The quick Dan Brown foxes and jumps over lazy reader dogs

My first Dan Brown book was The Da Vinci Code, which when translated fully to English curiously becomes “The Of Vinci Code”. Of course, the incorrect juxtaposition of an article and a preposition wasn’t something that bothered me as I raced through what I thought was a throughly enjoyable story. The Da Vinci code was undeniably unputdownable, especially if one had little better to do.

But after Angels & Demons, Deception Point and Lost Symbol, I’ve come to realize that Dan Brown has a formula, a formula so precise and un-mysterious (unlike the plot elements in his books) that any one, with a little bit of time (and a broadband connection) on their hands, can write a Dan Brown novel.

We will now attempt a Dan Brown micro-novella using his formula.

What we need first is a simple story premise, something that can be expressed in a sentence or two. For the purposes of this tutorial, we will use this:

Robert Langdon has a crush on Lady Gaga but does not have the courage to friend her on Facebook. Will he eventually do it or will mysterious circumstances beyond his control thwart him? Will a global online conspiracy threaten the foundations of human society as we know it?

I know, I know. Not very Danbrownesque, you might interject, but bear with me. The true strength of his formula is that even this can be turned into a Dan Brown novel. What you need next is a grandiose moral/denouement. Da Vinci code told us the the kingdom of god was inside, not outside and that Mr. Of Nazareth changed diapers at some point in his life. Lost Symbol told us that the founding fathers hid the fundamental principles of democracy in the architecture of Washington DC, or something like that. The moral of our tale will be

The secret of the universe is to let go of shyness, and swim freely through the cosmic void, and most importantly, avoid Facebook and meet friends in real life.

Ok. Now we have the broad plot and a grandiosely lame moral. We’re doing well so far. Now, you might assume that we will move on to the story structure, but no. That is a triviality that can wait till later. The more important thing right now is the title of the novel and the cover art. That is what sells books at Walmart, not op-ed reviews in the New York Times. In our case, the choice is simple

Masonic Antisocial Network

It’s obvious really. After 5 books about the Illuminati and the Masons, it’s hard to find any more veiled references, so we can just cut straight to the chase. Of course, this is a Dan Brown story, so the title is not as simple as you think it is. Note the first letters of the words in the title. M.A.N. Man, which subtly hints at the moral of the tale – “You are the man. Be real. Get off Facebook”.

Now we get to the cover.

Just a couple of quick design observations. The A’s have their middle line removed, just like that, to give them an exotic touch. Also Note the 3 O’s lined up in a mystically straight line, with some smoke seeming to arise from the W. It will serve as a plot element and also provide many hours of puzzle solving entertainment to n00bs who believe Brown is the Cryptographic pwnz0r. It might also help spread a rumour on some sort of a viral promotion campaign website that there is a symbolic connection between the number of cells on that stained-glass image on the cover and the title of the next book, or something like that. Our brains are wired to detect patterns, even when there aren’t any, so feel free to be generous with utterly pointless symbolisms.

Right, we are done with the important bits now – the plot, the denouement and the title/cover, so we move on to the opening line. Very important in any Dan Brown book. Let’s review the opening lines of some of his earlier books:

  • Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery – Da Vinci Code
  • Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own – Angels & Demons
  • Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him – Deception Point

See the formula? There is usually death involved, some heavy duty action, and a curriculum vitae of the person dying. So let’s try ours now

Canny Chief Finance Officer Rene Franc, B.A (Oxford), C.F.A (Correspondence) was lying face down on his keyboard, which he knew was his own. Death was on its way, like a pizza delivery man snaking through the streets of Geneva, but nothing could prepare him for a fate as bizarre as the one about to befall him.

The key to a good Dan Brown opening line (or any sentence for that matter) is the juxtaposition of several elements that don’t go together, like a Greek Salad with Avial and Gongura Chutney. He achieves spectacular conciseness of prose by describing the dramatic death and a detailed curriculum vitae (including board exam results) of the person dying at the same time, much like an obituary in a newspaper. In fact, if Dan Brown had been Indian, he might have used “Attained Sivaloka Praapthi” instead of “died”.
Also, no sentence is complete without a misplaced simile or metaphor, so our choice of death arriving like a pizza delivery man is ideal. A few other choices we could have considered:
  • Death hit him, like the thunderous slap of Mark McGwire’s bat (Note: If the chap was really hit by a baseball bat, this image would be suitable, but the unsuitability of a metaphor is what determines its use in a Dan Brown sentence)
  • He felt his life ebbing away, like a receding wave on the shores of a desolate beach (Waves usually come back, which is why this metaphor is perfect for a Dan Brown opening. Note that the desolateness of the beach adds no further value to the sentence, which is exactly why it must be there)

We then continue to describe Rene’s death with a few more clumsy metaphors and epithets practically transferred to Mars.

