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Writing a Novel is Like Playing Chess

May 22 2018
May 22 2018


I’ve been working on my chess game lately, and realized that playing chess bears a lot of similarities to writing a novel.

Structure. Chess is very structured. Like a story, it is divided into three acts. There is a beginning (opening), middle game, and endgame. Strict rules govern movement of the pieces. Although are no rules as to how long a game can go (outside of the fifty move rule), it is rare to see a game of more than fifty moves, and most games last around thirty moves.

Planning. In both playing chess and story writing, it’s good to have a plan. In my experience, though, it doesn’t take long before the plan is out the window, both in the chess game, and in writing a novel.

In writing a novel, I usually have an idea how it starts, how it’s going to end and, to some degree, what happens in the middle. I’m cognizant of plot points and pinch points, etc. I know there has to be certain scenes. There has to be an opening, a couple of turning points, a climax, and a denouement. There are scenes leading up to these things. I may sketch them out, or outline them. But I don’t know really what will happen until I get deep into the scene and poke around. Sometimes there are surprises. So, although I know about structure and strive to have it, I find it nearly impossible to plan out the whole novel.

The same is true of a chess game. It makes about as much sense to plan out a whole chess game as it does a whole novel. The only part that can be planned in advance is the opening. Although each player has twenty possible first moves, there are a limited number that are standard, or “book.” The response by black of the first move by white is pretty much established by centuries of analysis. There are many possibilities and variations, but you pretty much know for the first several moves what the other player is going to do, particularly if he has any experience. (Novice players, like novice novelists, often go off the reservation right off the bat.) After the opening, though, all bets are off. There are principles to follow, such as trying to establish control of the center of the board, bringing your pieces into play (development), and protecting your king by castling, etc., but once the game is rolling, everything depends on what the other guy does.

The same is true with stories. The character is the other player. Really, your imagination/subconscious is a third player. Or maybe the character is your imagination. The point is, when writing a scene I may have an idea how it comes out. If I’ve done it right, before I write the scene, the character has a goal, there’s going to be conflict (something standing the way of his reaching the goal), and there’s going to be an outcome or “disaster,” as it’s sometimes called.

When I get into the scene, however, really getting down and dirty with the writing and the dialogue, etc., things change. The other player makes an unexpected move. That is, the character says or does something you had not planned. He doesn’t want to say or do what you had in mind for him. It makes the story better. If it’s a surprise to you, then it will certainly be a surprise for the reader. Maybe what you had planned was not all that exciting.

So, just as your plan in the chess game changed with an unexpected move, your story changes. Go with it. In chess, you’ll “plan” the next move or three. In a story, you’ll do the same thing. In both instances, the plan lasts as long as the next move.

An aside:

There are about 1040 possible games in chess that are considered “sensible.” That is, taking away ridiculous and illegal moves. For those of you not versed in math, that’s 1 followed by 40 zeros. Ten times that number would be 1 followed by 41 zeros. To put it in perspective, the number of grains of sand on Earth is estimated to be 7.5 x 1017, and the number of stars in the universe is estimated to be 7 x 1022. (I find this to be a fascinating topic. There’s a great video on it here)


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