Dan Brown’s top 10 tips on how to write a bestselling thriller

So you want to be a bestselling author? Dan Brown can teach you.
So you want to be a bestselling author? Dan Brown can teach you.
Image: AP Photo/Tim Boyd
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Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, became a phenomenon (paywall) when it was released in 2003. The thriller was loaded with mysteries, cliffhangers, and controversial theories about the Catholic Church—clearly a winning formula, judging by the more than 80 million copies sold.

And it didn’t stop there: All of Brown’s previously unnoticed novels before the breakthrough of The Da Vinci Code started selling millions of copies (paywall), and all of his subsequent books have become bestsellers. Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and Inferno were also turned into Hollywood blockbusters, despite garnering bad reviews. This much is clear: Brown knows how to write a page-turner, and those page-turners sell.

So how does he put a riveting book together? If you’re an aspiring novelist—or die-hard fan—you can now find out.

Brown has created an online course on writing thrillers with Masterclass, joining the likes of Margaret Atwood and Malcolm Gladwell, who also offer specialized classes on the platform. There’s no promise that paying $90 for Brown’s course will guarantee you a $20 million paycheck (what he reportedly earned in 2017), but if you want to write a good story, he thinks it’s a good place to start.

“[The course] is the nuts and bolts of how to do it,” Brown told Quartz. “I can be a cheerleader and say something like ‘write what you love,’ but no, I will show you how. My sincere hope is that students come away with the tools and confidence to get the ball rolling, and at least get your first manuscript under your belt.”

Brown’s online course is a deep dive into these “nuts and bolts,” and he even breaks down the thinking behind some of his novels’ most gripping scenes. In an interview with Quartz, Brown discussed some of the core principles and techniques that guide his writing.

Make a contract…

…And keep it. “The idea of writing any kind of novel is that you are making promises to your reader and you can’t break the promises,” Brown said. Introducing mysterious characters, conspiracy theories, and unsolved puzzles at the beginning will draw readers in and lead to questions that need to be answered. Brown believes you must answer those questions—maybe not all at once, but certainly by the end. “If you hang a shotgun on the wall in chapter one, somebody had better use it by the end of the book,” he said.

The clock should be ticking

Outlining time limits within which something must happen, especially with high stakes, will keep a story moving forward. For instance, Angels & Demons occurs within 24 hours, during which the protagonist, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, has to save the world from a nuclear weapon. Time pressure intensifies the urgency of a thriller and helps it keep pace.

The “crucible” is essential

For Brown, the “crucible” refers to the concept of putting characters through a difficult ordeal. There must only be one way to get to the book’s resolution, and it should be no walk in the park. “This idea of constraining your characters is absolutely critical,” he said. “And it’s one of those things that isn’t necessarily intuitive.”

Experiment with cliffhangers

If you’ve read one of Brown’s books (with 200 million copies in print, there’s a good chance you have), you know that each chapter ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger (or several of them). Cliffhangers, Brown said, are about withholding and timing. “It’s about not telling somebody something… and creating a break before a resolution,” he said. Brown suggests rearranging the narrative, whether that’s simply ending a chapter early, or placing a hook (like a hint that a character will be in another continent by tomorrow) to keep the reader interested.

Use “braided” plot lines

One compelling storyline is exciting. But numerous compelling storylines, which are typical of Brown’s books, are a good way to lock a reader in. (Especially if you’re keeping a contract, time is running out, and there’s no easy way to the end.) Brown said he writes plot lines separately at the beginning before finding ways to weave them together, so they don’t remain parallel. “They’ve got to be braided, or else they’re irrelevant to each other,” he said.

Research extensively because you might find the unexpected

Brown takes years to write his novels, partly because of how much research goes into each of them. He recommends reading as much as you can around the subject of your writing, whether that’s history, philosophy, science, travel, or conspiracy theories. But with masses of information, how do you find the ingredients for a thriller within it all?

“A lot of it is continually taking things away,” Brown said. Keep only what seems striking to you, even if it doesn’t fit into the storyline at the moment. “It’s also about holding information in your head for a couple of years as you write a book,” he said. One day you might be writing a certain sentence and you flash back to a factoid or setting that could come in handy. Brown keeps all of his research in electronic lists, although the most important things end up handwritten on paper.

Protect the process

A successful thriller writer needs to understand how long it takes to write a good book, and strong habits are a crucial part of that. Like many writers, Brown has a set routine (he wakes up at 4am to start writing in a room without the internet) and emphasizes the importance of sticking to your habits and knowing you’re in it for the long haul. “Protect the process,” he said. “The results will take care of themselves.”

Get it wrong first

This is both Brown’s cure to writer’s block, and the best piece of writing advice he said he’s ever received. “Get it wrong first and let that be the process to getting it right,” he said. Instead of writing a paragraph and deleting it because it’s not exactly what you want, just keep on writing. Keep the revisions for later.

Start with a specific world

Figuring out how to start is often the hardest step, but Brown says to begin by choosing a world that interests you. That could be the world of journalism, or restaurants, or of a subculture. This, at least, sets the constraints within which your book can take place. Brown illustrates with an example: “If you’re running a restaurant, the villain could very simply be the mafia. You took a loan from the wrong person to open your restaurant, and boom. Now you have a thriller—or at least, you have the foundation.”

Remember to think big

No, that doesn’t just mean choosing to start writing a thriller (which is a big decision to make). Even with foolproof writing techniques, you need creativity to elevate it to the next level. All of Brown’s books deal with issues of widespread importance—like religion or overpopulation—and he chooses them “because they do a lot of the work.” Essentially, ambitious themes up the stakes.

“If you’ve got a cliffhanger about the end of the word, it resonates at a louder frequency than a cliffhanger about getting your kid to school on time. They’re both effective in their own genre, but I choose big topics because they do a lot of the heavy lifting,” he said.

So start thinking big, and if you want—start learning and get writing.