The Da Vinci Formula
The Da Vinci Code’s Formula For Success


(Note - This article was originally produced for a writers' magazine, whose feature articles are not available online. It was written in February 2006, before the Holy Blood, Holy Grail versus The Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial came to court in London. In the event, the court dismissed Baignent and Leigh's suit against Dan Brown's publishers, but noted enough similarities between TDVC and HBHG to allow the case to go to appeal.)

To some, The Da Vinci Code represents the greatest literary mystery ever. The mystery is: how on earth did this ever become the world’s top bestseller, making Dan Brown the world’s wealthiest author? This, to many, is the book’s great secret – not the ‘revelations’ about art and Christianity, all of which have been made public before.
Press coverage has focused on the book’s similarities to earlier works (now the subject of plagiarism suits), on the inaccuracies in its claim to have a completely factual background (which has led to a dozen subsequent nonfiction books), and on the ‘potboiler’ writing– the unconvincing plotting, the stock villains and characters with in-joke names. Beyond press commentators’ own cynical, self-serving conclusion the public will buy anything sensational, this offers no real answer to the mystery. How did this book ever become ‘the biggest selling adult book ever’, earning the author £140 million in three years? By examining the book’s predecessors, we can see its success as the outcome of the convergence of several lines of development in popular writing trends.

The Development Of The ‘Film-Friendly’ Novel
The first line of development began when cinema as the 20th-century’s dominant art form began to change how novels were written. At first, when cinema emerged from its fleapit beginnings, seeking some respectability, it turned to a natural (and free) source, the out-of-copyright classics of English literature. However, since Dickens, magazine serialisation had allowed popular novels to develop into massive works that could depict an entire society at a moment in time, with a length and a complexity that usually made them unsuited to the limitations of the silent feature film. Even when the arrival of talkies made dramatisation in theory no more difficult than the practice of turning novel into a stage play (another regular source of material), and the Hollywood studios hired literary talents like Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner as screenwriters, the novel’s ever-growing psychological complexity, post-Freud, made it difficult to create a Hollywood dramatisation focussing on external action and dialogue that would work within popular storytelling conventions.
The most practical source of stories for the film industry was the fiction-magazine market, especially its ‘genre’ writings. The ten-cent ‘pulp’ magazines offered familiar themes told as straightforward, filmable narratives in the form of short stories, novellas and serials. Knowing commercial publication was the gateway to selling film rights, Hollywood writers began to rework original screenplays into novels and short stories. While the European novel would experiment with new artistic forms, the American would rely on straightforward ‘film-friendly’ narrative.
However, since accepting manuscripts left Hollywood producers open to plagiarism lawsuits, they still refused to look at submissions of un-agented unpublished novels and stories. On the other hand, to pre-empt bidding wars on future-bestseller rights and give themselves necessary lead-time (it takes 1-2 years to get a feature film produced) to get a film out before the book disappeared off the bestseller charts, producers adopted a more proactive approach. This was to have ‘the property’ (as books had now become) read while it was at the publishers, with either staff or contract publisher’s ‘readers’ paid to submit reports on the suitability of manuscripts for screen adaptation.
It didn’t take long for writers and agents to conspire to create a workaround here – a kind of literary forgery, which became more practical with the advent of word processors and photo-typesetting computers in the 1970s. A personal example will illustrate how this worked. While working in publishing in the late 70s, I was asked by a small-time agent to help turn a client’s original screenplay into what would appear to be the proofs of a novel, in the final pre-printing format then used, called bound galleys. A set of these was prepared, under a publisher imprint that was really just the producer using an ad hoc DBA name and a PO Box. This was then circulated among LA producers to get the film rights optioned, at which point (the author was told), the novel would be published properly, printed with the cover sticker ‘Soon to be a major motion picture.’
For the market-minded writer, the simplest method was to write up a film idea first as a script treatment (a 30-50pp outline with scenes filled in) and expand this into a novel, and find an agent who represented both authors and scriptwriters to handle the film and literary rights together. This looks suspiciously like the case with TDVC, which according to Brown’s UK publisher, Transworld’s Bill Scott-Kerr, arrived as a 60-page ‘proposal’ (treatment?) for which he offered an advance of over £10,000 for its “breakneck storytelling and use of irresistible arcane knowledge.” To anyone who has ever seen a draft screenplay, TDVC, with its fast pace, ‘pulp’ style, cross-cut scenes, minimal descriptive writing, and reliance on dialogue for exposition, looks suspiciously like one.

