The Game of Chess)
I’m not any good at chess, but I do like to play just for the fun of it. I would describe my style as simply being “try to make as few boneheaded blunders as possible!” Usually that’s what decides the winner in the games I play, whoever is better able to catch themselves from making mistakes will prevail.
And the key to not making mistakes is typically to look…and then look again. Very often in chess a move will immediately suggest itself, and the temptation is to grab the piece and swipe it across the board with confidence, only afterwards realizing the hole that move opened. So it is better to acknowledge the move that first occurs to the mind, and then keep looking to see what might be wrong with it.
And the little bit of reading I’ve done on chess strategy suggests that principle is still true even after you actually know what you’re doing. It is often advised that as soon as you see a “good move” to hold off on it, as there is probably a more sublime one still waiting to be seen. Experts don’t win just by making less mistakes, they win by holding out for more of those sublime moves than their opponent.
Waiting for Ideas)
And the same holds true for writing a story. It is very easy to jump from one plot point to another, following a chain of the first “good idea” that pops into your head at each juncture.
But usually the first idea that pops into your head is the obvious one. And as with the game of chess, great stories aren’t achieved by writing the obvious “good moves,” but by holding out for the more sublime ones. Anyone can write a story of obvious “good moves,” but that’s not what people go to the bookstore for, they go there to find something that will take them deeper than the immediately obvious.
The problem with always writing that initial obvious idea, is that because it is obvious it has already occurred to the reader, too. They will therefore anticipate it, and then have that unpleasant sense of “I already know exactly where this story is going.” Nor is it any better to just take the first idea and then go in the exact opposite direction from it. That quickly becomes just as predictable and just as uninteresting. You don’t want to just roll out a carpet for the reader, but neither do you want to constantly pull the rug out from under their feet. You want to lead them on a surprising journey.
Quality scenes take real effort. Genius rarely occurs “on demand,” it is the result of serious work. Sometimes the perfect plot point falls into your lap ready-made, but usually it is the result of pausing, thinking, and looking for something better.
This issue came up in my current story when I had the children spring a trap set by a massive predator. They handled a small, white stick, which signaled the underlying beast to spring out of the earth! Originally I envisioned that stick as some strange, detached organ of the creature, like the light dangling at the end of an anglerfish…but then I realized that I was just taking the obvious example from nature, something that every reader would already be familiar with. That’s not very creative or interesting.
So I changed that in my last entry. I made it so that the small, white thing is a larva, and I stated that the beast used its own young as bait. In my next entry I will also add a detail about how the larva is planted into the beast’s prey, and then evolves that organism into a perfect copy of the original beast. Both of these changes required some deeper, outside-the-box thinking, but the result is far more entertaining!
A story that allowed itself to find the “better move” is the 1974 film The Conversation. In it, Harry Caul is a surveillance expert, who offers his services to record the private conversations of others. Harry is very efficient at his job, but also socially awkward, hearing the most intimate details of other peoples’ private lives, but never having a real connection of his own.
The film begins with him recording a young man and woman in a park, who are discussing another person—the woman’s husband—with worry. At one point the young man says “he’d kill us if he got the chance,” and it seems clear that the young couple is having an affair and are afraid of what might happen to them.
That woman’s husband is also the client that hired Caul to perform this investigation, and Caul is afraid to turn the recording in. At this point the obvious option would be for Caul to step up and become the hero. To use his knowledge to prevent catastrophe.
But the film wisely rejects that obvious path for a far more original plot. Caul doesn’t give the recording to his client, but neither does he warn the couple that the old man is on to them. He frets in between those choices, unable to bring himself to do anything decisive at all. Then the client has the recording stolen from Caul and his anxiety grows. He is convinced that violence is about to follow, but he is not powerful enough to intervene, and he has no concrete evidence to go to the authorities with.
Sustaining the tension like this required deliberate plotting on the part of the writer. It would have been far easier to fall off to one side or another, but instead it is stretched out all the way to the finale, and it makes the film relentlessly engrossing!
At the climax of the movie Caul goes to a hotel room that is adjacent to a private meeting the young woman is having with her husband. He has to know whether his suspicions are valid or exaggerated, and as he listens through a wiretap he hears the very murder he has been afraid of! He collapses to the ground, racked with guilt, and when he comes to, the deed is done and the killer has escaped.
Perhaps he is too late to save anybody, but at long last Caul decides to take a stand. He goes to confront his client, but once again the film’s writer has changed the obvious plot point for something far more engrossing. For much to Caul’s shock, he finds that his client is unavailable…because he is dead. Caul’s client was the one that was murdered at that private meeting, not the young wife. The wife is perfectly alive and well…and arm-in-arm with the young man from the park.
Suddenly the audience realizes that the truth was right there from the beginning. The obvious interpretation of what Caul heard at the start of the film was that the husband was going to kill his wife…but it was just as possible that the wife and the young man were plotting the murder of the husband instead. This clever reversal was not the result of random happenstance, it was the deliberate craft of a writer who took the time to steer away from the obvious “good ideas” and pushed instead for the truly sublime.