A few years ago I decided to give THE DA VINCI CODE a shot and bought the audiobook to listen on my way to work. I was curious: despite being universally panned by the critics it was selling like hotcakes laced with crack, so I put on my detective hat and gave it a go. About halfway through however I caught myself yelling with startling fury at the narrator and punching my steering wheel, and so decided to turn it off and never, ever listen to it again. I did, however, manage to determine a couple of reasons why it was selling so well, and can now trace a certain difficulty I’m having writing novels to that very experience.
First, why did I get so mad? Because Dan Brown didn’t trust me as a reader. Time and time again one of the main characters would learn something of importance but Brown would refuse to reveal what it was. It would go something like, “And then Robert opened the letter and read its contents. What he discovered therein drained the blood from his face as he realized that everything had changed in such a horrific way that nothing would ever be the same again. He quickly ate the letter and jumped out the window.” And I would be left going, “What? What? What was in the letter? Are you kidding me? You’re not going to tell me what he just read?” And then a chapter later the problem would be compounded as Brown would refuse to reveal a second plot point due to its being based on the first. By the time I started screaming I think there were literally five crucial pieces of information being withheld from me, and I flipped.
Yet Brown did write a thrilling page turner. He did this by writing five page chapters that always ended on a cliffhanger. The tension was ratcheted up to 11 all the time, and the characters never stopped screaming and running and outwitting their enemies and shrieking and being shot at. It felt like being thrown off a cliff or being driven in a convertible at bewildering speeds through a rain forest, with fronds and branches smacking you across the face every second.
The Hunger Games followed this model to good effect. Short chapters, killer cliffhangers, tension ratcheted up to 11. That’s why people pick it up to start it before bed and then set it down at six in the morning, unsure as to what just happened. Main difference? Good writing, good characters, good plot.
This falling off a cliff method of writing is insidious. It develops in the author a tendency to want to end every chapter in a ridiculous cliffhanger. To keep your chapters short. To ratchet the tension up right to the edge of credibility. It’s no longer sufficient to have a chapter where the son tells his father he’s not going to graduate from college. Now you have to have the son also come out of the closet as he does so while a car full of werewolves execute a drive-by, Tommy Guns blazing.
I followed the cliff method with THE GRIND SHOW, and sure enough I had people tell me they read it in one sitting. But not every novel should be written in that manner, and now that I’m writing END CITY I just had a moment where I had to resist the urge to kick up the drama levels. I want to write THE DARK KNIGHT, not a ’60’s Batman episode, and so restrained myself throwing in a gratuitous werewolf drive-by, pork pie hats flying as they howl and fuss with their zoot suits while trying to squeeze off a shot or three.
What about you, dear reader? What was the last book you enjoyed tremendously and tore through at a gallop? Does Dan Brown’s method work for you?