Sweep The Board

There’s a great scene in the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer in which Josh, a chess prodigy, is studying a problem created by his mentor, played by Ben Kingsley. As Josh stares and stares at the pieces, struggling to unravel the puzzle, Kingsley’s character becomes increasingly impatient until he finally sweeps all the pieces off the board. He instructs Josh to solve the problem without seeing the pieces, a technique Josh later uses to win the film’s climactic match. I often think of Ben Kingsley sweeping the pieces off the board when I find myself tangled in a part of a story that isn’t working, particularly if I have revisited the troublesome scene over and over again. In my experience, the more I have tried and failed to write a scene to my satisfaction, the harder it becomes to do so. Just like Josh, I find myself staring the pieces, at the characters and all their possible moves. I begin to believe if I just stare hard enough the correct order of events, the perfect string of dialogue, will emerge.

This is when it is time to sweep the pieces off the board. That is forget who is in the scene and what they must supposedly do. Instead I focus on where the story is before the troublesome scene, and where I believe it will be after, and I imagine what it should feel like to get from one place to the other. The point, after all, is not really the characters or what they are doing, but what it feels like when they do what they are doing. The feeling is always the true reality; the events are just metaphors to allow that feeling through.

Inevitably, after I have swept the pieces aside, they begin to come back one by one, as what works is often not all that different than what was not working. But I can never find a scene if I begin treating it like a jigsaw puzzle. After all, a jigsaw puzzle begins as a complete picture and then is cut apart so that we can have the pleasure of reassembling it. That picture revealed in the completed jigsaw puzzle is a portal to feeling. Your unwritten scene, however, is only a feeling looking for a picture. Feeling exists before all the metaphors we use to share them; to write disconnected from the feeling of a scene is like playing chess without knowing which piece you must capture to win, the pieces moving constantly but without purpose.

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