When I was a teenager my friend Joe taught me how to play chess. We’d sit in the back room of his parent’s house until all hours playing and analysing Leonard Cohen songs. For all my practice, I never achieved grandmaster status. In fact, I think the technical term for my skill level is… mediocre. Still, I enjoy it and I know enough to be able to appreciate an excellent, elegant game.
You can learn a lot from chess: Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not last long. And at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go in the same box.
Chess, as Bobby Fischer once said, is life.
One thing I have learned from chess is how to be a better writer. Don’t look at me like that. There’s a lot that chess can teach us about writing, for instance, the importance of planning ahead, being willing to make sacrifices, and why the well-conceived endgame is so essential.
I’m not qualified to teach anyone about chess, other than the basic moves and the most rudimentary of techniques. However, I think I can tell you something about writing.
Right from the opening, a good chess player can plan several moves ahead. On a good day, I can manage about three. I mean, if I’ve slept 8 hours and had my early morning cuppa. A grandmaster, though, can manage a dozen. In fact, Gary Kasparov can handle 15. Think of it, all the variables that are possible. The chess player can see all those possibilities and know what the board will look like at every stage along the way. Doesn’t that make you tingle? Just me then.
The writer doesn’t need that degree of genius, though it helps, of course. But she should definitely have some idea of where she is going with her story. At least she should know what the next big scene will be and how the board, sorry, plot, will look afterwards. The writer has a big advantage over the chess player because she can write a first draft and have a reasonable map of each move along the way. Then, during the rewrite, she can structure the story and the prose in a way that leads inexorably towards the ending.
In fiction as much as in chess openings are important. The first moves of the game can solidify the player’s position… or lose it. Likewise, the writer has to make sure the opening lines of a story are as compelling and as harmonious with the rest of the story as possible.
A good chess player knows that some pieces have to be sacrificed in order to win the game. In Byrne vs Fischer (1956), a 13 year old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and won what many call The Game of the Century. A good writer makes sacrifices, too. The beautifully-crafted scene that just doesn’t belong in that particular tale, the great opening that suggests a completely different type of story is following, the character you love who just slows down the plot… I have chopped tens of thousands of words from a story in order to craft a better tale. Yes, it hurts, but sometimes you have to grit your teeth and get on with it. Be like Bobby. Learn the importance of the well-considered sacrifice.
Find a fork
In chess terms, if one piece can attack two or more opposing pieces at a time, that’s called a fork. It works well in chess because it forces the opponent to sacrifice a piece. Likewise, in writing, you want your characters to do more than one thing, too. In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee presents the character of Aunt Alexandra. She not only serves as an antagonist to Scout, scolding the tomboy for her unladylike ways, but in her rigidity and adherence to old southern ways, she also serves as a direct contrast to the easy, free-spirited narrator. Events in the plot, too, should have repercussions for more than one character. If Pete hurts his ankle falling down the stairs, then his wife Beth will be impacted and so will his children and his colleagues at work. The bigger the event, the wider the impact.
Sticking a pin
Pinning a piece in chess means that piece cannot move without putting the king into check (which is forbidden), or forcing the loss of an important piece. Likewise, in fiction, by giving the characters some serious difficulty, be it a character flaw or some trying circumstances, there is a challenge for them to overcome. Fiction thrives on characters being challenged. In chess, a piece can pin from a distance and the danger may only be revealed when another piece is moved. The same applies to good fiction. For example, for the first several chapters of The Lord of the Rings (1954), it seems that Saruman is the wise head of the order of wizards. Later, when his treachery is revealed, it is a major blow to the heroes. Keep some secrets from your reader and only reveal them when they can carry the most weight.
In chess, a skewer means a piece has to move or be captured. Likewise, characters must move too. They must carry the momentum. Compelling action is important in fiction. Flaccid, passive characters are not engaging. Make them move!
A good game of chess needs a good outcome. There are whole tomes written about how to achieve such a thing in chess. Stories, too, need endings that resonate. No loose ends, all the threads neatly tied up. That doesn’t mean it has to be a happy ending, or one in which the bad guys suffer and the hero gets the girl. It just means the ending fits the story. The reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction.
Thinking Like a Grandmaster
One reason why I never became a very good chess player is because my mind doesn’t work the right way. I can’t see the moves far enough ahead, and I tend to react to my opponent rather than driving the game. When I was playing a lot — five or six hours a day at my peak — I had difficulty turning my mind off. I went to bed seeing chessboards and watching moves unfold.
If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to think like one. You have to see the entire plot the way a good chess player sees the entire board and not just one part of it. Your writing needs to be a major force in your life. The more time and energy you spend developing your talent, the better a writer you will be.