John Le Carré’s Unconventional Approach to Developing a Good Idea

Many of us who are starting to write a first novel, book or article begin with the inevitable question: “how on earth do we come up with a narrative?”.

Authors like J.K. Rowling are infamous for spending significant amounts of time meticulously planning a character’s story arc across multiple books before beginning to work on the first manuscript.

The good news is that this isn’t the only way of creating a narrative.

Let me introduce you to John Le Carré.

John Le Carré is one of the most successful living authors. He’s written 23 books over the past five decades, with many having been turned into films you’ve probably heard of: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener and the Tailor of Panama to name a few.

Le Carré has figured out a way of writing that doesn’t involve meticulous planning. It revolves around a central premise of “figuring it out as you go”. But how exactly does he do this?

John Le Carré’s narrative creation process

In Adam Sissman’s biography of Le Carré, he describes how Le Carré starts writing a novel without knowing exactly how it will develop, however:

“like a film director he often has a vision of what the audience will see at the end, the last image in their minds as they emerge from the cinema.”

This is an important part of his writing process, because

“By allowing the story to advance spontaneously, in unexpected and unpredictable directions, [Le Carré] hopes to feel the same nervousness and excitement as the reader at the twists and turns of the plot.”

Le Carré also begins his novels with a strong character facing a predicament.

“The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story,’ he often says, ‘but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.’ His characters are often torn between loyalty to individuals and loyalty to institutions.

Why this process has led to success

This approach to creating a narrative has worked for Le Carré for five decades because of three things:

First, Le Carré has a starting formula. He knows from the beginning that he needs to brainstorm a concept for a novel that begins with a moral predicament. Should a British tailor based in Panama, who is deeply in debt, use his networks and charisma to help a morally corrupt spy? Should a British diplomat based in Africa use his position to uncover illegal testing of pharmaceuticals on African citizens?

Second, Le Carré tries to live his characters and develop the narrative as he writes. Every afternoon, he takes a walk and plays out potential plots and dialogues out loud.

Sissman describes how, during these walks, he:

“[carries] a notepad to jot down sentences as they occur to him. These are often snatches of dialogue, which he perfects by speaking them aloud…locals have become used to hearing him apparently talking to himself in a variety of accents, and have learned not to interrupt him as he passes”.

Third, Le Carré doesn’t get swamped with research prior to writing a novel. Instead, he believes it’s “better to write to form the theatrical and human point of view first and correct the backcloth [with research] retrospectively.”

How Le Carré remains productive

Finally, Le Carré combines this narrative process with a strict writing schedule that we can all learn from. Le Carré, now 87, devotes the vast majority of his time to writing and prioritises this over everything else.

He says that “the price I/we pay is that we have lost almost all our friends, or lost touch with them; we are up to date on almost nothing in the way of theatre, movies & the rest, which to many people is incomprehensible.”

His strict writing regimen involves starting early.

In his younger days he would start writing at 4.30am, however these days he begins at approximately 8am and works through until lunchtime.

Following lunch, he goes for a walk to brainstorm new stories.

Once he returns home, he pours himself a Scotch and looks over what he has written in the morning.

He typically goes to bed early, around 8.30pm, while there is still something unresolved in his plot. This gives him a place to begin work the following day.

Takeaway

So for those of us who aren’t enamoured by the thought of carefully plotting narratives before we start writing, we can take a cue from John Le Carré.

Plots can be developed as we write, and sometimes the best way of brainstorming our plots is to look up from our writing and take a walk.

Don’t get bogged down in a cycle of research and planning. Instead, pick up your pen, start writing and go on the occasional walk.

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