First-Person Fiction, And Non-fiction
Day Of The Jackal This meeting of fast-paced storytelling and arcane knowledge was also an outcome of a development within publishing itself.
Popular literature itself had developed a genre-literature format that would be taken up by cinema and then television – the ‘procedural.’ With a narrative framework derived from the case reports written by police and private investigators, it became popular as an antidote to the contrivances of early English detective fiction. This had been criticised by Anglo-American crime writer Raymond Chandler, in a famous essay, as utterly unrealistic. Working in the pulp market, he pioneered the crime-mystery procedural as a first-person narrative in the stories told by his private eye Philip Marlowe. The later ‘police procedural’, now so familiar from television drama, would focus more on the ‘plod’ of team investigations. The multiple 3rd-person narrative viewpoints possible here allowed the cross-cutting which would be a central feature of the film or TV version.
This ‘police procedural’ interbred with the more modern conspiracy thriller genre in the 1970s, with former journalist Frederick Forsyth’s eye-opening bestseller The Day Of The Jackal. This international-manhunt tale was a bit of ‘untold’ postwar history with a factual, well-researched Anglo-French background of secret organisations and their intrigues. It was marketed as ‘faction’ – a mix of fact and fiction, with a central question remaining unanswered: “How much of it is really true?”
The next step was the bestseller detailing the uncovering of some nonfiction story as a behind-the-scenes autobiographical ‘procedural’ account. This developed in the 1970s with the post-Watergate rise of investigative journalism, at a time when many were questioning authority in all its forms, and controversial ‘alternative history of mankind’ books began selling. These questioned orthodox science (von Daniken’s Chariots Of The Gods) and orthodox religion, notably the 1982 bestseller, The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. This has just been republished in a revised edition after its credit in The Da Vinci Code as a source put it back on the NY Times bestseller list.
Holy Blood, Holy GrailAs such real-life conspiracy-oriented procedurals as Holy Blood, Holy Grail deal with essentially unresolvable mysteries, they tend to be not just open-ended and open-minded about findings, but open and transparent about the research process itself. That is, the researchers would write the book as a personal narrative of discovery. Even if in the end, no ‘smoking gun’ evidence was found, the procedural framework still offered the ingredients of a genre thriller, with built-in suspense as the investigator ran up against official silence, sinister-seeming coincidences and the like. Holy Blood, Holy Grail included behind-the-scenes exposition of pursuing documents disappearing from public archives, or else planted there by the same ‘Priory Of Sion’ group Brown cites. HBHG co-authors Baignent and Leigh (whose name is jokily conflated in TDVC as the treacherous ‘Sir Leigh Teabing’) are currently suing Brown for plagiarism, in a case said to be a first - where nonfiction has allegedly been unfairly reworked as fiction which claims a factual basis.
Behind-the-scenes exposition actually played only a supporting role in HBHG. An earlier precedent, more in line with the genre’s roots in crime-investigation fiction, is the book that added Freemasonry to the list of secret societies involved in grand plots to cover up history. The chain of evidence in Stephen Knight’s 1973 Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution has been attacked by furious veteran ‘Ripperologists’, but it had a powerful novelty in its central use of a first-person behind-the-scenes narrative, describing how the young London journalist followed up the various clues, while presenting documentary evidence directly to the reader. Like HBHG, it also involved analysis of paintings (here, Sickert rather than Poussin) for clues. It was influential with its ‘people in high places, their names would astound you’ thesis of Masons in the top echelons of the police, Whitehall and the Palace involved historically in cover-ups. Brown’s next book, The Solomon Key, will have Robert Langdon investigating how the USA was founded on a Masonic framework (something which may not please HBHG authors Baignent and Leigh, who wrote of this in their Templar-roots-of-Masonry book The Temple And The Lodge).

