Image: Matthew Loffhagen
MasterClass is a service which allows its users to watch unique lectures by eminent figures in various fields. One of those fields is writing, and the eminent figure we’ll be talking about today is Dan Brown, author of the Robert Langdon thrillers The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, as well as Digital Fortress and Deception Point. Specifically, we’ll be asking if Dan Brown’s MasterClass is worth your hard-earned dollars.
Brown’s MasterClass includes just under four hours of video lectures broken up over 19 lessons, all available to download or watch on the site. These lectures are supplemented by user discussions and an 89-page workbook, as well as a Q&A between Brown and previous subscribers.
MasterClass courses cost $90 for a given lecturer or $180 for a year’s subscription to everything the site has to offer. You can buy lessons for yourself or as a gift for someone else.
Those are the cold facts, so all that remains is to ask whether Dan Brown’s MasterClass is worth your time and money. But before we talk about the lectures themselves, we need to address…
The elephant in the room
It can’t be denied that Dan Brown is a popular writer. His combined works have been translated into 57 languages, selling over 200 million copies, and The Da Vinci Code remains a bona fide cultural touchstone.
Despite those accomplishments, Dan Brown is not a writer’s writer. In fact, until E.L. James came along and took his crown, he was frequently used as an example of a terrible writer whose popularity was a damning indictment of the reading public.
Is that a fair assessment? Well, like any performative hate for a public figure, it’s definitely exaggerated, but it’s telling that when comedian Stewart Lee wanted to bash Brown, the punchline that came to mind was to read out some of Brown’s own prose.
It’s no coincidence that the worst published writer in the world today is also one of the world’s most successful writers: Dan Brown. Now, Dan Brown is not a good writer. The Da Vinci Code is not literature. Dan Brown writes sentences like ‘the famous man looked at the red cup.’– Stewart Lee, ‘Toilet Books’ from Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle
It’s fair to say that Brown’s use of language is nothing to emulate – he is not the writer to turn to if you want to pen better prose – but the fact remains that a huge number of people enjoy the stories he tells, and when it comes to popular, mass-market thriller fiction, there’s pretty much no-one outside of perhaps John Grisham who has a better claim to the throne.
Dan Brown opens his MasterClass with the following claim:
This class is specifically designed to talk about writing thrillers, but I’m hoping that it actually helps writers of all different genres, because what makes thrillers work are elements that actually make all stories work.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 1: Introduction’, MasterClass
A lot of people have made the observation that most stories work in the same way. This is true up to a point, but whether it’s a useful observation or not depends on context, and here the context is against Brown.
Thrillers are, in fact, a pretty unique genre. Thrillers tend to be among the most accessible, most immediately compelling reads, which often makes them the edge case for attracting readers who don’t read often or widely. They also tend to be system-focused narratives, concerning themselves with practical concerns (how a character will escape a given situation) rather than empathetic topics (how much of a toll this adventure is taking on the protagonist).
The relationship between system-focused thinking and empathy-focused thinking is far from established fact, but psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that, broadly, “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize.” That’s obviously a huge simplification, but it does correlate with anecdotal evidence that thrillers tend to have a higher percentage of male readers than other genres.
None of this is to say that thrillers are inferior to other genres. Instead, it suggests that thrillers as a whole are at the far end of a specific approach that gives the genre a unique audience and style. This is important because, contrary to Brown’s claim, it means that what makes thrillers work often isn’t what makes all stories work. Thrillers are, in many cases, the most extreme expression of a particular type of storytelling geared towards a system-focused cognitive model.
These factors are essential to authors approaching Dan Brown’s MasterClass, because they clarify its focus in a necessary way. While Brown thinks he’s using thrillers to describe basic narrative rules, he’s actually lecturing on a very narrow set of expertise. In short, this is a fantastic course on how to write a thriller, but a terrible course on how to write most anything else.
