Dan Brown Masterclass on Thrillers

I just finished going through the Dan Brown Masterclass on writing thrillers. Lots of good advice for new writers there, and a few little gems for me. 

I’m not going to write a full review, but I will say that Dan Brown’s background as a teacher really shows through. He’s thorough and methodical, and covers almost all the points that new writers would need to consider if they want to try to write standard thrillers. It’s a good 3+ hour lecture with a professional who knows his craft that covers a lot of ground.

However what I found most fascinating listening to it is that Dan Brown is a Setting>Plot>Character writer. His starting point in stories is setting, which he uses to find interesting plot ideas, and then he populates it with stock characters. Most writers are Character>Plot>Setting, or Plot>Character>Setting, but Dan’s approach is actually somewhat rarer, and (for me at least) that was the gold in this particular mine.

His key advice is to approach setting not as a sociologist, which is very common, especially among sci-fi and fantasy writers, but to approach it as a philosopher. To me, this was profound because what you’re doing then is looking for the fault-lines and cracks in the world you’re writing in and then exploring those. It creates a natural sense of depth in your world because your story is no longer about good and evil, but different perspectives on the same topics. You and the audience may agree with one side or the other, but if you do it right then both sides do have a valid reason for doing what they do.

Of course, he’s talking about modern-set thrillers based in our real world, and for fantasy and sci-fi writers things are a bit trickier. Imaginary worlds still need to be built logically first, but once you’ve gotten your basic setting down, then you can switch to the philosopher hat and start looking for those points of conflict that bring out things you’d like to explore in that world. Stories are about conflict, and the more conflicts you have to write about, the better. (Within limits, of course.)

As someone who still struggles a bit with themes sometimes, I found this a great piece of advice and plan to make heavy use of it in the future. Focusing on certain conflicts will cause natural themes to pop out, and influence the other aspects and shape of your story as well.

Of course, if you’ve ever read a Dan Brown book, you’ll know they’re basically research-based textbooks with plots, which is his thing, and it’s fine. However, going into this you should know that if you expect to be told how to create great characters, then you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. While Dan is a master of settings, he’s someone who approaches those settings as a tourist, so his characters aren’t really outgrowths of his settings so much as tourists and guides who exist to show the setting off to readers.

What I mean is that his characters (to me) never really feel like they’re living, breathing examples of his settings who represent it with every act, word, and fiber of their being, but feel more like characters who exist to represent the most fundamental parts of the setting. They are part of the setting, but only the superficial parts and the parts the story wants to show off, but they don’t feel like natural outgrowths of their setting.

To give a simple example, it’s a bit like a picture of a horse drawn by someone who looked at many photographs of horses, and a picture drawn by an equal artist who grew up around horses their whole life. The photo-based artist can render a beautiful picture of a horse, but the one who grew up around them will be able to capture the subtle depth and character of horses in a way the photo-based artist never could.

Dan is good at technically rendering the ideas and character of settings, but he’s not so good at rendering them in depth or a way that makes you feel the people you meet are real people who were born from that environment.

Anyhow, if I were recommending something for a new writer to explore about writing thrillers, then I think I would definitely tell them to check out this masterclass.

Korean Drama- Three Days (Spoiler Free Review)

I just finished watching the Korean action-thriller drama Three Days, which I have to say I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s a Korean series in the vein of the American drama 24, about the Personal Security Service (PSS) of the Korean President, and how they’re caught in a struggle between the President of Korea and a shadowy cabal of powerful men who are trying to kill him. The PSS are charged with protecting the President, but is the man they’re giving their lives for really worth that protection?

If I have to describe the series, I’d describe it like driving down a twisty mountain road at night at high speed with only a flashlight to guide your way. It’s incredibly twisty, with danger flying at the main characters at every turn, the odds stacked against them, and everything that can go wrong pretty much does. A true thriller, and while it does have its weaker points, it pretty much manages to keep you guessing right up until near the end.

It’s by the same team that did the drama SIGN and the more recently drama Ghost, so if you’ve seen either of those, you know what to expect. I’d actually say Ghost was the better series, as it had a much better villain, but Three Days does deliver the action and the production values are more like a 16 hour long movie!

One minor quibble is that the title is Three Days, but actually the story takes place over nine days. It’s broken down into three arcs, with each of the arcs being three days long, but the title of the show is a real misnomer. I guess “Nine Days” didn’t sound as cool or dramatic.


Ghost Ends

I just finished watching the final episode of the Korean Drama called Ghost that I previously reviewed on the blog. The ending was a week late because of the Olympics, but was totally worth the wait. It was a great roller-coaster of a series, and now that it’s finished I have to say it’s one of the best Korean dramas I’ve watched to date.

One thing that impressed me about the ending was that despite all the twists, turns and tricks the producers have used over the twenty episodes to keep the show unpredictable, they actually didn’t go for any gimmicks in the end. No twist ending, no double-fakes, just a solid little end with a proper epilogue that wasn’t crammed into the last five minutes of the show (or the end credits background!) like many shows do.

Bravo to the producers and writers of this fine show! Thanks for a great ride!


Korean Drama: Ghost (aka Phantom)

I’m now an addict, I admit it.

I’m addicted to sharp, well written, high quality television. It’s true.

In this case, it’s the currently running Korean drama called Ghost (also know as Phantom, which can be another translation of its name in Korean) which is an utterly unique and compelling TV series. I heard about it from my wife, who has friends in Korea, and decided to give it a watch.

What I found was a show which was at the same time both familiar and completely new.

Without giving too much away, the basic premise is basically about a man who comes out of a horrible accident with another man’s face, and now has to solve the mystery of who killed “him” without his true identity being discovered. The result is what could be called a mystery-espionage-thriller, and is really hard to pin down.

The tension and suspense in the show is nail-biting, and the twists and turns can only be compared to something like 24,  Death Note or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Yet at the same time, it’s like none of those.)  It’s one of the highest rated things on TV right now in South Korea, and totally deserves it. As a side note, it’s also a fairly realistic (though not totally) examination of how real computer hacking and cyber-espionage is done.

One of the things I also love about the show is how it takes your expectations and then twists them around. Much like Game of Thrones, the writers seem to look at each scene and say “what would happen here if this was a typical story” and then they completely do something else.

Is it perfect? No. It still has what I would called Korean Drama-isms, where characters think and do things that real people wouldn’t, but which happen in dramas all the time. There is also a lack of chemistry between the male and female leads, but since that’s not the focus of the show it doesn’t matter much. The real story is among the male leads anyways.

Right now they’re up to episode 11, with 9 more to go. One of the nice things about Korean dramas is that they’re complete stories. Each is only a season long, and in that season they tell a complete story from start to finish, with no plans or setup for more. I like that, and think they should experiment with that format over here as well.

So if you’re looking for something to watch during the hot lazy days of summer, give Ghost a shot. Each episode is better than the last, and I promise it will be anything but dull!