One theory why Dan Brown writes so badly

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 11th, 2014

Dan Brown is infamous in the world of grammarians. One of my favourite resources, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, criticizes the first sentence of “The Da Vinci Code”

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

The author, June Casagrande, questions whether “vaulted” adds anything useful to “archway”, but she has a bigger problem with whether “renowned” has any right to be in this sentence. She’s not alone.

For a better analysis of the first problem than I can offer, as well as a post showing Dan Brown’s propensity to repeat the same error with other novels, see the Language Log links. The first link says that using job titles as modifiers for proper names is appropriate for journalistic reports but not for narrative writing. The second says it is different if the job is a title, such as “Cardinal”. (I won’t comment any further than to say I wondered whether the pairing of “fertilizer salesman” and “Cardinal” was intentional, or whether the use of a “fertilizer salesman” as an example in a post about Dan Brown was also intentional or not.)

 

My point in rehashing old news is to look at what I think the author is thinking when he makes this error.

When I read Dan Brown’s sentence, I see an author falling into the trap of trying to slip in background information all too easily. Inserting the job title and his standing in that position as modifiers (curator, renowned) is the quickest way of dumping that information into the story. Those first four words don’t read badly either. Journalists write like this; death notices, for example, use this style, summarizing a person’s entire life in a few sentences. As Language Log points out though, this is not generally acceptable in fiction writing, and the fact that the character will be dead by the second page doesn’t mean you can compress his description to match the ratio of his lifespan in the story.

Star Trek gave its expendable crew members, at least the ones with personality, an opportunity to do something. Kirk doesn’t say, “Short-tempered Security Officer  Saunière , go check it out.”

Dan Brown is trying to do just that.

His solution is fast, it’s economical, and on it’s own it’s not awkward to read, but it’s inappropriate and stylistically wrong, though, perhaps not as obvious as my theoretical Star Trek example. The rest of the opening paragraphs are heavy with adjectives and I suspect this is more evidence of Brown’s desire to squeeze as much additional .. anything: characteristics, background, metaphors, anything he can tack on without having to write properly. Language Log criticizes him in other posts for using inappropriate alternatives for ‘said’, which I take as further evidence of a lazy writing shorthand.

 

If it’s important, it needs to be worked into the story naturally, not just dumped in or tacked on as a modifier. Even a best-selling author can’t escape the old “show, don’t tell” axiom by being quick and by using only one word, and hope the reader doesn’t notice. Though, if you’re Dan Brown, you have more than one reason for not caring.

 

Writing in Sentence Fragments

by Intermittent Rain ~ June 16th, 2014

Sentences are supposed to contain a subject and an object. Incomplete phrases should be included in the same sentence as the main clause, joined to it by commas or semicolons or the like. Paragraphs should be built from related sentences, and split when you change speaker or focus. Them’s the rules.

 

A deception.

 

Not a complete sentence. Used — not only as a complete sentence — but it also sits as a complete paragraph. It must be important?

Next paragraph:

 

This was the near mythical monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. The home of two dozen cloistered, contemplative monks. Who had built their abbey as far from civilization as they could get.

 

This could easily be one or two grammatically correct, complete, smooth, flowing sentences. Instead, it’s two short, choppy sentences followed by an incomplete phrase masquerading as a sentence. If you take the paragraph by itself, it’s a perfect example of the writing of beginners; untrained, unedited, wrong.

Still, any grammatical rules are subject to modification or complete rejection, if the value of the result outweighs the loss in clarity and the offense to the reader’s sensitivities.

 

A deception.

This was the near mythical monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. The home of two dozen cloistered, contemplative monks. Who had built their abbey as far from civilization as they could get.

It had taken hundreds of years for civilization to find them, but the silent monks had had the last word.

Twenty-four men had stepped beyond the door. It had closed. And not another living soul had been admitted.

Until today.

Chief Inspector Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Captain Charbonneau were about to be let in. Their ticket was a dead man.

So obviously a mystery, though the reader likely would have known this before starting. This is from The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel. I suppose the author, Louise Penny, is intentionally being blunt and choppy because it’s a detective story and because the protagonists are likely tough, no-nonsense guys (I couldn’t get myself to read too far so I’ll never know). But it’s just too hard to read. Chop, chop, chop. Sentences as well as paragraphs cut into chunks and dumped on the reader, as if she’s slicing meat that’s frozen too hard and ravenous dogs are waiting to be fed. Maybe I wasn’t ravenous enough.

