Perfect Rhythm: How Dan Brown did it in The Da Vinci Code

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Several posts ago, we looked at how to create a regular, rhythmic beat, as discussed in The Bestseller Code* (which lists Fifty Shades of Gray* and The Da Vinci Code* as the only two (adult) books with perfect curves). I proposed sequences as a good way to plot for rhythm, and in this post we’re going to see if that holds true for The Da Vinci Code.

When I was doing The Rosie Project, I said that I was relying on Eric Edson‘s* insight about Fresh News to identify the sequences: I assumed that a sequence started when the character received new information that set up a new Dramatic Question/Goal and that it ended when the question received an Answer/Fresh News.  This method of identifying sequences didn’t work for me with The Da Vinci Code, because the story poses So. Many. Questions.

So I cheated a bit. The Bestseller Code’s curve graph shows the story as having eight curves, so I separated the book into eight even sections, one every 12.5%, figuring I’d pick as the Fresh News/Dramatic Question whichever question most closely spanned each pre-identified “sequence.” But what I found was that Fresh News/Sequences is just one way to create curves. The Da Vinci Code gives us a few more.

Synopsis of The Da Vinci Code

You probably already know what DVC is about, but in case you can’t remember . . . It’s about Robert Langdon, a symbology professor, who goes on a life or death scavenger hunt to uncover the secret of the holy grail while he’s being pursued as a murder suspect. Fache pursues him; Sophie helps him; Silas and Aringarosa are righteous bad guys; and the grail expert, Teabing, is an ally/Big Bad shifter.

Sequences in The Da Vinci Code

Sequence One:  The dead museum curator
Prologue – Chapter 10, pages 1-59, 12.5%

  • Dramatic Question: What does Fache want with Langdon? (Usually these dramatic questions are phrased as yes/no questions, but to me this phrasing best sums up the sequence, in part because Brown repeats it a couple times.)
  • Content:
    • The curator is shot by Silas and proceeds to pass on his secret.
    • Langdon is woken up by Paris police and taken to the Louvre, where he’s questioned, recorded, and tracked by Fache.
    • Sophie arrives and tells Langdon to call the US embassy.
  • Dramatic Answer: Langdon is Fache’s prime murder suspect.
  • Progress Forward: Sophie convinces Langdon that unless he wants to be arrested he needs to “escape the Louvre.”
  • Emotional Shift: DVC starts below neutral and goes lower: Denial and desperation of the curator (-) to Langon being “in danger” (- -)
  • Notes:
    • Langdon learns he’s the murder suspect right at 12.5 percent (1/8th into the story, perfectly placed for a trough curve), but we, the readers, don’t learn he’s a murder suspect for another couple chapters; we just know he’s “in danger.” That said, Langdon starts working on his sequence-two activity right away, at the beginning of sequence two, while we’re held in suspense.
    • Brown appears to strategically place his characters’ backstories to support the story’s curves. Negative backstories support troughs; positive backstories support peaks. This sequence begins with lighthearted backstory about Langdon’s embarrassing introduction (“Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”) at a talk he gave earlier in the evening, and it ends with Silas’s backstory, full of beatings and filth, underscoring the trough of Langdon being in danger.

Sequence Two:  The bar of soap
Chapters 11-23, pages 60-114, 25%

  • Dramatic Question: Will Langdon “escape the Louvre”?
  • Content:
    • Sophie throws Langdon’s tracking device–in a bar of soap–out the window.
    • Langdon deciphers O, Draconian Devil, Oh Lame Saint as they make their way to the Louvre’s exit.
    • Fache tracks down the bar of soap.
    • Silas arrives at the church where he thinks the brotherhood keeps its secret.
  • Dramatic Answer: No, Langdon won’t escape the Louvre, because he realizes Sophie still needs his help with the “treasure hunt.”
  • Progress Forward: Langdon races back to the Mona Lisa, where the curator likely left another clue.
  • Emotional Shift: Langdon’s “ashen expression” as if receiving “bad news” (-) to Langdon’s awe and excitement (+)
  • Notes:
    • We again receive backstory that supports the peaking curve: Sophie remembers treasure hunting for birthday presents with her grandfather.
    • Brown’s characters frequently learn and act on Fresh News before the reader learns the Fresh News. As a result, his sequences seem to blend into each other, making them hard to delineate. In this sequence, for example, after Langdon races back to the Mona Lisa there’s still several pages of backstory and other character scenes before the sequence (as I’ve defined it) ends. I decided the sequence ended when it did because (i) the soap/tracking dot is thrown at the beginning of the sequence and found right at the end, perfectly at 25%; and because (ii) despite being in the Mona Lisa’s vicinity for part of sequence two, Langdon and Sophie don’t actively look for the Mona Lisa clue until after the soap is found. (This same kind of delay technique happens again between sequences four and five and between sequences six and seven.)

