The strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything.
— Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth
When you’re writing alongside a full-time job, you have to give some things up. For years now, I’ve been practising this art which is more sacred than what I take on. It has caused me to give up my Leyton Orient season ticket (Ohh, how I wish I were watching some live football now), saying no to various nights out, saying no to various nights in, saying no to learning what the Top 40 is, or what that recent meme means (except #berniesmittens), a career alongside writing, a dog, a family, sanity, etc. But what I’ve said “no” most of all to over the years, the thing which is brought up to me in conversations time and time again from friends asking if I’ve seen the latest one, is TV shows (again, an exception will follow alongside It's A Sin which I recommend you go watch - after you finish reading this).
I haven’t seen The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, Band of Brothers, Sherlock, True Detective, Fargo, Twin Peaks, Narcos, Better Call Saul, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Oz, Stranger Things, The Crown, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Countryfile, Homes Under The Hammer, Bargain Hunt, Loose Women, The Real Housewives of Slough…etc. So how I ended up watching The Queen’s Gambit - I don’t know. But, looking for something to teach recently, I’m glad I did. And I’m even happier that I read the book afterwards.
With so many books published today, it’s harder than ever to catch up (let alone keep up). What was being raved about yesterday, you only get the time to read tomorrow. If you read a lot, you’re not out of trouble on this one. Part of reading is opening yourself to many ideas and experiences and in that multitude rises the quest for more. To find a book that many people have read can be tricky unless you wish only to teach the classics. By being part of the cultural zeitgeist, The Queen’s Gambit is one of those books which steps in. The milestones the TV series hits, come directly from those milestones in the book.
Let’s look at just one example of what we’re looking for when seeing milestones within a book: inciting incident. If we take Joseph Campbell’s definition of an inciting incident as the “call to adventure”, there are many early scenes we could choose as the inciting incident. But I think with an inciting incident when it has a deeper meaning which we can go to, again and again, then the scene which best epitomises this is not simply when Beth beats Mr Shaibel (the caretaker who taught her chess), and nor is it when she beats him and Mr Ganz (who runs a chess club), but it is when she beats them both, at the same time, and with ease:
“About midway into the games she was staring out the window at a bush with pink blooms when she heard Mr. Ganz’s voice saying, “Beth, I've moved my bishop to bishop five” and she replied dreamily, “Knight to K-5.” The bush seemed to glow in the spring sunlight.” (pg. 21)
Beth wants more of that ease, which becomes as the book progresses more crucial than merely winning or losing. Being a good writer, Tevis brings back this sense of Beth’s ease, of her casualness when she reaches an equilibrium outside of drugs, outside of obsessive study, at the end of the second act when Beth beats the US Champion Benny:
“She looked to the other side of the room and out the window. It was a beautiful day, with fresh leaves on the trees and an impeccably blue sky. She felt herself expand, relax, open up. She was going to beat him. She was going to beat him soundly.” (pg. 156)
If you’re a writer, or you’re teaching writing, The Queen’s Gambit is not only a good read but also helps to highlight the milestones writers hit, the roads taken, when they are delivering a story: arousing readers not merely to read the surface but to dive deep down for jewels.
If you're interested in learning more, are working on a project you'd like to make better, please feel free to contact me:
‘I used to worry that I was missing out on all the things happening in the world,’ she said.