How to drive your story with dialogue: Lessons from John Le Carre

Updated: Nov 16, 2021



About the Book

Hello writers, and welcome to episode 4 of The Reading Room podcast, almost halfway into season 1 already!

Today, we look at The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John Le Carre, where we explore the use of dialogue and how it sets the scene and propels a story forward.

David John Moore Cornwell was a British-Irish author best known for his Cold War espionage thrillers, and celebrated as a master storyteller. Many would say he was The master of espionage. Le Carre’s craftsmanship as a storyteller delivers a captivating narrative journey with his agents, double agents, moles, and more!

I first came across Le Carre’s work through The Tailor of Panama, published in 1996 and made into a film in 2001, starring Geoffrey Rush. I wasn’t heavily into spy thrillers back then, but my dad was a tailor and it caught my attention in the bookstore. From then on, the search for further reading material began.

To avoid spoilers, this episode will focus on the prose and dialogue of the first chapter. This passage is heavy with tension and suspense with themes such as the cold, action versus inaction, sound and silence, trust and betrayal. I’ve chosen a few passages for the close reading but if you would like me to feature this novel or other espionage titles again in future episodes, please reach out to me at contact@awriterslighthouse.com; I’d love to hear from you.

For now, as you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about the language used both within the dialogue and outside of it. How are we introduced to the setting? How do our reactions develop as the chapter unfolds and the risk increases? As a political spy thriller, the core elements of the novel revolve around deception and espionage, so there are tricks within tricks, traps within traps, and puppet masters who oversee it all.

Are you ready? Then, let’s begin.


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Close Reading There are three things we identify straightaway in this opening sequence; someone is uncertain, another is on edge, and a third is late. The atmosphere is strained, with the possibility of success or the risk of failure hanging in the balance. Let’s begin with the American. We identify a lack of experience in this character. He is trying to put Leamas at ease, but doesn’t fully appreciate the severity of the situation; he refers to Leamas as Sir, marking the ranking positions between the two:

  • ‘The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

  • “You can’t wait for ever, sir.” this is repeated: “But you can’t wait for ever;...” and, then “But how long with you wait?”

The purpose of the American here is to reinforce Leamas’s authority, resolution, and seniority. He keeps asking Leamas questions and refers to him as ‘sir’ and ‘Mr Leamas’ and, whether it’s to confirm the facts, the next steps, or the risks, it is clear to us that the American is represented as the less experienced of the two agents. Leamas’s responses are mostly short and quipped, guarded against revealing unnecessary information. When he does fully engage in conversation, he relays the details with clarity, efficiency, and authority. There is also frustration and annoyance when Leamas turns on the American.

All this is revealed within the first page, with exposition and dialogue working in unison to set the stage for tension as we enter the story at a crucial moment in the middle of the operation. Reading between the lines, themes of sight, silence, and sound are also ready in play, contributing to the setting and preparing us for what lies ahead - not just in this chapter, but for the novel throughout.

  • ‘Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.’

  • ‘Leamas walked to the observation window between the two motionless policemen. Their binoculars were trained on the Eastern checkpoint.’

  • ‘He’s waiting for the dark,’ Leamas muttered. ‘I know he is.’

  • A bell rang inside the hut. They waited, suddenly alert.’

All parties - the American, the British, the German - are lying in wait, observing and assessing. The layers deepen through the conversation between Leamas and Elvira - Karl’s mistress - with information about the agent and the cause of his delay. More information than Leamas was given which irritates him - as a spy, this behaviour puts the operation at risk. This interaction marks themes of trust, loyalty, deception, and connection. This is illustrated further through Leamas’s silent monologue:

  • ‘That damned woman, thought Leamas, and that fool Karl who’d lied about her. Lied by omission, as they all do, agents the world over. You teach them to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well.’

This insight into Leamas’s thoughts reveals more than just his frustration; it delivers insight into his world as a spy - the fragility of trust, the power of deception, and the risk of betrayal faced.

  • [Leamas] went carefully after that, told Karl much less, used more of the hocus-pocus of espionage technique. And there she was, out there in her car, knowing everything, the whole network, the safe house, everything; and Leamas swore, not for the first time, never to trust an agent again.

What comes next is a display of Leamas’s foresight resulting from his experience as an agent. Leamas recognises that he both needs to soften the verbal wound he had inflicted on the policeman (using the whiskey) and to use the opportunity to gather information:

  • I’m sorry,’ said Leamas. ‘I’m sorry I bawled you out.’

  • ‘What are your rules for shooting to protect a man coming over? A man on the run.’

This offering is designed to create a sense of trust between officers but Leamas doesn’t give the policeman his real name. He needs to be clear on the rules now that there has been a shift in the plan that could impact its success and an increase in the risk overall. The interaction has a use-value.

The rising action in this scene is the arrival of Karl, who we think is going to make it walking alongside his bicycle but is then shot at the third and final checkpoint. There are clues in the dialogue. Think of the red flags foreseen by Leamas at the outset - the delay the demise of other agents. Firstly, Karl was late, then Elvira’s affair with Karl unnerved Leamas as a potential security risk. There are additional clues in the narrative exposition on either side of the dialogue. For example, short, active sentences at Elvira’s arrival highlight the perfunctory steps of the policemen at each checkpoint, adding atmospheric weight to the tension delivered by the dialogue.

I’d like to briefly make note of the structural value in titling chapters as these serve to provide clues for the reader for what they can expect within the sequence they are about to read. In this case, the first chapter is called Checkpoint, placing us into the space between. We’re not at the beginning of this story, but in the middle of a secret operation in time. The definition of a checkpoint is ‘a barrier or manned entrance, typically at a border, where security checks are carried out on travellers’. A checkpoint has two sides, who is on the one side, and who is on the other side of the border. By marking the chapter with this title, the author has planted a seed in our minds for the scene ahead and the ensuing atmosphere before the first sentence. But I digress and so, to return, Le Carre has his readers captivated by the characters straight away. What will be the consequence and repercussions of the agent’s demise? Will we encounter Elvira again? We have questions that need answering and so, we will turn the page to find out more. Listen to the passage again to see what else you can identify from the dialogue. If you’re enjoying these podcasts and are interested in further practical application, I’ve designed a course that explores the functions of dialogue in more detail called ‘Getting Started with Short Stories’. This course has a simple four-module structure that you can work through in one day. You can, of course, work at your own pace. I offer email support throughout, plus a 15 minute 1-2-1 check-in via Zoom should you need it. If this is something you would be interested in, you can find further details on my website. Today’s Exercise For your exercise today, I’d like you to think about a recent conversation of interest and to transcribe it as a prompt for a 10-minute writing sprint. Remember, the dialogue in this passage will have seen revisions and edits before it reached its masterful delivery we have heard today, so don’t overthink things during your allocated time - simply write the words down as they flow, and look to edit your work later. After your sprint, review your dialogue and spend another 10 minutes building a story around it. Something may come of it, nothing may come of it - it’s the practice here that matters.


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