Sequence Three:  The square-cross key
Chapters 24-40, pages 115-172, 37.8%

  • Dramatic Question: Will they decipher the Mona Lisa clue?
  • Content:
    • Sophie and Langdon find a key and drive to the address written on it (with pitstops at the US embassy and a train station to evade Fache).
    • Silas finds a dead end at the church and repents for killing a nun.
    • Fache continues his search for Langdon.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, it’s a key to a Swiss bank safety deposit box.
  • Progress Forward: Use the key to find out what’s in the box.
  • Emotional Shift: “Silas smiled” and “Fache realized the answers were in the palm of his hand” (+) to Langdon’s doubt and surliness (-)
  • Notes:
    • This chapter had another lighthearted flashback at the beginning of the sequence but nothing too negative at the end (though Silas does give us some negativity as he punishes himself for killing the nun). This is all reflected in the graph, where the trough is more pothole than valley.
    • As with the soap, Brown once again caps off this sequence (as I’ve defined it, ending perfectly at 37.5%), explicitly stating that the key “mystery was solved.”

Sequence Four:  The curator’s box of secrets
Chapters 41-54, pages 173-228, 50%

  • Dramatic Question: Will they figure out how to get into the curator’s box of secrets?
  • Content:
    • Langdon and Sophie figure out how to open the safety deposit box.
    • The bank president helps them escape then tries to rob them.
    • Leigh Teabing invites them in to talk about the Grail.
    • Aringarosa receives Vatican bonds, which he plans to give to the Teacher in exchange for the keystone.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, but not completely. They figure out how to open the box of secrets that is the safety deposit box, but they can’t figure out how to open the box of secrets that is the cryptex found inside.
  • Progress Forward: Langdon decides they need help from the foremost Grail expert.
  • Emotional Shift: Aringarosa “fighting the reflex to shiver” (-) to Langdon “grinned” and “looked amused” (+)
  • Notes:
    • The sequences blend into each other again as Langdon and Sophie spend part of sequence four driving to Leigh Teabing’s castle estate, but, again, they don’t start actively asking him their questions until we hit 50%/sequence five.
    • No backstory here to support the curve. Instead, Brown introduces Leigh Teabing, a funny character with lighthearted dialogue, which helps the curve reach a peak at the end of this sequence.

Sequence Five:  The Holy Grail, a history
Chapters 54-66, pages 229-282, 62.1%

  • Dramatic Question: Will the grail expert help them?
  • Content:
    • The grail expert tells Langdon and Sophie the history of the holy grail.
    • Langdon and Sophie show him the cryptex.
    • Silas tries to rob them of the cryptex.
    • The police hear shots and enter the house only to find it empty.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, the grail expert will explain the grail and help them escape Silas and the police.
  • Progress Forward: As part of their escape, the grail expert flies them to London, where the grail is supposedly hidden.
  • Emotional Shift: “The smile that grew on Teabing’s face was almost obscene” (+) to Langdon being hit on the head and Collet knowing “he was in trouble” (-)
  • Notes: This scene-question’s answer looks like a straight yes, but it’s actually a yes, but, with the but delayed until sequence eight.

Sequence Six:  The White Cryptex (Escape to London)
Chapters 67-81, pages 283-336, 74%

  • Dramatic Question: Will they figure out how to open the cryptex?
  • Content:
    • Langdon, Sophie, Teabing, his manservant, and a bound Silas all fly to Kent and, while in the air, try to figure out the cryptex password.
    • Fache’s team chases them.
    • Aringarosa chases them.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, they figure out the password, but there’s another cryptex inside.
  • Progress Forward: The second cryptex’s password is an orb that should be on the tomb of a knight a pope interred, in London. Good thing they flew to London.
  • Emotional Shift: “Langdon forced a pained smile” (-) to Langdon and Sophie escaping the police and more of Teabing’s grinning (+)
  • Notes:
    • Brown just might be aware of his sequences. Right at the beginning of this one, Langdon opens the box the cryptex is in, and the grail expert tells him to wait. It’s like Brown’s talking to the reader. “Yeah, reader, I remember the cyptex; that’s what this sequence is about. I’m reminding you now so you can enjoy the anticipation while we check in on the other characters; I’ve got a couple things to set up before we figure out the password.”
    • Brown repeats this “reminder” technique at the end of the sequence, when the characters find the second cryptex. There’s another riddle, but Brown reveals only the first line, keeping us in suspense, and the main characters in a sort of holding pattern, while he deals with other characters. Then, once sequence seven begins, Brown immediately reveals the rest of the riddle and the characters get busy solving it.
    • For the most part, all of the characters (not just Langdon) have specific, finite goals/actions for each sequence.

