Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown on how to write a bestseller

From The Guardian:

The piano music is insistent, melodramatic. The scene begins under a vaulted ceiling and medieval candelabra reminiscent of the Great Hall in Game of Thrones. The camera pans across a vintage typewriter, intricately sculpted animals, antique bowl, statuette of a monk and relief carvings of knights. It roves around a dimly lit, dark wood library. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a bookshelf swivels on its axis to reveal a secret passage.

Out steps the master of the page turner in blue shirt and jeans, his sleeves rolled up. He settles into a chair, leans against a red cushion, crosses his legs and smiles. A screen caption says: “Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers.” Brown, who has shifted 250m copies of his novels and seen them translated into 56 languages, is the latest big name to join MasterClass, the online celebrity tutorial company (he is donating his fee to charity).

Despite the distinctly old-fashioned format – middle-aged white man dispensing wisdom direct to camera – this is Brown’s love letter to the creative process. The 54-year-old can’t tell you what idea to have, he says, but hopes to provide a roadmap on how to turn it into a story. His class includes chapters on finding that idea, choosing a location, creating heroes and villains, doing research (but not so much that it’s an excuse to procrastinate), creating suspense, writing dialogue and editing and rewriting.

The good news, Brown assures writers staring at a blank page, is that your idea does not have to be startlingly original. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, for example, always defuses the bomb and gets the girl. The key question is how he does it. “Every single idea has been done over and over and over,” Brown explains in the film. “You don’t need a big idea. You need big hows.”

Like parts of a car engine, the key elements of a thriller include a hero, a goal, obstacles that seem to make it impossible and, of course, a moment when the hero conquers the villain. Don’t get overcomplicated, Brown urges. “Build the foundation of your novel with a single brick: make it simple, make it easy to follow. Will Robert Langdon find the virus and save the world? Will Ahab catch the whale? Will the Jackal shoot his target?”

Among his first lessons are the three Cs: the contract, the clock, the crucible. “These are the elements that not just thrillers have but all stories have,” he explains at his publisher’s offices in New York. The contract is the promises made to the reader that have to be kept, so earn readers’ trust.

“The idea of a ticking clock: you go back to even something as gentle as The Bridges of Madison County. Her husband’s coming back in a few days and these two people have got to figure out if they’re going to be together. If they met in a town and there’s no husband coming back, and there’s no ticking clock, it’s not an interesting book.”

And the crucible? “That’s one of my favourites: this idea of constraining your characters and forcing them to act. If you look at the end of Jaws, you’ve got these people sinking on a boat and a shark’s coming toward them. The ocean’s their crucible: they can’t go anywhere, they have to deal with the problem. If they had a perfectly healthy boat and some big engines, they could just outrun the shark and the book’s over. But they’ve got the crucible.”

. . . .

His early books made little impact and he began to question whether he could make a career of it. But then he came up with The Da Vinci Code – in which Harvard code specialist Robert Langdon discovers a series of cryptic clues in the works of Leonardo – and thought it the exact book he would like to read; millions agreed. Published in 2003, it became one of the bestselling novels of all time and was turned into a film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.

Does success like that become a burden? “I definitely had a number of weeks when I became self-aware. You type a sentence and say: ‘Wait a minute, how many millions of people are going to read that?’ And you read it again and see the word ‘there’. You suddenly say: ‘I didn’t even spell that right.’ You become the guy trying to swing the baseball bat who’s thinking of how to move the muscles and you’re crippled.

“I think that’s very common across many disciplines when you have success. I was fortunate pretty quickly to be able to say: ‘Wait a minute, you just need to do what you did the last four times, which is to write the book that you’d want to read and if you read this paragraph and you’d like to read it, you’re done.’ I was able to move on from that and write The Lost Symbol, which I was thrilled with and did great and a lot of people like it better than Da Vinci Code.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian


9 thoughts on “Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown on how to write a bestseller”

  1. Why does every article these days feel the need to take a Jan at people’s race? You Just can’t help yourself to can you?

      • And its title implies that 1) there is a secret to writing a bestseller; 2) anybody can use this secret; and, perhaps most importantly, 3) Dan Brown knows this secret, which he’s willing to share.

        And none of it’s new. I’ve seen the different components of his formula in various other “how to write” bits of advice by other authors, just called different names. Sometimes even together in the same bit of advice. I guess not all aspiring Authors research the career they want to pursue as deeply as I did way back when. Either that, or they have enough money to spend frivolously on information that they could find in many other places for far cheaper, including their public libraries.

        • Or they might be doing fine in their career, have no intention of making a living writing, write a bit on the side, and are looking for some tips. Brown makes it easy to get, so they don’t have the transaction costs of doing the research, going to the library, etc.

          They don’t consider it frivolous, and many even know commercial language when they see it.

        • I dunno, the fact that Dan Brown can consistently write bestsellers may actually BE proof that anyone can write bestsellers.

          He’s… not very good at writing.

          • I suspect there are conflicting standards at work here. Some use one standard and tell us of Brown’s many deficiencies. Millions of others love his stuff. It’s hard to make a case that those millions have a standard that says he doesn’t write well.

            • Dan Brown isn’t a very good writer, but he is a good storyteller–who tells stories that TradPub and the cultural mavens approve of.

              The reading public cares much more for good stories than good writing, whereas critics care more for good writing than good stories.

              • That implies some standard for good writing. Is there some reason to think there is only one? Who sets the standard, and why should millions of people accept it? Is there some reason to care what critics think? What?

                I’m not sure how one can tell a good story with poor writing. It’s even more interesting how one can understand a good story without good writing. That’s not effective communication.

  2. I’m currently watching the Dan Brown Masterclass and I’m getting a lot out of it. I purchased the full Masterclass annual pass and I’ve watched Spike Lee on indie films, Deadmaus5 on digital music production, and Dan Brown. To me, the Masterclasses are a great source of information and, if you will, entertainment. If you’re a course junkie like I am, I can also recommend the incredible courses offered by Harvard University, many of them free, and some of them for pay. I’m scheduled to take the Russian Literature-Music-Film offering beginning in January. Here’s the link for this class and many other offerings. https://online-learning.harvard.edu/course/history-russian-culture-through-film-and-literature-0?page=13&delta=0

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