Flog a Pro: The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

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On my blog, Flogging the Quill, I critique (“flog”) the opening pages of novels submitted by wannabe novelists. I think it’s equally instructive to flog the pros. Fifty Shades of Grey was suggested, but I can’t find an ebook sample to download to extract the first page. So we turn to the second novel suggested.

The challenge: does the first page compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

When you critique this opening page, consider these 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, they can be, and I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Evaluate the opening narrative in terms of how well it executes the elements. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Editors and literary agents see so many submissions from “new” writers that they often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Let’s Flog The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

Following is what would be the first manuscript page of The DaVinci Code I don’t have to tell you what a gigantic seller it was.

Louvre Museum, Paris

10:46 P.M.

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. 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.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. 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.

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. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the (snip)

My vote: yes

It’s a tense action scene, someone is in trouble, and there’s a scary guy about to be violent. The locale is exotic and appealing as well. So strong story questions are raised, and I wanted to know what happened next. But I think the writing has shortcomings—clarity and crispness, in particular. For my money, action scenes should move, and there is some overwriting here. Editorial notes:

Louvre Museum, Paris

10:46 P.M.

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière he collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas. For me, this is a fairly clumsy info dump combined with some interesting set-up. “Renowned” is certainly “telling,” as is the statement of his age. I thought “heaved the masterpiece toward himself “ was a strange way to try to picture a man tearing a painting from a wall. Seems like that involves pulling and yanking, not heaving, which implies lifting. And do people really fall in a heap? Think about it; if you pulled a painting off a wall and fell violently backward, you’d land on your back, flat. Moreover, it would have been nice to show us the size of the painting. He ends up beneath it, but I don’t get a clear picture.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring rang. A “thundering” gate? Gates thunder? How about: …an iron gate thundered down, barricading…etc.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide. Again, just how large is this painting?

DaVinci Code coverA voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, tThe curator froze, turning his head slowly. He is crawling, so we already know he’s on his hands and knees. Overwriting.

Only f 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. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.” Oh, my. Can a silhouette actually stare? I don’t think so. More than that, a silhouette is “the outlines of an object filled in with black.” In other words, a black shape. So how is it possible that we also see pale skin, white hair, pink irises and red pupils? He “aimed the barrel through the bars” is overwriting—what else to you aim with a gun?

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the (snip) We already pretty much know that he’s helpless, we don’t need to be told.

In addition, the point of view hops around—we’re omniscient when the narrative refers to “the curator,” but in close third person when things like “the accent was not easy to place,” which is from Saunière’s point of view. Clumsy, IMO.

What do you think ?

Nominations wanted: Suggest novels for the Flog the Pro feature in Comments. If it’s used, it could be fun to see what the WU audience thinks.

If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at my site, Flogging the Quill.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I must agree with your analysis. The first page is a thriller and kept millions, including me, turning the page. That said, this is not the first time I have seen Dan Brown’s writing weaknesses pointed out. I guess the lesson here is that a dynamite premise can conquer all. It also shows us that the general reading public may be far more concerned with being entertained than with a tightly written work. Oh my! To craft or not to craft deftly. Does that now become the question? Surely not!

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  2. Karen Dodd says

    As a struggling first time novelist, your critique was very informative and useful for my own writing.

    I echo Ellen’s thoughts that apparently a dynamite premise can mask not so great writing. Then, once that author is a blockbuster, they can pretty much get away with anything. Patricia Cornwell, another case in point!

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    • says

      I tried the audio version of The DaVinci Code and couldn’t stick it. A premise is not a story, let alone a book, and if the writing doesn’t work for me, I’m done.

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  3. says

    I agree with your critique, and think that this is a great example of premise outweighing execution. The writing is stiff from the very first sentence, and had I not heard so much about the book before reading it, I would not have been hooked by the first page.

    But the premise of the book – simultaneously mind-blowing yet easy to grasp immediately – combined with its power to make each of us go back and look at a familiar painting with fresh eyes and question what we’re seeing: those are the things that made this such a blockbuster. It’s definitely an “I wish *I* had thought of that” book!

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  4. says

    The beginning was definitely a page turner for me. I’m a newb, so I really don’t have any other comments about The DaVinci Code. I’m in learning mode.

