One of the things my wife constantly ribs me for is the fact that books bore me so easily. Whenever I read a book that focuses more on description or theme than it does on the plot, I start skimming (or, in my wife’s words, I start whining about how long it is). Sometimes we mistakenly confuse my penchant for plot-based books with a penchant for short books.
But then I read something like this, and I remember the truth.
There are two things that stood out for me, as I spent an entire afternoon finishing the second half of a 500 page book, and both of them related to telling a good story. First: create intrigue. I think there are a number of ways this can be done – in Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open (which I started reading right after I finished this book), it’s done by completely subverting our expectations in the first page. I’ll talk about that when I blog about that book. But in The Lost Symbol, it’s done by creating a mystery as to exactly what the maguffin is. We know that it has extraordinary power, is a matter of national security, etc., but we don’t know exactly what will happen when the ultimate thing they’re looking for is found. This makes us keep reading, because we want to find out.
The second thing is the rule of endings: surprising but inevitable. This is something ScreenwritingU hammers home in its Writing Great Endings class: whatever happens at the end has to surprise the audience, but needs to be set up so that when it finally does happen, we realize that there’s no other way it could have gone. This is particularly crucial for thrillers, as all the great ones follow this rule: The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Memento, and so on. And in The Lost Symbol, when I got to that “surprising but inevitable” moment, it exploded off the page at me.
I’m not saying that The Lost Symbol is a literary masterpiece, mind you. There are a few moments that are more obvious than the author would hope. And the maguffin, when revealed, was highly anticlimactic and way too preachy, in my opinion. But if a book’s purpose is to entertain, to keep you wanting more, this one certainly does it. And that’s a damn good start.