Today’s post is from Olivia Newport.


How well do you play chess, and what does it have to do with writing fiction?

I have a friend who used to play chess with her husband every day over lunch. And every day she won.

She finally told him she was not going to play anymore. It just wasn’t fun.

Here’s how it went down. He would get a path in his mind and plan all his moves with the goal of accomplishing his strategy. The problem? He never saw her strategy coming. He didn’t imagine variations from what he expected to happen. She had the bigger picture in mind, tracking both what she wanted to do and what she believed he was trying to do.

Now, I have a basic understanding of how individual chess pieces are allowed to move and what has to happen to claim victory. Does that make me a chess player? Not by a long shot.

I do know that playing chess is not about what could happen as an expression of the rules, but what might happen in spite of the limitation of the rules. And in that way playing chess is like writing fiction.

Here are some tips from chess that translate to writing fiction.

1. Think ahead. The next move may seem obvious, an opportunity there for the snatching. Grab that bishop! But what will happen if you move that piece? What will happen if you assign your character that trait or that decision? Choices in chess and fiction have consequences that may sneak up on you.

2. Turn on the pressure. A chess game where players just go through the motions of predictable moves is borrring. So is a book. A good chess player creates tension and conflict for the opposing player, forcing difficult choices. Do the same with your characters. Complicate the path from the beginning of the story to the end.

3. Don’t throw away the opening move. When I first learned the rules of moving chess pieces, it seemed like the only way to open a game was to move a pawn. Somebody has to do it first. The choice was one square or two. Now I realize that strategies begin in those early moves, and taking them casually can cost you the game. The opening conflict in a novel, even if it’s a conflict internal to a character, sets the direction for the whole story. Do more than move a pawn.

4. Be patient. If you know your opponent’s weakness, you don’t have to rush right to it. It will emerge, and you will be ready. Set up a plot the same way. Slow and steady. Wait for the angles to converge until there are no easy ways out.

It’s easy to reduce fiction writing to simple rules. This is allowed. This is not allowed. Let’s take our cue from chess and dig in to truly understand the complexity of the game.

Olivia Newport is the author of The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, Accidentally Amish and The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow.