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Dan Brown: 10 tips for writing bestselling suspense

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code among other books, is one of the top-selling authors of all time. What can aspiring authors learn from his success?

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code among other books, is one of the top-selling authors of all time. What can aspiring authors learn from his success? Plagiarism scandals aside, Dan Brown’s global publishing success garnered endless publicity. The linguist Geoffrey Pullum called Brown one of ‘the worst prose stylists in the history of literature’. Even so, Brown has sold in excess of 80 million copies of his debut worldwide to date. Here are 7 tips you can take away from Dan Brown’s publishing success:

1: Read the classics for lessons in plot and description

One of the reasons The Da Vinci Code was so successful was that it combined somewhat controversial subject matter (alternative, ‘secret’ lives of biblical figures) with plenty of plot twists. Brown is on record saying ‘I’ve read a lot of the classics, where issues of plot and description are well crafted.’

If you think about it, novels that are still being read today must have good enough plots and descriptions to have achieved such lasting posterity. When reading classic literature yourself (whether Frankenstein or Great Expectations), take notes on:

  • The key plot events of the story
  • Any surprise reversals or twists: For example, in Great Expectations the protagonist finds out that his mystery benefactor was not the person he always thought
  • How elements such as characters and settings are described: What is vivid and what strikes you as original?

2: Choose a setting that is interesting in itself

If you have great skill for dialogue and description, even a parking lot can be a great setting for a novel. Even so, the dramatic interest of your story increases exponentially when you use a setting that is a source of fascination itself.

Brown understood this and set much of his novel at significant cultural locations throughout Europe, including the Louvre in Paris and Westminster Abby in England. Think about how your setting could add intrigue to your story. For Brown, setting his stories in locations steeped in history gives his novels the sense of grand historical time that makes suspense novels more intriguing.

3: Use the web for inspiration and print books for factual details

In his interview with Claire E. White, when asked about research, Brown cautions against relying exclusively on the internet. He suggests, instead, to use online sources for inspiration and fact check in reputable print publications. This helps to ensure that your facts are accurate and will not get called out by others (a situation Brown himself has not avoided).

4: Like Dan Brown, don’t shy away from controversy

One of the most significant contributing factors to Brown’s worldwide publishing success is the whirl of conspiracy that has surrounded his writing career. From allegations of plagiarism to harsh judgments by critics, his writing has brought out strong views. The controversial religious subject matter of The Da Vinci Code (the premise Jesus and Mary Magdelene secretly wed) also caused condemnation by various religious lobbies.
If you can tap into a subject matter that elicits strong opinions in people there is a chance your book will be talked about widely.

5: Create a sense of urgency

Creating a sense of urgency in your writing helps to propel the story forward. Even if you aren’t writing a suspense, if there is a sense of time passing and pressures mounting readers will feel more compelled to get to the end of your novel.

Because the protagonists in The Da Vinci Code (the symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu) are on a race to find secret information that contradicts widespread church teachings, there is a sense of danger and urgency.

Create situations in your novel that keep readers in a heightened state of uncertainty and wanting to know what comes next and your audience will be more invested in your story.

6: Harness the power of secrets

Brown has stated before in interviews that secrets are the key to reeling in curious readers. He doesn’t only include secrets such as complicated codes his protagonists need to crack. He also includes an air of secrecy in external elements. The cover of his novel Inferno was published with a secret hidden in the book cover artwork which you had to use an official app to reveal.

7: Approach revision as play

The famous saying goes ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. The same goes for ‘play’: If you find revising your novel a chore, this chore-like quality could filter into the writing. Instead, do as Brown advises in his interview with White and make revision a playful process. Ask yourself ‘what would happen if I re-wrote this entire chapter from this secondary character’s point of view?’ Turn the process into a game to unlock new creative potential in the words you already have on the page.

Write a novel that thrills and holds readers in suspense now with the help of Now Novel’s helpful online writing community.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

3 replies on “Dan Brown: 10 tips for writing bestselling suspense”

Great angles of encouragement… I have to say I was fortunate in the process of my just completed book…ZINJ MEETS THE MASTER and I will have to admit I was lucky that my manuscript matched Dan Browns …. Of course I have a long way to go to match his creativity…

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