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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ramping Up Tension - What I Learned from The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown


I love thrillers. In preparing for a rewrite on my upcoming novel Beyond the Black Sea I'm surrounding myself with action-packed mysteries. I've watched the first 2 seasons of Homeland and the first 6 seasons of 24. Most recently, I finished reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I want to learn the best (and the worst) ways to increase the "page turner" aspect of fiction.


The entire first act is wonderful. One of the easiest ways to increase tension is by creating deadlines. Dan Brown does in books what 24 does on television: everything happens in one day. There's also a real sense that there will be dire consequences if the hero doesn't move quickly enough. Reader feels like they are racing against the clock

This is very different than the sprawling epic fantasies of Tolkien, Jordan and Sanderson. Those stories take place over several weeks or months in dozens of different locations. Thrillers limit time and location.

Another easy way to ramp up tension is careful placement of your pauses. Breaking your chapters in the middle of action forces readers to move on to the next chapter. Make the end of each chapter a mini-cliffhanger to push the reader forward. Be cautious, however. Do this too often and you will exhaust your audience. Everyone needs a break once in a while.

Another thing that works is the character of Robert Langdon. He is instantly likable. There are easy ways to make the reader relate to your character. One is making them very good at their job. Another is making them the victim of undeserved persecution. Dan Brown does both with Langdon. The CIA character Sato is completely unreasonable and out to get Langdon. This makes us hate her and cheer on Langdon. We want him to get away from her but Dan Brown doesn't make it easy.

The same thing happens in 24. Jack Bauer is likable because he has the worst luck on the planet. The poor guy just can't catch a break. He's the best there is at what he does but the universe seems out to get him. 
Jack Bauer from 24


A few weeks ago I did one of those online surveys to determine which famous writer my prose is most like. It said I wrote like Dan Brown. I loved his first two books but never got around to the last two. I decided to check them out.

When I did, I realized I really DID write like Dan Brown. That includes all the things my editors and beta readers disliked. The Lost Symbol switches POVs constantly, sometimes in the middle of a scene. It reads like a novelization of a movie focusing more on the "scene" than characters. It helped me realize the downside of constantly changing POVs. I really didn't care about any of the characters. We never spend enough time with them to become interested. The only important thing is the story...which is a big no-no. I want to write character-driven stories. 

The ending was also a little flat. The big "reveal" of Mal'akh was a yawn. It was too obvious 1/2 way through the book who he was. If you want a believable, tense mystery you can't beat people over the head with sledgehammer-like clues. Even worse, when I learned the "secret" Mal'akh has been searching for, I wanted to throw my book. It was a complete let down after a very strong start.


To ramp up the tension, use carefully placed breaks in the action. End chapters on small cliffhangers to push the reader forward.

Limit your scope. Keep time, location, and POVs limited to increase the sense of claustrophobia and intensity. Make your characters likable by making them good at what they do. Then put them in a situation in which they are unfairly treated, persecuted, or surround them with ever-increasing danger.


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