 

Writing Review: Divergent, and other YA

by Intermittent Rain ~ May 1st, 2014

More results from my project of working through some top reading lists. Next up: Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

Blog posts in the category

Divergent comes right after Looking for Alaska, and having speed-read The Hunger Games the weekend before seeing the first movie, and Blink & Caution a year or so back, all good YA genre novels. Blink & Caution is probably the most challenging read because it’s written from two alternating perspectives— those of the two main characters — and one of the voices is written in second person, a POV that some readers find difficult to digest, plus the characters live a marginalized (runaway) life, which I suspect is less appetizing if the setting is not a dystopian future like The Hunger Games or Divergent.

Now that I think about it, there were a few others as well. Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles which had interesting characters and kept generating mental images of Futurama, The Perks of Being a Wallflower which I couldn’t get interested enough to finish, The Book Thief which looked to be well written but I couldn’t bring myself to read another Nazi/WWII story, Bloodlines, a decently written vampire story with (to me) more interesting characters than I remember Twilight having, though I read that years ago, Crossed (Matched) which was so-so; not offensive but not interesting either, the world feels similar to Cinder but not as entertaining to read, and City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments, Book 2) which, maybe because it’s a second in a series, I couldn’t get absorbed in it and aborted it after ten pages. The writing/voice is also too simplistic; air-headed in comparison to some of the others and maybe it’s supposed to Y rather than YA.

I think that’s all the YA that I’ve attempted in the past year or so as part of my cross-genre reading list reading. Ten attempted (not counting Twilight; I don’t remember how much I read; I may have stopped and just watched the movie instead), most finished, most decently written, lots of dystopian futures

 

I don’t know that I have a favorite genre to read. I know YA is not one of them; it tends to fall in the looking-to-kill-time reading situations, like when I picked up an Andrew Greeley novel while waiting for my flight to board. Greeley is not YA, but like YA I wanted something inoffensive to kill the hours in the plane. Action is a genre I can enjoy if the author hits it right for me, which I why I’ve read all of Robert Ludlum (hey, for the action, not for the quality of the writing) and a lot of Lee Childs, while Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler do nothing for me. SF is similar; certain authors I seem to always like, others bore me.

Divergent worked for me, in a way similar to reading Ludlum or Heinlein; the characters, setting, and story drew me in and I became so invested that, while still reading, I worried about the ending, hoping that it would be good enough to not leave me disappointed. It achieved a level of enjoyment that no YA has reached. At the opening, the factions as tribes/units/groups seemed typical, but when Tris, the central character, opts, after the choosing (kind of like Harry Potter’s sorting hat scene) to join the wild/protector faction, the internal struggles, the physical challenges, and the self-discovery really pick up. Of course, she learns that she may have special abilities (like any hero/heroine in a dystopian society) and that there are other forces at play within the group and within the society and that she may have a destiny to fulfill. Tris goes from fighting her fellow initiates to fighting for a bigger cause; the escalation/expanded growth testing plot structure. I’m now started on the sequel and it’s possible that this one won’t have the same attraction for me because the central character has become defined, but, we’ll see how it goes. I’d hate to see her role expanded to the point that she becomes a politician/ruler.

Another thought that occurred during the reading; my investment, my desire to get to finish the book before the end of the day, my enjoyment epitomized what genre writing should try to be, should try to accomplish, in my view. Satisfaction, from what has happened, pleasure, from the act of reading, anticipation for the next page. Again, I don’t know how much is due to my connection with the character in those specific discovery/growth situations that can only mostly take place in the first novel. Jason Bourne (not quite the same character and very different storylines between the novels and the movies) was a fun character to read in the first novel of the series and still fun in the second and third. We’ll see how Tris holds up.

 

 

Later edit: The writing didn’t hold up. In the first book I noted an instance of beginner-ish dialogue; two brothers, one inserting “brother” into his sentence, the other referring to “our mother” rather than “Mom”. At the time, it seemed so out-of-place weak that I thought it would turn out to be meaningful; that they weren’t really brothers. Not so, and the second book has many instances of writer-wants-you-to-know dialogue rather than natural dialogue, as well as a plot thread (when Tris has to kill a drug-manipulated friend who will otherwise kill her and afterwords the author milks the killing for guilt/not-telling because she needs it for a later discovery/conflict purpose) that seems an unrealistically long lasting obsession, given all the killing and dying and deception that is constantly going on.

In the third book we start seeing through a male character’s eyes as well as Tris’ and I found him flat and uninteresting from the first person POV. I speed-read most of the third book just to get to the ending. I wonder whether the author had different beta and proof readers for the first novel, or whether the success of the first generated too much need for sequels, or whether the discovery/growth process of the character was so crucial to the first novel that sequels were doomed to fall short.

This makes me interested in re-reading Ludlum from a dialogue/plot perspective. He was an actor and voice-over man before he started writing, which leads me to wonder whether his dialogue might be decent. It’s been a long time since I read anything of his, and there is a big time gap between the last Ludlum I read and the point when I started analyzing fiction from a writing perspective.