Things I learned about storytelling from Star Trek Picard

I'm a huge Star Trek fan, especially of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9. So, when the Picard show was unveiled, I was super excited (and a little nervous since I didn't like the Discovery show at all).

So, Picard is an interesting show. It's a mystery, for a start. And when I say that, I don't mean a mystery like a whodunnit, but rather it's a show that relies on the reveals of information as characters discover what's going on and why.

It's also one long story told in ten episodes which is unusual for Star Trek.

I'll tell you now that Star Trek: Picard didn't work for me. And since I'm currently writing a story that is also a mystery, I thought it would be fun to dissect exactly what about Picard didn't work for me. I thought that there was something here I could learn from the show's mistakes.

With that in mind, I wrote this article to discuss my major lessons from Picard. It's not going to cover everything but instead focus on the aspect of reveals and the strategic deployment of information that drives the story forward.

Before I start, however, I want to make a few things clear. A lot of these things are easy for me to criticise in hindsight, and speaking from an outsider's perspective. I don't know what kind of challenges the writers faced while working on the show. These are some incredibly talented writers, and I don't wish to make it seem like I'm disparaging their hard work.

I'm still learning the craft myself and I'm sure there are failings in my work. In the end, we're all students.

I also want to point out, if there's any doubt: I'm going to spoil the heck out of this show.

So, let's get started!

About reveals

Here's a quote from Robert McKee's book: Story. The quote is from the chapter about exposition and is relevant to what I'll be discussing.

You do not want to keep the audience interested by giving it information, but by withholding information.

In other words, be frugal when it comes to releasing information. Only release it when the time is right - i.e. wait till the audience wants to know and when it makes the biggest dramatic impact.

You need to weaponise information in your story!

To make my points clearer, I want to differentiate exposition (or information reveals) into three different categories:

  • Exposition
  • Twists
  • Reveals

Exposition. Let's think of exposition as the unmotivated reveal of information to the audience. The audience doesn't necessarily want or need this information at the point in time that the exposition is made.

Rather, they either need to know it so they understand what is going on in the story, or they need to know because it will be useful information for later in the story.

Exposition gets a bad rep, but it's an essential aspect of storytelling. The bad rep it gets stems from the poor execution of exposition - we never complain when exposition is done well, i.e. nobody complains about the Star Wars crawl at the beginning of each movie.

An example of exposition might be when a character relates to another about his relationship with his father. In this case, this is information that helps the audience understand character motivations.

Twists can be thought of as events or revelations that dramatically shift or twist the audience's understanding of the story. A twist can propel the story into a brand new direction (for example the twist involving vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn).

Twists are often used at the end of thrillers. For example, The Sixth Sense (he was a ghost all along), or detective thrillers (the detective's partner was the killer all along). Twists are often used sparingly unless the intention is to have a story that twists and turns like a corkscrew (eg. Red Rock West).

Finally, let's define Reveals.

Reveals can be thought of as a release of some important piece of information that either drives the story forward or that deepens the understanding of a story.

A reveal differs from exposition since they are motivated and are often the key moments in scenes. While exposition conveys information only, reveals serve to move and entertain the audience. In other words, reveals are dramatic tools.

At the same time, they differ from twists in that they are usually more subtle. They deepen the understanding of a story without necessarily spinning it into a new direction.

You can have (and indeed you probably want) a great many reveals in a story without it feeling like the story is "corkscrewing". Reveals are essential to a mystery show such as Star Trek: Picard.

Story overview of Picard

Now that we hopefully understand the aspects at play in the demand and supply of information in a story, let's look at the overall story outline of Picard. I'm leaving out everything except that which is pertinent to the main core of the story.

The main plot:

Picard discovers that synthetic life forms based on Data still exist - they're kind of like Data's children. These synthetic life forms are threatened by a secret Romulan group. What's going on? Why are the Romulans after them? Who else is involved? This is what the story seems to be focused on.

Let's break down how this basic plot unfolds across the episodes, but first, if you don't want to see brief recaps, skip to the Analysis subheading.

Episode 1 (Act I)

A cataclysmic event on Mars has led to synthetic lifeforms (synths) being outlawed. Picard has retired and retreated to his farm and a young woman called Dhaj seeks him out. Before she is killed by Romulans, the audience discovers that Dhaj is Data’s daughter. Picard discovers that Dhaj has a twin sister called Soji. Both of them were created by Bruce Maddox. Picard surmises that Bruce should know where Soji is. Picard wants to find Soji and save her from the Romulans. The episode ends with the discovery that Soji is working on a reclaimed Borg cube. She is being courted by a Romulan, Narek. There’s a lot of information in this episode!

Episode 2 (Act I)

We get a flashback of synths killing humans on a Mars colony. Picard goes to Starfleet with news about the Romulans’ assassination of Dhaj.

He is told to "f**k off" by an Admiral (her words, not mine).