Before we get onto what Brown does right – and it’s a lot – it’s worth taking a practical look at how his advice is great for thrillers and bad for other genres. Because Brown writes system-focused stories, his empathetic thinking is often shallow. On multiple occasions, Brown advocates techniques that feign depth or complexity without actually creating any. That’s not an insult; in fact, it’s a facet of his style that he keeps coming back to as a positive.
It’s useful to know this going in, as Brown’s approach builds on general advice that any author should take to heart. In his introductory lesson, he says:
Your job is to create a framework. To create the points of interest that the reader’s imagination fills in and connects. Help them imagine the story. Give them just enough to move to the next point, and to bring their imagination to fill in all the blanks.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 1: Introduction’, MasterClass
This is great advice that many authors would do well to follow; the reader is your co-author, and since you can’t fire them from that position, you should embrace their role. Where Brown starts giving advice that’s less suitable to all authors is in the extent to which he expects the reader to fill in the blanks.
In the quote below, Brown focuses on character relationships, explaining his technique of giving characters relationships that pre-date the start of the story. While this is an effective technique, his suggestion isn’t that you design characters and interactions with this deep backstory in mind, but that the suggestion of backstory is a kind of illusion that can be used to trick the reader.
The other great thing of introducing someone with whom your hero might become romantically involved? Instant tension. Whether or not it comes to fruition, your reader – through the whole story – will say, “I wonder if they’re going to get together. They seem to sort of like each other.” Instant tension, and you have to do nothing! It’s one of the tools you can use to help yourself instill your narrative with tension with literally no effort. …so literally one line in a novel saying ‘they used to know each other’ brings all this baggage with it… with one line you have created an incredible amount of information about who these people are, how they interact… we as readers bring all our personal baggage to that relationship, and it feels rich, but you haven’t done a lot to make it rich.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 6: Universal Character Tools’, MasterClass
This advice isn’t confined to characters. Brown also suggests utilizing interesting settings (great advice for all writers) but then seems to suggest that the setting doesn’t need to be relevant – it doesn’t need to, for example, encapsulate the mood of the scene – so long as it’s an interesting backdrop.
I can write a conversation that takes place in a Denny’s restaurant. Okay, if I set that same conversation and put it in the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, in the shadow of a thirty-foot-tall black widow spider, suddenly that conversation feels more interesting. The information itself may not literally be more interesting, but the effect on your reader is that this scene is a lot more interesting.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 4: Choosing Locations’, MasterClass
Another example of Brown’s love for ‘tricks’ over substance is in his suggestion of where to end chapters. Here, Brown suggests creating cliffhangers not by using revelations to recontextualize situations (‘Sarah’s with John > John’s the murderer > But that means Sarah’s in danger’) but by hiding information until the next chapter (‘I know who the murderer is now. It’s…’)
One of the tricks that I like to use is, end your chapter earlier. Just by ending the chapter a little bit before you give resolution, will make someone want to turn the page. Put the resolution in the next chapter, to force somebody to get invested again in another chunk of your novel… Your character essentially says, “Eureka, I’ve got it!” But you don’t tell what they’ve got; your reader has to turn the page to say, “Oh, that’s what they figured out.” It’s simple, but it’s very, very effective.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 12: Creating Suspense, Part 2’, MasterClass
None of these examples are bad advice, but they are a facile approach to empathetic writing. Brown repeatedly marvels at the simplicity of his favored techniques, but simplicity comes at a cost. Fast food is easier to make than a gourmet meal, and there are times when that’s what you want, but anyone who marvels at that fact as a benefit without cost isn’t quite getting the whole picture. Advice like “Stories that are satisfying really only have one ending. The hero wins!” and “There is no more efficient way to reveal character than [internal monologue]” have their place, but they’re definitely not advice every author (or the majority of authors) should follow.
Again, thriller writing is a specific type of craft, and as long as Brown’s advice is understood in the context of a genre populated by a lot of punchy, system-focused writing, it can be put to effective use. If, however, you’re looking for general writing tips, it would be easy to pick up some staggeringly bad habits.
