Chess and Writing

When I was young, I learned chess from my Uncle Mike. I would visit my grandparents’ house in Central California, Uncle Mike’s house was just about a mile away from their house. I would walk or ride a bike over to visit him, my Aunt Judy, and Cousin Erica. I remember that he would have chess boards set up around his house in various stages of games. At that time, in the 1970’s, he played people all over the world through the mail. He would get a card in the mail with a single move on it, then he would sit and play out the move and his various options of retaliatory moves. When he decided his best course of action, he would write it on the card, and send it off. Then days, weeks or even months later, he would get the oppositions move and on went the game.

Later in life I found books on chess openings, middle game, and end games from as far back as the 1700’s, the moves not the books. In chess, the opening, much like in writing, sets up the game or the story that is being played out on the sixty-four spaced square board. A chess match is a story about kings, queens, noble knights, bishops that kill, and rooks that float around the board. The pawns are the foot soldiers that most people overlook, yet if played with skill, can set up an almost impenetrable defense.

The opening for a book is much the same. Opening line is the first move on the chess board. It sets the mood, the essence of the story into motion. Pawn to Queen’s Pawn 4 is a standard opening in the Queen’s Gambit. This opening is what I like to play, mostly, but I am not very proficient at it, so it blows up in my face many times. The same can be said with a weak opening line or paragraph. Grabbing the attention of the reader is much like grabbing the attention of your opponent in chess. That move must be memorable.

Patrick Rothfuss’ opening line in Name of the Wind, “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence in three parts.” Is just brilliant. I love his Kingkiller Chronical, is one of my favorite series to read. But these two lines really grabbed my attention. I read on because I wanted to know what he mint by this opening statement. Much like your opening move in chess is followed by a series of rehearsed moves, like the Queen’s Gambit. The opening of a book leads into a series of pages choreographed by the author to grab the readers and not let them go.

The opening game in chess has many, many names and to each different name there are splinter moves that follow under that name, like The Sicilian, a common chess opening, that lead to much different openings than the standard Sicilian. Pick up 10 books and read the opening line or paragraph and you will find 10 different variants of openings line, yet they may all be cookbooks, or mysteries: same subject, different opening lines.

Now that you have you opening, you must move onto the middle game in chess or in your book. The middle game is the meat of the match. The middle of a book is where most of the good stuff happens. In chess, the middle games get the honor of being named after players. Kasparov, Fisher, Anand, all players and all Grandmasters and world champions of the game. The middle games are named “Fisher 1972 Moscow v Kaparov.” so that a player can Google it and see the series of moved that he played in that match in 1972. Full disclosure, I just made that example up, so please do not look for it, because you will not find it. If you do, cool, leave a remark in the commit section.

Much like the chess match, the middle game of your book will help give your book greater depth, bring your reader further into the world that you are trying to build, or deeper into the mystery that you’re weaving. The middle game is the meat of the book. Most of your action, your gravitas will happen in these critical chapters to set up the end game.

In Chuck Palahniuk’s book “Fight Club” the middle of the book is where you have The Narrator and Tyler Durden meet, think up Project Mayhem, deepen their relationship, if you want to call it that, with Marla Singer, and move Project Mayhem forward into a full on chaos generating organization. The depth of the story deepens and the overall message/meaning of the book will become clearer.

Now we come to the closing moves of the game. Your pieces are in place to capture the opponents King (You don’t say ‘kill the king’ it’s always ‘capture’) and be victorious in you match. Or your best laid plans in the opening and middle games can fall apart and your King dies a horrible, fiery death. (I’m writing this so I can say ‘kill’) much like a books ending can fall apart in the ending chapters.

If, my dear reader, has ever played chess, you are agreeing with me. If, my dear reader has ever read a book or a few dozen, you are also agreeing with me. Picture this, dear reader, that you have your pieces on the board, you know that your pieces have been magnificently positioned for the end game of a lifetime. Pawns have advanced, rooks are cutting the board into smaller and smaller sections for your opponent to move. Your bishops and knights are geared up for the slaughter and your queen, humble and lovely as ever has borne her fangs and ready for the killing blow of the oppositions king. Then it crumbles to the ground, and you’re left staring at the board in horror at the bloodbath you just witnessed.

You lose, badly.

This can happen with a book too. I have read books, none I will name, were the ending fell flat and was so, just, so unpleasant or inedible to take that I hated the book I just loved chapters ago. What went wrong? What happened? Why did the story fail so badly that I would not, or could not recommend this book to another reader for fear that the reader may grow to hate me?

The easiest answer, no follow through. Happy ending, sad ending, the plant get blown up by the Death Star, whatever it may be, but it makes sense, and I can find logic in it. (I’m about to switch to a movie real quick, so buckle up.) In the movie, Apocalypse Now, the ending sucked! Sorry, but I loved the movie up until the end. The ending was like Francis Ford Coppola was throwing in the towel, saying “F-IT! I’m done, I need an out for this movie. Call in the B-52’s, bomb the hell out of everything. Roll credits, I’m out.”

In a book that shell not be named, the ending of the epic adventure took a drastic hard right turn that no one saw nor was ever mentioned throughout the book and landed like a lead balloon on the reader’s head. It was a serous ‘WTF!’ moment. Don’t do that.

What makes a good or great ending, well, a lot of things. Many Americans live the ‘Happy ever after’ ending. I, myself, find that a good ending leaving me fulfilled at the end and if it’s a series, I want to read the next book, right now. A good ending leaves the reader with the feelings of enlightenment, excitement, humor, love, happiness, and finality. In Fight Club the reader finds out that Tyler and The Narrator are the same person. During the book and movie, the author drops hints all over the place that this is what and who they are, the same person only with two very distinct personalities. Endings are a difficult game to master, yet easy to have fall apart right in front of your face.

My overall game is alright, I have concluded that I will never be very good at chess. I am good at chess, just not very good. I am good at writing, just not very good, yet. The constant studying, practicing, reading, researching, and taking classes in writing will help me climb into a place that I will be happy with my writing, someday. I think having a realistic view on your game and your writing is important to understand what aspects you need to work on to improve and move forward.

I wish everyone good luck in their writing and their chess game.

Thank you for reading this,

Happy Writing,

J.W. Berwyn

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