As so often happens, the comments on last month’s piece (What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It) showed that there was a lot more to the topic than I could cover in a single column. So I thought it would help to look in some detail at how a master of the craft created tension by how he fed his readers information.
If you’re not already familiar with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the quickest, easiest way to get to know the story is to stream the movie. The plot follows the book very closely. Besides, Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are always a pleasure to watch, and keep an eye peeled for a very young Robert Hardy. If you’d like to check it out now, I’ll wait.
So, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold opens with Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau of MI6 (i.e. the Circus), waiting for Karl, his last remaining operative, to make a desperate run across the border from East Germany. Karl finally appears but is gunned down before he can reach safety. All of Leamas’ other operatives have also been hunted down and eliminated by Mundt, a particularly vicious chief of the East German secret service (i.e. the Abteilung). So when Lemmas’ boss, Control, offers him a chance to destroy Mundt once and for all, he jumps at it.
Given that setup, le Carré then proceeds to feed his readers information at three different levels of reality: what the world thinks is happening, what Leamas thinks is happening, and what is actually happening.
We first watch level one develop as Leamas comes apart at the seams. He’s given a makework job in accounting at the Circus, starts to drink, is accused of embezzlement and fired, drinks more, and winds up in a grimy apartment working a menial job at a library. There he meets and starts to fall for a young, idealistic communist named Liz (‘Nan’ in the movie). Despite the light she brings into his life, he continues to spiral downward until he assaults a grocer and is jailed. When he’s released from prison, he’s approached by a bumbling East German agent, who has heard about his situation from Liz.
At this point, le Carré pulls back the curtain on the second level. Leamas sneaks off for a secret meeting with Control that makes it clear his disgrace and collapse are a ruse to get the East Germans to recruit him. In this meeting, Control challenges him on his relationship with Liz – it’s out of character for someone spiraling into degradation to fall in love – and offers to help her out. It’s during this meeting that readers also learn, almost in passing, that George Smiley, the Circus’s legendary strategist, wants nothing to do with the operation (a detail omitted from the movie).
Le Carré still hasn’t revealed how Leamas’ staged collapse will lead to his getting revenge on Mundt, so curiosity about the plan will keep readers turning the pages. But they’ve also come to realize by this point that Leamas is intelligent, brave, idealistic, and loving. They care about him, and are worried that he’s essentially turning himself over to the enemy. At the same time, they’re eager to see him defeat Mundt, who has done so much damage to his life.
While all these sources of tension are in play, le Carré slips in the first hint of the third level at work – that there is a plan beyond the one Leamas knows. Leamas thought he recognized the man who set him up with the library job. He asks Control who it was, and Control denies knowing anything about him. It’s a classic bit of authorial sleight of hand – feed your readers clues when you’ve drawn their attention elsewhere.
The Abteilung agents recruit Leamas and take him to Switzerland on a false passport to be questioned by someone from higher up the food chain. From the information that Leamas slips the Abteilung officer – deposits he made to various continental banks under false names, glimpses of certain people talking in the hallways at the Circus, the fact that Control once came to Berlin and met with Karl personally – readers begin to see the shape of the plan. Leamas is essentially planting evidence that Mundt is a double agent, working for the Circus, which will certainly get Mundt killed.
Then – we’re a little less than halfway through the book by now – the third level really comes into play. Leamas learns that someone has leaked news about his meeting in Switzerland, and he’s now wanted for violating national security. He has no choice but to travel to East Germany with his Abteilung contact. While le Carré gives some plausible alternative explanations for the leak – the inept East Germans in Britain, someone higher up in the Abteilung – Leamas is sure Control leaked the information to force him to go to East Germany. He assumes that the leak is intended to make him a more plausible witness against Mundt – that it’s part of the second-level plan that Control didn’t mention.
At this point, le Carré starts manipulating information in a new way – readers begin to learn critical facts that Leamas isn’t aware of. Before now, le Carré included scenes from Liz’s point of view, but they were mostly intended to give readers a chance to get to know and like her. Now readers see Smiley show up at her apartment and offer to help her. Given that Smiley hasn’t been involved until this point, it’s possible he just learned the facts of Leamas’ case and has shown up out of compassion. Or maybe the Circus didn’t leak the information about Leamas’ Switzerland meeting, and Smiley is trying to understand what really happened. Either way, at this point, readers are aware that something larger is going on behind the scenes, something that doesn’t quite fit with the plan as they and Leamas understand it.
