Category Archives: Deconstructing Avatar

Deconstructing Avatar: Act II (The First Half Up to the Mid-Point)

avatar part1

Avatar is a clinic on story structure.  Every element is right where it’s supposed to be, which is both a relief and a revelation. 

The relief is for me – imagine my disappointment if I’d have gotten halfway through this deconstruction only to find the film is a structural mess.  The revelation is for all of us – nothing cements our confidence in and knowledge of story structure better than seeing it play out before our eyes.

A Quick Review of Avatar’s Part 1 Set-Up

In the first act (Part 1) of Avatar we rolled out 30 briskly-paced scenes, all of them in perfect context to what conventional wisdom defines as its mission: to set-up the story to come, and the First Plot Point in particular.

Mission accomplished. 

The main characters were introduced with backstory and a pending character-arc already in play.  We’re hooked, and soon we’re both intellectually and emotionally involved.

The concept was fleshed out with almost academic clarity. 

The bad guy leaves no doubt about what he wants – to kill some local natives – and in recruiting Jake to his team he establishes the story’s essential stakes. 

Most of all we empathize with Jake and we like him.  Which means when the banshee poop hits the fan we’ll also be rooting for him.

The Part 2 Response

Now we’ve been thrust into Act II (film-speak for Parts 2 and 3 of the equivalent novelistic storytelling model, comprising the middle 50% of the total length), where the story is no longer in set-up mode, it’s in response mode.  The context of everything Jake does until the Mid-Point will be his reaction to his new quest in the face of the obstacles placed before him.

Note that Jake doesn’t take any real substantive action in this section.  It’s all response and reaction as he evolves from his given assignment toward his destined one.

Here in Part 2 we’ll be looking for two primary elements – the first Pinch Point, which should occur precisely in the middle of this quartile, and how the film ramps up to and executes the Mid-Point milestone, which occurs near the middle-point of the entire story.

There are only 16 scenes in Part 2, compared to 30 in Part 1.  And yet Part 2 eats up nearly the same amount of storytelling time, nearly 40 minutes, very close to it’s target of 25 percent of the total running time.  So far everything is in near-perfect proportion in terms of length.

You’ll recall that the First Plot Point was Jake being told by Neytiri that he was special, a chosen one, as indicated by the glowing seeds from the Tree of Souls landing all over his avatar body, as if to anoint him as such.  Prior to that he was a spy with a deadly agenda, but from that point forward we (the viewer) know that his journey will be quite different.   

You could argue that the First Plot Point was a bit earlier (which would be more in line with perfect timing for it) when Neytiri shows up to save him.  Cameron isn’t here to break that tie, but it doesn’t matter – what is clear is that over the course of these three to four scenes where Jake first encounters Neytiri, everything about the story changes. 

Plot Points are like that.  They can be subtle, and they can sometimes be the sum of a sequence of related scenes that turn the story on its ear.

Jake emerges from this scene with a sense that something has shifted, but he’s less clear about this than we are.  The story’s response-mode going forward, then, becomes the dramatization of how Jake comes to realize it, too. 

The story really begins right here. 

Jake follows Neytiri back to Hometree, the primary camp and meeting place for the Na’vi tribe.  Along the way he is again rescued by Neytiri, this time from a band of Na’vi brothers led by Tsu-tey, who has an eye for Neytiri and is immediately threatened by Jake’s presence (an additional antagonistic force blocking Jake’s path).

The next two scenes depict Jake’s tension-filled introduction to the tribal elders, who because of the possibility that he is a chosen one (those glowing seeds again), they decide to give Neytiri a chance to train him instead of killing him on the spot. 

It’s all pure response-mode.  Jake is just along for the ride at this point.

We then quickly cut back to Corporate with Jake in his human body, where Grace tells everyone about Jake’s success, followed by a key scene in which the Security Chief tells him that things are heating up.  They’ve determined that the richest vein of unobtainium (the $20 million per ounce bounty in this story) resides directly beneath the tribe’s Hometree camp, which means Jake needs to either talk them into leaving or get out of the way as they bulldoze them into oblivion.

The stakes just got even bigger.

He has three months to get that done. 

Jake says he’s up for it, but the viewer can tell he’s already having second thoughts.  This is a visual cue, something a novelist would have to show with clever phrasing relative to his dialogue in this scene.  Either way it’s just storytelling, and it’s necessary exposition to further the plot at this juncture.

What happens next is a four minute montage of intercut scenes showing Neytiri training Jake in the tribe’s ways.  Jake narrates this evolution from an outsider to a quick-study warrior who is quickly earning the respect of the tribe, and most of all Neytiri.

It’s wall-to-wall response mode, with very little else in play other than a growing sense that Jake needs to, and is about to, shift his priorities.

