Foundational structures in fiction aren’t rules, they’re chess pieces

The goal of chess is to not lose the king in the same way that the reader’s experience is the end goal of any story written for a commercial market. If the goal of a writer’s work is not to the reader’s experience, there are plenty of schools that will make sure the students learn their intention for their first draft is what matters most.

Conflict, tension, pacing, stakes, theme, character development, mood, tone, voice, dialogue, symbolism, imagery, resonance and showing the reader what’s important before it becomes important are the chess pieces in the back row that can make sweeping moves. The pawns in the front are description and exposition and language. They only move in one direction and have limited movement inherient in them, but can become one of the most important pieces on the board if played correctly.

Can a grandmaster win a game without bishops? Of course. Can they win a game against an equally matched opponent without bishops? Maybe. Can the average writer maintain their reader’s experience without using conflict? Highly debatable.

Even conflict isn’t the most important game piece. Tension will always be queen. A story doesn’t need conflict to work but it does need tension. And a story without tension from any kind of source is playing with just the reader’s experience.

Excluding foundational structures from your story and still hoping to sell it to a commercial market is like trying to win a game of chess against an equally matched opponent with fewer chess pieces. Writers argue they don’t want to play with all the pieces and then they try to play a standard chess game without any accomodations in strategy for having less to work with but trying to accomplish the same goal.

Each structure deliberately left out of the story makes it harder to finish the story with the reader’s experience on par with what a conventional story story can do with conventional elements. Today, when learners learns to write by being assured there are no rules, only the greatest among them will ever even realize that there are more foundational structures possible than the ones they knew how to use when they started.

Beginner players can win a game of chess with just pawns and a King. It’s just the least likely outcome of all the likely outcomes which includes an act of nature stopping the game mid-play. Thinking any complicated aspect of a storytelling that can significantly impact the reader’s experience is so unnecessary that it doesn’t need to be taught a necrotic, infectious way of thinking.

But it’s the current pedagogy of creative writing.


  1. Barb, you should check out Chris Winkle’s most recent Mythcreants. It extends your concerns to the writing community in general. Those who can write well don’t necessarily know how to teach others to write well if they haven’t figured out what makes for a good story in the first place.

    1. Exactly. There are people who know how to drive the car and people who know how to make the car go, but if a learner’s car doesn’t go, just learning to drive it better isn’t the solution.

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