First and foremost, a couple words on this column I decided to call Not Like This.
The inspiration for the title comes from Switch‘s line in The Matrix, right before she gets unplugged (and therefore killed) by Cypher. To those who may not have a clear memory of Switch, shame on you. She’s the blond badass girl which we all would have liked to see more of. Instead, we got some supposed-to-be-hot tribal disco dance in Zion and Neo squeezing Trinity’s heart. Life can be tough.
Switch repeats «Not like this» twice, before collapsing. Her face shows physical pain, despise for the betrayal, and bitterness over how unfair it is to be hurt like that without being able to kick back. Much the same way I feel when I read some books.
The purpose of this column is not to spread hate, but to educate. My aim is not to make fun of authors – but yes, I make ironic remarks over very naive mistakes. After all, it’s the only way I know to react to the stabbing pain of such stuff being published.
The purpose of this column is to unveil the bullshit, dig deep in it, and understand how not to write like this. Not like this, no.
Let it be known I slow clap at Dan Brown every time I realise how much money he made with his Robert Langdon business. He deserves my respect for having had so many people reading and enjoying his novels, and the corresponding movies. He clearly likes his job and his characters, and he succeeded at making a living out of it. He somehow convinced a publisher to give a shot at his work, and ended up being translated in forty languages.
If I would have been the person in charge, though, I would have made the same mistake of those who rejected the first Harry Potter and lost millions – except, I would still stand by my choice. To put it bluntly: Twilight is a bad book, but if I’d have to decide between editing and publishing The Da Vinci Code or Twilight, I’d go for the sparkling vampires a million times. The Cullens are still more believable than Boston Magazine‘s article about Robert Langdon.
In this piece I will edit the prologue of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, step by step; exactly as I would have done if the manuscript had landed on my desk. I will point out which parts I don’t like, and why; the most part of it will be line-editing, judging Brown’s work word by word. If you’d like to follow my editing on the page, you can read the part I analyse in this free extract from the author’s website.
As said, The Da Vinci Code begins with a prologue, and that already makes me cringe. You will be reading in a future article a complete reasoning on why I believe that, generally speaking, having a prologue or an epilogue is a bad sign. To make a long story short, in this case I don’t see why this chapter has to be called Prologue and couldn’t just be Chapter 1. It depicts an action scene, a murder, and for what I’ve read so far proved to be the most thrilling scene of the book. Certainly not stuff for a Prologue.
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
Heavy use of adjectives is bad writing, because it’s often a shortcut to avoid description, a way for telling instead of showing. This holds true especially for those adjectives that refer to something abstract or depending on everyone’s own judgement: “beautiful”, “tall”, “renowned”. Instead of just mentioning Saunière’s fame, Brown should have shown us that he is well known amongst people of culture. “Renowned” is useless at least – being the Louvre’s curator already entails prestige – and problematic at most; the adjective opens the sentence, and the name of the character comes only third. There goes action rhythm.
Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
Just like “renowned”, above, “the seventy-six-year-old man” doesn’t show anything; numbers and measures are abstract information that the reader can hardly grasp. There is no point in specifying that the curator is seventy-six years old, because the scene would unfold in the same way if he would be one year older or younger. There actually is no point in telling us his age, altogether; all we need to know is that the painting is too heavy for him, as the rest of the sentence shows.
Moreover, the periphrasis makes the syntax slightly odd, and it seems that there’s more than one person involved: “the seventy-six-year-old man” and Saunière.
As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite.
By writing “as he had anticipated”, Brown wants us to know that Saunière moved the painting on purpose – but it’s already clear that the action was intentional: some lines before, Saunière “lunged for” the Caravaggio. We can also assume that, as a curator, Saunière knows what happens if someone touches the painting. As before, the specification is not needed, and ruins the rhythm of the action scene.
He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
I find questionable the choice of “cavernous” to describe the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, even at night. It could seem to be a minor problem, but it’s worth mentioning: Brown cherishes adjectives and uses them as much as possible. The binary structure adjective-noun is in fact a distinctive feature of his writing and, by being so recognisable, harms the immersion of the reader – especially when the adjective is unusual, exotic or misplaced.
