For this, I’ll be referring to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called “The Mind’s Eye.” Now, this is an interesting challenge for me, because while I’m a huge Star Trek fan (the technical term is Trekker), I can’t assume that my audience is, or knows anything about Star Trek. So this means I need to give you all a summary of the episode, but not confuse anyone with a lot of references to the series that don’t make any sense.
The episode in question is about one of the main characters (Geordi) being kidnapped and brainwashed by some of the Bad Guys. They do this so they can use him to assassinate an ambassador. He goes back home thinking everything is fine (he’s brainwashed, after all) and goes about his business. Then some mysterious stuff starts happening, and the Good Guys are accused of helping some Other Bad Guys. Geordi gets his chance, and tries to kill the ambassador, but the Good Guys stop him, figure it all out, and he is cleared of charges. The episode ends with Geordi talking to a psychiatrist, trying to unravel what happened to him.
So that’s the break down. If you want a more detailed version, check out the episode’s Wikipedia entry here. For a really detailed version you can check out the entry at Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki.
The episode unfolds as I broke it down for you: we see Geordi being brainwashed (while having the process explained to us), and then the rest of the episode unfolds in chronological order. “The Mind’s Eye” is a good episode, but it could have been a great episode if they had shifted some of the narrative around. To put things in terms that almost approach screenwriting terminology, the first act of the episode is the brainwashing. The second act is the set up of the main characters meeting the ambassador and so on. The third act is the attempted assassination and resolution thereof.
If the writers and director had cut the first act and started the episode with the characters meeting the ambassador, then when the assassination attempt came (still in the second act) it would have been much more shocking. The audience would be forced to grapple with the idea that Geordi might have been a Bad Guy all along. The third act could then have focused on the psychiatrist helping Geordi understand what happened. In addition to giving Geordi’s actor, LeVar Burton, more range to explore his character, it would have heightened the drama and made for a more interesting episode. As it is, there’s no point at which the audience really fears for the character. There’s never a point where we know as little as the characters do either.
Admittedly, this episode aired in 1991, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, wasn’t exactly known for breaking away from the episodic format, where everything gets wrapped up by the end. Still, we can look back at this and take lessons from the episode. Experimenting with organization or narrative flow can result in more interesting stories, especially if you don’t reveal things to the audience until you need too.
You have to be careful not to confuse your audience without giving them the payoff of explaining things, but you can keep them in the dark for a while. In stories where the characters are trying to unravel a mystery of some sort (pretty common in Star Trek), bringing the audience along for the ride, by not giving them more information than the main characters, can make for a more satisfying conclusion, as we figure out what’s going on at the same time, or just before, the characters themselves.