Monday, March 01, 2010

Writing Advice from Dan Brown

Note: I'm kicking off our month of "March into Spring and Beyond" as we share favorite writing advice and/or words of inspiration to help us all meet our 2010 writing goals!

By Pat Remick

Because Dan Brown lives in the next town -- yes, I'm referring to the Dan Brown of "The DaVinci Code" fame -- it's not unusual to see him out and about when he's taking a break from writing bestsellers. It was during an unexpected encounter at a local bookstore that my husband seized the opportunity to ask the author about the ending to "Angels Demons," which had been troubling him for some time.

"Could someone actually survive by using a cape as a parachute when they jumped out of a helicopter?" my husband, also a writer, asked after introducing himself.

Brown's response? "Well, first of all, it's a novel.... but yes, it's theoretically possible." 

(This photo was taken outside a private "Angels & Demons" screening he hosted at the Portsmouth (NH) Music Hall. We weren't invited.)

Even though I agree with Husband No. 1 that Robert Langdon's cape escape stretches the limits of believability, I also understand how liberating it can be to make up stories about whatever you want. Writing experts often advise authors to "write what you know." But how interesting are the things Pat Remick and most writers know? Maybe it's better to follow the advice of those who instead say "write what you can imagine." And if someone questions your story, you can always be like Dan Brown and respond, "Well, first of all, it's a novel."

For a former reporter well-schooled in the "get it first, but get it right" school of journalism, writing mostly from imagination does require a giant leap of faith. I admit it's sometimes difficult to ignore my news training when I'm writing fiction, which can result in spending far too much of my writing time researching minutiae for short stories and my novel-in-progress.

Maybe we should all take a lesson from Dan Brown's phenomenal success: If writers can tell a great story, readers are more likely to be forgiving when it comes to the pesky details or nagging doubts about the credibility of a plot.

On the other hand, I often think that if we were to put some of the bizarre/outlandish/improbable things that happen in real life into a novel, editors would most likely reject it on grounds the plot was implausible. The John Edwards affair/downfall is a great example. Who would believe that a man running for president of the United States and whose wife has terminal cancer would be running around with some videographer he supposedly met in a bar? The believability index really plummets when you add in the angle that an Edwards aide and his young family sheltered the candidate's pregnant mistress. "You've got to be kidding" would be the normal response.

But here's how some of the writing experts might explain it: "Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense."

What do you think? Does fiction have to make sense?


Annette said...

I think you're absolutely right about truth being too strange to be accepted as fiction. Seems the times my critique partners have told me "that would never happen" is when I've responded "but it DID!"

And I had a hard time with the cape/parachute scene in Angels and Demons, too. Novel or not.

Gina said...

Darn right fiction has to make sense! It's my escape from nonsensical reality.

Jemi Fraser said...

Yup - it does! Strangely I blogged about kind of the same thing last night. I've put down books because they just were too silly or unbelievable. I can suspend my belief - but don't push it :)

Joyce Tremel said...

I also think fiction should make sense. I've stopped reading books when the author stretched credibility a bit too far.

And that's one of the problems I have with DB's books. Some readers actually believe everything in them is true.

PatRemick said...

Joyce raises an interesting point - I wonder if most authors think about the fact that some readers will believe everything is true -- probably not since the writers know it's FICTION. Does an author ever have any obligation not to put things out there that might be believed as true? I'm feeling very philosophical this morning...

Joyce Tremel said...

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if someone actually tried the cape/parachute thing after reading the book. Would/should the author be held accountable?

#1 son is a historian and gives tours of that famous building in DC with the dome. After DB's latest book came out, he actually had people on his tours try to correct him because of what they read in that book. He tried to explain the book is fiction, but some just didn't get it.

Karen in Ohio said...

I'm astonished at the nitpicking some readers do. Fiction does not necessarily have to make sense, although an escape with a cape? Puh-leeze. That's just silly in the context of the rest of the book. If the book has a fantasy basis in the first place (example: most vampire fiction), then anything goes. But if your story is meant to be taken at face value, vis a vis the real world, then at least be consistent with what is considered possible in that realm.

It's perfectly acceptable for a protagonist to turn into a wolf or to walk through a closed door, but not for him or her to live on an imaginary street? Pfft. Picking nits.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I think the first thing the author has to do is establish a basis for suspending disbelief. Set the rules of engagement up front and stick to them.

If I start out letting the reader believe that this is a work of fiction grounded in reality, then you've set the reader's expectations. Same goes for the work that immediately lets the reader know that there are no rules. And when you break that pact with a reader you lose them.

If there are zombies in my first paragragh, the reader should instantly realize there is little reality to be expected going forward. However, if you've led the reader down reality's path, then it will stick out when you stray off the path.

I'm a believer that if you go into details, get them right. Because details set the stage for accuracy, whether they're grounded in reality or not.


Jenna said...

I agree. If it's fantasy, then anything goes. If it's paranormal, then anything goes as well. If it's set in the real world, in real time, then the laws of the real world apply. Including the law of gravity.

On the other hand, it's annoying how often we rely on coincidence in life, when we can't in novels. My writing would be so much easier if I could just put in a nice coincidence once in a while.

And speaking of coincidences... if you're not busy on Thursday, check out the Fresh Fiction blog for the background on the history mystery in Plaster and Poison. It's absolutely unbelieveable, yet I swear to God it happened exactly that way!

Patg said...

Yes, the cape as a parachute thing was odd, but by the time the ending came into view I could forgive most--and I'm one in having the details right.
His facts about religion were so good, that the story really came second.
I wish I was enjoying the 'facts' in The Lost Symbol as much as I enjoyed them in the first two books.
Absorbing the reader in this day and age of same old, same old story lines is a treat.

Alan Orloff said...

I think fiction has to make sense within the world the author has created. Of course, that world could be on a different planet, or populated with zombies, or full of talking animals.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Real life stories of incredible coincidences abound.

Twins separated at birth accidently finding each other in some diner 1,000 miles from their birth city.

Heck I even ran into a business associate I hadn't seen in 10 years in United's 1st class lounge in the Beijing China Airport.

But try to use that in fiction and watch the criticism fly.

Unknown said...

I think we expect some level of logic from our fiction. We all know coincidences happen often in real life. Try putting one in your book and see how well it goes over. We can make people believe in the impossible -- look at vampires -- but when the truth is too bizarre we don't dare put it in our books because no one will swallow it. They may even get angry for us trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

Gately's said...

Congratulations Jennie! Can't wait to read this, loved the past two!

Gately's said...

Can't wait to read it Jennie!

book said...


Büyüler said...

Yup - it does! Strangely I blogged about kind of the same thing last night. I've put down books because they just were too silly or unbelievable. I can suspend my belief - but don't push it :)