Same goes for adverbs, which are either useless or a symptom of laziness. In the quote above, “chillingly” is judgemental; the author tells the readers that they should feel afraid, without trusting them with inferring that a voice being close, when one is chased and looking “for someplace to hide” is, indeed, chilling. Also, given that “the curator froze”, it’s pointless to use “slowly” in the same sentence.
Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
For “mountainous”, see what just said above about use of odd adjectives. There’s no need to point out that the bars are “iron” ones, as “iron gate” is written five lines before.
The description of the albino’s eyes is troublesome; irises of people affected by albinism are not red, and appear so only when light is reflected into them, for instance in photographs. Brown gives no indication about the lighting in this scene – but later on explains in details the “infrared service-lighting” that the Louvre uses at night. I think it’d be difficult for albino eyes to appear red in such circumstances, but I may be wrong. It certainly is startling, though, that Saunière is able to distinguish nuances of color between iris and pupil at a distance of four meters and a half.
“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”
“You are lying.” The man stared at him, perfectly immobile except for the glint in his ghostly eyes.
Once again: “kneeling” in this situation implies being “defenseless”, so the adjective is useless. “Perfectly” is also not needed, as there is no way to be imperfectly (or almost) “immobile”; either one moves, or one doesn’t. “Ghostly” is judgemental and non descriptive.
Saunière held up his hands in defense. “Wait,” he said slowly. “I will tell you what you need to know.” The curator spoke his next words carefully. The lie he told was one he had rehearsed many times… each time praying he would never have to use it.
When the curator had finished speaking, his assailant smiled smugly. “Yes. This is exactly what the others told me.”
The main problem of this quote is that Brown uses a cheap trick to cheat his readers. The point of view of the prologue is third person limited: we know what Saunière is thinking, whilst the albino has no name. Saunière obviously knows what he is saying to the albino, but the reader is suddenly deafened and can’t hear “the lie […] he had rehearsed many times”.
I understand that Brown felt trapped in a conundrum: only two people are involved in the action scene, so there is no point of view available that would make it possible to avoid revealing the information when narrating in third person limited. On one hand, describing Saunière’s thoughts is necessary to make the reader care about him. On the other hand, already revealing these information could make what follows way less intriguing.
Brown’s cheap trick, though, is a terrible solution: not only it harms immersion, but it betrays the reader. Take Kill Bill, for example; the name of The Bride is censored in the same way – we hear everything, except that information. The difference is that the name of The Bride is not a key information to the plot, and censoring it is just a quirk.* Also, we can take this shit from Tarantino, because surrealism is part of his style and we accept it when we suspend our disbelief. However, nothing short of realism is expected in a novel which starts as such: «All descriptions […] in this novel are accurate.»
It would have been easier, and more respectful to the readers, to eliminate the prologue as a whole. As we will see, Brown’s going to use the same trick at least once more before we even get to Chapter 1, and Saunière dies, so he won’t be a recurring point of view. The relevance of this Prologue to the reader approximates zero.
I almost forgot: “slowly” is useless, as a natural break is perceived when reading “he said” in between the dialogue line. “Carefully” and “smugly” are telling, not showing.
Saunière recoiled. The others?
“I found them, too,” the huge man taunted. “All three of them. They confirmed what you have just said.”
It cannot be! The curator’s true identity, along with the identities of his three sénéchaux, was almost as sacred as the ancient secret they protected.
Saunière now realized his sénéchaux, following strict procedure, had told the same lie before their own deaths. It was part of the protocol.
Not only we are not filled in on what this “ancient secret” may be, but now Saunière also plays dumb. He of course knows who “the others” are, as he himself answers his own question just three lines below: “his three sénéchaux”. He must also be aware of the “protocol”, so it doesn’t make sense that he “realiz[es]” what happened just in a second moment, and it doesn’t make sense that he repeats to himself stuff he already knows. It’s infodump, and not even disguised as a dialogue.
The truth. In an instant, the curator grasped the true horror of the situation. If I die, the truth will be lost forever. Instinctively, he tried to scramble for cover.
