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S2/E21: MasterClass: Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

Updated: Aug 1

Hello – and welcome to Season 2 Episode 21 of The Rookie Writer Show! I’m Robin Knabel, and I will be your host today. Outside of my guest host spots on here, you can also find me on the Unsettling Reads podcast, where Dair and I co-host and discuss spoiler-free book reviews. I’m also on Twitter @LaConteuse as well as Robin Knabel on Instagram.

Today, I am reviewing the MasterClass Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers. I was really excited when Dair asked me to review his class. I gathered so much useful information for my own writing and probably took a few too many notes. No regrets, though, and I plan to use what I have learned as I go forward.


There are 19 segments in this class, and each one held my attention. Brown is an excellent instructor, which makes sense. Prior to focusing his full attention on writing, he taught English at his alma mater, Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy. His father was a math teacher, and he was raised on a prep school campus. He commented in the course that, since he grew up in an academic setting, his heroes happen to be teachers. It is not a coincidence that his famous hero character Robert Langdon is a professor.


As for Dan Brown, he is the author of numerous #1 bestselling novels, including The Da Vinci Code, which has become one of the best selling novels of all time. His books are published in 56 languages around the world with over 200 million copies in print, and at least three have been made into motion pictures. He was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine in 2005, and he currently resides in New England with his yellow lab Winston. When I finished the MasterClass, I wanted to find a quiet place and read every one of his books. His enthusiasm is contagious when it comes to writing fiction.


As I mentioned a little bit ago, there are 19 segments in total. There is a lot of knowledge in this class. Though the notes I jotted down are lengthy, I was able to whittle them down and pinpoint three tips you can use in your writing, too.


Three Things


1. THE THREE C’S: Brown is adamant that there are elements that must be in a story to make it work, not just thrillers but all stories – even a memoir or a screen play. He says it’s about storytelling, and the elements are present in all good stories. We are going to focus on thrillers in this episode, and I am going to touch on what he refers to as the three C’s: The contract, the clock, and the crucible.

  1. The contract is the promise that you’re making to the reader. The idea that if you read this book, you will find out the following piece of information. For example, will the young attorney escape the corrupt law firm that hired him? No promise is small enough that you don’t have to keep it. When you make a contract with the reader, you don’t break it. Readers will trust you as a writer if you keep your promise and give them answers to all the questions you raise throughout the book.

  2. The clock is a sense of time pressure. It’s a ticking clock that is looming in the background. This is what builds the excitement and the urgency in the story. That time pressure is key to the genre of the thriller.

  3. The crucible is something that holds things together and doesn’t let them escape. It’s an idea of saying don’t let your characters run away. The hero needs to face the obstacles and the dangers, because that is what is going to make that character heroic. Give him or her one way out, full of personal challenge, which will make the finale of the thriller fulfilling and satisfying.

2. EXPOSITION & DIALOGUE: Here’s what Brown has to say about these two components of fiction.

  1. Exposition: Brown says to bring your exposition to life by appealing to your readers’ senses. If you are writing a bar scene, don’t just say it was dark and smoky. What song is playing on the juke box? What does it smell like in the room? Talk about the grit on the floor beneath your shoes as you are walking. Make the readers feel like they are there. Also, describe an area or an object through your characters’ eyes. Eyes travel and scan. Show the reader that experience, don’t jump from item description to item description. Express it in the same way the reader would experience it with his or her own eyes.

  2. Dialogue: He says “the best writing is writing that simply communicates and tells a story.” If you use words that a reader has to stop to look up, you’ve taken the reader out of the story. That’s the last thing you want to do. Use prose that is accessible, transparent, and serves the story. Make sure the language fits the character and the book you are writing.

3. RESEARCH: Dan Brown loves to do research. One of his favorite techniques is to interview experts or specialists that can give you accurate info that will make your story more believable. There are some things you just can’t learn from books. When you speak to an individual and ask questions about a specific topic, not only will you get information for your story, you can get insight into a character. By listening to the person answer your prepared and well thought out questions, you might get ideas for character traits based on how that person speaks or acts. The dialog and the vocab you get from an actual conversation can benefit you in multiple ways. He says that real information results in more interesting books. One of his comments really resonated with me. He said that people are eager to talk about the stuff they’re passionate about. As I was listening to him teach, I could feel his passion for writing coming through in his words. It really brought life to the class. One caveat, though, is not to let research become procrastination. The goal is to finish the book.

*Hack: One aspect of writing that some writers seem to struggle with is editing. One hack that Dan Brown does is color-coding his edits. If he is going through his manuscript and feels portions of a chapter are doing what they set out to do, he keeps that text in black. If something is a total disaster and needs to be reworked, he changes that text to red as a reminder that he still needs to work on that section..

Wisdom from Dan Brown to other writers: This piece of wisdom is a bit of advice he received many years ago. He wrote it on a sticky note and stuck it where he could be reminded of it.

“Protect the process, and the results will take care of themselves.”

Make the time to do the work. Be persistent. Stick with it.

There are two ways to access this MasterClass.

  1. Individual classes cost $90 each and you have access to them forever.

  2. The all-access pass costs $180 annually ($15/month) and gives you access to every class. And right now, they’re having a buy one, give one free, which is an awesome deal!! Other categories of classes besides writing include classes on film/television, music/entertainment, culinary arts, business/politics/society, sports/games, design/photography/fashion, science/technology, and lifestyle. It’s important to note that you don’t get access to them once you cancel your subscription.

  3. The Rookie Writer is not an affiliate of MasterClass. We just think they rock.

I hope this was helpful to you! Next week, I’ll be back to discuss Louise Tondeur’s online class entitled Starting to write on Udemy. I can’t wait to hear what advice she has to offer to new writers.


In other news: Dair and I recently posted a new episode of our new podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of The Merry Spinster by Daniel M. Laverly (As Mallory Ortberg) and browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. You can find it all at www.UnsettlingReads.com.


Until then. . .


Happy writing, people!

Robin Knabel


Check out these books by Dan Brown

Please note: Contains Affiliate Links. Amazon will throw a small referral fee my way without increasing the cost to you in any way.

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