Sequence Seven:  The Knight’s Tomb
Chapters 82-96, pages 337-394, 86.7%

  • Dramatic Question: Will they discover the knight’s tomb with the missing orb?
  • Content:
    • Langdon and Sophie follow Teabing’s red herring and then visit a library, where they learn the tomb is for Sir Isaac Newton at Westminster Abby.
    • Silas and Remy kidnap Teabing and all die or appear to die, as does Aringarosa.
    • Fache realizes Langdon is innocent even as he continues his pursuit in England.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, they discover the correct tomb, but what’s the missing orb?
  • Progress Forward: Find the tomb’s missing orb that is the password to the black cryptex.
  • Emotional Shift: Langdon “hoping” (+) to Silas accidentally shooting Aringarosa (-)
  • Notes: If you look at this graph, you’ll notice half of the curves don’t rise or fall much further than the neutral mark. There are only three significant peaks/troughs. This means that you can take heart if your story doesn’t lend itself to killing off characters to achieve troughs or . . . I don’t know what the equivalent would be to achieve peaks, but you probably don’t have to go to that extreme either. But you should hit your story’s extremes, whatever they are, at least once or twice. (That is, make a point to reach your story’s highest peak and your story’s deepest trough).

Sequence Eight:  The Black Cryptex
Chapter 97-Epilogue, pages 395-454, 100%

  • Dramatic Question: Will Langdon figure out where the grail is hidden?
  • Content:
    • Langdon and Sophie visit the tomb, realize the password is apple, open the cryptex, and follow its clue to Scotland, where Sophie is reunited with her remaining family.
    • Teabing is revealed as the Teacher/Big Bad. (This is the delayed ‘but’ from sequence five.)
    • Fache contemplates retirement.
  • Dramatic Answer: Yes, but Langdon’s first guess for the grail’s current location–the Rosslyn Chapel–is wrong. However, this red herring unites Sophie with her grandmother, who thinks Langdon will eventually realize the riddle’s true answer/the grail’s true location.
  • Progress Forward: Langdon heads back to France, where he realizes the Grail treasure is hidden beneath the inverted pyramid at the Louvre.
  • Emotional Shift: Narration about how many people are buried at Westminster and Landon feeling “the outside world evaporate” and “deafening silence” (-) to Langdon falling to his knees “with a sudden upwelling of reverence” (+)
  • Notes: To give this last sequence a positive emotional boost, Brown has Sophie remember fond memories of deciphering code on the ceiling of the Rosslyn with her grandfather, just before reuniting her with her family.

Brown’s Perfect Curves Techniques

  1. Use backstory to support your curves. Place your story’s most negative backstory at the end of downward-trending sequences, creating troughs, and place positive backstory at the end of upward-trending sequences, creating peaks.
  2. Use characters to support your curves. Introduce or feature the most funny or lighthearted characters around peaks and the most surly or violent of characters around troughs.
  3. Control your pacing using sequences. Give your main characters a goal to accomplish in each sequence. If they happen to finish that goal quickly, before the sequence is over, keep the characters in a holding pattern–and the readers in suspense–by (i) withholding all or part of the new information/Fresh News/progress forward and/or (i) keeping the characters from acting on the Fresh News until the start of the next sequence. (See sequence two, six, seven)
  4. Keep your readers’ trust. On the “withholding” technique’s flip side, if you want to delay the characters’ active pursuit of their sequence goal until later in the sequence, remind the reader that you know what Fresh News/progress forward is currently in play and that you (the characters) plan to get to it soon. (See sequence six)
  5. Cap off your sequences. Let the reader know when sequence goals have been accomplished. (See sequence two, three)

Craft Books Mentioned in this Post

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Well, that’s it for me. What about you?  What sorts of tricks for achieving peaks and troughs have you seen in the DVC or elsewhere? Tell us in the comments!

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I’m still plugging away on scenes. I think I’ve read about 20 of the 60 books I have that talk about scenes, but I’m probably more like halfway done, because I started with the books that were solely about scenes (as opposed to books that have just a section or chapter about scenes). Also, I’m having fun with these rhythm/sequences posts–and learning a lot of tricks–so I’ll probably do Fifty Shades of Gray and maybe a few more of the books listed in The Bestseller Code. I think I have one of the Tom Clancy books it mentions. Anyway, see you soon!

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