As he lay, catatonic, floating between life and death like a log in a Canadian stream, his enfeebled mind reflected on what had just happened. The evening’s party had been one of those boring affairs, the kind he had begun to despise. After the usual pleasantries, he had excused himself to update his Facebook status. He had felt a tingling sensation when he logged in, but he put that down to the champagne he had consumed in not modest quantities downstairs. He noticed that Emmanuelle had poked him, so he decided to return the favour and poke her back. This online social game of poking reminded him of his childhood when he had played tag with his friends. He refreshed his browser just to see if there were any new updates, and that’s when he felt the jolt. At first, it seemed like a mechanical drill boring through the back of his head, making its way through his cerebrum like engineers digging the Channel tunnel. He had never had migraine and had a fit, lithe and athletic body toned by a rigorous daily workout and he hadnt visited the doctor in a long while.

It was only when he tried getting up that he realized that something was seriously wrong. He couldn’t move! Panic rising at the base of his spine, his eyes opened wide as the drilling sensation in his brain unleashed unimaginable pain.

The last thing he saw before he passed out was the latest update on his Facebook news feed. Superpoked by Sugar Mountain.

Note the use of italics. Use italics for dramatic effect and at the end of every chapter or scene.

Now step back, relax and spend some time building the character profile of Robert Langdon. This time, curriculum vitae details must be blended with detailed product descriptions. Don’t forget the casually thrown-in references to desirable physical characteristics. Most people in his books are elegantly middle-aged and always physically stunning.

Renowned Symbologist Robert Langdon, B.A(History), M.Sc (Masonry and Illumination technology) rested his supple, athletic 50 year old well-toned posterior on the state-of-the-art Herman Miller Aeron chair as he logged on to Gmail on his 24 inch Apple iMac (with a 3 year AppleCare protection plan). His thoughts were on the girl he had seen on Youtube a few days back, performing a catchy tune called “Just Dance” which had struck him particularly because of the richness of symbolism inherent in the lyrics. Not many modern day pop songs make veiled references to the Illuminati, he had thought then

You got that? Educational qualifications, qualifiers for qualifications (‘renowned’) plus detailed gadget and gizmo references. And Italics. Now, let’s build the story. 3 simple rules – symbolism, symbolism and symbolism. If you have trouble thinking in symbols and connections, here’s a tip. Any two seemingly unrelated concepts can be connected with 5 minutes of research on Wikipedia. Like this.

He had been piqued and wanted to learn more about this Lady Gaga. With a name derived from Freddie Mercury’s “Radio Gaga”, the Masonic influence was obvious. Too obvious. Queen, the Lady monarch, not Freddie’s band, came from a family of Masons and  Freddie himself was a rockstar and therefore “illuminating”. Marconi, the inventor of radio had also been a Mason. And he, Robert Langdon, was going gaga over the lissome girl whose throaty voice sang “Just Dance”. This rich tapestry of  symbolism rang through his Harvard educated mind like carillon bells and he found himself  harbouring a strange desire – to add Lady Gaga as a friend on Facebook.

By the way, feel free to consider anyone a Mason. Now we get to the meat of the story.

He logged on to Facebook, and was mildly surprised to find that his good friend and Mason, Rene Franc, had been friended by Lady Gaga, and he made a mental note to ask him to introduce him to her. Despite years of teaching, Langdon was still shy around women. His keen eye for detail also noticed something odd – Rene had been superpoked by someone named Sugar Mountain and that was the last entry in his activity feed. That was odd. Rene was addicted to Facebook, even more so than his account books.

Dan Brown humour, bi4tche5.

Now we break the news. Indulge in some nostalgia.

He tabbed-over to Google news, and his eyes stopped at something that made him go cold. “Rene Franc dies from massive brain aneurysm at his home”, screamed the headline. Rene was a good friend and had over the years, passed on several insider tips on buying shares and staying away from one Mr Madoff. They had gone on a teenage trip to Amsterdam, and even tripped out together there.

Dan Brown wordplay y’all.

Now dont forget clumsy similes. And throw in some more veiled hinting at symbolism.