Writing “in an instant” makes the reader take a break when reading the sentence, therefore not conveying abruptness. “Instinctively” can be inferred by the context and tells instead of showing. Yes, this adverbs business is getting boring.
“He tried to scramble” is nonsensical; “scrambling” narrates per se Saunière’s attempt at moving, he is already “trying to”. In general, one should not put “try” before any action. As my boyfriend exemplified, no one tries to flee – one flees first, and then gets caught. It’s useful to remember that famous quote from Master Yoda: «Do or do not. There is no try.»
The silencer spat, and the curator felt a searing heat as the bullet lodged in his stomach. He fell forward… struggling against the pain. Slowly, Saunière rolled over and stared back through the bars at his attacker.
By now you know the deal: “slowly” is unnecessary and can be inferred by the context.
I’m not a mothertongue English speaker, so it’s difficult for me to determine precisely how loud a sound fits the definition of “spitting“. I have a strong sensation, though, that a silenced gun shooting would not pass the test; you can reference this and this other video on YouTube. So, where is the Louvre’s security? Apparently, they were not able to detect an intruder, nor did they hear a gun shooting.
The click of an empty chamber echoed through the corridor.
The curator’s eyes flew open.
The man glanced down at his weapon, looking almost amused. He reached for a second clip, but then seemed to reconsider, smirking calmly at Saunière’s gut.
“Almost amused” is nonsensical, and once again a shortcut to tell without showing. Is the albino amused, or isn’t he? Dan Brown himself doesn’t know, and asks his readers to decide in his place. I think the albino is in fact amused at how amateurish it is to lose one’s bullet count. It would also be interesting to know how did the albino finish his bullets, considering only one body will be found and the security is nowhere to be seen.
“Seemed to reconsider” is telling, not showing. Saunière presumably infers that the albino is reconsidering because he puts away the second clip, which he just “reached for”. Therefore, there is no point in using “seem”: it’s a tense situation, and Saunière either reads the albino’s gesture as “reconsidering”, either doesn’t. “Seemed to reconsider” is the way a surviving Saunière would later describe what happened, being then conscious of his own line of thoughts at the time and not anymore just immersed in the action. Furthermore, just as Saunière inferred that the albino is not going to shoot him, so could do the reader. It’s sufficient (and better writing) to just describe the albino’s action, without giving an intepretation of it.
And, once again: no need for “calmly”, as it doesn’t give any visual information to the reader – and it’s not possible to smirk in an agitated way.
The curator looked down and saw the bullet hole in his white linen shirt. It was framed by a small circle of blood a few inches below his breastbone. My stomach. Almost cruelly, the bullet had missed his heart. As a veteran of La Guerre d’Algérie, the curator had witnessed this horribly drawn out death before. For fifteen minutes, he would survive as his stomach acids seeped into his chest cavity, slowly poisoning him from within.
Avoid writing “almost“. As we’ve just seen, it leaves the reader to decide what the author was too sloppy to determine on his own. By suspending their disbelief, the readers trust the author with making them see what is happening in the novel – and no visual information is provided by “almost”.
“Cruelly” is useless and nonsensical; any attempt to kill is per se cruel, and it’s absurd to attribute any intention to the bullet. The adverb instructs us to pity the curator before we get to know why his death is going to be a particularly rough one; the narrator shines through, weakening the readers’ immersion. Same goes for “horribly”, which may be slightly more tolerable (but still bad writing) as it is more clearly Saunière’s thought and not the narrator’s. “Slowly” is useless, as we already established the curator’s one will be a “drawn out death”.
I would flag the whole paragraph about Saunière’s wound as problematic, as it needs some revision by an expert in the field. I am not a doctor, so I can’t determine if there’s any actual mistakes – but the precision with which the character’s death is timed out is highly suspicious in my eyes.
Saunière was shot from a relatively close distance (intermediate range bordering distant*): the albino is at four meters and a half from him, and from that number we can still take away roughly fifty centimeters, because of his half-stretched arms. From what I can gather on the Internet,* such a shot in the described position (“a few inches below his breastbone”) would likely get through the stomach and hit the thoracic aorta; the curator would then die in a matter of seconds.
