Dan Brown is not the best of writers. His plots are over complicated with more twists than a… twisty thing, and the action often stops to explain large amounts of detailed information to the reader. But he sells a lot of books and makes a lot of money. And it’s because of a combination of traits that are individually compelling that add up to make a thrilling read. Here’s how to write like Dan Brown:
Get to the action straight away
All of his books start with somebody dying being pursued by a mystery antagonist who is sinister beyond belief.
Get to the mystery straight away
This person who has just dies was trying to do something really important and urgent, but the sinister antagonist has stopped them from doing this by killing them. Straight away, it’s what’s going on? Why did this happen?
Have educated protagonists
His main characters are all clever and smart in a fun way. It feels like you’re learning art history / cryptography whilst you read. But always in small, digestible factoids so it doesn’t feel like learning.
Write short chapters
Each chapter takes the idea from the chapter before, restates it, builds a little bit onto it, and ends on a cliffhanger. Always end on a cliffhanger. It makes people want to read more. You can pick the book up and be reminded where you were and get to know what happens next. Great for slow readers.
Create flat, colourful characters
The nice thing about flat characters is that it is easy to make them colourful: Scary Eyed Soldier, Masochist Albino, Possibly Corrupt Bishop. They’re all easy to remember because they all only have one quirk. We’re concerned about moving the plot forward in the most exciting of ways, not what makes these people tick.
Make sure you are writing about deep secrets
Deep secrets are exciting. Brown taps into the desire of an exciting secret world just out of sight of our boring, mundane one. He can make the reader feel like they’re seeing something they’re not usually allowed to see. So that when you find out what’s going on you care about seeing these things resolved. Did Jesus have kids? Is the pyramid going to release secret powers? Will antimatter destroy The Vatican? Luckily, our educated protagonists will explain everything to us as we go along.
Add unrealistic time limits
They’ve got 3 hours before the Vatican blows up. Nine minutes before the disc gets decrypted. Just make sure there’s a time limit to keep the story rushing forwards.
Use realistic settings
Brown makes sure that you know that all this action takes place in a real place. And you can visit it. He drops nuggets of facts about these places (via our educated protagonists) for added realism and then throws in the occasional curveball by hiding in something absolutely fake, but believable and necessary for carrying the plot forward. This is reinforced in many of his books by a note at the beginning that says FACT: people, places and things in this book are real. Mostly.
Include contemporary issues
Just make sure that the issues are highly reactive. Things like privacy, antimatter, alien life on meteorites, biological threats play a huge part in his books. He makes sure that different characters have different opinions of said topics, so that you, the reader, will always have a character to side with. The trick is that some of these opinions are from official, more sensible sources and sprinkled through these more sensible opinions are conspiracy theories and bonkers ideas.
Have ambiguous moral resolutions
The good guys aren’t always good and the bad guys aren’t always bad, everybody is trying to do the right thing. Boring and simple, but it is compelling to have characters whom you thought were good suddenly turn out to be evil and vice versa. This achieves the illusion of complexity without the difficult part of it actually being complex.
Conceal the endgame
Most normal books lay out their themes right from the very beginning. In a Dan Brown novel you could have 5-20 chapters that deal with a story arc like Robert Langdon escaping a bathroom. The deep secrets take a pause to more important issues; will Langdon escape? is the Pregnant Museum lady secretly evil? As long as you don’t recognise that seemingly helpful person at the beginning as the villain straight off you’re in for a guaranteed climax where the bad guy turns out to be the last person you would have possibly expected. And all those people that you thought were bad guys? Well, they’re secretly not so bad leading to our ambiguous moral resolutions.
Have a simple world view
His stories all have a very simple perspective (religion does bad things, but it’s also good, the government is good, but also sometimes bad, police men a dreadful, but sometimes they’re helpful) but he makes sure that the story tries to see both sides of the issue and give you a richer, fuller understanding of the world in which this all takes place.
A highly intelligent main character trying to get to the bottom of some secret conspiracy, that meets a woman who follows him around so he can explain stuff to her he’s been studying his whole life, while an assassin with some personality quirk tries to kill them, and at the end the real bad guy was a supposed friend that hired the assassin.