Captain Rell flicked her eyes from the monitors to the holographic display, scanning numbers, readouts and the tiny renders of the enemy fleet in turn. She probably looked terrible- a combination of her own gaunt face, black eyes and tiredness with the bridge’s red battlestations lighting. You’d think they were used to zombies leading them, she thought, smiling slightly at the deck crew, these stern professionals buzzing about their work just the same as on show-the-flag runs. The solid, orderly line of approaching warships broke that illusion quickly, though- more numerous and bigger too, with a full complement of three cruisers forming up their center. Rell’s own destroyer-interceptor suddenly felt like a wicker scaffold erected to hold back an avalanche.
“Hope Griggs knows what he’s doing,” she muttered. “We’re five ships against fifty.”
“Five against sixty-two, actually,” her comms officer said, leaning from his station. “Steinbauer’s boys report that the 141st Shock Destroyer Group just joined the enemy.”
“Wonderful.” Rell spat into the bridge’s vestigial wastebasket for emphasis, and to lessen the amount of fluid available to her palms for sweating on to the command console. “Right, let’s get started-”
“Wait,” Councilor Maltke cut in, striding into the room, “Ma’am, I think you should know that the 141st is the unit which gave Admiral Yoshitsune so much trouble around Vega two years back!” Rell immediately interrupted her planning for the most difficult battle of her career to listen to the Councilor’s ten-minute diatribe.
In most cases, ten minutes is a bit hyperbolic, but seeing that line in text should drive home how silly the idea of people spending time chatting in the supposed opening phase of a battle is. If that character development wasn’t important enough to do before the enemy arrived, it can definitely wait until after they’ve been taken care of. And if everyone’s going to die- well then, the unresolved tension of authority between the Captain and her liaison with the local government doesn’t matter much, now does it?
And geez, what a buzzkill! I’ve built up this battle in a number of ways every step of the story leading up to it. Here you as the readers were getting ready to see how Rell handles this clearly hopeless mess, what kind of tricks ol’ Ironbrow Griggs -he has one expression, and it’s frowning- has in store for the Secessionist fleet, and whether the Loyalist picket group has any shot at survival. Tension thus established, I feel a weird reluctance to continue settling over me. But I’ve setup the battlefield so clearly in the last chapter- the handful of old mining stations on nearby asteroids, the center hub with its handful of inoperable railgun turrets and the cables strewn throughout its interior- what could I have missed?! Then it hits me- the newcomers. The 141st are a formidable unit, and I haven’t devoted any time yet to explaining just how badass they are- not a single sentence expounding on Commodore Carmack’s tactical brilliance or the state-of-the-art weaponry mounted on each of his dozen warships. I haven’t covered his strong Loyalist leanings, which make his sudden about-face so suspicious! I have to fix this- I have to fix this right now! As opposed to, you know, three chapters ago when Rell and Griggs discussed their imminent deployment to a suicide mission, holding a meaningless backwater station against the vanguard of the Secessionist armadas, or five chapters ago when Carmack and Rell expressed mutual admiration at the victory party for the final battle of the Antaresian War.
It’s an easy trap to fall into- that is, literally the least difficult way to explain something. Just have a character walk in and start yammering about some topic of import- people love to talk, and the way our minds work we’ll often follow from one subject to another. If a person is erratic enough- like myself- or the conversation goes on for long enough, everyone will forget where they started! So, that’s fine for conversations in reality, where by definition we’re already engaged in them and likely to stay engaged for a good length of time, where easing the strains and tensions of the day by talking through them always cheer us up. But in a narrative, especially a longer one, it’s absolutely cancerous. Readers have already committed at this point- they’ve decided to trust the author to keep things interesting, to not waste their time with the kind of blithery-blathery, self-congratulatory backstory barrages best left to debates on fan websites and the Essential Guides everyone uses to beat each other to death with on the forums.
Most writers learn to avoid these things either through workshopping, feedback or- as in my case- simple osmosis, reading enough in their genre that they get an appreciation for how a story best flows. Let’s consider the above scene- there’s no reason why I have to use straight dialogue (or even much dialogue at all) to show off the unspeakable awesomeness of the 141st. Vega’s not very far from Earth (as interstellar distances g0)- it’s not quite Alpha Centauri close, but still close. And fleets don’t just meet in the middle of nowhere by chance like they once did- those aforementioned between-star distances tend to make that much less likely. Yoshitsune and Carmack presumably played a cat-and-mouse game amidst one of Vega’s asteroid fields, the Commodore’s faster destroyers disappearing back into the field after every hit-and-run attack, slowly whittling down the Admiral’s forces. The stakes? Vega’s colonized worlds, and the fueling stations they support- a strategic goal, and one Captain Rell’s group could reasonably be expected to pass on their way to the front. So, a better way to foreshadow the later showdown:
Ensign Donahue jumped, going pale. “Ma’am, a bo- something just hit the viewport on this side!” A few more corpses slammed into the front and side windows, making the cover phrasing useless. Then bits of debris joined them, sparking against the front shields and bouncing off into space, granting Liverpool a charred metallic wake.
Rell didn’t look up from the briefing scrawling itself across the center console. “Mhm. We’re Field 309. Admiral Yoshitsune tried to push through here with his battleships a couple years back.” She raised her eyes to the center viewport, casting a sardonic salute at a twisted, punctured hulk thirty times the size of the Liverpool. “Secessionist Battleship,” she explained to Donahue and the other newbies, gesturing at the banks of turrets, some still flickering their rails on and off, the derelict’s dying reactors still gasping in the vacuum. To compensate for all the firepower, of course, the Seshies skimped on armor- blitzkrieg tactics for the new age. Usually it worked, but if they let themselves get bogged down, they regretted it in short order. A particularly long gash drew her eye, a line of molten metal blasted open along the center of the ship, crossing right through the command center. “They’re tops in open space, but tackling a destroyer group in this field was total idiocy. We’re faster, and when you get a beam cannon inside the shield bubbles, that light plating, well, lights up. Fast.” She turned away from the wreck.
“Still,” X.O. Wright said, “took some guts to draw them in here.”
“Well, the 14st had plenty of those,” Rell laughed. “Carmack was a lot of things- can’t call the man a coward, or his crews.”
None of the crew caught the past tense- Carmack went missing with his twelve heavy destroyers just a few months after he decked Yoshitsune. There’d been no word since.
There. I set up my later surprise, show that the Captain actually knows things- which she should, destroyer captain’s a big deal in the space navy- and also demonstrate this is the kind of universe where debris fields just get left alone as long as they’re out of the way. In space, no one can smell your decomposing corpse. Because it doesn’t decompose. Because you’re in space, where there’s no air to carry the smell or let bacteria survive. Just don’t ever fall into the trap of having talking heads tell your readers everything. And if you’re making a movie or a game or anything in a visual medium, your excuses are even fewer. You have plenty of ways to show these things- don’t just tell your audience that something awesome happened but refuse to let them see it. That’s just shunting all the work onto them. It’s cruel, it’s unusual, it’s just a tad lazy, and it saps all sense of urgency from the story- why should the encroaching AI overlords scare us when Commander Shitshooter here has all the time in the world to chat up blue ladies? And besides, when some folks just can’t seem to get enough explosions into their work, you should do your part to keep the explosion economy rolling.
That would sound less suspicious if I lived in a country with less of a sudden laser-guided special delivery fetish, wouldn’t it?