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June 18, 2008

You too can be Dan Brown: William Norton reveals the secret 10-step programme for writing a Dan Brown-style best-selling doorstep-sized novel

Posted by William Norton

How difficult can it be to write the next Da Vinci Code? William Norton outlines the 10-step programme which will be your road to riches.

Times are hard. Budgets are tight. Every penny is worth its weight in, er, pennies. But fear not, for, in what is probably the first item published on the Social Affairs Unit Web Review which has any practical utility, I can now tell you how to write your own Dan Brown-style best-selling doorstep-sized novel and so earn Big Money. Or at least, save yourself some cash at the next airport.

These days we all care deeply about the environment, and Dan Brown is a fitting literary model. He keeps recycling the same story.

(1) Start with the seemingly senseless and extravagant murder of an exotic foreigner in a far off location which will turn out to be the central lynchpin of the whole story.
So you might gun down a Japanese software designer in Seville (Digital Fortress,), push a Canadian geologist out of a helicopter in the Arctic (Deception Point), torture an Italian physicist, who is also a priest, in Switzerland (Angels & Demons) or have a French art historian bleed to death in the Louvre (Da Vinci Code).

If all you can manage is a Welsh postman knocked down by a car in Slough, then you need to get with the programme. Try harder.

(2) You need a Strong Female with certain essential traits.
Examples: Susan Fletcher, mathematician and cryptographer (Digital Fortress); Vittoria Vetra, CERN biologist and physicist (Angels & Demons); Rachel Sexton, intelligence analyst (Deception Point); Sophie Neveu, cryptographer (Da Vinci Code).

Strong Female is (a) brilliantly intelligent; (b) stunningly beautiful; but (c) unaware of this fact and thus (d) demure and modest and apparently (e) without expensive running costs; although (f) employed in a reasonably important and well-paid specialist position usually involving cracking codes or somesuch; and, crucially, (g) not in a long term relationship at the start of the novel (see Step 3 below).

She therefore corresponds to no known human female. Perhaps, this is how Mr Brown thinks of Mrs Brown?

(3) She teams up with a faintly dull Empowered Male Nerd.
Examples: David Becker, linguist (Digital Fortress); Robert Langdon, "symbologist" (Angels & Demons and Da Vinci Code); Michael Tolland, oceanographer (Deception Point).

The Empowered Male Nerd is bright, but not really happy, and certainly not in a long-term relationship (so that when he hitches up with Strong Female at the end of the book it means she isn't being a home-breaker, which would hit sales in the American Mid West). He will almost certainly be an expert in an Out-of-the-ordinary Academic Discipline (see Step 8 below).

The stress and trials of the story will enable Empowered Male Nerd to discover heroic abilities he never knew he possessed. Thus, if you ever get stuck for ideas, you can at least tread water with a few pages of turgid pseudo-psychology. I wonder if Dan Brown was bullied at school?

(4) Strong Female and Empowered Male Nerd are being chased by a Ruthless Assassin with an impediment, who is endlessly resourceful but oddly incompetent at actually killing them.
Digital Fortress has a deaf Portuguese gunman (an odd choice for someone to interrogate victims); Angels & Demons has a Middle Eastern killer with rudimentary command of English with fantasies about white women; and Da Vinci Code of course has an albino monk (which must make camouflage a little awkward).

In Deception Point the hunters are three US special forces soldiers, so of course they have to be physically perfect, but Brown makes up for this by having them only ever call each other One, Two and Three. And making them startlingly gullible for trained professional killers.

(5) There are preferably two Sinister Right-Wing Conspiracies of Rogue Elements going to ridiculous lengths to gain power for ultimately pointless reasons.
Digital Fortress has a senior official trying to plant spyware in every computer in the world by passing it off as an unbreakable software code, only to be conned into destroying his own supercomputer with a virus (betraying an elementary design flaw in the computer which no security agency would ever permit).

Deception Point has a group of industrialists who want their man elected President so he can privatise NASA (no, really), and an intelligence chief trying to stop them by transporting a rock from the bottom of the Pacific, concealing it in the Arctic and faking it to look like a crashed meteorite (when for a fraction of the cost it would appear he could just have his opponents shot in about, oh, ten minutes).

Angels & Demons has a conspiracy from within the Vatican (whose leader appears not to know that the Church has made a few policy changes since the days of Galileo) to takeover the Papacy which, to achieve its ends, pretends to be a conspiracy to destroy the Papacy.

Da Vinci Code tops them all by having an anti-religious conspiracy which cons a religious conspiracy into actions designed to discredit religion. And it still turned out to be a dull film.

(6) It is essential that you should set up a Spoof Baddie with irritating character flaws who turns out to have been a Goodie all along - but only after a (usually successful) attempt on their life. This will be your First Plot Twist.
Dan Brown has taken quite a few goes at getting this one right himself. Thus in Digital Fortress, Greg Hale, despite being a male chauvinist and using repellent after-shave, isn't the traitor (but still gets shot in the head). In Deception Point Marjorie Tench smokes cigarettes and is unspeakably ugly, but she's actually on the track of the real traitor (until she gets blown up by a missile in the middle of Washington DC, as you do). Angels & Demons has arrogant mad scientist Dr Kohler, who's in a wheelchair, and isn't mad after all (but gets gunned down by the Swiss Guard).

By the time Dan got round to writing The Da Vinci Code he seems to have grasped ideas such as plausibility, or perhaps mercy. The pantomime Spanish bishop is only wounded by the end of the story, and is even driven by remorse to acts of charity.

