Category Archives: Deconstructing Avatar

Deconstructing Avatar – The Final Act

avatar eye

The stories we write are like life itself.

I’m not referring to how they reflect life – which they absolutely should do – or how poignantly you’ve rendered a character and how powerful your themes may be.

No, I’m talking now about structure and exposition.  About what happens.  The way we close out our lives is also the way we close out our stories – the ending is held hostage to what happens earlier.

Frustration, pain, satisfaction, peace of mind, business left undone, the state of our relationships – it’s all a function of how we’ve lived and what we’ve done prior to the commencement of the final act.

We must live out our days bearing the weight, and to whatever extent possible, celebrating the essence, of who we have been.

Our entire life, it could be said, is a set-up for how it will turn out in the end.

So it is in our stories – very little changes in the final act.  In fact, very little happens that isn’t completely and totally obvious.  It’s all just a chase scene culminating in a final showdown. 

Most of the time, the hero gets what she or he deserves.

And so it is in the final act of Avatar.

The Structure of Denouement

You’ll find very little substantive structural mentoring in the vast oeuvre of storytelling – including my own work – about how to end a story.  There are no Pinch Points to remind us of the central conflict, no new plot twists are allowed, there is no more setting up and foreshadowing.  Everything that becomes a factor in the story’s conclusion needs to have been previously introduced and put into contextual play.

You could almost – but not quite – say that the final act writes itself if you’ve done everything right prior to the 75th percentile milestone, also known as the Second Plot Point.

In real life, that’s often when we retire and move to Florida.

You can test this with Avatar

Imagine walking out of the theater at the Second Plot Point, where the Corporate Boss tells the Security Chief to “pull the trigger,” to wipe out the Na’vi so they can bulldoze their land.

This is nothing other than lighting the fuse for an inevitable explosion of confrontation.

Would you – do you – have the slightest doubt about what will happen next?  Didn’t think so. 

The evil corporate troops, under the leadership of the sadistic Security Chief, will mount their flying machines and attack the Na’vi.  Jake will fight through his status as a perceived traitor to emerge as their salvation, their leader in battle, and in the process win back the heart of Neytiri.  The corporate soldiers will go down in flames, and we’ll most certainly see a mano-a-mano confrontation between Jake and the Security Chief, which won’t be pretty, but won’t have a surprise outcome, either.

The Na’vi will be saved, the land will remain theirs, and Jake and Neytiri will, after a trail of bodies and much soap box pontificating, live happily ever after.

Everybody in the theater knows this is precisely what is about to happen.

And with one little surprise, it does.  I’ve just described Act III of Avatar, rendered in about 16 scenes, two or three of which are composed of a series of quickly edited intercuts and battle montages. 

There is no suspense other than wondering which of the bit players we’ve come to know will die in the coming fight.  We know this confrontation is coming, we know Jake will be in the middle of it, and we know that good will triumph over evil. 

And because of Cameron’s skill as a storyteller, we know it will work.  This is the essence of almost every final act of every thriller story ever told.  And with a little less straight-line obviousness, every other genre of story, as well.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s a natural thing. 

As writers, our job is to imbue these inevitable ending sequences with pacing, visceral realism and the leveraging of emotions we’ve worked so hard to bring about within our readers.  To make sure our thematic intentions receive a strong voice in the way the consequences of certain decisions and actions come to bear on the outcome. 

In other words, that everybody gets, to some extent, precisely what they deserve.  And that – however it actually ends – there is some satisfaction, justice and peace to be found.

Unless that’s not your theme.  Then you can end it with all the darkness you can muster up.  Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker are living like kings by doing just that. 

The Concluding Scenes of Avatar

Cameron gives us a couple of nice (if not transparently inevitable; his foreshadowing was a bit on-the-nose here) surprises at the eleventh hour.

First – spoiler alert here – it’s Neytiri that kills the Chief, not Jake.  Then she saves Jake himself shortly thereafter .  I suppose Cameron could defend this violation of the never-save-the-hero ethic of storytelling by pleading that he’s made Jake a literal martyr for the Na’vi cause, thus completing his character arc in the name of his mythic, archetypical thematic intentions.

Hey, this guy made almost two billion on Titanic, nobody’s gonna get in his face about fudging the rules at the end.

And then, because we’ve seen the attempt to save Grace by transferring her soul from her dying human body into her avatar form – which doesn’t work – we know that’s precisely what Jake’s ultimate destiny will be.  Why else put him in a wheelchair?  We also know that this time it will work.

So where’s the suspense?  Answer: Cameron doesn’t care.  The battle is over.  He’s all about delivering a big warm hug to your emotional core at this point.  It’s the wrap-up, the character-outcome, the parting gift.

