Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rules of Writing and Dan Brown

I’ve heard the best way to become a better writer is to write. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but writing the same thing over and over gets me nowhere. I need to hone my skills and try to get better with each book, each chapter. With this in mind, I’m always reading books, articles, and blogs on how to improve my writing. I often find lists of tips or rules. For example:

Photo by Chance Agrella
Ø      Never start with a dream sequence. Misleading your readers isn’t a good way to earn their trust.

Ø      Amnesia is gimmicky, overdone, and unrealistic. Don’t use it.

Ø      Let your reader get to know your main characters so that they will empathize with their struggles.

I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, and realized about 30% into the book he’d broken all three of these rules, as well as indulged in a little head hopping. We start off in a dream sequence, almost immediately realize Professor Langdon has forgotten the last few days, and everything happens so fast we learn almost nothing about Sienna Brooks, other than some intriguing information in a sort of portfolio Langdon discovers.

I also realized it didn’t matter, because what Dan Brown does so well is compel his readers to turn the page. He sets the stake early on, and makes them huge. He’s a master at pacing, keeping the story roaring ahead at anywhere from a slow simmer to a rolling boil. At the same time, he manages to work in a considerable amount of esoteric information without ever slowing the story with an info-dump. I have to admire Langdon’s ability to instruct us on the fine points of historic art treasures while riding on the back of a motorcycle, fleeing for his life.  

Although Brooks remains a bit of a mystery, Langdon comes through loud and clear. Dan Brown’s books are a little different than the traditional thriller, with equal parts treasure hunt and run for your life. The charming Professor Langdon, with his passion for symbols, gentle sense of humor, and the ability to keep his head in any crisis, is the perfect protagonist.  

By the end of the story the loose strings have all been tied up, and Brown’s very good reasons for breaking the three rules above have become clear. The ending breaks another rule, in my opinion, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet. 

Rules are rules for a reason. I think what Brown’s book illustrates is that they can also be broken, for a reason. A secondary lesson is that once an author has sold a bazillion books, he gets a little more leeway on breaking the rules. Because rule number one is to entertain the reader. If we do that, the story is a success.  


  1. What's the saying? Rules are made to be broken? It sounds as though Dan Brown proves that!