One theory why Dan Brown writes so badly

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 11th, 2014. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


* Modified July 19th, 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.

 

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