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How to Keep The Reader Hooked: The Dan Brown Secret

Dan Brown Books

by Jennifer on September 5, 2012

This is a guest post by Dr. John Yeoman

‘My life began when I murdered my grandfather and was arrested for improper behavior with a tortoise.’

How can we fail to read on? When we write a story, it’s not difficult to hook the reader in the first line. Any intriguing puzzle, high moment of drama or magical touch of wordplay will get them started. The challenge is to keep the reader enthralled in our story beyond the first page.

Try this simple strategy to engage your reader from start to finish. It’s also a tested way to gain a cash prize in a top writing award.

Many a story starts with a thunderclap and ends with an earthquake but it has a long dry desert in the middle. Elizabethan dramatists didn’t bother too much about this. Ben Jonson once remarked that his audience would slip out for an ale after the first Act and only return in the last Act to enjoy the traditional bawdy jig. So there was no need to work hard on the middle, he said.

You can’t afford such complacency in a modern story. Readers will put your story down and never come back. They’ll not buy from you again.

1. Inject Uncertainty

Every episode of your story, and certainly every chapter, must end with a gentle scene hanger. It doesn’t have to be lurid. But it must tempt the reader to turn the page. It’s also a sure-fire way to impress the judges of a story writing contest.

The simplest scene hanger is to maintain a tone of uncertainty at all times. (The term ‘suspense’ literally means ‘to hang, suspended’.) Nothing is ever quite completed. At the end of every scene, the circumstances beg for explanation. The future seems always ominous or, at least, unpredictable.

If the main plot-line appears to be emphatically finished, the reader will simply put down the book.

2. Use Foreghostings

A simple way to achieve this tenor of uncertainty is to drop in ‘foreghostings.’ These are more subtle than ‘foreshadowings.’ They’re hints of future events that the astute reader will spot but the principal characters might not.

Dan Brown has mastered this trick of suspense. His success suggests that maintaining suspense is what readers principally demand of commercial fiction.  The Dan Brown secret is very simple: he incessantly shifts the scene to another scene just before the first scene reaches a climax. And in the prior scene he foreghosts each scene to come.

Scene, in this sense, means a single unit of action. To ‘change a scene’ usually means changing the characters and/or location. In Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, there are no fewer than 133 chapters. Each is a major scene. Within those scenes there are often several minor scenes, short episodes that switch back and forwards between characters or locations.

For example, the novel starts with Prof Langdon having been called to give an important lecture at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s racing to get there by 7pm when the lecture begins. The lift is slow. Will he make it?

The question acts as a foreghosting. We know that something odd is about to happen.

He gets to the door at 7pm exactly, straightens his tie breathlessly and walks in with a smile. And he stops. The scene closes with his thoughts: ‘Something is very, very wrong’.

What could be wrong? The reader has to wait for an answer.

The novel then cut to another scene, a teasingly long description of the Smithsonian’s architecture. Meanwhile, the reader is lusting to know: what was so wrong about the lecture room?

3. Cut A Scene Before the Climax

Just when the reader’s patience is at a breaking point, Dan Brown’s story cuts back to Prof Langdon. He’s still looking at the room. It’s empty. His invitation to the conference has been a hoax. But who is the hoaxer? And why has he done this?

Brown’s gambit is to cut a scene just before a moment of high tension, switch to a long episode of dry description or seemingly irrelevant dialogue to tease the reader, and then return to the moment of high drama. It’s like a tango: one step forward, three steps back.

The reader soon learns to expect this formula. Brown’s skill is in persuading the canny reader that, nonetheless, the revelation will be worth the wait. His revelations are usually unpredictable and even more interesting than the reader expected.

Of course, there are many ways to sustain suspense in a story but the Dan Brown tango is a proven formula. It’s a win-win guarantee of story pleasure.

Apply it to a story that’s even better written than The Lost Symbol and you’ll have a winner.

What techniques do you use in your story to keep the tension high?

About the Author: Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course.

Image courtesy of Enrico Matteucci

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 synger September 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I agree completely. I kept thinking throughout “The DaVinci Code” that the story was thin, it was a “candy” book (overly easy to read), and I didn’t have much connection with the characters. But I couldn’t STOP reading! It was the most page-turning book I’ve read in ages. I didn’t actually like the story… but I couldn’t put it down. After I realized this, I went back to try to figure out why. Your analysis is right on the money. He is indeed the master of the subtle cliff-hanger.

2 John Yeoman September 6, 2012 at 10:15 am

Thanks, Synger. Another master of the cliff-hanger is Kathy Reichs. Every passage ends with some variant of: ‘I looked up. It was the last face I wanted to see.’ Problem is, she throws in so many craft techniques, her novels sometimes read more like an MA program in creative writing than a consumable ‘read’. But even when we’ve lost the plot, we keep turning the page.

3 Matthew Day September 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I think there’s some good ideas here, but I also think one should exercise caution in using them. Personally, I find stories that end every single chapter in a cliffhanger a bit tiring. And the tension loses its effect. I think it’s good to give the reader room to breath from time to time. Too much or too little tension can both hurt a story.

4 Sheri Larsen September 7, 2012 at 7:52 am

Cutting a scene before the climax…I’m going to be pondering all the possibilities of this for the rest of the day. Thanks for the advice!

5 Jennifer September 7, 2012 at 8:23 am

I agree with you totally. I think this method works for Brown because it’s his personal writing style. It also works because of the types of books he writes. It definitely would be a challenge for another writer to take on but it may work for some!

6 Jennifer September 7, 2012 at 8:23 am

They do it a lot in movies, I’ve noticed. Definitely something worth giving a try!

7 Jennifer September 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

When I started writing back in 7th grade I always left cliffhangers at the end of my chapters. All my favorite books do that and it’s definitely something I try to replicate. I don’t know if I could do the cliffhanger scene, thou I may have to try it.

8 Jennifer September 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

Haha I like that! “Even if we lost the plot we cant stop reading”

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