In East Germany, Leamas meets with an Abteilung officer named Fiedler, who hates Mundt with a passion and has been assembling evidence against him for years. The few sparse clues Leamas delivered, combined with other things Fiedler already knew, are enough to arrest Mundt as a double agent – recruited by the Circus when he was in London and paid by Leamas through the deposits made in false names. Note that, by the time readers finally learn the details of Leamas’ plans, le Carré has introduced new sources of tension by having Leamas trapped behind enemy lines with some sort of other plan churning behind his back. He builds on this tension by having Mundt try to arrest Fiedler and Leamas. In the end, Fiedler rallies his forces within the Abteilung and puts Mundt on trial.
As Leamas’ second-level plans seem to move toward a successful conclusion, the tension between the second and third levels continues to ramp up. Someone in the Abteilung arranges for Liz to come to East Germany. Then, just as Fiedler presents a seemingly impregnable case against Mundt, Liz is brought in to testify on Mundt’s behalf. Leamas is horrified that she’s there, she is desperate to keep him from being hurt. But she has no choice but to tell how Leamas was not the broken man he seemed, and that the Circus came to help her after he disappeared. It exposes Leamas as a plant, he and Fiedler are arrested, and Mundt is completely exonerated. It could be the end of all tension, except . . .
Last month, I’d said that you can’t have your viewpoint characters know things your readers shouldn’t. At this point, le Carré pulls off one of the few exceptions to that general principal. Just as all his careful plans are collapsing around him, Leamas’ suddenly realizes what’s truly going on – he penetrates to the third layer. And le Carré ends the scene before readers discover what Leamas has realized. They really have no choice but to keep reading.
The truth becomes clear when Leamas is spirited out of prison in the middle of the night – by Mundt. As he and Liz drive toward Berlin to be smuggled back across the wall, he explains what he’s realized to her. Mundt genuinely is a double agent, working for the Circus. Fiedler was getting close to exposing him. So Smiley both sent Leamas to confirm Fiedler’s case – without telling him, because his ignorance made him a better witness – and set up Liz to follow and discredit him.
But even though all three layers of the truth are now fully exposed, le Carré has one more source of tension up his sleeve. As Leamas explains the real plan to Liz, he also reveals the thinking of the men behind it, who are willing to risk the lives of innocents like her and honest operatives like himself because they are fighting to prevent a war. Compared to the nuclear struggles between east and west, the lives of people like him and Liz don’t matter. Liz says that using good men and women like that is barbaric, and that he is just trying to convince himself that it’s necessary — he doesn’t really believe it. And it’s clear that she’s right. Note that it’s only when the third level is fully out in the open that we can also see a long-hidden, slowly-developed, character-driven source of tension. Leamas is having a crisis of conscience.
He and Liz reach the East German side of the Berlin Wall and are told what they need to do to climb over without being shot by the guards. But as Leamas goes over the wall, Liz, coming up the ladder behind him, is killed. He realizes then that the people he works for couldn’t let Liz live, given what she knows about Mundt, that she’s the latest innocent sacrificed for the cause. And his crisis of conscience resolves. He can no longer do his job and keep his humanity. So he climbs back down on the Eastern side of the wall and, literally in the last paragraph of the story, is shot as well.
This may be the most important lesson you can learn – that the best stories can break down the nice neat distinctions that writing teachers like myself often make. Last month, I’d said that if your story is more plot driven, you might want to withhold information until the end. If it was more character driven, you might want to reveal information early. Yet le Carré delivers a story in which he hides all the various layers of manipulation of information to ultimately set up a character-driven story. And through this masterful interweaving of plot and character, he manages to keep the tension high until literally the last paragraph.
How do you learn to do this yourself? Watching the movie probably isn’t enough, great though the cast may be. Read the book. Read it more than once – once you know the story, you can watch the mechanics of it unfold. Read le Carré’s other works, paying attention to how he moves fluidly between various levels of reality and balances plot and character driven tension. Steep yourself in the works of the master.
Then choose your next master and do the same.
Of course, I welcome any and all comments on le Carre — or your own preferred master of tension-filled plotting. As I say, I often learn as much from the comments as I put into the article. But I’d like to renew an offer I made a while ago. If you have any questions about your own writing, feel free to ask, either here or on the WU Facebook page. If the answers are of general interest, they may show up here. Watch this space.