Monday, February 10, 2014

Things I Learned from Dan Brown

The next time you’re in a coffee shop, look around at the people who are staring earnestly at their laptop screens, pecking away at the keys in a desultory, dispirited fashion.

There’s a good chance that those people are working on their novel.

There’s an excellent chance that they really hate Dan Brown.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that their hatred is exclusive to Dan Brown. Rather it’s Brown and authors like him - the ones who seem to effortlessly ascend the best-seller charts, pumping out one international hit after another - that draw their ire. Partly it’s just jealousy, but mostly it’s resentment. They resent that Dan Brown can be so richly rewarded when he’s such a terrible writer.

It’s true; Dan Brown’s characters are paper-thin, his dialogue is bombastic, his historical and scientific research is spotty at best, and his intricate, conspiracy-driven plots only occasionally hold water. (He also has an irritating tendency to create new words all his own - “symbologist,” anyone? - and then pretend that everyone in the world knows that word and uses it in casual conversation.)

And yet readers love him. This is the sort of thing that drives would-be writers crazy, but the reason is actually quite simple: Dan Brown is good at the things that matter to sales.

His chapters are extremely short. They present a single piece of information - the crumb that leads you one step deeper into the forest - and then they end, abruptly, when you’re right on the point of learning something important to the story. He teases you constantly to just read the next chapter … and then the one after that, and the one after that.

His plots invariably promise to teach you something about religion, history, and science, but Brown doesn’t confuse instruction with entertainment. He gives you enough to feel like you’re a little smarter once you’re done, but he doesn’t bury you under detail.

If you’ve read one of Brown’s novels, you know exactly what to expect in the next one. You’ll get some of the same characters, you’ll get another vast conspiracy, and you’ll be taken through one or two exotic settings. Brown is the McDonald’s of popular fiction, which is to say he’s predictable enough to be comfortable. Readers like it when they’re comfortable.

These principles - plus a heaping load of good fortune - have made Dan Brown a millionaire. They can improve your content, too.

Dan Brown teases his readers with carefully-crafted chapter endings. You should think about how you can develop content that teases the reader (or the viewer) to go a little bit further, a little bit deeper, rather than abandoning your content halfway through.

Dan Brown talks about religion, history, and science - but not too much. You should focus on giving your audience something of value, but be careful not to overwhelm them. Provide links to those who want to delve deeper into a topic, but your readers’ first view of a topic should be a quick, engaging overview.

Dan Brown creates comfort via familiarity. Give some thought to how predictable your content is. Are your articles written with a common voice and presented with a standard look and feel? Does a certain personality infuse everything that you publish? These are the elements that can make your content more predictable, familiar, and comfortable.

Even now I can’t recommend that you read Dan Brown’s work, but we can all learn something from the method he brings to that work. If there’s one thing the author of “The Da Vinci Code” understands, it’s how to satisfy an audience and keep them coming back for more.