Dan Brown has mastered the art of writing books that are hard to put down. This is remarkable because, in the course of most of his novels, he also introduces a wealth of background information. Just The da Vinci Code alone – to take his most popular example – educated readers on everything from Gnostic pseudo-Gospels to Renaissance cryptography. Yet his story keeps driving forward at a fast pace that never feels forced. One of the ways he does it is by creating effective scene endings.
Of course, your denouement needs to be clearly defined, wrapping up the plot questions you introduced near the beginning and giving readers a satisfying sense of closure. Your chapter endings need to be sharp, teasing future events to keep readers from closing the book at a convenient stopping point.
Scene endings are trickier to manage simply because there are so many of them. If you work too hard to bring a cliffhanger or sudden revelation to every scene, it won’t be long before your readers feel manipulated. You want endings that are subtle enough to feel organic, but still make readers want to keep binging your scenes like a Neflix series. So how does Brown do it?
Warning: there will be spoilers. I’ll be describing the content of key scenes so even those of you who haven’t read The da Vinci Code will be able to follow what’s going on. An additional warning: I’m well aware of Brown’s other literary shortcomings. He tells a ripping good tale, but as I read through it again for this article, I often itched to pick up my editing pencil.
So . . . the obvious candidate for a good scene ending is some new revelation that leads you to keep reading to find out what it means. And Brown does a fair amount of this – the second scene of chapter 86, where Remy, Leigh Teabing’s servant, reveals that he’s secretly working for the mysterious Teacher by turning a gun on Teabing. Or the end of chapter 98, where we discover that Teabing is, in fact, the Teacher and the earlier attack was staged.
But as I say, you can only include so many of these kinds of revelations. Brown often changes things up by ending a scene, not with new information, but with a revelation that rewrites what you think you already know.
Take, for instance, the opening scenes of chapter eight. Robert Langdon, an expert on symbolism, has just been brought in on the murder of Jacques Saunier, a curator at the Louvre, who wrote a series of cryptic and possibly satanic symbols next to his body while he was dying. Most of the first scene is spent on what the symbolism might mean, with the devout Captain Fache, the police inspector who summoned Langdon, acting hostile and suspicious toward the symbols’ satanic implications. Finally Langdon makes an obvious point that, if Saunier wanted to lead police to who killed him, he would have simply written down a name.
“As Langdon spoke those words, a smug smile crossed Fache’s lips for the first time that night. ‘Precisement,’ Fache said. ‘Precisement.’” And . . . scene. [Read more…]