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Novel Studies: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown


Dan Brown has done it again with The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol has been one of the world's most eagerly awaited novels this side The Deathly Hallows.  As a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, the hype surrounding it has been immense.  Five million copies were printed for its release on September 15th.  That's alot of paper.  Was it worth it?  Let's discuss.

A Thriller of Epic Proportions -  The main reason Dan Brown has been so successful is that he delivers every time.  From Digital Fortress to the Da Vinci Code, he has written blockbuster thrillers that bring an excitement level and pace that is matched by few.  The Lost Symbol, six years in the making, is no different.  He starts the story with a bang and a great first line - "The secret is how to die."  These are the thoughts of the antagonist as he undergoes a macabre Masonic ritual,  another perfect example of a beautiful way to open a novel.  What makes this an even more effective first line is that it also comes back as an important element of the climax of the book.  In screenwriting, writers often attempt to connect the opening image of a film to the last one, usually finding a way to incorporate the movies theme as well.  More novelists should steal this technique as it adds a level of depth many books are missing.

Edge-of-your-seat techniques - Brown has built his reputation on making every one of his novels a page turner.  How does he accomplish this in The Lost Symbol?  By jumping right into the story and not looking back,  He begins the novel by jumping into the events that begin a whirlwind twelve hour period in the life of hero Robert Langdon.  There is a ton of backstory and history here, but Brown never lets it bog the story down, giving readers just enough information to keep them going and then barreling ahead.  He also breaks the 'rules' of writing with the extensive use of flashback.  The difference here is he includes them during the rare lull in the story and he always goes back with a character as they recollect on an important moment.  The flashbacks are essential, woven into the current time of the story and always high on drama and conflict - very important elements when a writer is leaving the present to impart background information. 

Another way Brown keeps readers up at night is with his use of the cliffhanger.   He uses short, compact chapters to speed up the pace and then ends nearly every one with a question that begs for an answer.  It is an absolute lesson in scene writing and the age old technique of question-answer-new question plotting. 

Characterization - In a series with a regular hero, characterization takes on a different purpose.  It's difficult to build a character arc with the same protagonist book after book, and this may be the only thing The Lost Symbol lacks.  Although the development of the antagonist is well done and satisfying, the heroic characters pretty much stay the same and react to everything the villain does.  Every writer should strive to connect the events of the story to the emotional need of the main character.  It adds a level to the story.  It's no coincidence that the characters of the villain and the CIA security director jump off the page more than Langdon and is female counterpart Katherine

Research, research, research - Dan Brown has found a formula that obviously touches nerves in the masses.  Find an interesting but obscure subject, one that the public would find intriguing if brought to the light, throw in a conspiracy theory or two and place it all in a historically interesting setting and you have the ingredients of a great thriller.  Many best selling novelists have ridden his coat tails to success with this recipe.  But the key here is research.  Brown knows his subject matter inside and out and sprinkles the best tidbits through out the story, adding the realism that allows us to get caught up in the events.  This massive amount of information he has to impart may have led to the only other weakness in the story - a long denouement.  After the villain is vanquished, there's still another fifty pages (50!) that seem to serve no other purpose than to reveal the true secret behind the beliefs of Mason's and its connection with all the religious texts throughout history - 'the wisdom of the ancients'.  Its interesting stuff but it would have been more effective woven in to the fabric of the narrative.  The point to remember is accurate research is essential to lend authenticity to your manuscript.  Just know you can't include it all and readers will notice the instant your work turns into a text book. 

Mysteries revealed - The thing that Brown does best, and the aspect of craft that any writer regardless of genre would do well to emulate, is the min-revelations that lead to solving the big mystery of the story.  In The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon is forced into helping the villain decipher a coded message in order to save a friends life.  This premise lends itself to the technique, but each part of the message that is cracked leads to a bigger mystery and so on until the final, big-picture mystery is solved.  This technique can be used by writers of any type of novel, from horror to comedy to mainstream literary.  Pose the major dramatic question and then have the main characters work their way through a series of problems and complications, each leading to a revelation at the end that answers that major dramatic question. Simple, right? 

Entertainment value - What Brown accomplishes most effectively with The Lost Symbol is entertaining readers.  Isn't that what its all about?  This book is difficult to put down, a description every novelist strives for.  Every writer simply wants readers to get lost in their story and remember it after their done.  Brown entertains as well as anyone writing right now and The Lost Symbol accomplishes that goal splendidly.