Writing like it’s a game of Chess

In the writing community there is often a question of whether you are one of two types of writer; a Plotter or a Pantser.

Both are self-explanatory.

  • The Plotter – Spends a significant amount of time planning before writing anything that can truly be considered “the story.” Instead, they lay groundwork first. Usually a Plotter will have a rough outline of every chapter, a character worksheet for every major character (as well as some less significant) and will know exactly what the themes of their story will be.
  • The Pantser – Is the antithesis of the Plotter. They start with the vaguest of ideas and run with it, hoping that as the story is written it will find it’s way to perfection.

If I had to assign myself a category, I would fall more into the Pantser vicinity. Truthfully though, that isn’t exactly how I write. What has worked for me is a combination of the two. We could call this a Balanced Approach or something, but the other day the truest analogy came to me – Chess.

First, I want to get something out of the way. That is my definition of Idea and Concept. I apologise if what I’m about to say differs from the rest of the world, but know that anytime I mention these two things on my blog, this is what I mean.

  • Idea – Is something tangible and sounds like the beginning of a synopsis ie. A boy and his dog go fishing. While they are fishing, the boy is kidnapped by robbers fleeing from authorities. The dog is instrumental in helping to track down his beloved master. We have a clear idea of our story and where it is going to go. There’s very little in the way of detail, but we have a launching point. At this time, we could even begin to infer the themes of the story – friendship, loyalty etc.
  • Concept – This is a simple notion that could lead to an idea. ie. A world populated by evil dragons. This is just a concept. There’s no story here. With a concept we need to ask more questions and prod deeper in order to turn the concept into an Idea.

Why define those off the hop? Because the Chess analogy (and process of writing) only works if you have an Idea. Sorry Pantsers, but a mere concept needs a touch more planning.

So let’s get to it. Chess? Yup.

When you sit down to a game of chess, you have an idea of what to do; you know the rules, the way each piece moves and you know the ultimate goals – protect your king while taking your opponent’s. What you don’t know at the start of the game is how it will proceed. Your opponent throws in an element of the unknown. Sure, you may have read books on classic chess openings and counters, but until the moves start playing out, you don’t know what you’re going to use and how.

Starting a book if you’re a chess writer (for fun I’m going to call them Chessters) is much the same. You have an Idea and you have some knowledge of how a story is structured. You also know that your ultimate goal is to type “The End.” In this way, you’re much like the Chess player. You have tools and some idea of where things are going to go, but there is still an element of the unknown. The chess player has his opponent, you have the story itself.

See, in the heat of a chess game, you start thinking a couple of moves ahead. You start to lay the groundwork for your success. However, you also remain flexible because your opponent may do something unexpected.

Writing as a Chesster is the same. You plan a couple scenes ahead, based on where you are. Not more than three or four. With each passing scene you write, you add another scene to your advance plan. This way, if you strike a chord while writing that will change everything you’ve planned ahead, you’re really only trashing a handful of scenes, not a whole book.

Now you might be thinking this still sounds kind of like you’re still flying by the seat of your pants. But that’s where you’re wrong. Writing this way still means some planning. It’s just that the planning takes place during, and in response to, the writing itself.

Another way to think of it is this;

  • A Planner takes a trip. They have a map with their entire route planned from point A-Z with rest stops clearly marked.
  • A Pantser takes a trip. They have no map, just a notion they want to go somewhere, and they hope there’ll be signs along the way and they’ll make those turns when they see the sign.
  • A Chesster takes a trip. They have an idea of where they want to go. But instead of planning the whole journey, they plan to their first rest stop. Once there, they crack out the map and consider where their next stop will be. But wait, they passed a Taco Bell on the way to this first stop and now that they’re hungry, they want Mexican. How can they get to a Mexican restaurant in the next leg of the trip. Once that’s figured out, they get into the car and get under way.

Writing this way allows me to be spontaneous and surprised by where my story takes me. On the other hand, because I’ve always planned a few steps ahead, I don’t feel like I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s a compromise, one I’ve come to find works very well for me.

This is how I write and because I plan too much to be a pantser but not enough to be a planner, this is the analogy I’ve come up with. Feel free to use it, or come up with your own.

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3 Comments

  1. What a great way to put it. This is exactly what I do. I write up a bare bones outline, just a few sentences per chapter, and then along the way I will in the blanks. Good post.

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