(7) Hence, the authority figure and all-round Man With Integrity most trusted by Empowered Male Nerd and Strong Female during the early part of the book will turn out to be the real villain. This is your only other Plot Twist.
Man With Integrity must embody traditional virtues, be a (now) childless male, not necessarily middle-aged, but invariably the victim of deep personal unhappiness. Commander Strathmore (Digital Fortress); Director Pickering (Deception Point); the Camerlengo (Angels & Demons); and the unfeasible Sir Leigh Teabing (Da Vinci Code) all turn out to be rotters. And, so far as it is possible to tell, the same person.

Don't waste time trying to give your villain motivation. All you need is a dramatic and unconvincing change of character. Terry Wogan and Michael Palin using poisoned baby milk to exterminate all the kittens and puppies in the UK. That's the sort of thing to aim for.

(8) Litter the storyline with Out-of-the-ordinary Academic Disciplines so that you can cut and paste lots of stuff from Wikipedia and pad out 600 pages.
As the High Court has made clear for budding Dan Browns everywhere, lifting stuff from other sources isn't technically plagiarism provided you make your book bad enough. Thus Digital Fortress has cryptographers and linguists and Deception Point has oceanographers, astrophysicists, paleontologists and glaciologists, which really allows Brown to churn out the paragraphs.

Feel free to use your initiative: the central character of Angels & Demons and Da Vinci Code, Langdon, is described as a "professor of religious symbology", which is a subject which doesn't actually exist. But it does provide an excellent excuse to recite reams about Leonardo da Vinci, the Templars, the Gnostic gospels, what Brown did on his holidays, whatever.

To date, Dan Brown has failed to cover pets or food, so there must be a gap in the market for a thriller about an assistant lecturer in Veterinary Cuisine.

(9) Don't waste time with any genuine research, and be as careless as you like. If you can download enough of the techno-babble stuff it will allow you to smuggle through the bits you've obviously made up off the top of your head or to distract the reader from any basic sloppy plotting which doesn't hang together.
Digital Fortress, a book purportedly about sophisticated electronic cryptography, regularly confuses the difference between codes and ciphers. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of public key encryption, in a way which defeats the whole point of involving the subject in the story in the first place. The time differences between Maryland and Seville are out by several hours.

Deception Point has the US Government sending an expedition to construct a gigantic base and undertake excavations on Ellesmere Island, without anyone at any point noticing that Ellesmere Island is actually in Canada. The information that the Mariana Trench is too deep for human exploration may come as a surprise to Walsh and Piccard, who reached the bottom of it in a bathyscaphe in January 1960.

Angels & Demons makes some startling innovations in antimatter science, with which the actual physical universe has not yet managed to catch-up. Ignoring the intriguing claim that the Church copied the concept of Holy Communion from the Aztecs, practically nothing it says about Vatican officials or the procedure for electing a Pope is correct. That's something of a flaw in a book about a Vatican official trying to rig the election of a new Pope.

The underlying plot of Da Vinci Code in part turns on the geographic alignment of certain key locations (the Louvre, St Sulpice church, Glastonbury, Rosslyn Chapel etc) which, er, are not geographically aligned. In fact, anything remotely to do with geography is wrong, including a short trip along the Strand from Temple to King's College London.

(10) At all times display crass ignorance of anything outside America.
Learn from the master. Any clown can write a book in which the signs inside the Vatican misspell "Sistine Chapel" in Italian (Angels & Demons), ignore the fact that Canada is a sovereign country outside the USA (Deception Point), describe a fight on a staircase in a Spanish tower which is famous for not having a staircase (Digital Fortress) or have the French police decide to imprison someone in Andorra and then let him escape on a railway line which doesn't exist (Da Vinci Code).
So if any clown can do it, and in fact has done so, you might as well join in.

But only a truly inspired genius can pen a sympathetic portrait of a Middle Eastern assassin (Angels & Demons) who explains that he is driven by the need to avenge the attacks of the Crusaders who destroyed the "temples" of the "gods" of his people. Islam doesn't quite work like that, Dan. Let's hope an Ayatollah isn't stuck for something to read next time he's passing through Heathrow.

William Norton is a Trustee of the Social Affairs Unit and the author of White Elephant: How the North East Said No.

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(11) Make it entertaining enough, and nobody will care how realistic it is.

They're NOVELS, for heaven's sake! And last time I looked that definition of a novel was a 'made-up story'. Isn't it rather sad to obsess over whether our entertainment is 'realistic' enough? Pointing out faults like this is amusing, sure, but it doesn't take anything away from the fact that Brown has entertained millions of people. I am not among them, but not because his books are 'unrealistic'.

But this kind of sniping -- 'oh, it's not realistic' -- is so easy and so meaningless. Let me point out some 'failings' in Tolkein, for instance:

(1) There is no such thing as magic.
(2) Eagles don't grow big enough to lift up humanoid midgets.
(3) Armies need supply lines.
Etc, etc...

So novels aren't true? Well, derr...

Posted by: Jon at August 21, 2008 09:57 PM

Good post. I read the four novels out of order(4,2,3,1) and finishing the third it struck me that Brown was writing the same thing over and over. When I started the fourth, I picked out the villain on page twenty-five and wasn't surprised that I was correct.
In response to Joe's comment above, I can overlook factual mistakes because I'm don't know everything. What I can't abide is wasting my time using the same plot and paste-in characters four times out of four.
I've been lucky in that I read the books out of my local library. Fortunately, the only thing wasted was my time. That won't happen if he ever gets around to publishing another novel.

Posted by: Randy Johnson at August 24, 2008 01:18 AM
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