Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to Write a Thriller like Dan Brown

I remember boarding a flight from Israel to the United States in January 2004, with a copy of The Da Vinci Code in hand. The plane made a stopover in Prague but I barely paid attention. When we landed in Newark, I had just finished reading what I considered the best thriller I had ever read. On my return flight to Israel, I read Angels and Demons in its entirety.

Ever since those non-stop reading sessions, I have been enthralled by the novels of Dan Brown. I purchased and eagerly read Deception Point and Digital Fortress. I pounced on The Lost Symbol shortly after it was published.

Now I have just finished reading Inferno. While I no longer read at the speed of flight, I still finished the novel in a very short time. This won't be a review stating how much I enjoyed the book and why. Instead, it's a review of what makes Dan Brown such a successful writer of thrillers.

Okay, it's obvious that any book Dan Brown writes will become an instant bestseller. What is so thrilling about Dan Brown's thrillers? There must be some formula, some hidden code that enables writers to write a thriller like Dan Brown. Many have tried, and most attempts have fallen far short of the original.

Here, in my opinion, is the formula of what is needed to create a Dan Brown-like thriller that will captivate readers.

1) An opening that immediately propels you into the action with no time to catch your breath.

2) Ordinary, likeable characters thrown into very unordinary events, with faults and phobias rather than any superhero abilities. It helps when readers recognize Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology Robert Langdon and picture the character as looking like Tom Hanks.

3) Short cliffhanger chapters that keep you reading late into the night.

4) An intense sense of the setting with more details than you will ever get from a guidebook or a tour guide.

5) Overwhelming information about every painting, sculpture, building, poem, musical composition, and book sighted or mentioned for even a split second in the narrative.

6) A male-female team that matches intellectual wits with no need to retire to a bedroom for meaningless diversions.

7)  Friends who turn out to be enemies and enemies who turn out to be friends. First impressions may be misleading and dangerous, so it's best not to trust anyone.

8) Ruthless, cunning villains who belong to sinister organizations. Sometimes these villains are never even named.

9) A deadly conspiracy or threat that may actually be real. (After all, the author did his research so you can trust him, right?)

10) Fast paced action, with the main characters being cornered nearly every step of the way.

11) The knowledge that something bad is going to happen, and it's going to happen very soon.

12) The use of words that most readers will not understand. The book is so exciting that there is no time to run for a dictionary. The word of choice in Inferno is chthonic (silent ch), meaning 'of the underworld'.

13) An unexpected and hopefully satisfying conclusion. Knowing that Robert Langdon has survived makes us rest assured that another book in the series is soon to follow.

So, do you have what it takes to write a thriller like Dan Brown? I wish I could follow all of this advice for my own books!


  1. Great post, Ellis. Obviously you've developed a talent for speed reading and making notes, simultaneously. Now that you've given me a paint by numbers manual on how to write a Dan Brown thriller, I'm going to sign off and write two or three tonight.

  2. Wow! Thanks to you Ellis, still on the verge of having my new book editted by a prof.. Nevertheless, I must now re-allign my book based on this instructives. If you've written by this guidelines, send me a copy for purchase.

  3. I certainly agree about the short chapters with a cliffhanger ending. Six to eight pages per chapter is just long enough for the average reader to read in a break at work. With those cliffhanger endings they can't wait to read the next one and talk about it to others while they work, hooking your next sale. The only problem is a 100 chapter book can frighten some people.

  4. Nice post, but I feel as if all of Dan Brown's books are simply well-disguised screen plays. I know I'm going against the grain here (and certainly my mother's view of DB) when I say this but, I just don't think his books are very good. The films are much better. (Blasphemy! I hear you all cry).

    1. I agree. We can now join forces against evil (or something like that).

  5. I truly enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing your perspective. Since following you, your insight alters me in the most positive manner! Be blessed!

  6. I think this is a really good analysis. I particularly agree with the short chapters point. It's something I used in my own novel - some chapters are only two pages long. I didn't do this a conscious device, but many readers have commented on it positively. It seems so obvious - I don't know why more writers don't do this.

  7. I think this is very good analysis. I particularly agree with the short chapters point. I used short chapters in my own book - some chapters are only two pages long. I didn't use it as a conscious device, but many readers have commented positively on it. It seems so obvious and I don't know why more writers don't use short chapters.

  8. This is a good analysis and I do agree with all you have said. I have thoroughly enjoyed Dan Brown's books.I have read every single one of them like you did.

  9. I picked up "Inferno," put it down at page 55 and have yet to pick it up again. It's the detailed travelogue descriptions in Italian that tired me out. Still, Ellis, I am going to print out this post and tape it up over my computer so I have no excuse not to write better stories. Thank you.

  10. Nice summation! At first I was put off by the simplicity of Dan Brown's prose with my first experience with his work, but a few micro-chapters in couldn't help but be entertained and pulled further into the story. By the end I had to admit I enjoyed it, even though often skimmed through some of the thinner patches in the search for a little more complexity. That said, perhaps the smaller chapters are the perfect bite size in our time-strapped world. Read on!

  11. Dan Brown's works are a perfect study of stereotypes. But I do like your list :)

  12. This is a good post. I've often wondered what exactly was it about Dan Brown that made his books so readable. I've only read The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, and if he writes another that has the massive buzz of TDVC I'll probably be the beneficiary of family and friends who do buy books, and get to read it.
    His ability to make a reader finish a chapter and then go immediately into the next is noticeable. I never thought about it being the length of them, but now see, and can agree they also contribute. to this.
    Thankyou for your analysis.

  13. Loved this post! Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoy Dan Brown, too. Although Inferno didn't keep my attention long. Maybe its because I have too many of my own writing projects that are dragging me away from reading. I plan to eventually give it a second go. :-)

  14. I remember when these books first came out and I ended up reading Angels & Demons + Deception Point before reading the Da Vinci Code as my wife was reading that one first. By that stage I felt there was a definitive formula and I now wish I had written this down back then. Looking for that formula I was about to reread his books again, which is when I thought to 'google' the matter. Thanks Ellis Shuman, I now have a head start prior to re-engaging with his writing. I have my own 'long-term project' in my head obviously. If it ever escapes my head onto the key-board, who knows but I've got to start somewhere...

  15. Interesting observations. I will have to keep this in mind as I outline my next ms.

  16. When I first read the Da Vinci Code I thought, THIS is the book people love? (Or hate--since some religious groups found the subject matter offensive). As someone said, the prose is rather ... basic. Some of it is even a bit laughable. But--BUT! It's is a real page turner. Those short chapters which all end on a hook, literally compel you to turn the page. That level of crafting--the same concept James Patterson uses--is brilliant for the genre. That coupled with the interesting subject matter, and an immediate hook made this book so successful.

    Thanks for sharing your insights! I found this post from the #amwriting hashtag.

  17. Thanks for the great rundown and advice. I wish I could remember all these when I write, too!

  18. Good post, Ellis.
    I tend to write short chapters, sometimes only one page long, so my latest novel has 80 chapters. However, when I created a table of contents I realised that 80 chapters spanned three pages, which to my self critical eye is too many pages.

  19. Looks like I need to up the ante in my manuscript. Thanks for the tips!

  20. Great observations, although, I must admit, I couldn't get into The DaVinci Code and gave up quickly. I much prefer the writing of Stephen Leather of Paul Sussman - they both follow the formula you've talked about but they write well too - Dan Brown is far to fond of adverbs for my liking!

  21. I`ve never been a Dan Brown fan - but after reading your post - will attempt again with fresh eyes.