Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Advice from Dan Brown

Because Dan Brown of "The DaVinci Code" fame lives in the next town, it's not unusual to see him out and about when he's taking a break from writing bestsellers. It was during an unexpected encounter at a local bookstore that Husband No. 1 seized the opportunity to ask the author about the ending to "Angels & Demons," which had troubled my beloved spouse for some time.

"Could someone actually survive by using a cape as a parachute when they jumped out of a helicopter?" Husband No. 1 asked after introducing himself.

Brown's response? "Well, first of all, it's a novel.... but yes, it's theoretically possible."

(By the way, this photo was taken outside the private "Angels & Demons" screening he hosted at the Portsmouth Music Hall. We weren't invited.)

Even though I agree with Husband No. 1 that Robert Langdon's cape escape stretches the limits of believability, I also understand how liberating it can be to make up stories about whatever you want. Writing experts often advise authors to "write what you know."

But how interesting are the things Pat Remick and most writers know? Maybe it's better to follow the advice of those who instead say "write what you can imagine." And if someone questions your story, you can always be like Dan Brown and say, "Well, first of all, it's a novel."

For a former reporter well-schooled in the "get it first, but get it right" school of journalism, writing mostly from imagination does require a giant leap of faith. I admit it's sometimes difficult to ignore my news training when I'm writing fiction, which can result in spending far too much of my writing time researching minutiae for short stories and my novel-in-progress.

Instead, I think I should take a lesson from Dan Brown's phenomenal success: If writers can tell a great story, readers are more likely to be forgiving when it comes to the pesky details or nagging doubts about the credibility of a plot.

On the other hand, I often think that if I were to put some of the bizarre/outlandish/improbable things that happen in real life into a novel, editors would most likely reject it on grounds the plot was implausible. The John Edwards affair/downfall is a great example. Who would believe that a man running for president of the United States and whose wife has terminal cancer would be running around with some videographer he supposedly met in a bar? The believability index really plummets when you add in the angle that an Edwards aide and his young family sheltered the candidate's pregnant mistress. "You've got to be kidding" would be the normal response.

But here's how some of the writing experts might explain it: "Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense."

What do you think? Does fiction have to make sense for you to enjoy reading it?

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