Michael Noll debuted in EQMM in the July 2015 issue with “The Tank Yard,” a story that was subsequently selected for the 2016 volume of Best American Mystery Stories. He is the program director at the Writers’ League of Texas and the editor of the craft-of-writing blog Read to Write Stories. His short fiction has also appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Indiana Review, and The New Territory. His book In the Beginning, Middle, and End: A Field Guide for Writing Fiction is due out next year. In this post he takes a critical look at the work of one of the most popular thriller writers of our time and shares some of the advice he gives his writing students.—Janet Hutchings
Dan Brown hasn’t published a book since Inferno in 2013, but Facebook apparently has a grudge against him. Recently, an old review of Inferno from England’s The Telegraph showed up on my news feed, and it tears into Brown in order to make a succinct argument: Dan Brown can’t write a sentence.
In my writing community, most people would probably agree with this assessment, but I found myself wondering if it’s actually true.
As evidence of Brown’s lack of skill, the review offers this sentence: “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” Of course, almost any book can be ransacked for poorly worded sentences, and so it might be tempting to think this example was cherry picked. But this review is part of a longer history. Another review by Clive James highlighted the particular horror of other sentences: “Sienna changed tacks” and “Pandora is out of her box.” James’ retort: “Dan, she was never in it.”
This is comically bad prose, like something Yogi Berra might have said. After all, is “Pandora is out of her box” really so different than “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”? Neither makes logical sense—and yet we know exactly what both statements mean. The same is true of “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” Sharks aren’t white—or, if they are, they start that way and don’t change color (though how cool would that be?). Even if you grant Brown a zoological waiver, there isn’t much logic to be found. If sharks did change color, wouldn’t it be to disguise their attack? Or perhaps to frighten their prey? Surely we can agree that a shark would not change color out of fear while attacking.
Yet such writing doesn’t mean Brown’s books aren’t any good. I read The Da Vinci Code while in college, studying Creative Writing and Journalism. Like writing students everywhere, I disguised my lack of skill by trashing the weaknesses of other writers, and so I was primed to detest a book that everyone around me adored. But I didn’t. I devoured it the same as I consume Pringles potato chips, figuring I’m not going to be capable of thinking of anything else so I might as well finish the whole thing. The day after I started The Da Vinci Code, I drove home to visit my parents and hid away in a bedroom at their house where no one would bother me as I raced to the thrilling conclusion.
The Da Vinci Code is undeniably entertaining. But is it well written? The fact that I even ask the question will bother some readers. After all, how can a book be badly written if so many people enjoy it? It’s like saying that Pringles are badly designed because they achieve the exact effect they’re aiming for: You can’t eat just one. And yet the question is important for writers to consider: Why is the novel so good when its writing is so demonstrably bad?
One answer can be found on the opening page:
Louvre Museum, Paris
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
Skip down the page, and this happens:
He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars.
That’s a lot of logical and spatial incoherence. The gallery is cavernous, but Saunière somehow doesn’t see the “mountainous silhouette” that is “chillingly close.” And, for Brown, “chillingly close” is a matter of interpretation; would everyone define it as fifteen feet away, beyond a gate? The novel goes on to describe the attacker, down to the color of his eyes—which ought to be impossible. Saunière saw the man’s silhouette. Silhouettes are outlines or general shapes and, by definition, not detailed.
So, yes, the prose has some problems. It’s also captivating. Why?
The question has implications for writers of every genre, not just mystery thrillers. I once wrote a novel that received many effusive rejections from editors, all with the same judgment: Beautiful prose, but I’m afraid I have to pass. When I asked my agent what lesson I should draw from this experience, he thought for a moment and then said, “Story matters.”
The British writer Hanif Kureishi said something similar at a literary festival a couple of years ago: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.”
So, let’s examine the story of The Da Vinci Code. A man is tearing paintings off the walls of the most famous museum in the world—not standard behavior. It’s natural to ask, “What has possessed him to do it?” Someone is trying to kill him. Again, we want to know why. Brown gets readers wondering these things in a single page, in part because of his sentences.
Take the first five words of the novel: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered . . .” Renowned and staggered aren’t often found together, and this incongruous pairing is an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche talked about in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” We structure language in order to create meaning, he argued. Imagine a monument: on top are words like love and God, and on the bottom are words like tapeworm and gutter and every naughty word for a body part or bodily function. As children, we quickly learn that these words occupy different parts of the monument and supposed to be kept apart. As a result, if someone were to say, “I love tapeworms,” we’d be disgusted. How can anyone love something so horrible?
This is where writers can’t be like regular people. No one besides scientists loves tapeworms. But, for writers, the question “How can you love a tapeworm?” invites a story, just as “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered” causes us to wonder, “Why? What’s going on?” Renowned and curator exist together on the Nietzsche’s monument. Staggered does not, just as love and tapeworm do not. A basic rule of language, and therefore our understanding of the world, has been broken. Our interest is piqued.
But what about that shark sentence? Surely it’s indefensible. Well, maybe not.
On one hand, it makes no literal sense. Eyes can’t go white. They can, perhaps, go wide, or, at least, that is a cliché most of us recognize. White and wide aren’t the same, but it’s a distinction that most readers might not notice. Plus, white echoes the famous words of the Bunker Hill colonel who told his troops, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” As a result, “eyes went white” begins to resemble common but incorrect phrases like “stock and trade” and “on tender hooks.” The flubbed versions are used so often that we understand what they mean, even when, to a literalist, they mean nothing.
None of this has anything to do with sharks, but the pairing of white eyes and shark does make a kind of archetypal sense—the sort that happens all the time in a writer’s subconscious. They’re all located in the same part of Nietzsche’s monument of language, and so the reader, moving quickly to find out what happens next, focuses on the concrete words in the sentence (eyes, white, shark, attack), barely sees other words that hold everything together, and intuitively grasps the meaning: the character is terrified.
The entire first page of the book ignores the literal definitions of the words it uses but still creates meaning because, on a sentence level, it’s conveying the characters’ emotions and the mystery to be solved. Nothing else is as important to a storyteller. Even Homer himself might agree. His Iliad (as translated by Robert Fagles) begins this way:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaens countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion . . .
Homer’s tools are the same as those wielded by Brown: clear emotion, strong verbs, and incongruous pairings (“great fighters’ souls” and “carrion”). Will Dan Brown’s novels last as long as the work of the man whose stories were so good that Plato wanted him barred from the city? Doubtful. But they’re entertaining for the same reason: the sentences tell a story.
Hook the readers, Homer and Brown might say, and worry about the finer points later.