Chess as an analogy for writing

Consider the game of chess.  Two armies wrestling to lock the other in unescapable checkmate.  Two players each trying to out-think each other, to see several moves ahead and set snares for their opponent to fall into.

The reason why chess is interesting for us to play and watch is because although we can anticipate the moves to be played, we can’t predict them either, just make an educated guess based on the playing style of the two players.

Chess also has a number of rules and a definite structure, which means that there are moves which you can’t make and a definite start and end.

The classic fork mean that two pieces on the board are threatened and only one may survive.  Or to put it another way, the player whose pieces are threatened must make a decision about which piece is important and sacrifice the other.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with my usual theme of writing.  Simply put, I think there are some parallels between writing and playing chess.

So for example, two armies attempting to lock each other in checkmate could be a metaphor for the story’s central conflict and how it is resolved.

Pieces are lost in the game of chess.  In a story, characters may die or alternatively particular ways forward may shut down for them, forcing them to take another way.

Writing does lend itself to being structured, and you can be said to follow certain rules, like maintaining continuity.

And just as in chess, thinking ahead can suggest which is the right direction for you to go in, or indeed what is not the right direction, allowing you to eliminate options to arrive at a decision.

Stories may have surprise twists and be unpredictable because a writer wants to keep the reader guessing about the ending, even as the reader seeks to learn the mysteries which shroud it.

However, all is not perfectly parallel.  In a game of chess you generally don’t get to take back moves, while in writing you can try a scene and if you don’t like it, you can change it.  In fact, if you want to write a book in a completely non-linear order then you can, while in chess it is a lot easier to start at the opening move and end at checkmate.

I originally began the Nexus story near a logical beginning, with Isamura waking in the city of the old ones and being discovered by the crew of the Orion.  That was in November 2008, my first and last NaNoWriMo.  It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the story.  Also I didn’t get anywhere close to 50k words.

My memory is a bit fuzzy but the next part of the story I worked on was a bit closer to the mark.  Chapter 8 or No Way Home as I called it, put Isamura in the same room as a distraught Caroline, who then turns to Isamura for comfort.  Having them hook up was sort of fun but I still didn’t have much of a plot.

Chapter 9 or Flying/Flight of Passion/Servant of the Siphen was my third attempt to figure out the plot. I’ve blogged about the evolution of this chapter before.  Although it is not the starting point that the reader will read first, it is the point at which I started to really formulate the plot, to think ahead and then write and then think some more.

There are a couple of surprises in there. Writing this part of the story helped to spur the development of the site as you see it today – as a tool not just for reading the story, but for helping me to write it in a structured way, broken into chunks of roughly 1500 words each.

This helped me later on when I was editing, because reworking small chunks of text a bit at a time is far less daunting than having the whole passage to scroll through and make changes to.

Anyway, I hope you found that useful, even if you don’t play chess.

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