domingo, 10 de noviembre de 2013

How to write like Dan Brown

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.

In summary

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.
Repeat until rich.

Here’s what Rowling and my Harry Potter experience taught me about writing:

1. Persistence counts.

Rowling got the idea for the Harry Potter in 1990 and spent the next 17 years working on it before finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. Seventeen years – that’s as long as it takes a kid to go from kindergarten through high school.
The takeaway: You may start out loving a project but the day may come – days, weeks or months into it – you’re so bored, frustrated or fed up you want to scream or put it away forever. But look what can happen if you gut it out.

2. Think things through.

Rowling wrote in the biography on her website that she was on a train when the idea for Harry Potter “fell into my head.” She didn’t have paper or pen, so for the four-hour train ride all she could do was think. She says her forced rumination could have saved the series: “I think that perhaps if I had had to slow down the ideas so that I could capture them on paper I might have stifled some of them.”
The take away: Don’t be too quick to get something down on paper. Think about the structure, the concepts, the conclusions and the way you want something to play out before committing it to paper.
J.K. Rowling. Photo: EPA
J.K. Rowling. Photo: EPA

3. If the story’s good enough, the writing can be secondary.

Face it, Rowling isn’t Hemingway, at least she wasn’t when she started. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t Beowulf. The writing in the first books in the series was downright pedestrian, though it definitely improved in her later books. But with that story, who could resist? I couldn’t. [Update: 50 Shades of Grey is a more recent example of a book that's a smash hit not because of the writing, but in spite of it.]
The takeaway: Got a good story to tell? Tell it. If you write enough, you’ll get better on your own. Rowling did in her later books.

4. Go for it.

Rowling was a struggling single mom when she started Harry Potter. She had no clips, no publishing industry connections, no platform.
The takeaway: It takes persistence, passion and a little Harry Potter-style bravura to believe in yourself enough to take on the publishing world as an novice writer – which may explain why many beginning writers sell themselves short by working for a pittance for less-than stellar publishers and websites. Could someone replicate Rowling’s rise to author stardom given what it takes to get a book published today? I’d like to hope so.

5. Write when you’re on.

Rowling likes to write through the night, or in cafes with just enough people and music to get lost in. When she was finishing Deathly Hallows she checked into a hotel room so she could write the ending with no distractions.
The takeaway: You might not be able to afford a hotel room or pull an all nighter, especially if you have kids to get to school in the morning. But you can structure your work day so you’re writing during your peak energy time, whenever that happens to be.

6. Don’t be afraid to make things complicated.

The Harry Potter series is a thicket of characters, subplots and themes – all in what is supposed to be a children’s fantasy series.
The takeaway: Give your readers – even young ones – credit for their intelligence. Don’t dumb down your ideas, or your writing.

7. Leave stuff out.

In 2007 British documentary on Rowling that re-aired earlier this month when movie version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opened, the author shares about details of her characters that never made it into the books, including back stories and what happens in their lives after the books ends.  The tidbits either didn’t fit into the plot or weren’t interesting enough to be included (although fans live for this kind of stuff).
The takeaway: Pick the most telling details, the juiciest quotes, the most spot-on examples to tell your story and leave the rest out, especially if, unlike Rowling, you’re writing to a specific word count.

8. Write what you love.

Rowling obvious loves her Harry Potter universe – she wouldn’t have drawn up the family tree that British TV documentary shows with details of who Harry, Ron and Hermione go on to marry after the conclusion of the books.
The takeaway: Enjoy what you do and how you do it, otherwise, why do it at all?

9. Be good to your people.

Rowling blogged during and after writing Deathly Hallows so readers could find out more about her and the books. Besides book signing and official appearances, she also did Q&As with the people who run her fan sites.
The takeaway: We live in an age of interactive media. If you’re writing you need some kind of relationship with your readers, whether it’s on a blog, Twitter, book signings or all of the above. Depending on what you do, you can use the interaction to shape what you write, or build an audience for your next project.

10. It’s OK to goof off.

After she gave up cigarettes, Rowling took up Minesweeper, the game that comes bundled with Windows, when she needed a writing break. She got so good she even brags on her blog about her expert-level times.
The takeaway: If Rowling can play mindless computer games for a little mental R&R, it’s OK if you check Twitter or Facebook during the work day.
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How to Write Like Haruki Murakami

1. Write simply and carefully: “While the writing was deceptively simple, a closer read revealed that it was in fact calculated and arranged with great care.”
2. Edit out all unnecessary words: “No part of it was overwritten, but at the same time it had everything it needed.”
3. Focus on literal descriptions: “Figurative expressions were kept at a minimum, but the descriptions were still vivid and richly colored.”
4. Touch on dark themes: “A peculiar darkness pervaded the novella’s style … it was like a fabulous children’s story, but hidden down deep somewhere it had a strong, dark undercurrent.”
5. Write musical prose: “Above all, the style had a wonderful musical quality. Even without reading it aloud, the reader would recognize its deep sonority.”