American in Spain

Dan Brown's Writing

October 5, 2009

I started and finished Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbolthis past weekend. It was quite the page turner. What follows are a few comments on Dan Brown's writing style. Since his success with The Da Vinci Code,criticizing Brown's writing abilities has become especially popular, particularly on the internet. I agree that he does write some truly inane sentences, so bad that they would deserve a red underline and points taken off in a high school English class. The one that caused the loudest involuntary groan from me in The Lost Symbolwas one where a character is speeding, pedal to the metal, in her car, at night, adrenaline pumping after narrowly escaping death, and her mind is reeling trying to link what she just experienced with the other events of the day, when her mind finally makes the connection, Dan Brown pulls out this gem:

Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her.

...and chapter 54 ends. Ugh!

His character development is also surprisingly lame. I've read all his books and never once cared for a character's wellbeing. Not that his characters are remotely unique. See if these characters sound familiar:

  • Good-looking, athletic, somewhat nerdy academic man, too passionate about his work to marry, who is an expert in solving and giving meaning to puzzles, dragged into events by a powerful scholar acquaintance who has been attacked. Usually the recurring character Robert Langdon.
  • Attractive analytic scientist woman who has been too passionate about her work to marry, family member of attacked scholar. She can often, just at the right moment, provide an insight that Langdon can't see, due to her scientific knowledge and long family history with attacked scholar.
  • Evil, insanely religious arch-villain who has done his research and stays one step ahead of nerdy puzzle solvers.
  • Burly no-nonsense law enforcement boss that commands legions of agents to follow closely behind Langdon and Scientist Lady, but never quite catching them.
  • A handful of helpful experts along the way that attacked scholar dude has somehow told Langdon that he can trust. Often they provide momentary sanctuary and insights into understanding the unfolding mystery.

There you have it, all the characters in Angels & Demons,The Da Vinci Code,and The Lost Symbol. If you generalize Langdon's character a bit, I think you'll find that this cookie cutter template fits neatly around Deception Pointand Digital Fortressas well. Dan Brown writes the same novel over and over again.

Dan Brown's genius, and the reason he is so successful, lies in his ability to show the reader just a glimpse of a hint of a whiff of something hugely important. He mainly does this by giving a character knowledge that the reader doesn't have, and then making the character be shocked or terrified by some realization that intrigues the reader. For example:

There before him Langdon saw the hat, the iron, the car, the horse, the shoe, the thimble, and the dog all sitting on Marvin Gardens, surrounding a single drop of blood. Could it be true? Surely the 5000 year old Mesopotamian prophesy from the mythical ancient world rulers was just a legend! Yet all his instincts told him that there was only one way to interpret this ancient warning. If he didn't roll double sixes, they would all die! He shook the dice and tossed them onto the board.

Then the chapter ends and he goes back to describing some other character, resolving her predicament and getting her into a new one before ending that chapter.

It reminds me of good suspenseful television, like 24 or Prison Break, neither of which is particularly intellectual. If they could find a way to make you sit through an advertisement between each chapter, Dan Brown's readers would. Personally, I have trouble maintaining interest when books spend forty pages to fully develop a character, which is probably due to television and the focus-distracting nature of the internet, on which I spend many hours each day. Sometimes it's fun to suspend your disbelief and be taken on a fast-paced ride through an adventure story, even if some of the sentences in the story are laughably amateur.