    I’m a huge fan of the Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks. I wonder how that novel’s opening chapter would rank. I was sucked in from beginning (first frickin page) to the end (third book), and I’m still itching for more.

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  5. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I agree with you that the writing is clumsy, and there is a good bit of tell. BUT the setup is so compelling you want to turn the page and see what happens next.

    Proof story triumphs style.

    Imagine the masterpiece created if this novel had both story and a great voice.

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  6. thea says

    The story line is brilliant, but the writing is average at best, with lots of new writer type mistakes. Did an editor not work on this book, I wonder. All that said, I did read this book and was mostly annoyed by the writer’s use of ‘Everyone knows (insert historical blurbage that no, not everyone knows)’ statements by main character. But it wasn’t until you went through this that I even understood this first scene – I didn’t get it watching the movie, either. I thought there was some significance to the painting. duh.

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  7. says

    Gotta say, Fifty Shades will be an interesting one – I can’t stand that book.

    This is some clunky writing. I did read this when it came out because of all the hype. It was creative in many ways. Had I not heard of this book, and considered this writing as one page alone, I wouldn’t have continued reading it.

    I remember reading Angels and Demons after – and enjoyed that one much more.

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  8. says

    I read this and thought “ew, robot” and knew I wouldn’t read further. However, I can’t tell if that’s just my writer’s mentality talking and not just a reader wanting a good story. I do have to respect the fact these books were successful, that perhaps Mr. Brown did do several things “right,” even if I don’t like this page.

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  9. says

    Sometimes I’m in literary mode, and I want beautiful words in beautiful order… annnnd sometimes I want an albino with a gun, and I don’t worry too much about how the words get me there.

    Does that make sense? Sometimes you want a fine, four-course meal, sometimes you want rib-sticking home cooking, and sometimes you just want a crappy hamburger and fries that might give you cancer, but you just don’t care.

    Or is that just me? :) I would have turned his first page, just to see if the albino was worth it. If the clunky writing kept dragging my attention away, I’d close the book.

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  10. says

    This is a story that works despite the clunky writing and basic characterization. It is totally overwritten and the dialogue is cringy. And yet I remember pulling an all nighter to finish it. Imagine what it could have been had the book benefited from a good editor.

    Thanks for giving this one a go, Ray.

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    • says

      Kathleen, I think you’ve put your finger on the tragedy (this may not be too strong a word for it) of a writer like Brown, whose marketing and suspense-sense, if you will, can generate such profound sales, but whose writing is so bad. I couldn’t even get through Angels and Demons, which I tried to read, having taken over the apartment in Rome of one of the film’s directors. Sat right there in the Interminable City marveling at how awful it was. Each tiny chapter ended (as in at the Louvre) with somebody gasping in terror. I’d barely made it through Da Vinci Code. And I thought many times of how plainly tragic it is for good literature and for books in general when we see instances of schlock like this hitting the heights unrefined, like crude oil served in crystal. As you put it so well, “Imagine what it could have been had the book benefited from a good editor.” Well said, and sadly agreed.
      Why isn’t this author edited well, do we know?
      (Thanks, Ray.)
      -p.
      @Porter_Anderson

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  11. Sevgne says

    The thing that baffled me about Dan Brown was that he taught creative writing at one of the stellar universities.

    I think your edits are interesting Ray. I don’t agree with all of them. I like the original, “as the alarm began to ring.” The alarm rang is dull to my ears. There’s a time to slash and a time to keep for the sake of the sound and the image.

    But, then again, I’m British.

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  12. says

    I never read The Da Vinci Code. I must admit that the action here did grab me and I certainly would have turned the page. Now that I’m reading with a more critical eye — the writing does seem a bit labored — but it is proof that a great beginning is key.

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  13. says

    I downloaded the Kindle version (free!) because I never got into the hype, and when I saw this post on the WU Facebook group, I decided to read the first page before clicking over here. I had a skeptical frown on my face since everyone discussed how terrible the writing was, but by halfway through this prologue I sat up, hunched over my Smartphone, rapidly flicking the pages to see what would happen next. The writing isn’t sophisticated but Brown skillfully funnels lots of tension and pathos into his simplistic prose. Pardon me while I go back to read the rest! *g*

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  14. Bob Greene says

    I agree with your and others assessment. Great premise but not tightly written. Worth considering as to what this tells us.

