By the end of this, I’m going to tell you something about myself that no one else on Earth knows…
See that, that’s an example of hooking the reader and generating suspense. This is also how Dan Brown started his Masterclass on writing, which hooked my attention immediately.
Even though I’m a Sci-Fi writer, and not a Thriller writer per se, I think there are lessons about Thriller writing that all authors can benefit from. Thrillers tend to have faster pacing and more tension than other genres, but honestly, I think all stories need tension and good pacing. It’s just a question of degree. All I know, is that when I pick up a Dan Brown novel I can’t put it down. Sometimes I’ll have issues with the characters or plot, but the man is a master of tension and pacing, there is no doubt about that.
So here is a short summary of some of the key things I learned. I’m not going to say everything, because you should pay for the Masterclass to get everything. And there’s a lot of great stuff in the class. But these are just a few of my favorite topics.
THE THREE C’S OF THRILLER:
When writing a Thriller, or really…any novel…keep these three C’s in mind.
The Contract, The Clock, The Crucible.
The Contract is the implied promise you make to the reader about what they’ll discover by the end of the book. For example, in Moby Dick, the promise is that the reader will find out whether or not Ahab catches the whale. It would be very disappointing if Melville left that question unanswered.
The Clock refers to the fact that adding time pressure to the character’s struggle will create higher stakes and more tension. A lot of thrillers do this by having a bomb, so there is a literal ticking clock the protagonist is working against.
The Crucible refers to your character’s struggle, a box you put them in so they have a difficult time getting where they need to be. Whenever I beta-read a story that ends up being really boring, it’s because the character doesn’t have enough (or any) struggles. Happy people doing happy things isn’t interesting. Don’t just put your character in a tree and then let them climb down to safety without struggle. What are the obstacles that make climbing down difficult for your character? Is there a beehive? Are they getting splinters? Is it a long way down if they fall? Is there something scary, and ominous waiting for them at the bottom?
GENERATING A SENSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE
Dan Brown spoke a lot in his class about raising questions that you don’t immediately answer. Of course, there has to be a balance. Not all of us can pull a George R.R. Martin and say that “winter is coming” for like six seasons of a show before finally paying off that promise. (Does it ever get paid off in the books?)
A big mistake I see new writers doing is that they try to immediately answer every single question that pops up, or tell you everything about a main character as soon as they arrive on the page. First chapters like this read as infodumps and don’t pull me into the story. The process of pulling someone into a story is raising a question, with the tacit promise that the question will be answered in an interesting and exciting way as the reader progresses through the story.
As Dan Brown says: “Suspense is all about making promises. It’s about telling a reader, ‘I know something you don’t know. And I promise, if you turn the page, I’m going to tell you.’”
THE PURPOSE OF POINT OF VIEW (POV) – PULLING YOUR READER INTO THE STORY
One thing Dan Brown said that I really like is: (I’m paraphrasing right now) well written POV makes your reader feel like they’re a character inside your story, and the reader forgets that they’re reading.
Another mistake I see from new writers is that they write in POVs that bounce all over the place. This can give the reader whiplash.
If your story needs lots of POV characters, try to have one POV per chapter, or per scene.
Personally, I like it better when there’s only one POV the whole book, but that’s just me.
If you give your POV character a strong voice and personality, this can really help to draw in the reader and provide a more colorful depiction of the world you’ve created.
Also, when choosing a POV character consider the following: Who has the most learn? Who has the most to lose? Alice in Wonderland is interesting because Alice is a stranger in a strange land. But if Alice in Wonderland was written from the perspective of the Rabbit, or the Queen of Hearts, it would be a completely different story.
HOW MANY CHARACTERS SHOULD YOUR STORY HAVE? AS FEW AS POSSIBLE
Once again, not all of us can be George R.R. Martin with a cast of like a hundred something characters with impossible to remember names. It seems that High Fantasy can get away with this a little more than other genres, but most readers don’t want to think too hard, and they definitely don’t want to read a story that feels like a homework assignment.
And if one character already accomplishes a certain thing, why have two that do the exact same thing?
For example, if one character is a quirky wizard who makes sarcastic wisecracks, having two characters exactly like this would just seem redundant and unnecessary.
Or maybe you can economize. Have one character who accomplishes multiple things to downsize the need for further characters.
Too many characters is actually in the “17 Reasons Why Book Manuscripts Are Rejected.”
THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING – PROTECT THE PROCESS!!!
“Writing a novel is not all about inspiration and craft. It is about process…about making sure that you set aside time every day to do your work.” – Dan Brown
Protect the process and the rest will follow.
What does Dan Brown mean by protect the process? Every successful writer has their own process. And not every writer’s process will be the same. Dan Brown’s process is that he sits down from 4am-11am everyday to write, with no connection to the internet, no distractions, and he forces himself to get up every hour to do a few brief exercises, so that he keeps himself energized.
Your process doesn’t have to be like this, but this is a process that works for him. Your job is to find what process works for you. Do you like writing in the early morning when no one else is awake to distract you? Do you like to write late at night for the same reasons? Do you jot ideas down on toilet paper and shove them into your pocket?
There’s no writer’s block. There’s simply failure to put your butt in the chair and write.
Writing is like going to the gym. We don’t always feel like doing it. But if you’re someone who is serious about getting published, you can’t just write only when you feel like it, or treat it like a hobby. You have to treat it like a job.
Also, be fiercely protective of your process. Sometimes the people you love the most will be the ones to (inadvertently) undermine your process (because they love you!). I suppose this is why a lot of writers like to write in the early hours of the morning, or late hours of the night, or go to a location where there won’t be any friends and family members around to distract them.
Of course there has to be a balance. You can’t ignore your responsibilities to your family, spouse, and friends. But if you’re serious about being a published author, you should probably try to set aside some amount of time each day (or five days a week) that are your writing time.
Dan Brown suggests committing to an amount of time rather than a word count. Some days you might feel drained, and struggle to put a mere 100 words on the page. Other days you might feel super inspired, and whip about 6,000 words together in no time flat. It’s going to vary day by day, based on your energy and creativity levels. So, it’s more important to commit to X hours, rather than X words.
Also keep in mind that it’s okay to make mistakes. You might write a scene that sucks. You might end up writing a book no one wants to read. That’s okay. You learn from your mistakes. You be kind to yourself. Reflect. Move on.
Yet the time to be tough on yourself is when it’s time to protect the process, when you wake up at the appointed time and think, I’d rather sleep in. Or when you’re struggling to write, and are tempted to binge watch the entirety of The Punisher in a single weekend. (No…I didn’t do that…Of course not.)
Mistakes will happen. And there’s no guarantee your writing will even be good. But if you commit to a habitual process, you’ll at least become a better writer than you were yesterday, and have something to show for your efforts.
If you like what you’ve read, consider getting a Masterclass subscription so you can see the rest of what Dan Brown has to say. Because he discusses much, much more, than what is merely summarized here.