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Plot Trek: The Next Exposition

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.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
aadler
Jan. 9th, 2016 01:54 am (UTC)
I’m going to offer reassurances here. The captain’s conscientious adherence to the same regimen he imposes on his crew is familiar to me not only through my own military experiences, but in various mil-space tales I’ve read, most specifically those by David Weber. The training is what’s being highlighted, and the officer’s dedication; Chekov made a good point, and one worth heeding, but I doubt he himself followed it in every single instance.

If I read your story, and found the captain never piloting a shuttle, I wouldn’t feel cheated. I probably wouldn’t notice. Some things stick out — they’re too prominent not to be significant, or made so — but for most things, it depends on the treatment, and I see no fault in yours.
ozma914
Jan. 9th, 2016 07:08 am (UTC)
Hm ... you're the first person I should have considered to give the story a read! I was never in the military (although I have been involved with secret squirrels from time to time), so I'm a well-researched novice. My only saving grace is that this is the military of 500 years from now, not today. My other is that the story leans toward humor, and I actually get a little subversive with SF tropes, anyway ... a comment toward the end of the story handles Chekov and his gun.

But you're right, Captain Gage's comprehensive training, unusual under the circumstances, becomes a factor later in the story.
cornerofmadness
Jan. 9th, 2016 04:45 am (UTC)
I like what you have above. COuld it be handled with mentioning that the captain has to be trained in several key areas even if s/he's not ever going to do them in a normal setting? (that used to bother me with later ST:TNG episodes where they were struggling to do more with the female characters and suddenly ship's counselors and doctors are commanding the ship.
ozma914
Jan. 9th, 2016 07:23 am (UTC)
I agree, that kind of thing bothered me, too. The peacetime space force in my universe sent its officer candidates through every rotation on the ship, under the theory of preparing for anything; but as this story opens they're in a desperate struggle, and new crew members generally are run through basic training and tend to specialize. This is why the crew is puzzled by Gage's actions: Even though they're headed toward a non-combat area (allegedly), he insists on having everyone as prepared as humanly possibly in every area.

Unlike some of the draftees and reservists on the ship, Gage is career military, so at the opening of the story he's already been through the rotations. But piloting a shuttle is a specialized job that captains aren't expected to do--just like a ship's counselor wouldn't be expected to command, or for that matter to do a doctor's job. Just the same Gage, who in my backstory already has some piloting experience, wants to know everyone's jobs as much as possible.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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