While polishing the final draft of Beowulf: In Harm’s Way, I encountered an interesting problem that somehow escaped me through every previous run through of the story. Here’s the current opening:
A red light flashed on the shuttle's control board.
Lieutenant Commander Paul Gage leaned forward, his hands still on the little craft's controls. “What did I do?”
Beside him, Kurt Biermann shook his head. “Nothing, Skipper—that's a comm alert from the bridge.”
“Well, it’s damned inconvenient when I'm trying to get recertified as a shuttle pilot.” Thank goodness they were parked in his ship’s shuttle bay, in a simulation instead of flight. Gage hadn’t piloted anything since … since the incident. Since the start of the war.
From the copilot’s seat, the real pilot chuckled. “You know, a ship's captain doesn't have to know how to fly a shuttle. Since I'm usually up at the Beowulf’s helm, I'm the one who should be practicing down here.”
“I ordered cross-training, so I cross-train.” Gage punched the comm button. He’d also ordered random drills, and it would be bad form if he didn’t show up for battle stations. Second Lieutenant. Biermann, who no doubt didn’t expect to train anyone in the course of a shakedown cruise in a ship with only forty-two crewmembers, looked relieved.
“Damage control stations, all hands, we have a fire in engineering. This is not a drill.”
While Gage punched the shuttle's hatch open and leaped out, he noticed Biermann no longer looked relieved.
Okay, so we’ve opened with a scene of action, introducing the main character and one of the major secondary characters. We’ve established that we’re on a ship called Beowulf, and that all is not necessarily well aboard that ship. So, what’s wrong with this opening?
Here’s what’s wrong: Throughout the rest of the story, Paul Gage never pilots the shuttle, or anything else.
My purpose for the scene was to make it clear that Paul is training his crew hard and well … and to open with a scene of action. (The frakking ship’s on fire!) And that’s fine, but it plainly violates the rule of Chekhov’s gun.
No, not that Chekhov … get your mind out of the starship. This from Anton Chekhov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
The Beowulf’s shuttle just hangs there in the shuttle bay, and never goes off.
There are a few changes I could make to correct this problem. I could start the story with the fire itself, which is fairly minor but begins a chain of events that leads to major changes aboard ship. Or, I could start the story earlier, maybe with the “incident” Paul refers to from the start of the war. The problem with that is that the incident itself would be almost book length. I should know: I wrote a version of it many years ago.
Or, I could start the story at about the time Paul gets command of the newly constructed Beowulf and assembles his crew. This is obviously related to the main story. In fact, some of it is already written in some short stories, which I intended to release for publicity when the book comes out. Not only that, but right now the book manuscript is 62,000 words, so it could stand to be longer.
But that time period is largely recovery (from the incident) and introductions—could I find the right scene of action to start a novel? Or am I stressing too much about the action part?
I’m still considering it, and will consider it more when other readers have a chance to review the story. For right now, I’ve handled the problem with a single line toward the end of the book, which takes Chekhov’s Law and throws it on its Russian ear. After all, the book is a humorous space opera, and that’s not the only time I take story conventions for a ride.
Just not a ride in the shuttle.
|Well, what the heck? Kirk never needed a shuttle.