Looking back on the story, it’s easy to see that Cameron’s thematic agenda was as ambitious as his dramatic one.  The story is rich with environmental proselytizing and religious allegory about the arrival and sacrifice of a messiah-like figure, rendering the story mythic and timeless as it frustrates critics who saw it coming from the opening scene.

So what do we learn from the final act of Avatar?

We learn that the ending makes or breaks itself on the amount of reader empathy and affection that the story has earned up to the point at which it all hits the fan.  That empathy licenses inevitability.

We learn that the course of action on the part of both the hero and the antagonist must be in context to, and a natural outgrowth of, their persona and their demonstrated arc.  They must have earned their hero status before they live into it.

We learn that we must immerse our reader/viewer into the thick of the fight, to saturate them with the tension that the character experiences, even though we know the outcome. 

This is key to making your ending work.  The character doesn’t know the outcome, and that’s the source of your empathy and your vicarious emotional investment.

Or, it can work the other way around – character knows, but the reader doesn’t.  Just make sure one or the other of these two dynamics is in place.

We need to make the reader root, and ultimately, make them feelWhat they feel is your call to make, but your storytelling success depends on how deeply you take your reader into a realm of emotional empathy.

Box office isn’t always a reflection of how well a writer has done that.  It could be argued that Cameron – just as M. Night Shyamalan did with The Sixth Sense – placed his bet on another square, that it wasn’t drama as much as it was spectacle and trickery. 

Many true mystery stories depend on the latter, which is fine if it also delivers a vicarious ride and a compelling hero.

Either way, though, we learn by paying attention.  If it’s a spectacle or a trick, make it the most spectacular trick you can.  If it’s reader emotion, use the tools of structure to create the pacing and exposition required to suck your audience into the heat and heart of the drama, and use the rules of character to make that something you can actually, by the time you write The End on your last page, achieve.


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Deconstructing Avatar – The Second Half of Act II

avatar part1

A closer look at the third quartile of a two million dollar home run story.

Since the last post a reader got in touch to share his opinion of Avatar, story-wise.  Not so good.  Which prompts me to clarify, and to seize the teachable moment.

I’m not qualitatively endorsing the entertainment merits of Avatar.  That’s your call, and this isn’t a review.  That said, I don’t think Martin Scorsese is losing any sleep, this isn’t terribly high literary art, but it’s certainly a commercial visual benchmark and a box office juggernaut. 

Just because you dissect a corpse in med school doesn’t mean the dead guy was on the cover of Men’s Health or won the Nobel Prize.  More likely he lived under a bridge, but that’s not the point. 

That, and this deconstruction, are learning experiences.  That’s it.  In this case, an interesting one when you consider it is the most successful film of all time.

Perhaps we should pay attention.  Upon cracking open the body for a closer look, what we find may not make you forget Ingmar Bergman, but you will see a symmetrically clear model of the principles of story structure at work.

Welcome to Part 3 of this story.

As we passed through the story’s Mid-Point (Jake being fully accepted as a Na’vi warrior, both in their heart and his own), we shift from a reaction mode into a clearly proactive attack mode.  Jake has a job to do, and after well over an hour of figuring out what that involves, he’s now ready to get ‘er done.

Which may seem like an odd time to throw in the obligatory sex scene, but that’s precisely what happens.  Jake and Neytiri head off into the forest together, where he connects with the Tree of Souls and hears the voices of the dead, confirming Grace’s suspicions that there is more going on in this forest than photosynthesis.

This leads to their first kiss, their choosing of each other as mates, then… cut to them waking up together after what one imagines to be the Na’vi version of 9 ½ Hours

Actually, it’s Neytiri who wakes up.  Jake has been pulled back into his human body for a little face-to-face with the Chief, who thanks him for his hard work, promises those new legs are right around the corner, and announces that it’s time to get this homicidal party started.  Jake, as a newly-minted local at heart, assures him he’ll talk the Na’vi into leaving.  Reluctantly – clearly the Chief was looking forward to kicking some Na’vi butt – he gives Jake another chance, with a ticking clock and a loaded artillery division looming over him.

The next scene teaches us something about storytelling. 

Neytiri wakes from her post-coital slumber to the thunderous sound of an approaching earthmover the size of a small office building, but she can’t get Jake to wake up.  He’s back at Corporate being force-fed a meal by Grace, who fears for his human health.

They’re directly in its path.  Suddenly, irrespective of the big picture, we have an immediate and scary situation on our hands.