In the proper context, Dan Brown has a lot to offer. In his introductory lecture, he says that he received a lot of ethereal advice when he started out, and he wants to deliver ‘nuts and bolts’ advice. His later lectures live up to this promise, and in ‘Lesson 10: Building a Story From the Ground Up’, he spends twenty minutes tackling the elements of a story one by one, even coming up with a fresh idea to use as an example.
In this and other lectures, Brown is terrific at providing examples. He frequently quotes his work, both working up new ideas and bringing in his own unpublished writing to illustrate his points. This is one of the biggest potential benefits of the MasterClass format, and one not enough of their writing lecturers have drawn upon; getting advice from an expert is one thing, but seeing examples of their work you can’t find anywhere else justifies the price tag. Brown begins his MasterClass by promising the viewer a glimpse of an unseen ‘artifact’ as a way to demonstrate suspense, and what he reveals in the final lesson is a satisfying reward, even if it’s not the most edifying thing he brought with him.
In terms of presentation, Brown is familiar and warm, frequently illustrating his points with metaphors drawn from his own life. He continually communicates that he was once a struggling author, and if you’re looking for a tutor who can convince you that you might one day reach their station, there might not be another writer on MasterClass who does it as well.
All the typical advice is present – sense writing, providing exposition through conflict, using dialogue to break up longer passages – but there are also a few nuggets presented in a unique way. Writing scenes from the perspective of the character who has most to learn is a great point well expressed, and Brown’s explanations of ‘setting the table for breakfast’ and color-coded editing are helpfully straight-forward. Perhaps the most useful piece of advice is from ‘Lesson 2: The Anatomy of a Thriller,’ in which Brown explains his ‘Three C’s.’ The first is ‘contract,’ of which he says, “You make a contract with the reader, and you don’t break it. And no promise is small enough that you don’t have to keep it. Every single promise you make to the reader, you have to keep.” This is good general advice, but it’s crucial for thriller writers, and Brown explains it clearly.
Throughout his lectures, Brown returns again and again to research and setting as the twin engines of a book. This system-focused approach is particularly relevant to thriller writing, and if you’re someone who tends to focus on setting, it’s likely Brown has a lot to say to you, not just in terms of approach, but in terms of practical tips like:
There is a point when research becomes procrastination. The fourth time you’re walking around the Guggenheim without having written a page, guess what? You know what? Now you’re a tourist, not a writer… You may be writing a chapter and get to a moment when you say, “Well, I don’t really know what this room in the Guggenheim looks like, so I can’t write anymore. I guess I’ve got to go do some more research.” Wrong. I’ll tell you what I do, I say, “Well, whatever the room looks like, I’ll probably spend about two paragraphs describing it.” I put two paragraphs of exes in my manuscript to just take the space, so I know there’s something there, and then I keep going.– Dan Brown, ‘Lesson 9: Research, Part 2’, MasterClass
MasterClass courses include more than the lectures, but the lectures are the main draw. If you’re not around when a writer arrives, you won’t be eligible for the sparse one-to-one contact they grant, but you can still benefit from the resultant Q&A.
The other major resource is the workbook that comes with each class. Brown’s is 89 pages long, though with the usual MasterClass style of headings that take up a page each and plenty of white space. The worksheets and exercises provided are useful additions, and as an improvement on earlier workbooks, there’s a significant amount of content that isn’t just rephrased from the lectures. Brown’s workbook is the first where I feel like I can say the supplementary materials actually add to the package, and it’s a resource that makes it easier to refer back to what you’ve learned a few weeks or months after a given lecture.
Dan Brown’s MasterClass is an amazing resource for thriller writers and anyone with a system-focused style of fiction. His advice isn’t suitable for every kind of author – and it’s a weakness of his lectures that he claims otherwise – but for those looking to follow a similar path, it’s probably the best package on the market. While not a game changer, the workbook is a worthwhile accompaniment to the lectures, and Brown’s presence is entirely welcome throughout.
If you try the Dan Brown MasterClass, share your opinion below, and if you’re interested in checking out other authors on the same service, try our Judy Blume MasterClass and James Patterson MasterClass reviews.