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How to write a bestselling novel: the Dan Brown secret

Updated on July 11, 2011

To find ideas for publishable stories is simplicity itself

But first, let me tell you about my little daughter.

In fact, she’s 23, 5ft 10in tall, an aikido black belt (nearly), and five years ago she trekked across Greenland with fellow students, sleeping rough on icebergs. Her scheme leaders taught her to use a rifle in the event of a polar bear attack. They then flew off in a helicopter.

Sure enough, on her last night, a bear snuffled up to her tent...

Okay, I shall get to the point.

She has just taken her BSc in Earth Sciences. It required her to submit a dissertation on the allotropic properties of the rare earth yitrium. (Please do stay awake. This is important!)

She now wants to write a best-selling novel.

‘Oh, how can my puny experience equip me to go macho a macho with Dan Brown?’ she wailed.

How to go macho a macho with Dan Brown

‘Simple,’ I said. ‘Set your novel in Greenland. (Instant Ecological Topicality plus nice scenery.) The narrator is your avatar. Suppose her (that is, your) nerdish fiancé has stumbled on a vast deposit of yitrium, vital for computers and a priceless dwindling resource. The Russians want it. The CIA wants it. He wants it, to fund your honeymoon together in Morecambe Bay.

‘Everyone is trying to kill him, including his fiancée (you), Inexplicably, she doesn’t want a honeymoon in Morecambe Bay.

‘The lovers are pursued by mysterious assassins through endless ice tunnels, glaciers crashing around their heads.’ (Labyrinths are very fashionable nowadays, I said. Ask Dan Brown.)

‘Tosh,’ she replied. ‘Only trivial deposits of yitrium have ever been recorded in Greenland.’

I tutted. ‘Think of your £500,000 advance from Random House.’

She mourned. ‘What of my scientific reputation?’

‘Think of the movie rights,’ I said.

‘What of my intended career at BP?’ she riposted. ‘Such as may, in three years time, still be left of it?’

‘Think of Johnny Depp in the title role,’ I said. ‘You could be his technical adviser.’

With a graceful kaeshiwaza gesture, she threw the kitchen table over her left shoulder.

‘Sod BP,’ she said. ‘When do we start?’

What is the point of this foolish tale?

Simply, that you can find stories anywhere.

Suppose your lifetime experience goes no further than crochet or pet care, car mechanics or growing exhibition marrows. What a thriller Agatha Christie might have written, just with those components!

Let’s imagine... Miss Marple’s gardener grows exhibition marrows that are being poisoned by an envious car mechanic in the village. The fiendish plot is revealed by the astute nose of her pet cat. Somebody gets murdered along the way, needless to say.

Who was the murderer? Miss Marple drops her crochet hook when she realises the dreadful truth. The murderer was... the cat!

The plot of my daughter’s Greenland tale (provisionally titled Ice Scream) is a tested Dan Brown - if not Agatha Christie - formula.

The tested Dan Brown formula

First, we have a Quest for a priceless treasure (Basic Plot #1). Two lovers - humorously at odds with each other (Light Relief ) - embark on the perilous journey. (A Journey is always a metaphor for self-discovery.)

The Forces of Evil oppose them. (These are emblems, at an allegorical level, for the Darkness in their own souls.)

The story twists back and forth across a photogenic Setting. (That’s important to hammer down the film rights.)

Closure is achieved when the lovers, blissfully enlightened by self-knowledge, seal their wedding vows at Westminster Abbey. With a ring of... 24-carat yitrium! (Yes, I know you can’t make wedding rings out of yitrium. This is a Dan Brown novel, remember?)

Apply this formula and your publishing success is assured. Add a touch of allegory and you’re in line for a top writing award.

Excuse me for a moment. I have to go dig my little daughter out of an ice tunnel. Metaphorically speaking.

You will find an endless further supply of free writing tips at Writers' Village


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    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Hi Susie! You must start at once. The best novels are the written sort. It's like climbing Everest. Simple, really. Just one darned foot after another :)

    • SUSIE42 profile image

      SUSIE42 6 years ago

      I really enjoyed this hub. Have been making notes to write a book for quite a while. Now I just have to start it.

    • profile image

      jambo87 7 years ago

      Haha exactly! I call them 'popcorn novels'.

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Utter garbage? Then it will triumph mightily with supermarket book shoppers, whence all profit floweth...

    • profile image

      jambo87 7 years ago

      She's taking the world by storm with hopeless romantic vampires and werewolves "Twilight Saga". Utter garbage!

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England


    • profile image

      jambo87 7 years ago

      Hilarious and helpful! What do you think of Stephanie Meyer?

    • cvanthul profile image

      Cristina Vanthul 7 years ago from Florida

      Love it! LMAO! If only I had the time to list all the plots that have entered my mind and then been set aside so I can pay my bills now. Oh well, one day.

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Alas, you can't copyright book titles, otherwise I'd have put a big © against that one! Just remember, when Ice Scream comes out as a Hollywood blockbuster, that you heard it here first :)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      What a wonderful fiction formula! And Ice Scream would look so good on those movie posters!

      Enjoyed this hub, thank you.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      The first one was more than enough for me, so I deprived myself of the pleasure of reading the second.


      I think I know why the Code was a success, after speaking to a police officer. Instead of his feeling that his intelligence was being insulted by such infantile clues (like strange Da Vinci writing that the scientists cannot understand and then they brilliantly remember that he systematically wrote in reverse - something that even my dog knows!!) he actually felt intelligent by picking up on the clues!!!!

      In the end, a successful novel must be based on the assumption that the reader is a moron! :-))

      Do you speak Latin by any chance? If you do please help us out with the creation of a funny motto suggesting cowardice, here: “For those who helped with Latin”

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks, De Greek! In fact, the ultimate imbecility of Dan Brown's last two books - The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol - is that all the action is supposed to take place in the space of just 24 hours. (Check it out. Nobody but the villains ever sleeps!)

      Yet, in the real world, all that flying about Europe and England (The Da Vinci Code) and scurrying about Washington (The Lost Symbol) would have taken several weeks.

      Brown had no aesthetic reason whatever to abide by the Aristotelian Unities.It was simply a daft device to make everything seem unnaturally hectic.

      Strangely, few literary critics have ever commented upon this. Possibly because few of them, despite their acerbic remarks, have ever been able to contain their nausea sufficiently to read Brown's novels all the way through :)

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      I was right to become a devoted fan even before reading a single hub. YOU have made me laugh and I thank you. I have marked this and I shall return at various annoying intervals to ensure that you are still distributing your wisdom for free.

      And you have forgotten to mention the primary part of the Dan Brown success formula. Treat your readers as imbeciles and assume that they will accept that two scientists will not immediately understand the significance of things described in the book, when they can actually see them for themselves on the spot, starting with the position of the dead man in the beginning. :-)))