If the bullet doesn’t hit any major blood vessel, death is indeed “drawn out”, but for longer than fifteen minutes: «the majority of deaths from penetrating trauma occur between 1 and 6 hours from admission»* to a hospital. A few chapters ahead, Dan Brown tells us that the “Louvre security responded immediately to the alarm” (which we know is not true, otherwise they would have caught the albino); then, presuming Saunière was the assailant, they waited for the Judicial Police – which arrived “within fifteen minutes”. Hence, they should have found the curator still alive, and treated him accordingly.
Even if Saunière would have actually died in the timing described by Dan Brown, he would have probably spent his last fifteen minutes doubling over in pain, and not putting up the big show described later on in the book. But as I said, I am not a doctor, and the paragraph would need to be proofread by an expert; these are just my two cents.
What bothers me the most is that if there actually is a lack of scientific accuracy, the reason is that Dan Brown isn’t willing to put time and energy into crafting truly captivating writing; once again, he prefers a cheap shortcut.
From a narrative perspective, at this point Brown is in need of two things to make his story work: first, something has to happen to Saunière that is heavy enough for his granddaughter to consider getting back into contact with him, since the two are estranged. Secondly, Saunière has to be incapacitated enough to not be able to explain the situation to Robert Langdon – or there would be no mystery to solve.
If the curator would be to spend a week in the ICU and a month in hospital, both requirements would be satisfied; it’s also a prognosis compatible with the kind of injury sustained by Saunière.* Someone being murdered in cold blood and the protagonist having to examine a crime scene that involves a corpse, though, make for a much more exciting beginning – so Brown opted for killing Saunière. It’s a decision I could agree with, if Brown would have been coherent by changing the action scene accordingly; except, of course, he didn’t.
Supported by the appropriate set of circumstances, Saunière’s death would showcase that the stakes are high, that the curator was in a risky business, and that the albino is reckless. Instead, Saunière’s death is uncalled for, like an unjustified jumpscare: something film writers put in to frighten the audience because it’s easier than writing a scene spooky in itself.
“Pain is good, monsieur,” the man said.
Then he was gone.
Alone now, Jacques Saunière turned his gaze again to the iron gate. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes.
The scene takes place in Paris, at the Louvre, and one of the two men involved has a French-sounding name; it’s fair to assume that the curator and the albino are speaking French between each other. Hinting at it by writing “monsieur” entails betraying the point of view; a mothertongue speaker is mostly blind to the language he’s using, especially in situations with an emotional connotation like the one at hand. Non only “pain is good” and “monsieur” are for Saunière in the same language, but he is also extremely unlikely to suddenly realise the albino is speaking French – which would have been the only way to justify Brown’s decision to write “monsieur” instead of “sir”. The use of a French word is meant to be at the benefit of the reader, to give the scene a flair of exoticism; since it’s irrelevant to the reader which language the two men are speaking, though, “monsieur” is only showing the intention of the narrator. Immersion is compromised.
“He was gone” is telling, not showing. “Iron” is unnecessary as the scene would have unfolded the same way if the gate would have been made of steel; plus, Brown already indicated more than once that the gate is an iron one.
Being the curator of the Louvre, Saunière knows that it will take a certain amount of time for the gate to be lifted – therefore, he would not repeat such information to himself. As for the reader, he or she will learn the necessary information when the police fills Langdon in on what happened to Saunière, later on. The part after “he was trapped” is infodump, and can be deleted as a whole.
I must pass on the secret.
Staggering to his feet, he pictured his three murdered brethren. He thought of the generations who had come before them… of the mission with which they had all been entrusted.
An unbroken chain of knowledge.
Suddenly, now, despite all the precaution… despite all the fail safes… Jacques Saunière was the only remaining link, the sole guardian of one of the most powerful secrets ever kept.
Shivering, he pulled himself to his feet.
