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.

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