11 April, 2006

The Da Vinci Code Trial

"Even if the central themes were copied, they are too general or of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law." Judge Peter Smith

"(It) shows that this claim was utterly without merit. I'm still astonished that these two authors chose to file their suit at all. A novelist must be free to draw appropriately from historical works without fear that he'll be sued ... This is a good day both for those who write and those who enjoy reading." Dan Brown

As predicted the Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial ended with Dan Brown's acquittal and a huge sigh of relief from writers everywhere. Considering the many millions Brown has earned, I can imagine the frantic mining of history books now taking place hoping to dig up some nugget like Brown - or rather his researcher wife, Blythe - managed to.

However, having the research is one thing but it's what you do with it that counts and that comes down to character and story which has to be our own invention. Too often writers find a great idea and think the idea is enough to sell the script so not enough time is spent developing character and story. It's those characters - the people - that the audience will latch on to and relate to and use as guides through the story. That's the hardest part and we neglect it at our peril.

There's a screenwriter phrase called "The Macguffin", it means something that motivates the characters and advances the story. That thing could be an ancient secret or a statue of a black bird. The Macguffin could be literally anything but it's main role is as an inciting incident or catalyst. The Da Vinci Code is about Robert Langdon (the character) and his reaction to that Macguffin and what he chooses to do about it (the story).

Historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, can fairly claim that their Macguffin helped the Brown's story be successful but at the end of the day it is still just a Macguffin. On its own it is interesting history but without a cracking made-up story attached it will never shift 20 million copies.

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