafts I do of a book is to read only the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter to see if this is working. (Hmmm, based on results, maybe this isn't such a big deal after all.)

Travener said...

I read Deception Point before Dan Brown was DAN BROWN. All I can remember about it is that the CIA for some reason planted a fake story about a meteorite with signs of extraterrestrial life on it being found under some Arctic ice, there was some big operation going on there, and the female protagonist somehow discovered it was all fake.

For the life of me I can't recall why the CIA was doing this or, frankly, anything else about it.

But Brown spun that thin premise out to well over 400 pages and that's some kind of talent.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I couldn't get through DAVINCI CODE. I thought it was because it was a guy's book. I thought it was because the writing was pedestrian at best. I thought it was manipulative without being truly clever. My book group read it and all eleven women loved it. I'm still scratching my head.

Karel said...

Are Brown's books DANGEROUS? Are they leading their audiences into a CULT?


So they're really really successful.
How could anyone have a problem with that?

I don't have a problem with the fact that the movie versions are total crap, either. They just HAVE to get made, because the fans DEMAND it.

I only wish some people would think more about writing for the screen the way Brown thinks about writing his stuff.

It's about making us want to know what's happening next.

Would save us a lot of boredom in the cinema.

Steve Weddle said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. Plenty of stuff to think about for a follow-up down the line. Thanks.

Christina Davis said...

Well done, cracking Dan Brown's code. Dan Brown writes for readers. Always a good thing to remember.