Do you sometimes itch to pinpoint why exactly a story affects you in a certain way?
I do. My friend did, in the case of Dan Brown’s Inferno. “What makes it ‘unputdownable’?” she wanted to know. So here are some thoughts on it — for her and for you, if you care to learn more about the mechanisms of a best-selling novel.
The promise of answers
How does a story interest the reader in reading on? We all know the answer: by exciting his curiosity. But more precisely, it is by creating in his mind specific questions, important enough for him to want answers, that the author lures the reader on.
A wealth of questions
I did not count all the questions Inferno raised in my mind from cover to cover; I counted only those in the Prologue and Chapter One, which I assume are a representative sample.
The total is eleven.
What does this really mean? In order to put this number in context, we can compare it to that of the classic adventure novel par excellence: The Three Musketeers. In its First Chapter, the number of questions raised is only four. But not only are Inferno’s questions almost three times as many as those of The Three Musketeers; the total number of words in Inferno’s Prologue and Chapter One put together make only half of the total number of words in The Three Musketeers’s First Chapter.
Dan Brown actually makes the reader ask himself over five times more questions than Alexandre Dumas.
If this pattern continues throughout – and I see no reason to think it does not – it is easy to understand the voracious curiosity that takes hold of the reader.
Beginning at the middle, ending before the end
Conjuring up a great many questions, then, is the key. There are at least three ways Dan Brown does that.
- First, starting the story in the middle instead of the beginning. When Langdon, the protagonist, wakes up in Chapter One, much of the story has happened already. We don’t know what has happened, only that it was important; and this is used to make us ask questions about the past as well as the present.
- A second technique consists of using many different points of view. If we were constantly with Langdon, the number of questions we could ask would be limited to one place, one moment, and one mind; but since we are given glimpses of other characters’ thoughts, when most of them are in different places and moments, the number of questions possible grows enormously.
- As for the third technique, it consists of ending a scene – or stopping it temporarily – before revealing what is its most important piece of information; moving to another scene which raises more questions; then moving back and revealing that information. As an example, in the scene where Sienna shows Langdon the “biological hazard” tube, the reader is not told what she is showing him beyond that it is a “bright metal object”. At this point the scene shifts to Knowlton on board the Mendacium, and only after his thoughts have given rise to a few more questions in our minds does the scene shift back to Langdon and reveal what the metal object is.
These three techniques are all applications of the same principle: the writer must keep the reader’s reservoir of questions from descending below a certain level.
Another instance of this is when Langdon shakes off a pursuer, but almost immediately gets another on his tail. This succession of different dangers keeps the reader’s curiosity in a state of agitation more intense than what would be created by maintaining the same pursuer throughout.
High stakes, little time
Besides these, at least two other elements create and maintain the story’s momentum: high stakes and a fast-approaching deadline.
- As regards the first, let us suppose that instead of chasing a bag of bacteria that are going to destroy half of humanity, Langdon were after a bag of air-spread algae that will turn all the swimming pools in the world into disgusting greenish ponds. There: your interest has just dwindled to an insignificant fraction of its former magnitude, and rightly so: green swimming pools? What kind of tragedy is that? For the reader’s interest to be high, the stakes must be high.
- Then, the deadline. Forget the swimming pools and revert back to the lethal bacteria, only instead of twenty-four hours to find them, Langdon has six months. You feel it: your excitement diminishes in proportion to the deceleration of the story’s tempo.
Plot and moral argument
To sum up, if I were to define the main cause of Inferno’s “unputdownability” in one line, I would say it is a heavy emphasis on plot.
As we know, plot is defined as the sum total of the events in the story, their timing, and the order in which they are revealed to characters and reader. To say a story emphasizes plot amounts to saying that the reader’s interest is based more on what happened/will happen when, how and why, than on the characters, their qualities, faults and the decisions they take under pressure.
Now, was this a winning strategy for Inferno? As far as sales go, the answer is obviously yes. The book is a bestseller. And we could leave it at that.
The right balance
However, I’d like to invite the reader to go further and question this strategy. It is easy to see why ideally, a story should keep character and plot in some sort of balance: lean too far to one side, and we have little more than psychological analysis; lean exaggeratedly to the other, and we have events without any meaning beyond themselves. If the purpose of a story, as John Truby says, is to convey the author’s vision of what the world is and how to act in it, both extremes should be avoided.
What if the author has no intention of conveying any vision? It can certainly happen (though I believe no story is totally devoid of moral vision). But it seems to me this is not the case of Inferno. If we look at the quotation with which the author opens the book, we see it is openly and unmistakably a moral vision:
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
Given the very prominent placing of this quote, it is perfectly logical to assume this is the author’s vision, to be conveyed and argued for by the story that follows.
And this is confirmed when at the end of the book this sentence comes up again, this time as the major realization of the protagonist.
Effective argument: character change and structure
So far, all is correct. We have a moral vision, and we have our character understand and embrace it by the end of our story. But this is not the complete process; if we want to argue convincingly, our moral vision must be pitched against an opposing vision, and proved to be its superior.
And it is this conflict of ideas that is almost absent from Inferno.
The only instances of confrontation between the opposing ideas of taking a stand in face of a crisis vs. denying its existence are three:
- the meeting between Zobrist and WHO director Dr. Sinskey;
- the talk between Langdon and Sienna in Chapter Fifty;
- the meeting between Sienna and Dr. Sinskey at the end.
This is not enough; in order for this conflict to really impact the reader, it should happen not only verbally, three times in the entire story; it should be part of the story’s very design, of its structure and its characters.
As regards the characters, none of them believes in or practices denial of the dangers of overpopulation; they just have different ways of tackling the problem. Even Langdon, who presumably did not concern himself with this issue before the story begins, does not refuse to be involved with it at any moment. On the contrary, the story is possible precisely because he refuses to be indifferent to the outcome, and takes a stand not to help the Consortium.
If on the other hand we had a major character – it need not necessarily be Langdon – who started out shrugging his shoulders and saying “Overpopulation? Not my problem!” but under the impact of events gradually changed his mind and by the end of the story embraced his share of responsibility for this issue, then we’d have a moral vision integrated to structure and character, and therefore more convincing and exercising a greater impact on the reader.
It would be, by the way, a moral argument similar to that of Casablanca, considered by some the best screenplay ever written.
A good story — but no more
Dan Brown had an very good point to make: it is wrong to deny a crisis: one has to take a stand. However, by prioritizing the immediate attractiveness of his story – its “unputdownability” – he weakened its substance, and the argument went unnoticed.
Don’t take me wrong: I agree Inferno is a good story. Millions read it, and that is proof of its author’s excellence in the technique of catching and keeping the reader’s interest. Yet one can’t help wondering how many people read the novel for a second or a third time, and what they took away from it.
And that is the test of a truly great story.
© Beatriz Becker