Meanwhile, we discover that the Head of Starfleet Security is a Romulan spy. She is involved with the clandestine group who killed Dhaj. She is involved with the clandestine Romulan society which killed Dhaj.

Meanwhile, on the Borg cube, we find out that Narek is interested in Soji because he wants to extract some information from her.

So there’s retreading of information in this episode, as well as some new information being revealed.

Episode 3 (Act I)

We get a flashback with Picard failing to persuade Starfleet to help the Romulans after their planet is destroyed. He quits Starfleet as a result. There’s more relationship stuff on the Borg cube with Soji and Narek (with no further revelations).

Picard blasts off with a new ragtag crew in search of Bruce Maddox.

Not much in the way of new revelations here.

Episode 4 (Act II)

There are no new revelations in this episode but we do explore the ramifications of what’s happened before.

The main focus of this episode is to introduce a new Romulan character: Elnor. After he’s introduced, they’re on their way again looking for Maddox.

No new revelations in this episode.

Episode 5 (Act II)

The crew arrive on Freecloud with the concern of getting Bruce Maddox. They do and he tells Picard that Soji is on the Borg reclamation cube.

Bruce is killed by Agnes (his ex-colleague/lover and one of Picard’s crew).

Episode 6 (Act II)

Soji discovers that she is a synth as Picard and company arrive on the Borg cube. Narek gets the information he needs from Soji (i.e. the whereabouts of a planet of synths).

As the bad guys close in, Picard teleports off the Borg cube with Soji.

No new revelations to the audience as these are revealed for the characters.

Episode 7 (Act II)

We find out Agnes was shown a vision of synthetic lifeforms destroying organic life. The vision was given by the Starfleet Head of Security, who we already know is a Romulan spy.

The vision is the reason Agnes killed Maddox. Meanwhile, we get reacquainted with Riker and Troi.

Episode 8 (Act II)

A lot of reveals happen (or “seem” to happen).

For instance, we discover the reason why Romulans want to destroy the synths. It’s because they are trying to stop the genocide of organic life (I think we already knew that from earlier?).

Captain Rios’s tragic past is revealed. His former Starfleet captain (whom he looked up to as a father) murdered a synth that looks like Soji. The Captain committed this murder based on Federation orders.

This captain later committed suicide out of regret.

Episode 9 (Act III)

We visit the planet of synths. These synths have a developed society and, as the Romulan fleet arrives to destroy them, they seek to protect themselves by calling a sort-of synth God.

If this thing arrives it will make the prophecy come true, calling the end of organic life.

Episode 10 (Act III)

The finale. Picard gives up his life for the synths. The synths decide to spare the Romulans. And peace is restored (for now?).

Data is revealed to still be alive in a complex simulation.

And Picard is brought back to life.

Analysis

I’ve marked Acts as I see them next to the episode title. The following are how I see the act structure being split across the episodes.

  • Act I seems to run from episodes 1 to 3
  • Act II from 4 to 8
  • Act III is episodes 9 and 10

To me, the story seemed to drag after Act I as there didn’t seem to be enough story to maintain all ten episodes. It doesn’t help matters that the reveals are top-loaded, as most information is unveiled as exposition in the first Act.

This leads to some of the later episodes feeling like they were filler, padding out the runtime of the story.

Despite there not being enough story to sustain ten episodes, there were a lot of questions which were left unanswered by the end of the show.

For instance, when did this other synth-led genocide happen? Is this a previous long-forgotten civilisation? How is it that this Romulan secret society was aware of this genocide but nobody else? Who/what is this synth god? Why did the visions make only some Romulans insane while others were fine? What is the source of this vision?

I was also waiting to discover the connection between the Borg and the synths. I could go on. So, while the show was top-loaded with information it needed, there are more questions, the answers to which would have added more depth to the proceedings.

I read somewhere that Picard was written as a character study. This may have been the intention, but since the story starts with a very strong plot thread and central mystery we, the audience, are tracking this plot and wanting/waiting for that story to move forward.

The problem ultimately is that the story doesn't move forward, and instead feels like it stalls. Going into Act II the audience knows a lot of things the characters do not (e.g. where Soji is). So, we have to wait for Picard and his team to play catch-up.

In Act III we get the revelation that a sort-of a synth god exists and that it will come to protect the synths and wipe out organic life. We also find out that Data still exists in a holographic simulation. These were revelations that had no foreshadowing. We never questioned, for instance, whether Data still existed in some form. Maybe we were supposed to?

Anyhow, that was my overall analysis of the show. Time to delve into lessons based on this analysis.

Learnings

To start delving into my learnings, it‘s useful to review another Robert McKee quote:

Reveal only that exposition the audience absolutely needs and wants to know and no more.

Based on that statement and based on the number of revelations the show makes in the first act, the first learning is this.

Don't reveal things too early

Going through the list of reveals made in the first act, what could be withheld, and what would the impact of doing so be? Answering these questions can help us choose which direction to take this.

First, the secret society. We find out that a secret society of Romulans was responsible for Dhaj’s death very early. This was also revealed as exposition by one of Picard’s assistants.

