Monday, February 7, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I know that it’s almost required for writers to disparage Dan Brown.  Just some of the complaints about his writing are awkward sentence structure, telling instead of showing, playing fast and loose with history, physics, etc.  Yeah, maybe.  But we all know that many well-respected authors break the rules.  So what is it that bugs so many of us so much about Dan Brown?

Could it be his overwhelming success?  Probably not for everyone but, if we’re honest, for a lot of us.  Here we are slogging along, playing by all the rules and this guy sells a gazillion flawed books.

But a wise former agent, Nathan Bransford, said it best in one of his blog posts.  Writers who don’t take the opportunity to learn from financially successful books—even those they dislike—are doing themselves a disservice.  What follows is what I’ve learned about writing from The Da Vinci Code.

1)       Find a cool occupation for your protagonist
Robert Landon is a symbologist.  That was a new one on me.  But intriguing.  And an occupation I wish I’d known about before I registered for college.  To make a living out of studying and interpreting symbols?  How cool would that be?

Sometimes it seems that writers only find a handful of occupations worth writing about.  Medical and legal professionals are everywhere (try watching television for one evening without running into one, the other or both).  Teachers show up a lot, as do cops and private investigators (who could fall into the Legal category).  Then there are the stories about people in the entertainment industry—agents, artists, actors, writers etc.  Lots of stories about writers. 

While Langdon turns out to be employed as a college professor (teacher) and acts as a hyper-educated detective, it is the way he interprets symbols, both common and arcane, that propels the story forward.

I will be more likely to think twice before going with one of the overused professions for my protagonists in the future.  Does she have to be a medical doctor or could she be sociologist or a telemarketer? 

2)      Make the protagonist’s goal interesting

What could be more interesting than a search for the Holy Grail?  Langdon has to figure out not only where the Grail is hidden, but what exactly it is.  Is it a cup?  Was it used by Christ at the last supper or did it collect his blood at the crucifixion, or both?  Is it a person?  Could it be a descendant of Christ?  If it is, what would that mean for Christianity? 

One of my issues with my writing has been creating a well-defined tangible goal for my protagonist.  I won’t have anyone searching for the Holy Grail, but she needs to be after something that is every bit as important, if only to her.

3)      Keep the action moving forward

One of the reasons this book was on the best seller lists for so long is that it’s a page turner.  The reader wants to know what happens next.  Even when Landon and Sophie stop to analyze the clues or get information from another character, there is action in the background.  We know that Bezu Fache and Silas are hot on their heels.  Will our heroes figure it out in time?  Or will the bad guys catch up?  And when they do catch up, how will Langdon get away? 

Brown makes the figuring out interesting too.  This is where a lot of the “telling” comes in as Langdon explains what the symbols mean and why he’s interpreting them in the way he is.  But it’s interesting telling.  Do we really need a flashback to the 13th Century so he can show us?  Nah. 

Isn’t this what every writer aspires to?  We all want readers to be unable to put our books down, to have to read “just one more chapter” to find out what happens next. 

Even though I don’t write thrillers, I am trying to find ways to keep the reader wanting to see what’s next.  How do I up the stakes, heighten the tension, increase the conflict?

4)       Use interesting settings

The action starts in Paris.  Not just Paris, but the Louvre.   Langdon travels through France, London and Scotland.  We see the Louvre, Westminster Abbey and Roslyn Chapel in detail through Langdon’s eyes—a symbologist’s eyes. 

Would moving my characters around heighten the tension?  Would adding a famous landmark bring something different to the story?  I’m sure this idea wouldn’t work for every story, but it’s worth considering.  Remember, a rainy little town named Forks caught a lot of readers’ attentions without any landmarks at all.

5)       Make the antagonist a worthy opponent to the protagonist

“The Teacher” is every bit as smart as Langdon.  He’s devious, and he’s willing to kill to get what he wants.  That final trait is one that Langdon doesn’t appear to share.  It may make him a more likable good guy, but it puts him at a decided disadvantage.

The henchmen working for/with The Teacher are well drawn, too.  Especially Silas.   He’s an albino monk, strong physically.  He has absolute faith in God and The Teacher.  He also practices corporeal mortification or self-inflicted punishment.  So many things going on with Silas that he almost takes over the story.

I tend to be too nice to my protagonists.  And part of that is not making the antagonist enough of a threat.  By keeping antagonists like The Teacher in mind, I should be able to come up a worthy bad guy.

Whatever your opinion of The Da Vinci Code or Dan Brown, you can’t deny that a lot of people loved the book—and the movie that followed.  It’s hard to argue that all of the 80 million buyers are just stupid.  I know plenty of intelligent folks who enjoyed the book—heck, I couldn’t put the thing down even with the flaws I saw in it. 

The next time you encounter a best-seller that you feel “sucks,” keep reading.  And try to identify what made so many people enjoy it.  You just might be doing yourself a favor.

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