He was struck with sadness, like an oncoming train. He stood up from his 24 inch Apple iMac and staggered towards the balcony and stared into the night sky. He saw the belt of Orion, its 3 stars in a line. He composed himself, and walked back to his desk when his iPhone 3GS rang to the ringtone of “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga. He was in no frame of mind to take calls, but something niggling in a corner of his mind made him take it.

Now introduce the chick angle. Angels & Demons had the physicist chick and Da Vinci Code had Miss Jesus, Jr, so this time, we have Emmanuelle, a name chosen deliberately for its ability to evoke imagery of vaguely Frenchy B-movie heroines. We also slip into dialogue mode.

“My name is Emmanuelle, and I need your help”, a dusky voice tinged with panic announced in a lilting french accent

Yep. In the Dan Brown world, people don’t announce, voices do.

“My friend Rene has died”.

“I know. I am sorry”, said Robert.

“I need your help, because I have proof that Rene was murdered!”.

Italics. Never forget them. Now that we have the basic framework in place, we can spare the readers a couple of hundred pages of bumbling prose and cut straight to the action.

Langdon, a claustrophobe, took the Queen Elizabeth to Southhampton and flew into Geneva by Ryanair. He was meeting with Tim Berners Lee, a well known Mason and suspected to be a member of the Illuminati as well. Emmanuelle had indicated that their journey must with start with him. Tim didn’t mince any words.

“The Masons built the foundations of the internet”, he declared.

“I knew that. It makes sense. Masonry, foundation, cement, plumbing…”, said Langdon.

“But Sugar Mountain is threatening to destroy it”

What did you just say?

“Sugar Mountain”

“Who is Sugar Mountain?”

“I dont know. Ive been trying to find out..”

“Perhaps, it’s a code of some sort”

“I’ve had my best cryptographer friends look at it, and they have no clue. It’s an enigma”

“Wait..what did you just say?”


“The German Cypher machine?”


“And German for Sugar Mountain is approximately Zucker Berg. That’s it. Sugar Mountain is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook

“It makes sense. The Masons built the internet, and Zuckerberg is threatening to destroy it using Facebook”

And he is going around killing Masons with superpoke!

Ok. Don’t forget the italics. Now we’ve had enough dialogue. In general, quite a lot of plot revealing happens when Langdon is thinking, not talking. We also need to throw in a few images.
Langdon sat in the high speed train from Geneva to Paris where he was meeting up with Emmanuelle. His mind was reeling from the  the horrific nature of the conspiracy that lay spreadeagled before him. Sugar Mountain. Zucker Berg. Why had he not realized that before? That avatar of his, with the 3 O’s in a slanted line should have tipped him off. The 2 O’s of Google represented knowledge and wisdom. The 3 O’s of Sugar Mountain’s avatar represented the 3 eyes of Shiva. Destruction. It all made sense now. Sugar Mountain’s Facebook feed had even featured a LOLcat with the text “Im in ur internetz, unbuilding”

He opened his Macbook Air, and logged on to Facebook and to his surprise, this image stared back at him

Bad Concrete. The realization that dawned on him, like the sun in the arctic summer, was chilling. Concrete. Masons. Bad. Sugar Mountain was going to superpoke all Masons! He knew what he had to do.

Yeah yeah. We could keep going for another 100 pages. Take your pick from trans-atlantic flights with claustrophobia references, dark alleyways of European capitals, the occasional Catehdral and museum, and because of the specific nature of our tale, throw in a few CERN and WWW references and bring the tale to where it needs to be just before the climax. So now, let’s just get to the conclusion and be done with this.
Langdon quickly sent an email to all the Masons he knew and implored them to do something right away. He told them that it will save their lives, and their souls from the diabolical clutches of Sugar Mountain.

The cosmic truth, he had realized was staring him in the face right from the beginning. He had almost fallen into the same trap Rene had, trying to friend people on Facebook instead of meeting them in real life. Emmanuelle, he realized, was the real Lady Gaga of his life.

We can even throw in a little epilogue
Robert Langdon and Emmanuelle were watching LOLcats when this email arrived. It was from someone named Geoffrey K. Pullum, apparently a professor at the University of Edinburgh. It had an image attachment. He opened it. And smiled.

“What is it? It looks like Brown”, said Emmanuelle.

“It is. But it’s an ambigram. Look at it horizontally and vertically flipped”

“Hahahaha. Sucks.”, announced Emmanuelle’s voice.

The End

1. This post is inspired in large by Geoffrey K Pullum’s Language Log post from 2004 –