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On Writing Rules: Watching Trish Watch The Da Vinci Code

One lazy Saturday a couple months ago I emerged from a couple hours of writing in the office to find Trish sitting on the couch in the living room watching The Da Vinci Code. She’d seen it before — I’m pretty sure I went to see it at the theater with her — and she’s read all the books in the series.

So I can’t say I was shocked to find her watching it. I was a little bit surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. After we watched it the first time, we’d discussed the movie, and it was pretty clear then that she thought the story was okay. Nothing phenomenal, but good enough to fill up a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I gave her a kiss on the cheek, popped into the kitchen for a refill of soda, and then it was absolutely my intention to head back to the office and dive back into my writing. I didn’t.

I tarried in the living room, listening to Gandalf explain elusive truths to the renowned academic and the highly-trained police officer. I sank down on the other couch, and listened to the whole thing. I kept glancing over at Trish to see if she was really enjoying this. Or maybe she’d fallen asleep! I kept hoping that was the explanation. But no. She was just watching the movie, waiting patiently for it to get back into the action.

Well…she was probably waiting patiently for me to go back to my office, too. I kept making a nuisance of myself, though. I growled at things the characters were saying. I laughed out loud. More than once I threw myself to my feet, anxious to launch into a tirade. For the most part, I restrained myself. It would have been satisfying…but I’d already put Trish through everything I had to say about this movie at least once.

And it wasn’t her fault. It’s not like she egregiously misrepresented easily-verifiable historical facts to prop up a flimsy plot that’s significantly less interesting than the actual historical account. So why should she suffer for it?

(Now you could pointedly ask why you should suffer for it, but I’m not even going to dignify that question with a response. Because I haven’t really got one. If you’re not interested in hearing me rant about Dan Brown, come back on Sunday for some handy tips on improving your writing workload with a little bit of computer programming.)

She finally had mercy, just before the big chase scene, and paused the movie so I could go ahead and rant. And I did, and she nodded along, listening patiently, and then when I got done she said, “But he’s not writing a history book. He’s writing fiction. What’s wrong with him making stuff up? You write fiction, and you make stuff up all the time.”

I sputtered to a stop at that point — not because I had no answer, but because the answer is a terribly technical one that mostly only matters to writers. (See? See? That’s why you should suffer for it!)

As it happened, several weeks later she was wondering aloud why aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s writing that irritated the snot out of her didn’t bother other Twilight fans she knew. I got the chance to smile knowingly and explain in excruciating detail that it was essentially the same issue. And if there’s one thing I enjoy more than an opportunity to smile knowingly, it’s an opportunity to explain something in excruciating detail.

Fair Play in Storytelling

There are two significant elements at play in both of those scenarios. One is taste, and I’ve got very little to say about that. Different readers expect different things from the stories they read, and when it comes to that there’s no right way or wrong way.

There are a lot of people who enjoy a Stephenie Meyer-style fantasy adventure (read “Victorian romance”). There are a lot of people who crave the fast-paced plot and bite-sized academia of a Dan Brown thriller.

I’ll make snide comments in parentheses, but there’s nothing wrong with liking that kind of writing, and there’s nothing wrong with writing it, either. Both of those authors have proven that they’re undeniably the right styles for them to be writing, even if it’s not something I want to read.

The other element in play, though, is fundamental storytelling, and that’s what got me so upset with Magneto’s spectacular misrepresentation of Constantinian biography. There are rules in writing that have nothing to do with style, and everything to do with respecting your readers, and those rules aren’t at all flexible. Good writers get them right.

Come back tomorrow for some discussion of fair play in storytelling, and an introduction to one of the most important writing rules: verisimilitude.

2 Responses to “On Writing Rules: Watching Trish Watch The Da Vinci Code”

  1. Shirls says:

    Okay… but what about Macbeth? I understand Shakespeare took quite a few liberties with that story.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s an excellent question, Shirls! Sorry it took me so long to answer (one way or another).

      Today’s blog post should have addressed it pretty clearly, but when it comes right down to it I don’t have any real objections to the historical inaccuracies in Macbeth or Braveheart or The Patriot, even. Those all play pretty fast and loose with history, and I’m okay with that.

      Why? Because they’re dramatizations of history. From the first act, it’s pretty clear that the writer is setting out here to tell a fascinating story using some bit of history as his setting. That’s premise.

      In The Da Vinci Code (at least in the movie version), the warped history isn’t given as premise or setting, it’s given as explanation for doubtful or downright unbelievable things occurring in the plot.

      It would be like me writing a Law & Order style mystery novel, where the reader’s going along for the ride, trying to figure out the complex web of means and motives and opportunities, and then late in the story my detectives meet with a prominent forensic scientist who casually explains to them, “Oh, no, it’s quite common for killers to wish their victims to death and leave no sign of foul play or any evidence whatsoever.”

      That could make for a kind of interesting story (and it would be a great trick to pull on page one), but late in the story it completely undermines the entire foundation the reader’s experience is built on.