How do you create tension in the opening chapters of a book, without giving the game away? Without over-egging the pudding and making the tension unsustainable? Without boring your audience into early retirement.
You start by using present tense. If everything is happening in the moment, how could you not be caught up along for the ride? But then you juxtapose it with past tense, develop the story, the narrative and the characters. Their motives and motivations are in their pasts, their personalities and choices will be defined by those pasts and you’ll have to read more to see if they surprise you. They probably will.
The dialogue within your tense narrative should be strong. Almost script like. A complete contrast to the heavy setting description. It should flow like a real conversation, jar in the right places. Pause for reflection. Counter. And one person should always know more than the other.
For this, you need to have a compelling protagonist. Someone who is both relatable and ready for the action ahead of them. Possibly you might have an ex-military man turned night manager. Perhaps, there’s more to this mild mannered, well dressed individual than meets the eye.
‘Tentative, with a smile of apologetic self-protection.’
Of course, if you’re going to describe your characters this way, with a ‘mildness of manner and a fighter’s frame,’ you should also – and I cannot stress this enough – hire Tom Hiddleston to play him in the television series adaptation.
Mum: “The fatal thing about watching a film or tv series before you read the book is that you know what the character looks like. In the book, Le Carre is beautifully descriptive of Jonathan Pine but his description bears little resemblance to the gorgeous hunk who played him.”
Okay, you can stop dribbling now.
Mum: “The conversation between Pine and Madame Sophie was lovely, flirtatious. I could imagine myself with Tom Hiddleston… but that’s irrelevant really.”
I’m going to be sick.
I watched the series of The Night Manager before I read the book, which was definitely the wrong way around. When you know how this book ends, every sentence is edged with a tenacity for the final battle – which you obviously don’t get in the first three chapters. You do get a lot in the first three chapters, but your never satisfied. Always hungry for more.
John Le Carre has created a modern story in a classic style. His Fleming-esque characters are picture perfect for their seduction, mystery and cruelty. And of course, missiles and other nasty things are put on the table in chapter one.
Mum: “Excellent writing. It really captured my imagination. For some reason, I forgot that Hugh Laurie played the baddie (Roper) and had a completely different, horrible, obnoxious actors face in my head.”
Hitchcock once said of film, ‘if you have a gun on the wall in the first act, then it must go off in the second.’ Tension is then increased because we already know the stakes. This man, the one Pine (our protagonist) fears, is working with weapons that could kill thousands. Any additional stakes throughout the story will drive the plot but eventually these ‘Chekov’s gun’s must go off. And our Jonathan Pine is the only person we know in the way to stop him.
If you’re looking to develop your writing skills, read The Night Manager.
If you want to enjoy a spy-thriller with teeth, read The Night Manager.
If you want to imagine a world outside your mundane, read The Night Manger.
Basically what I’m saying is –
Well I don’t think I need to repeat myself. Do you?