bookmark_borderOne theory why Dan Brown writes so badly

Dan Brown is infamous in the world of grammarians. One of my favourite resources, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, criticizes the first sentence of “The Da Vinci Code”

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

The author, June Casagrande, questions whether “vaulted” adds anything useful to “archway”, but she has a bigger problem with whether “renowned” has any right to be in this sentence. She’s not alone.

For a better analysis of the first problem than I can offer, as well as a post showing Dan Brown’s propensity to repeat the same error with other novels, see the Language Log links. The first link says that using job titles as modifiers for proper names is appropriate for journalistic reports but not for narrative writing. The second says it is different if the job is a title, such as “Cardinal”. (I won’t comment any further than to say I wondered whether the pairing of “fertilizer salesman” and “Cardinal” was intentional, or whether the use of a “fertilizer salesman” as an example in a post about Dan Brown was also intentional or not.)


My point in rehashing old news is to look at what I think the author is thinking when he makes this error.

When I read Dan Brown’s sentence, I see an author falling into the trap of trying to slip in background information all too easily. Inserting the job title and his standing in that position as modifiers (curator, renowned) is the quickest way of dumping that information into the story. Those first four words don’t read badly either. Journalists write like this; death notices, for example, use this style, summarizing a person’s entire life in a few sentences. As Language Log points out though, this is not generally acceptable in fiction writing, and the fact that the character will be dead by the second page doesn’t mean you can compress his description to match the ratio of his lifespan in the story.

Star Trek gave its expendable crew members, at least the ones with personality, an opportunity to do something. Kirk doesn’t say, “Short-tempered Security Officer  Saunière , go check it out.”

Dan Brown is trying to do just that.

His solution is fast, it’s economical, and on it’s own it’s not awkward to read, but it’s inappropriate and stylistically wrong, though, perhaps not as obvious as my theoretical Star Trek example. The rest of the opening paragraphs are heavy with adjectives and I suspect this is more evidence of Brown’s desire to squeeze as much additional .. anything: characteristics, background, metaphors, anything he can tack on without having to write properly. Language Log criticizes him in other posts for using inappropriate alternatives for ‘said’, which I take as further evidence of a lazy writing shorthand.


If it’s important, it needs to be worked into the story naturally, not just dumped in or tacked on as a modifier. Even a best-selling author can’t escape the old “show, don’t tell” axiom by being quick and by using only one word, and hope the reader doesn’t notice. Though, if you’re Dan Brown, you have more than one reason for not caring.


bookmark_borderReading, rather than writing

I’ve been a little annoyed / concerned about my lack of writing over the past few months, but then I realized that I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

Since mid-December I started getting interested in downloadable audiobooks and then ebooks from my local public library.


Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam
The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre
The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
The Affair, Jack Reacher Series, Book 16, Lee Child
The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
Room, Emma Donogue

Failed to finish audiobook:

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx


Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje
The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
Mostly Happy, Pam Bustin


Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Failed to finish ebooks: (all non-fiction)

Incognito, David Eagleman
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross

That’s a fair amount of material. Some observations:

  • I don’t recommend Lee Childs in audiobook form. I like his Reacher books for quick, light entertainment but I can’t speed-read an audiobook. It seemed to take forever to get through the story.
  • Almost a similar reaction to Dan Brown in audiobook form, but because the plot is so complicated it wasn’t quite as difficult. Still, Dan Brown continues to be the shining example of the extreme mixture of intricate plot with totally flat characters.
  • Michael Ondaatje is quite ponderous, even when writing scenes in fast paced gambling worlds. I don’t think I need to read any more of his writing. The thickness of the style reminds me of Lawrence Durrell which I read long ago but Ondaatje doesn’t invite me into an interesting bohemian world like Durrell does.
  • Richard Powers is also quite thick with his writing style but more approachable for me.
  • I’m sure that the audiobook format changes my interaction with the writing, but it was definitely interesting listening to something unusual like Room.
  • Ebooks are hard on my neck and shoulders. Because the Kobo and my cell phone are small, slippery and will autorotate the screen I had to hold them constantly and with my thumb in a position ready to turn the page. On the other hand it’s great to have something right there when I’m on the bus or waiting at the doctor’s office.

So twelve complete books in four months, plus some other reading and all the issues of The New Yorker published during that time. That’s a fair amount of reading and might account for the lack of writing. But the lack of writing is due to lack of inspiration and desire rather than lack of time. My hope is that I’m going through a phase of absorbing some writing, mostly good, before the writing focus comes back into play.

* Edit: Oh, I forgot The Hunger Games too, but that only took a day to read.

bookmark_borderReview: Digital Fortress

Just finished reading an old Dan Brown novel, Digital Fortress: A Thriller. For those who don’t know, Dan Brown is the author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons which spawned the  movies of the same names.

Some months back I had read another of his earlier books (of which “Digital Fortress” is another, lest you rush out hoping it’s a new Dan Brown novel) all of which have found renewed interest and reprinting as a result of the big ones and the movies. What became more and more obvious to me is that he is a writer of plots, without a lot of character development or straight ahead writing ability. If you read “The Da Vinci Code” you get a sense of this, but it really becomes obvious when you take a step back and read some of his earlier books.

I don’t know whether he got better as a writer by the time he wrote “The Da Vinci Code”, or he just got a better editor who improved his books more as time went on. In any event, I sped through “Digital Fortress” by reading only the first line of each paragraph, and later on by only reading the first lines of the first two paragraphs in each chapter.

Nice plot, not particularly well written, not particularly interesting characters.