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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 13, 2007

Da Vinci, scene 1

Let's dig deeper into chapter 1, scene 1, of Dan Brown's mighty bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (I picked up Mom's discarded copy at her house yesterday).

In my last post I looked at the first sentence:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

Now let's read on from there:

A telephone was ringing in the darkness--a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Where the hell am I?

The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram: HOTEL RITZ PARIS.

Slowly, the fog began to lift.

Langdon picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"Monsieur Langdon?" a man's voice said. "I hope I have not awoken you?"

Dazed, Langdon looked at the bedside clock. It was 12:32 A.M. He had been asleep only an hour, but he felt like the dead.

"This is the concierge, monsieur. I apologize for this intrusion, but you have a visitor. He insists it is urgent."

Langdon still felt fuzzy. A visitor? His eyes focused now on a crumpled flyer on his bedside table.

THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF PARIS
proudly presents
an evening with Robert Langdon
Professor of Religious Symbology,
Harvard University

Langdon groaned. Tonight's lecture--a slide show about pagan symbolism hidden in the stones of Chartres Cathedral--had probably ruffled some conservative feathers in the audience. Most likely, some religious scholar had trailed him home to pick a fight.

"I'm sorry," Langdon said, "but I'm very tired and--"

"Mais, monsieur," the concierge pressed, lowering his voice to an urgent whisper. "Your guest is an important man."

Langdon had little doubt. His books on religious paintings and cult symbology had made him a reluctant celebrity in the art world, and last year Langdon's visibility had increased a hundredfold after his involvement in a widely publicized incident at the Vatican. Since then, the stream of self-important historians and art buffs arriving at his door had seemed never-ending.

"If you would be so kind," Langdon said, doing his best to remain polite, "could you take the man's name and number, and tell him I'll try to call him before I leave Paris on Tuesday? Thank you." He hung up before the concierge could protest.

That takes us to the end of the first scene, just before Langdon starts reminiscing about the past year and the past day. After the flashback scene, we return to Langdon's hotel room, and a pounding on his door by what turns out to be a police officer, Lieutenant Jerome Collet of the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire.

Not having read the book, I can only assess the scene on its own content. The story function of the scene is to rouse the protagonist from his everyday life by having a new problem impinge on him. In that sense, it's exactly the right place to start: right as the story launches. The scene conflict is between the concierge, who is trying to prepare Langdon for the arrival of the cop, and Langdon, who doesn't want to be disturbed.

That conflict idea, while okay, feels a bit underpowered, considering who the players are in the scene. Since the police are here as part of what appears to be an investigation (a man linked to Langdon has apparently committed suicide), I expect they have the legal power to question Langdon if they want to--that is, they don't need his permission. In any case, scene 3 starts with the cop pounding on Langdon's door, so his effort to put off the concierge looks and is ineffectual.

The concierge's behavior and dialogue are, to me, not very plausible. His opening remark that he hopes he has not awoken Langdon seems weak and insincere. He's waking Langdon because the cops are making him wake Langdon--it's not his fault, it's theirs, and if I were the concierge I would make sure Langdon understood that up front. Instead we have a concierge who is strangely mysterious about who is visiting. He seems overawed by the policeman and refers to him cryptically, in an urgent whisper, as "an important man." Huh?

In my opinion, it appears that the backstory to this scene was not worked out. The writer did not think through the motivations, backgrounds, and actions of the characters involved. If I were writing the scene, I might start by imagining my concierge. He is probably on the same floor as Langdon, attending to the guests on that floor, he works at a posh hotel, and is very probably a snob, used to seeing famous people come and go, and helping them with various personal matters. He's probably territorial about protecting the privacy of his guests, and would resent a cop coming up and using the law to override his authority here. To him the cop is not an "important man"--his guests are important men: Bill Gates, Vladimir Putin, Justin Timberlake. This is just some cop throwing his weight around. The people tipping him--and tipping big--don't want to be bugged, least of all at 12:32 a.m. His job is to get rid of pesky, officious plebs like the cop.

Therefore, in my backstory, I imagine that the concierge has already fought the first battle with the cop--and lost. He would certainly make it plain to Langdon that any inconvenience and annoyance are 100% the fault of the cop, that he did his best to prevent this rude intrusion. He might not do this in a crude, obvious way, but that would be his attitude, and it would color his dialogue. If the concierge has no further role in the story, that will probably be enough for him: he will have enough color and attitude for a good minor character.

Langdon himself, as the protagonist, needs lots of attitude as well. He shouldn't merely be a generic professor who's peevish about some of the effects of becoming famous. He should have passions, issues, problems--things on his mind while his career carries on. If he's being woken up, why not use the opportunity to learn more about him? What if he were waking from a dream about his wife, who has recently divorced him? How about waking to the memory that he's just been diagnosed with heart disease? Something to start suggesting a person and not just a name and a job.

For the purposes of this scene, I would want to figure out how Langdon feels about being in France--does he come here a lot? Can he speak French? Does he travel well, or is it a chore--does he miss his home? If he doesn't speak French, does he notice the attitude of the local French people toward him regarding this fact? (I recall being in Paris and watching an American traveler approach an information table staffed by a young woman. The traveler simply started talking in English. The woman responded in excellent English, but she was coolly polite. When I approached I first asked, in French, permission to speak English, and got a much warmer reception.) The concierge may be subtly patronizing toward those who do not speak French. How observant is Langdon? Is he used to staying in posh hotels? How does he feel about it? I would want to know these things--and show them--if I were writing the scene.

All these questions and issues form part of the backstory of the scene--the story before the story. The writer needs to know what attitude each character has toward each of the other characters in a scene. The concierge, to the cop, might be arrogant, resentful, and minimally compliant. To Langdon he might be ingratiating, self-justifying, and subtly patronizing. The cop might be self-assured and ironic with the concierge, and to Langdon be polite, apologetic, and slightly intimidating.

You get the idea. I'll have more to say on this scene--but that's enough for today.


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