Saturday, December 5, 2020

Concrete Plot, Subtle Story Notes on The Queen's Gambit

 a review by Bill Johnson

A cornerstone of the a story is a promise concept is that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. Simply put, if a story isn't going somewhere from its opening lines, it fails to create the effect of a story.

Plot often operates to set a story into motion around a central question and sub questions. Each chapter in a novel can be a clearly defined step along a plot line. It's a concrete way of understanding the ground a story is covering.

A beginning of a novel also needs to set a story in motion. This can be subtle or obvious, but it needs to be done to convey meaning to the action. You resolve a plot, you fulfill a story's promise.

In The Queen's Gambit, eight year old Beth's parents die in a car accident and she ends up in an orphanage. To keep the children docile, they are given tranquilizers. Beth is afraid and alone. She hides one tranquilizer a day to help her sleep at night. Noises at night were setting her mind racing.

Then she realizes an old black janitor (this is Kentucky) in the basement is not playing checkers but a different game. He rebuffs her request to teach Beth chess but finally relents. In a short time, she is consistently beating him.

An older girl, Jolene, (twelve) tries to introduce Beth to sex play, but Beth now lives in her head, playing chess.

When the orphanage is ordered to stop giving the children tranquilizers, a desperate Beth tries to break in to a locked station to get more. Caught, she is not allowed to visit the basement for a year. No chess.

Since the author has made it clear that Beth is utterly driven to play chess, the question becomes what will happen next? To find out, readers must continue. Again, the plot creates concrete problems to be overcome.

When Beth is adopted by a woman with a husband who seems to be permanently traveling on business, Beth can now play chess and read magazines about the game. Since her adopted mother uses tranquilizers and alcohol to get through her days, Beth can sneak a supply of tranquilizers to help her sleep at night.

When the absent husband makes it official he's not coming back, Beth's adopted mother is now short on money ... until Beth wins a chess tournament and a cash prize.

As Beth plays and wins in bigger and bigger tournaments, Beth's mother introduces Beth to alcohol. The two become more like housemates than mother and adopted daughter. And Beth now has two drugs that help her sleep at night.

When Beth's adopted mother dies, Beth has to work her way through a period of heaving drinking, a plot complication that threatens her ability to play chess on a high level.

As Beth wins bigger and more prestigious competitions, she now accepts some help learning the fine points of chess from more advanced players.

Beth becomes the American chess champion, but this sets up the ultimate goal/plot destination for Beth, can she beat a Russian grand master and become a world champion?

Each section of the plot has clearly defined goals and questions.

To win against the Russians, Beth accepts the help of the best American chess players, but she quickly learns what they can teach her before she moves on. Beth is also introduced to sex, but sex to Beth is about as interesting as having tea and toast for breakfast. It barely registers in her life. It's not chess.

Beth finally meets the Russian world chess champion in competition and loses that match, her first major set back.

Beth realizes she has to give up drinking if she wants to beat that Russian. Jolene, who had graduated from the orphanage, helps Beth learn to exercise to keep her body fit so she can better focus.

Beth also comes to realize she wasn't just playing the world champion; she was up against all the former Russian world chess champions who helped him win matches by studying moves of opponents.

Beth can have a chess second funded by a religious group, but Beth refuses to issue a statement in support of Christianity. She's now going to Russia with a non-chess playing assistant supplied by the U.S. government.

Arriving in Russia, Beth begins beating the lesser players, but she also goes for a walk and discovers a park where old men play chess.

In a climactic battle, Beth fears that she can't win if she's alone playing the Russian and his helpers. At that point she gets a call from a former teacher, and he along with others help Beth plot her next moves.

This is a subtle story point, but Beth is no longer playing alone in her head. She's part of a larger community now, a first for her.

With the help of others steadying her mind, Beth beats the Russian and becomes world champion.

At the end of the novel, she returns to the Moscow park and the old men playing chess. They gather around her, showering her with love and affection.

That lonely, frightened child now feels she is part of and loved by a larger community.

Compared to the plot, this is subtle, but it is the thread that weaves the plot together and gives it a deeper meaning. Beth goes from being alone to part of a larger community.

That offers fulfillment to the story.

I recently read a science fiction novel by someone who had read Promise. Her novel had a concrete plot, with escalating complications, but I had to read to the end of the novel to find out what the story was about.

Until that final chapter, I didn't have a clue.

It's possibly the writer didn't know until she wrote that final chapter. If that was the case, it meant she needed to use that understanding to convey a story from the first page of the novel.

I've read many novels by unpublished authors that withheld what a story was about to create a big reveal. Unfortunately, it was hard to care.

Walter Tevis begins The Queen's Gambit with a frightened, lonely orphan because the fulfillment of the story is that she ultimately finds a new family.

One reason I use a breakdown of a Hollywood movie to teach story mechanics is the failure to generate a story that works with a concrete plot is often deadly. No reason to care about what happens to the main character.

In Promise, one technique I suggest is the 0-5-10 technique. Zero is obscure, five is obvious, ten is suggestive.

Struggling writers write toward zero, being obscure about what a main character seeks to fulfill.

Asking someone to be obvious about what a story is about is a path to understanding how to set in motion a powerful story.

In the latest edition of Promise, I explore how great writers create at ten on that scale.

For too many writers, that concrete wall of plot creates an illusion of storytelling in the same way movies used to use fake storefronts to suggest a town.

Walter Tevis understood the difference between story and plot.


The Queen's Gambit also airs on Netflix as a mini-series.