The HartChart Plays Chess

Austin Film Festival session analyzes THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

One of the most anticipated events at each year’s Austin Film Festival is The HartChart, an hour and a half of writer James V. Hart (Dracula, Hook) doing his special brand of script analysis on apiece of narrative. This year, he chose The Queen’s Gambit, the 2020 breakout series starring Anna Taylor-Joy as an orphaned girl who becomes a chess champion.

An example of a HartChart

The HartChart traces character development throughout a series or feature. Instead of the normal plot arc we all learned in high school, this one eschews action on the X-axis for character success or failure. If the journeys of the main characters aren’t compelling, the story will fall apart.

Three questions drive the creation of a story. Hart calls these “journalism questions” and lets them kick off the writing process.

  1. Who are the main characters, and what do they want (not need)?
  2. What are the obstacles the main character must overcome to get what they want?
  3. Do they get what they want? Is it good or bad for them?

In The Queen’s Gambit, we follow the action through the character of Beth Harmon, a young orphan who morphs before our eyes into a chess master in the 1960’s. What she wants is to beat Vasily Borgov, the best player in the world. Keep in mind that’s not necessarily what she needs.

Her obstacles are manyfold. Her family situation is obviously problematic, as is her early addiction to pills. This addiction is the visible manifestation of her childhood wound, an understandable one given that her mother attempted a murder/suicide. Add to that the men in her life who play the role of both assholes (real and adopted fathers) and rivals/mentors (all of her chess bois).

By the end of the series, she’s beaten Borgov, established healthy relationships with men for the first time in her lift, and comes to terms with the game she loves. In this case, she both gets what she wants and what she needs, though the journey there isn’t an easy one.

Inside each episode are signposts, markers that show various stages of progress or regression for the character.

  • Set the world: Lexington, Kentucky in the 1960s
  • New opportunity: She sees Mr. Schaibel playing chess. Her decision drives to the next opportunity.
  • Cinderella Moment: When she finally beats Mr. Schaibel and he exclaims “You are outstounding.” A reward, something to encourage the character.
  • Top of the mountain: When she beats all of the boys in the chess club–at once. Best moment of the episode.
  • Plan falls apart: OD’s on the pills and loses access to chess. Big-time setback.

Hart suggests other questions that might drive the development of the characters.

  • Why do we care? Is the character worth rooting for?
  • Why now? Is there something about this time and place that makes this story possible or even necessary?
  • What does character need?Different than want, what does the character truly need?
  • What is the character’s wound? There’s always something to be overcome, and often it’s something lacking from childhood.
  • What is the danger, the stakes? What happens if things go wrong?
  • What does the character fear? This will drive much of their motivation, and can be the impetus for both progress and setbacks.
  • Is there a satisfying ending? Without this, the whole thing falls apart.

Hart believes pulling off a successful story needs preparation and lots of it. The HartChart is his way of explicating this process to try keep things from being missed up front. This is especially important for indie filmmakers who don’t have the luxury of big budgets and reshoots.

Take care of the characters, and they’ll take care of you.

James V. Hart
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