Writing

25 Writing Tips From Author Dan Brown: Learn How to Become a Better Writer

Written by MasterClass

Aug 1, 2019 • 9 min read

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

Going from book idea to finished novel is a long and arduous journey. For those on the path to producing their first novel, fortunately there is help: here, author Dan Brown shares the techniques that he uses to build suspense, plot, and character development in his celebrated thrillers—and to motivate himself to keep going when writer’s block strikes.

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Dan Brown’s 25 Writing Tips

Dan Brown’s novel writing tips will give any young writers or literary newcomers a push closer to their first draft.

  1. Read critically. Brown says that great writers are also great readers. You might read to learn, to enjoy a good story, or to look for inspiration, but when you start to write a novel, you should begin reading with a critical eye. Study how famous authors are practicing the craft. Find the things that thrill you, and learn from the things that don’t.
  2. Set up good writing habits. Novel writing is about inspiration and craft, but only a devoted practice will make you a good writer. This involves considering the place you’ll be working, and sticking to a consistent time of day and duration of writing time.
  3. Flex your writing skills in a dedicated space if you can. It should be free of distractions like email, internet, or phone. Brown suggests working at this space at the same time every day for seven days in a row and paying attention to any changes you experience as you progress. You may find that habituating yourself with a ritual time and place makes it easier to get into the zone when you start writing each day.
  4. While you’re writing fiction, don’t stop—not even to do quick research. Practice free writing without stopping to edit. Brown makes notes in his text at the places where he needs to go online to do research, and he follows up on it later.
  5. Writing is not just sitting at your desk. It can be talking into a recorder, creating lists of bullet points, even writing snippets of scenes on scraps of paper. It’s also helpful to stay physically active. Move around frequently, and set a timer to remind yourself to get up from your desk. Movement is more likely than a blank page to stimulate fresh ideas. Sometimes engaging in a mundane activity can do the same.
  6. Be firm with yourself (and others) about your routine. When you’re actively writing a fiction book or short story, don’t worry if your word count isn’t what it needs to be. You can be gentle with yourself about the amount you produce, but continue to be tough with yourself about the consistency of your practice.
  7. Write what you want to know. Brown’s first book, Digital Fortress (1998), came from his urge to know more about national security, and so that became his world. It helped him figure out who his characters would be, where the action would take place, and what would go on in that setting. You’re going to be working with these subjects for a long time, so one of the most important things you can do is choose topics that interest you enough to sustain you over the course of a novel.
  8. Find a moral gray area. In researching Digital Fortress, Brown spoke with an NSA cryptologist who informed him that the government reads personal emails but that this act had successfully thwarted terrorist attempts on American soil. Is it all right to violate a citizen’s privacy in an effort to protect other citizens? A morally gray area like this one is perfect for generating conflict between characters. It will add richness to your hero and your villain, and it will engage your reader.
  9. Start with open-ended research. It’s not just for non-fiction. A lot of the fun in fiction writing comes from making connections between seemingly unrelated topics. Brown’s novel, Origin (2017), draws religion, art, and the theory of evolution together. While researching, he found intriguing points of overlap between these topics. The more research material you have, the higher your chances will be of finding those connections, so dig deep and read everything you can.
  10. Research to create images in your mind. These will lay the groundwork for characters and scenes later. The internet has exceptional tools for finding and organizing images to inspire you. Google Street View will take you all over the world, and then can take you beyond the “street view”—now they have galleries for everything: museums, arenas, natural wonders, and world landmarks.
  11. Treat location as you would treat a character. Allow it to convey mood and let it reveal more of itself over time. By selecting locations that excite you, you can transform relatively mundane scenes into more compelling ones. Your enthusiasm will come through in your writing, and your characters will view and interact with your locales in a more engaged way.
  12. When developing characters, try starting with your villain. The villain’s motivations will create the crisis for your hero. While Brown recommends introducing a villain with a bang—sending your reader a clear message that this character is malicious— he also urges you to spend time crafting a thoughtful character. In particular, every villain needs to have his own morality. If a villain spends part of the novel killing people, you need to give him or her believable reasons for doing so.
