Building Tension in a Scene: “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis

Diane Callahan
8 min readFeb 2, 2022

“Suspenseful” is not how I’d describe a game of chess, but Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit is the exception. The incredible popularity of the Netflix show, which is a beat-for-beat adaptation of the book, proves that the source material succeeds in creating narrative tension.

“Tension” can be defined as “inner striving, unrest, or imbalance.” A question remains unresolved, or two opposing forces are at odds. Readers crave tension because it creates anticipation — what will happen next? This uncertainty keeps us reading until we feel that satisfying rush of resolution.

The dictionary definition of “tension”: “inner striving, unrest, or imbalance often with physiological indication of emotion”

In The Queen’s Gambit, one of the most tense scenes is the climactic game between the protagonist Beth Harmon and her rival Vasily Borgov. Beth has lost twice to Borgov, so the Moscow Invitational is her chance to redeem herself — the personal stakes are high.

Spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit ahead!

The Queen’s Gambit movie book cover overlaid on a chessboard

Tevis has already established the hard groundwork of making the reader care about Beth by showing her orphan backstory, tragic home life, and struggles with addiction. In all of Beth’s previous games, it’s clear she wants to be the world champion more than anything. Because of that emotional investment and strong character drive, readers aren’t just curious about the game’s outcome; they’re eager to see what happens to Beth.

When the final game starts, Beth is at a disadvantage:

Borgov had started a line of play for which she had no continuation ready.

So, from the outset, Tevis positions his protagonist as the underdog, forcing her to confront past mistakes. And despite her careful preparation, Beth’s plans are already going awry.

Moscow State University — a tall university building complex with the city in the background