If this were held back the audience would be free to speculate as to the identity of the mysterious group. Perhaps the audience might even have suspected Starfleet or the newly freed Borg, which would have made them more relevant to the story even if used as red herrings.

Data’s connection to Dhaj could also be held back and possibly the information that Soji was a synth. If all we knew was that a young woman came to Picard for help and got killed, it would add an air of mystery. How did she know to come to Picard? Why was she killed?

We would see Soji as a twin sister, unaware that she is also a synth. For me, this would make things considerably more interesting and we’ve just held back some information to reveal later!

Picard and the crew also shouldn’t know of Soji's existence until they find Bruce Maddox. They are not looking for Soji directly to start with anyway. Anyway, hopefully, you get the picture. This new Act I would just raise questions and mysteries for the show to unravel slowly throughout the story.

Speaking of when to reveal these:

Time the reveals for maximum impact

Now that we’ve held back some reveals, we need to decide on the best time to release these for maximum impact.

As with the decision about what to hold back, there are choices to be made here as well. For instance, do we space the reveals out evenly across the entire story (one extreme)? Or do we cluster all the reveals together (the other extreme)?

There is, of course, a middle ground, but there’s no right or wrong answer, only a consideration of the impact of these choices.

First, let’s consider the Romulan secret society and the assassins. Wouldn’t it have more impact for us to know that the Romulans are the bad guys after Soji falls in love with the Narek?

Perhaps we could combine the audience realising she was a synth at the same time as learning of Narek’s betrayal. This would have the effect of sympathising with her more, especially if we see things unfold from her perspective.

This double-reveal for everyone would be much more dramatic but perhaps we want to land more emphasis on one reveal over another? In which case we could have her realise she is a synth, and closely follow up with the reveal that Narek is part of the secret society wanting to kill all synth life.

If we’ve decided to hide the relationship with Data, it might be a good time to reveal this connection. For example, what if Soji learned she was a synth and a subroutine kicked in, revealing a recorded message from Data himself. This may amplify the moment even more.

Hopefully, you get the picture. This is my favourite aspect of reveals. Just moving them around the story to decide what choice we prefer.

Overall, we could make Act II feel much more substantial than it is at the moment.

Break up information into smaller pieces

In episode 8 we discover Rios’s tragic past. Which included:

  • Rios’s previous captain received an order from Starfleet to kill a young woman
  • The captain commits murder
  • He regrets this decision so much he kills himself
  • The young woman looked like Soji (i.e. she was a synth)

All of the above information was delivered in a single reveal. However, they can be broken up into pieces. Now, we can decide what piece of information to reveal when and in what order.

Perhaps we discover that Rios’s former captain committed murder early in Act II, followed by the revelation that he killed himself.

Later we could discover that he was following Starfleet orders.

Point is, breaking up information into pieces allows us to play around with their reveals to achieve the effect we’re after.

Make reveals more dramatic

In an earlier point, I discussed when reveals could be made. Now, let’s talk about how.

In an early episode, Picard’s Romulan friends/employees reveal a lot of exposition about the Romulan secret society through talking. The reveals are motivated, which is good, but having characters verbalise reveals in a non-dramatic way is a waste of dramatic potential.

Another example is in episode 8. The characters sit around a table talking. It is here that Rios’s backstory is revealed. This is boring and diminishes the dramatic potential of the information.

Now, I’m not saying that we should show and not tell everything. But we need to be mindful of the dramatic impact of our choices.

Rios’s backstory for instance. We could see the murder take place earlier through a flashback? Or we could still deliver the information through dialogue but have it come out more dramatically.

Here’s a quote from Elizabeth Bowen:

Dialogue is what characters do to each other.

What better weapon is there than information? Imagine if we didn’t see Agnes kill Maddox. We’d know Maddox somehow died. We’d still like Agnes. But then we had her scream out that she killed Maddox in an argument.

Does that work better?

Utilise twists

Since we’re here for the long stretch of ten episodes, we might have a concern whether there is enough plot to sustain all these episodes. In this case, perhaps we can throw in some red herrings and twists to spice things up.

We’ve covered one example already — i.e. what if we didn’t know the Romulan secret society was behind the assassination of Dhaj? What if we suspected Starfleet, to begin with? For example, perhaps Picard could try to take down Admiral "F**k off" before realising that Romulans were part of the conspiracy.

Perhaps we don’t even know that the storyline is about synths based on Data till later. Perhaps the story at first appears to be more about the Borg reclamation project and some revelations resulting from there until we were ready to twist the story into a different direction.

Conclusion

In terms of what else I would change to fix Picard: I would investigate a more episodic format. This might allow us to explore this new universe as each episode tackles different aspects or characters of the show. The mystery throughline can still be there to tie the episodes together.

This is a structural model used to great effect in Justified, one of my favourite shows.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Is there something you learnt about watching from watching Star Trek: Picard? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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