Lesson from Star Trek: Multiple Story Threads

Like many other people, I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the beginning now that it’s available for streaming on Netflix.  Now that I’m far older and have some stories under my belt, I saw an interesting pattern in what the writers decided to do with their story lines.

So far, they fall into two basic structures.  I’ll call them the parallel structure and the nested structure.

The parallel structure is two separate story threads blended together that they then cut back and forth between during the course of the episode.  Usually, one of the two threads involves the “problem on the planet” type stuff.  Solve the dilemma, save the other spaceship, and so forth.  The second story thread is the one that the writer(s) can play with to achieve a different feel.  It could be humor-based, such as when Data is trying to learn how to be funny.  Or it can be character-based, such as when they investigate Worf’s background or the interaction between sets of characters.

The variations, of course, are nearly infinite.  What’s important is the idea of the two parallel threads: you can create tension by cutting back and forth between the two, and you can also get away with more when you use them together than if you were to use each separately.  The “Crisis on the planet” schtick might get stale faster if it’s not interwoven with something else.  There’s also something to be said for allowing a story some room and giving the viewer/reader a chance to breath before the tension cranks up again.  A whole episode of nothing but character background / investigation / fan service can get boring quick, too, especially if that character doesn’t happen to be the viewer’s favorite.  It also exhausts the pool that represents that character’s background story potential much faster.  Want to ensure a reader comes along for the entire ride?  Dribble the background, the stuff they want to know, in small bits throughout the entire arc.

In the nested structure, one story thread complicates another.  One of the best examples of this so far is in the Season 1 episode “The Big Goodbye,” where Picard and others get trapped in the holodeck right as the ship is supposed to make important diplomatic contact that only the captain can handle.  Either story thread could have been an episode by itself, but would have felt a bit anemic.  By complicating one situation with another situation, the tension rises.  After all, things are seldom easy or go as planned–especially if the writer has anything to say about it.

Within the nested structure is the reminder to not let things be easy on characters.  If the ship breaks down, and the crew just says, “oh, okay, then we’ll stop until it’s fixed,” there’s no episode, no conflict, nothing interesting going on.

The use of these two ideas, or vehicles, in a TV show makes me think they’d work well in short fiction.  I’ve added these to my writer’s toolbox and will try to pull them out every now and again.

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