The ‘Real-Life Indiana Jones’
The Indiana Jones film series also had a role to play here, as a foundation for Brown’s story setup, regarding what is called in TV the ‘series premise.’ With both ‘Indie’ and Brown’s ‘Professor Robert Langdon’, the hero is a professor whose area of expertise enables him to crack ancient codes. Despite his day job as a Harvard-type university lecturer, he is free to travel abroad, pursuing occult mysteries whose clues are in religious art and architecture, while he and his attractive female companion outwit murderous rivals.
Publishers’ blurbs now routinely refer to certain authors writing since the 1980s about the role of the Knights Templar and the ‘holy blood, holy grail’ mystery as ‘real-life Indiana Jones’. These are writers such as Andrew Collins, author of ‘psychic questing’ books like his 2005 Twenty-First Century Grail, and Graham Phillips, author of the just-republished The Virgin Mary Conspiracy. Although their works of course lack the films’ comic-book violence and cliff-hanging escapes, these real-life counterparts’ own stories are still marked by striking coincidences, the discovery of clues in ancient manuscripts and paintings and other art treasures.
The ‘literary detection story’ focusing on clues in old manuscripts is in fact a long-standing story setup, which can cross genre boundaries to include Inspector Morse, M.R. James ghost stories, Dennis Wheatley style occult thrillers, and ‘literary’ novels. Nevertheless the ‘old manuscript’ here is always as fictional as the main story. With HBHG and its real-life follow-ons, the key difference was that the manuscripts involved (medieval romances, chronicles, lost gospels) are real – allowing interested readers to do their own follow-up research.

Convergence: ‘Read The Book, Go On The Quest…’
The next step was to offer this factual mystery in easy-to-read fictional thriller format, for the millions who normally would not tackle the more complex nonfiction works. This is where TDVC came in. It has a frontispiece headed ‘Fact’ that inverts the usual “Any resemblance to…” disclaimer, saying the places and organisations described are all real. By openly claiming at the outset its clues were all factual, it opened up the genre to readers as a prospective DIY spiritual quest and treasure hunt. This possibility of reader participation has led to package tours and official tourism brochures for independent travellers who want to follow in the footsteps of the characters.
With the exception of HBHG (whose co-author Henry Lincoln still conducts local tours of book locations), earlier works lacked this DIY-quest aspect. American writer Lewis Perdue has sue Brown and Random House for plagiarising his 1983 ‘theological thriller’ The Da Vinci Legacy (reissued 2004, and now to be filmed), listing on his website dozens of plot similarities. But the earlier work does not claim to be factually-based like TDVC (Perdue has alleged this is ‘false and deceptive marketing’), so there is no prospective DIY-exploration framework. Despite its similar title and story, The Da Vinci Legacy significantly got only a tiny percentage of the sales of TDVC (570,000 copies versus TDVC’s 25 million-and-still-climbing). And The Magdalene LegacyBrown’s earlier ‘Robert Langdon’ adventure Angels And Demons, another Vatican-related conspiracy thriller involving ciphers, did only modest business (UK sales of 15,000 copies) before TDVC’s runaway success bumped this ‘prequel’ up the charts. It does have a DVC-type ‘Fact’ frontispiece, but neither this nor the plot offer the reader the prospect of a spiritual-quest framework to compare with TDVC’s.
This brings us to the final, most modern element in TDVC’s appeal. Brown’s UK publisher, Transworld’s Bill Scott-Kerr, has identified the book’s key ingredient as its ‘aspirational’ aspect. While it’s a truism that readers of popular fiction are mostly female, the thriller genre has been traditionally male-dominated and action-oriented. TDVC’s plot revelation is that the ‘code’ was needed because the key role of a woman (Mary Magdalene) was being written out of official history by a chauvinistic priestly hierarchy whose more fanatical members would not stop at murder. (This aspect has prompted the Catholic Church and its Opus Dei sect to go on a PR offensive about how female-friendly it really is). In TDVC, Christian history also gets a modern, feminist-friendly rewrite as mass-market fiction.
While Brown’s book may be regarded as just cynical exploitation of others’ ideas and work, we can see in The Da Vinci Code a formula for success in its positioning at the convergence of several lines of development in popular writing, coming together at a point where fact and fiction meet. §