The mention of the “three murdered brethren” and what follows are not proper infodump, but they tend to repeat information which is already available to the reader. Moreover, if Saunière really thinks he’ll be dead in a matter of few minutes, there’s no time to waste pondering the meaning of life, the Universe and everything else. Some characters are written to become sentimental and thoughtful when all could be lost if one doesn’t act quickly; it’s something me and my brothers call théodenitis, as King Théoden from The Lord of the Rings often gets all philosophical in key action moments. It’s not a very entertaining feature of his, and it’s not particularly engaging when exhibited by Saunière, either. I would therefore eliminate both whole paragraphs, from “staggering” to “ever kept” – especially considering that Dan Brown make Saunière get up from the floor twice (“staggering to his feet, […] . He pulled himself to his feet”).
The language that Brown uses when referencing Saunière’s secret is worth some thoughts. The paragraph I quoted is very emphatic, rich of absolutists terms like “the only remaining”, “the sole”, “the most powerful”, and so on; Brown’s lexicon choices have a very strong emotional connotation. On one hand, this reflects the gravity of the situation: since the scene is told in third person limited, we’re inside the curator’s head, and it makes sense for him to be distraught by what happened. On the other hand, such language is also Brown’s attempt at making the reader care enough about what the curator is protecting. We were deafened when Saunière told his lie to the albino, and here Brown uses the same cheap trick: despite being in Saunière’s head, we have no clue as to what secret he was trusted with. We have therefore no means of estimating the danger of the curator’s secret being lost forever – and so we have no reason to care about it.
The problem stems from having chosen the wrong character as a point of view, and the mere use of emotional language won’t patch it up. This prologue has little to no reason to exist – but given that Brown had to put it in his book, the albino’s one would have been a much better perspective on the events.
He was trapped inside the Grand Gallery, and there existed only one person on earth to whom he could pass the torch. Saunière gazed up at the walls of his opulent prison. A collection of the world’s most famous paintings seemed to smile down on him like old friends.
There’s no need to repeat where Saunière is “trapped”: it has been mentioned plenty of times before, and it’s hinted at in this same paragraph, just two lines later on. As for what concerns the “only person” that could share his secret, it’s once again information that the curator knows perfectly and would not repeat to himself; in a word, infodump. Saying that the “paintings […] smile […] like old friends” is unoriginal and a bit cringe-worthy, though not necessarily wrong.
The binary structure adjective-name makes a comeback with “opulent prison”, but in this case the unusual adjective is appropriately placed and conveys Saunière’s mixed feelings. Thumbs surprisingly up for Dan Brown.
Wincing in pain, he summoned all of his faculties and strength. The desperate task before him, he knew, would require every remaining second of his life.
“To summon one’s strength” is a common expression and therefore not a particularly original one; it also doesn’t give any visual information to the reader, and so it’s unnecessary. There’s no need to write “he knew”, either, as we are in the curator’s head and thus everything we read is something the curator knows.
In true Dan Brown’s style, the prologue ends with yet another cheap trick. The reader is betrayed: the point of view of the narration should entail access to every thought in Saunière’s head, yet we are not filled in on the one planned action to which the curator decides to dedicate what’s left of his life. Instead of trusting his audience with inferring the suspense of such a situation, Brown resorts to said cheap trick at the expense of the possibility to empathise with Saunière and, ultimately, at the expense of immersion.
Thank you for having made it to the end of such a long and intense editing. I owed this article to the young myself in high school that saw each and everyone of her classmates devour their copy of The Da Vinci Code when the movie came out. At the time I had no clue of how to distinguish a well written book from a bad one, and my own attempts at creative writing were just as embarrassing as the description of the albino’s past. Gift yourself a good laugh and skip to Chapter 10 to read it – as my boyfriend said, it’s like watching a fail video.
Nevertheless, even if blind to the rules of good narrative, I instinctively felt something was off with Dan Brown’s novel; I read this prologue, I slammed the book closed and I never went back on my steps. Even if The Da Vinci Code was a bestseller, I found out later that a lot of people did just the same.
There’s often an objective reason to many people not appreciating a certain creative product, because writing techniques are obtained through the analysis of successful narrations; by choosing to disregard such rules, one disregards centuries of narrative wisdom and risks producing something that just doesn’t feel right. This article was a word by word demonstration of why my high school self had good reasons to dislike such a talked-about book.
In conclusion, if an early draft of The Da Vinci Code would have landed on my desk, I would have either trashed it right away, or at least asked Brown to rewrite most of it from scratch.