This is an example of using little micro-dramas – think of them as short stories within the larger infrastructure – to keep the narrative urgent and ratchet up the stakes.  These little mini-dramas have their own set-up, their own stakes (Jake will be squashed if she can’t wake him up), and their own resolution.

Of course Jake does make it back into his Na’vi body in time to jump onto the hood of the giant machine and smash its camera system (it’s being remotely controlled from headquarters) with a rock and an attitude.

The Chief sees this over the video feed.  He asks to freeze the frame, which exposes Avatar-Jake as the attacker.  Which means the charade is over – Jake and the Chief are now openly and inevitably on different teams.

The invasion, which is meant to scare the Na’vi into running for the hills, stirs the local warriors into a warring frenzy.  As Jake tries to explain what’s going on and how he can help, he must confess his initial mission as a human spy, which doesn’t go over well around the campfire.  They take he and Grace into the jungle equivalent of custody, binding them to an archway to await execution.

Meanwhile, back at the human ranch, the Chief and the Corporate Suit decide enough is enough.  It’s time to pull the trigger and wipe out the Na’vi camp and anyone foolish enough to try to fight back.

And this is the second Pinch Point, loud and clear. 

It’ happens at about the 98 minute mark (out of 156 total minutes), which at the 63rd percentile is close enough to its target 66th percentile mark to qualify.  That location is one of the clues that it is, in fact, a Pinch Point – there are many other moments that shove the central drama of the story right back into our face, which is another Pinch Point mission – but in combination with the line drawn in the narrative sand here, this labels it clearly.

What follows is an increased sense of pacing – very much in keeping with the principles of structure; it’s time to really crank up the drama here – as the Chief launches a full airborne attack on the Na’vi Hometree camp.  (One wonders if the similarities between the actual home tree itself and the World Trade Center was intended, as the tree is roughly the size of those buildings, and it tumbles in terrifying slow motion as the bad guys (the humans in flying machines) leer on with salivating satisfaction.

Jake and Grace are set free by Neytiri’s merciful mother.  We see many cuts of them running through the carnage, trying to find Neytiri and watching some of the peripheral Na’vi players we’ve seen before come to a violent and tragic end.

Jake finally finds Neytiri, who of course isn’t ready to forgive and forget, and in fact blames the entire nightmare on him.  Which is, by the way, an element of a sub-plot about to collide with the main plotline. 

After many minutes of this we see the big bad Chief, who has safely turned to home base, travel to the remote link facility Grace and Jake have been using and, literally, pull the plug on their piloting experience.

As they emerge from the link they are arrested and thrown into a cell.

Remember Trudy, the helicopter pilot who ducked out of flight formation during the attack because she couldn’t, in all good conscience, participate?  Seems she got away with it, since now she shows up to spring our heroes from jail, all in the name of getting back in the game and saving the Na’vi from continued and complete extinction.

Which is, by the way, the Second Plot Point.

Why?  Because it clearly delivers a major story transition, the beginning of the end, if you will.  There will be no new expositional information forthcoming.  A fuse has been lit, the final charge has been mounted.

More twists could happen – and they do – but they are in context to this new path, rather than christening a new path on its own. 

If the definition of the First Plot Point, back at the 20th to 25th percentile, is to launch the hero’s primary quest by defining both the immediate and new goal (assuming the hero was on a path prior to that moment), while defining the initial obstacles that stand in the way…

… then the Second Plot Point is to kick the story and the hero into a final, higher gear, equipped with all the information and the impending fruits of character arc at their disposal.  It takes the form of a discernable change in the story, a palpable shift in the pacing and energy, and a clear path ahead. 

Sometimes it’s obvious.

In the movie Tombstone starring Kurt Russell, the Second Plot Point manifests at the moment in which Russell, as Wyatt Earp, pulls a fast one on the bad guys, kills the man sent to assassinate him while wounding the other, then sends the terrified survivor back to his bad guy boss with a message: “Tell him the Clantons are done… tell him hell’s a comin’… and I’m coming with it!”

Behind him the lightning flashes and the wolves howl… music up… Plot Point Two has arrived.  You’d have to be either six or ninety six years old and speak English as a fifth language not to notice.

Avatar’s Second Plot Point isn’t quite that bold and obvious.  But if you know what to look for – which is the point here, after all – it’s close.

Next up — the final act (Part 4 if you’re a novelist, Act III if you’re a screnwriter) of Avatar.

If you’d like to learn about the principles of story structure so you can get more from this series, click here for information about my ebook, Story Structure – Demystified.

If you’d like to learn more about the techniques of characterization, and how the arc of your characters should relate to story structure, click here to learn more about my newest ebook – The Three Dimensions of Character – Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains.

Read the first online review HERE.


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