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    • Sevigne says

      What it tells us is that if the premise fits the zeitgeist you have a runaway best sellter.

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  15. says

    Lucy hit the nail on the head for me. At times I can suspend my need for beautifully written work in exchange for really good story. At other times, the quality of the writing/editing bars me from ever getting engrossed in the story. I think it depends on my mood and my expectations for the work as much as anything else.

    I read a lot of debut novels and I can tell you that they frequently have these types of errors. Unless it’s really bad, I try to be patient and keep reading. The good thing is when the author continues to work on craft and subsequent novels get better. I love seeing that, and hope to be that type of author. When authors don’t get better, my patience wanes and I usually stop reading them.

    I freelance as an editor. It’s nice to see that I’m on track with the types of things I point out to writers.

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  16. Tony DiMeo says

    I can’t say I wouldn’t turn the page, because like most of us, I bought the book and read it cover to cover, but seeing Ray break it down like this does really open my eyes a bit. I mean, this book made Dan Brown something like a gazillion dollars, yet it seems to suffer from many of the same flaws that many of us beginning writers suffer from.

    As I read it now, I’m wondering if it wasn’t ‘The DAVINCI CODE’ if I would have given this more than a cursory glance and put it down after reading the first page. But for some reason I can’t explain, it has enough to pull me through to the next page, although everything I’ve learned tells me that if I wrote it, I would feel like it still needed more work.

    Far be it from me to jump on a bandwagon and say that this hugely succesful authors’ prose is bad, but as Porter and Kathleen pointed out, it kinda is, well…bad.

    So why the hell did a gazillion people (myself included) get hooked on this book?

    @Tony_DiMeo

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  17. says

    I read it all because of the hype. I kept waiting to see where the THERE was. Never found it, (the premise wasn’t as new and shocking as many people thought) and although I deeply respect Donald Maas, I *loathed* the way Brown “created suspense.” He had lines like “he saw before his eyes a sight he’d never expected to see” ~end chapter. Totally gimmicky. Are we in his head, or not in his head? If we’re in his head, what do we see?

    As a reader, I felt cheated. His main character was about as interesting and memorable as unseasoned rice. In the movie, Tom Hanks was a good choice, because we all like Tom Hanks, but as I read the book, I found NOTHING exciting or noteworthy about the character, and uninteresting characters kill it for me.

    I would not have turned the page, and am uninterested in any of Mr. Brown’s other works, though I wish him continued success.

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  18. Andy Rich says

    Some of the descriptions are clumsy and not very accurate. They could have been fixed so easily as well. For example, the sillhoutte issue could have been fixed by him stepping into a lit area, where his red eyes and white complexion become apparent (in fact, I think this is what happens in the film).

    Another point, “chillingingly close” but then “fifteen feet away” didn’t ring true.

    However….having said all that I would like to say some words of praise for Dan.

    The story is interesting and new (I don’t think I’ve read much like it), and the story ideas are raised early in the novel.

    In fact, I think he should be commended for how quickly he get’s to the point. Within a couple of sentences and only a handful of words I have been transferred from my living room to the Louvre, late at night, with the curator running through it’s hallways. That’s an interesting image. So even though it’s telling I think you can get away with it in some situations.

    He also uses strong verbs and doesn’t spend too long desribing the setting, which I think some writers may have been tempted to do, given that it is quite an impressive museum. He uses simply descriptions infused in the action sequences to create the setting. Eg. Valuted Archway, parquet floor, gilded frame.

    Seems strange that an editor didn’t pick up on the paradoxes in the descriptions, as this is exactly what I would have expected from an editor.

    Interesting to know if you agree on whether an editor should have picked up on some of these Ray?

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  19. says

    Andy, I am an editor, and I picked up on them. If he’d hired me, it would have been pointed out. I can’t answer for the editorial policies of a publishing house, but it seems to me that the fixes, as you pointed out, are easy. Any why not make it the best writing it can be? I read the book and enjoyed it, but it could have been so much better from a craft point of view.

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