Dan Brown

No one who cares about literature would accuse Dan Brown of being a great writer. The info-dump dialogue, the unnecessary inner monologues, the lol-tastic punctuation that makes characters sound like William Shatner (“Doing … some hiking, Mr. President?”). My eighth grade English teacher would have sent Dan out into the hall to think about what he’d done.

But after giving the audiobook of The Lost Symbol a fair shot, I’d like to suggest that maybe we should give Dan a break.

See, I’ve written a book, and it was hard. Like, really hard. It left me with a newfound respect for anyone who can even finish writing a novel, let alone get it published. But that’s not why I’m picking Dan out of the crowd. See, for all our huffing and puffing about his prose, like it or not, there’s a reason Dan’s books are so popular. Here’s what I’m learning from reading them:

1. Building tension
It’s hard to build tension with finesse, and I wouldn’t say that Dan succeeds entirely. But he can describe something important– a room, a painting, a completely unknown object– without actually telling you why it’s so important. You just know that it is. And it’s so important, in fact, that as the tension builds before the reveal, you’re cursing the characters out loud and saying, “For fuck’s sake, just tell me what’s behind the goddamn door!” Dan frustrates you and makes you love it.

2. How to use flashbacks
I’m going to argue, flat-out, that Dan Brown is a master of flashbacks. As I neared the end of The Lost Symbol, I was shocked to realize that all of the “present” events happened in the span of twenty-four hours, yet I know all the pertinent backstories. I’d been flash-backed seven ways from Sunday, and I didn’t even notice.

3. Leaving readers feeling smarter than they were
Look, a lot of the connections Dan draws between historical events are conjecture at best and bullshit at worst. That’s called fiction. The flip side is that most of his origin stories and obscure facts are accurate (example: the statue of Moses in the Library of Congress does, in fact, have horns due to a mistranslation of Biblical text). His books leave readers feeling smarter at the end than they did at the start, and that’s one of the key reasons people love him.

4. Tying up loose ends
There’s a lot going on in Dan’s books, a lot of cogs in the machine. You know all the storylines are interconnected, but you’re not sure how until the end. And when it does happen, you can look back through all the twists and turns and see how everything fell neatly into place, usually without the use of any deus ex machina. This might sound easy to do. It’s not. That’s not to say that he doesn’t leave some loose ends or employ the use of convenient timing, but by and large, Dan’s books tend to be neatly woven.

Like I said, I’ll never argue that Dan Brown is a great writer. He’ll never deserve a place on the top shelf with Milton and Nabokov. But I will concede that I’m learning about these four points by listening to his audiobooks. And if nothing else, they’re keeping me sane during rush hour traffic.

What about you guys? Have you ever changed your opinion about a writer you previously disliked? What kinds of things have you learned from “trash” fiction?

Yeah, I’m obsessing over Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein again. I know, you’d think I’d be over it by now, but I’m not.  The thing is, I keep stumbling into things that are all about dichotomy lately (Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, Stephen Moffat’s Jekyll, etc) and obviously, that particular dynamic really appeals to us humans.  I’ve been thinking about it in terms of horror, but it’s applicable to every genre.

The reason things like Frankenstein and Jekyll work is because instead of relying on cheap slasher movie gimmicks like gore, they prey on universal, subconscious fears.  Of course on the surface, you have the fact that the creature from Frankenstein has literally been pieced together from body parts, but let’s face it: modern audiences are so desensitized that if dead bodies were all there was to Frankenstein, it would be a snooze fest.  Stories like Frankenstein go deeper than that.

On the second level, you have the story of these two men, Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, who are almost binary opposites.  One represents the ruthlessness of rational thought (Dr. Frankenstein is so obsessively consumed by his work that he hurts the people who love him) and the other represents the danger of human emotions when left untempered by logic (Frankenstein’s creature is driven by raw emotion, which leads him to commit horrendous acts).  The fear, at this stage, comes when the audience realizes that these men represent basic human nature.  Mankind is engaged in a constant struggle to find middle ground between science and nature, logic and emotion, love and hate, and whenever we let any of these go too far in one direction, terrible things happen; we murder, we steal, we destroy, and we inflict misery on others as a result.

Once that realization is in the audience’s head, it doesn’t take much to shove them toward the third level of terror, because it’s only a matter of time before they realize how horrifyingly easy it would be for them to become the vicious men standing right in front of them.  That is what finally closes the gap between the story and the audience, because as soon as the audience realizes they’re staring themselves in the face, they can’t help but feel sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, who are both isolated by the extremity of their natures.  And if you can get an audience to that point, where you’ve inspired such conflicting emotions in them that they’ll walk away from the story questioning themselves and their reactions (or if you’re very lucky, the world around around them), then you know you’ve told a story that will last.