Building a Story From the Ground Up

Dan Brown

Lesson time 21:33 min

From the initial idea to the final chapter, Dan walks you through his entire process for building a story, and provides a step-by-step guide to transforming your vision into a captivating thriller.

Dan Brown
Teaches Writing Thrillers
In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.
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One of the things that I thought might be very helpful in this class is to walk you through the process of creating a thriller from the ground up, creating the world, asking the questions, figuring out who the characters are, and just doing that together right here. I can't tell you what your idea should be, but I'm hoping to give you an idea of the process of turning an idea into a thriller. So the first thing we're going to do is to figure out what is the world in which we want to set this thriller? How about if we choose the world of winemaking, for example? I know nothing about the world of winemaking. I love wine. But I do know that the world is filled with a lot of ego, a lot of money, eccentric characters. There's a lot of possibilities in that world. So let's right now just choose winemaking. That's the world in which we're going to set this thriller. So now that we have a world, let's figure out what this question is. What's the moral gray area that we're going to be writing in? In the world of winemaking, it may be using pesticides that could hurt people. Maybe it's that you're promoting a product that's addictive. Another idea might be your moral obligation of how to use your land. Can you use your land however you want? What if that's hurting other people? If there is a river flowing through your property, can you use all of that water to water your vineyard, leaving nothing for the vineyard next door? Or is there a moral obligation, maybe even a legal obligation, to let some of that river flow on to your neighbor's? Doesn't sound like a thriller yet. Sounds kind of boring. But you've got an interesting world. You've got kind of a subtle gray area. Now let's try to turn it into a thriller. So we've got our world, and we've got this moral gray area. Let's come up with a hero. You're in the world of winemaking. An obvious hero would be a vintner, a winemaker. Let's create a hero who is a superb winemaker, maybe world renowned, one of the best winemakers. He has a little boutique vineyard. He's got vines that have come over from Europe three generations ago. His family has been making wine for a long time. And last year, tragically, his wife was driving the airport to pick up his parents, and on the way home they had a car accident. His parents are gone. His wife is gone. He's a widower. He has two kids that he needs to feed. So there's our hero. He's not really heroic until there's a lot of pressure applied to him. We need somebody to apply pressure. We need a villain. We need some extraordinary set of circumstances to apply pressure to this ordinary person. In comes the villain. In this case, why don't we make it some huge corporate agro business that has bought all the land just upstream from him. And maybe they've decided to take all the water in that stream and use it for their business. And all of a sudden you have a hero with two kids to feed who's running a vineyard. And he walks out, and one day ...

Craft page-turning suspense

Packed with secret symbols and high-stakes suspense, Dan Brown’s thrillers have sold more than 250 million copies and include one of the world’s best-selling novels, The Da Vinci Code. In his writing class, Dan unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives. Learn his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Wow! I learned a lot about keeping the story moving, planting red herrings, keeping the reader's attention and the writing process.

Brown is very forthcoming with details on his process. Great info on point of view and maintaining tension.

I am also writing a book; there is so much useful stuff in here I can't even start to list it.

Great stuff, loved the pace and the length of the lessons.


Angello M.

The best class until now. The way he structure a novel seems the right way. I like the prologues also, and then on the first chapter I do what he says, but that advice about the finale seems great, I would take it as one of the best advices.

A fellow student

Really a lot covered in this lesson. I enjoyed learning about writing the ending first. Seemed impossible, but he's right--you do know the ending already. Maybe it will change a little, but it is there. I like that I can change it a bit later if I need to.

Greg R.

Fantastic lesson. Every lesson I watch keeps the inspiration flowing my new novel. Although the devices get recycled (chase, murder, revelation, conflict), character and setting don't and it's great how you can use that as the foundation of a gripping story.

Luke J.

What Dan did here is really, really great! You can see that maybe the teaching know-how from his parents rubbed off on him :). It’s one thing to give strong lessons and isolated examples. But then to go back and try an example that applies everything we’ve learned so far, that ties things together and suddenly there’s an awareness of the bigger mesh of things!


The punishment fitting the crime is very powerful. I found Being John Malkovich so unsatisfying BECAUSE each character was punished in INVERSE proportion to what they had done during the film. I have a question about gender: as humans we shy away from punishing women for crimes. Is it actually possible to get away with proportionately punishing a female character in fiction?

Michael S.

Excellent walk through the process. This lesson, with its examples, really makes concrete all the advice that's circulating out there.

Mary W.

That is one of the best classes I have taken in the masterclass. Loved reading Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. I really hope I could write a book using some of these things. Fined words and great lessons!


Love this one. No. Wait. I loved the other one. But then there's that one before the other one I really liked, and then there's the one before that . . . Ok, fine. Time to tell the truth. They're all pretty amazing!!! Going to go finish writing my book now. :-) It's a love story with conflict. Great Scott! what love story doesn't have conflict? Oh. That's right. It's not the what, it's the how.

Alicja B.

I have chosen my world and established a grey area, now the process for building the story shall begin. Thank you for this excellent step-by-step guide. It does wonders!

Floren D.

One of the best lessons on writing a Novel that I've ever studied! Dan Brown is a true Novelist, a Master Craftsman.