  13. Find your sole dramatic question. It should be a simple concept that reflects the highest stakes for your protagonist: Will Jason Bourne find his identity? Will Robert Langdon find the virus? (Remember, it doesn’t matter what those stakes are, as long as they’re deeply important to your main character.) What is your story’s sole dramatic question? If you don’t have one, brainstorm a list of questions and spend some time refining them until you find the most important one.
  14. Stick to one point of view in a chapter and choose it carefully. While first person narration can provide intimacy, it is also limited by the perceptive abilities of the character. They are confined to report only what they would realistically know about the story, and they are further confined by their own perspective. This can be useful when creating an unreliable narrator or when creating red herrings. Third person narration is a more flexible choice.
  15. Write your ending first. It may not be perfect, and you can always change it later, but it’s useful to know the climax to which your characters are headed. Having that destination will help you stay focused during the “middle muddle.”
  16. Start your chapters with a sense of their purpose. Brown approaches each chapter he writes with a specific goal, which he summarizes in one sentence. One chapter might be focused on a chase scene. The goal of another might be introducing the hero. Once he’s established that essential point, he follows his creative impulse and asks: How can I make this interesting?
  17. Use flashbacks to open new sources of suspense. It’s common to open a chapter with a cataclysmic event, then move abruptly into the past (“Three Weeks Earlier”) where (usually with a dose of dramatic irony) your protagonist finds himself in an entirely normal situation. This forges a contract with the reader that you’ll explain how the hero went from one situation to its opposite. You can also use flashbacks to fill in a backstory about characters or situations.
  18. Don’t be afraid to toss your outline or significantly revise it as you write. A good rule to remember is that outlines involve plotting what will happen to your characters, but in the end, your characters should determine your plot.
  19. When writing dialogue, ask yourself what your characters want. Brown’s writing advice is to remember that human beings talk because they want something. They want to tell you something, they want to get some information, they want to express something. Dialogue is always driven by your character’s agenda.
  20. Remember the words of George Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Orwell argues that bad thinking is the true cause of bad writing. If you want to clean up your writing style, avoid clichés, use precision and try to eliminate passive voice. Thriller writers tend to use a straightforward style. It’s efficient and allows the reader to sink into a story without tripping over difficult language. Orwell might argue that this is a result of clear thinking. You know where your story is going, and your primary interest is in bringing the reader there.
  21. Know that the craft of writing also involves editing. There are two kinds of editing: editing as you write, and editing once you’ve finished a draft. It’s a good idea to practice the first type on a daily basis by tightening your piece of writing to make it concise and effective. When re-writing the work that you’ve just done, ask yourself if it conveys what you meant it to, if it makes sense, and if it feels good. The second type of editing involves reading an entire manuscript while trying to imagine what a reader will think of it.
  22. Don’t spend too long editing the same problem areas over and over. This is a type of procrastination and is sure to augment your feelings of frustration. Try to find a balance: edit to smooth out your writing but don’t edit so much that you ruin the original magic of your novel.
  23. Show your writing projects to other people. Other fiction writers are often a great choice as readers. They understand what makes a novel work and where it can be improved. Often you can set up a trade, where you provide feedback on their manuscript in return. Writer’s Café is an excellent online resource for connecting with other writers to get your work reviewed and edited. On that site, you can also join a writing group.
  24. Create a system for tracking your edits. Brown uses color-coding. Try marking all the writing you’re satisfied with in green, the writing you’re not sure about in yellow, and the writing you know needs to be improved in red. As you review your manuscript, your goal will be to get everything green. Having color cues and a concrete objective can gamify the experience of editing for you and turn it from a tedious exercise into a challenge.
  25. Accept that self-doubt is part of the process. This is Brown’s closing piece of advice. He says: “Writing a novel is an enormous undertaking, and self-doubt will be part of that process. There will be days you just don’t know if you can do it. And on those days what is gonna save you is your process. Your ritual. So if you’re just starting to write a novel, go create that process, go create that ritual. And if you are in the middle of a novel right now, re-commit to that ritual.”

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