The First Pinch Point

Remember that the mission of the Pinch Points, which occur precisely in the middle of Parts 2 and 3 (at about the 37th and 62nd percentile) is to remind the audience – not necessarily the hero – what the stakes are and what the primary antagonistic element in the story is all about.  To bring the essential core conflict of the story back to center stage.

The first scene following the montage is Jake debriefing the Chief, giving him the layout of the Na’vi camp in preparation for an impending attack.  But we can tell Jake is having second thoughts – he’s done his job too well, since now he’s far more a Na’vi in spirit than he is the minion of this muscle-bound sadist.

The next scene is the Pinch Point, occurring precisely where it needs to. 

Grace realizes the Chief is about to put the hammer down, and she isn’t about to allow him to ruin her progress in negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Na’vi.  She knows the Chief intends to shut her down, including the piloting of avatar bodies.  It’s time to get serious with these savages.  But she won’t let that happen.

So the scientists and avatar pilots move to a remote mountain lab, already outfitted with links for continued consciousness-transfer into avatar pilot-mode for the purpose of allowing Grace and Jake to complete a peaceful agreement that will save the Na’vi.

This commences a series of quick, visceral scenes in which we see Jake bonding with his Na’vi brothers, learning to break and then fly a banshee, a near-death encounter with the Great Toruk (the B-1 bomber of banshees), and Grace’s initial explanation of the significance of the Tree of Souls (foreshadowing).

The series ends with Jake completing his first successful hunt, pronounced by Neytiri as a “good kill,” which means he has now internalized the spiritual connection between all creatures and creations on Pandora, which cuts to the heart of the film’s thematic intentions, while also forecasting the ultimate conclusion. 

Jake is one of them now.

Over the course of these scenes Jake realizes he’s fully emotionally invested in his Na’vi life.  It is here where he fully realizes he has to change teams.

The Mid-Point scene occurs precisely where it should, at the 78-minute mark in the film (do the math, the total running time is 156 minutes).  This isn’t a coincidence.  This is James Cameron showing a command of story structure.

The scene is a celebration at Hometree in Jake’s honor to welcome him to the tribe in an official capacity.  Even Tsu-tey has come around, and anyone looking closely can see that Jake and Neytiri are hot for each other.  Sexual hijinks will soon ensue.

How does this fulfill the mission of the Mid-Point milestone?

Because it alters the context of the story.  Prior to this moment Jake was officially a spy for the Corporation that intends to get the Na’vi out of their way.  After this scene, though, Jake is no longer that solider.  He is now a Na’vi in his heart and soul. 

Welcome to Part 3, wherein Jake leaves his reactionary ways behind and swings into proactive attack mode, just as the principles of story structure say he should.

Next up – Deconstructing Part 3 of Avatar (the second half of the film’s Second Act), leading up to the Second Plot Point.

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.

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Deconstructing Avatar – The Second Half of the First Act

avatar part1

An Analysis of a Two Billion Dollar Story in Context to Accepted Structural Modeling

In the first post in this series we analyzed the first 19 of the 30 scenes that comprise Avatar’s opening act, or in novelist terms, Part 1 of the story. 

If you’re doing that math, you’ve already red-flagged this, and are likely composing an email to me that reminds me that 19 isn’t half of 30.  But from another and more appropriate standard, the math works: the first 19 scenes consume nearly 24 minutes of screen time, and the first act ends (at the First Plot Point) at 42 minutes of screen time.

So let’s call it half and move on.

Thus far James Cameron has set this story up according to the principles of story structure – we’ve met our hero, we see where he’s coming from, what his current situation is (most notably, in a wheelchair), what this new world is about, and who he’ll be working with.  We’ve also foreshadowed the coming drama through the set-up of a cold-hearted corporation looking to strip-mine Pandora, even if it means massacring the local citizens, the 9-foot tall and very blue-tinged Na’vi (pronounced Navee).  

And then, roughly in the middle of this opening act (Part 1) at scene 19, we get our first information about Jake’s forthcoming journey when the resident bad guy Security Chief wants him to be his spy as he pilots his avatar body into the Nav’d community.  Officially he’s there to protect head science cheese (Grace, played by Sigourney Weaver) as she tries to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but as far as the Security Chief is concerned, Jake is all about intel and the eventual slaughter of the innocents to come, about which he is already salivating.

Someone unfamiliar with story structure could easily pronounce this plot twist as the commencement of the plot, or even as the first plot point.  Because it appears that Jake now has a purpose and a new quest.

More accurately, this is a foreshadowing of the plot, rather than the commencement of it.

Plot twists are perfectly legit during an opening act, to an extent that the only thing that keeps them from wearing the official Plot Point One nametag is the mere fact that they show up too early.

But the First Plot Point always happens in a well told story at a prescribed place, and too early isn’t it.  It needs to show up somewhere between 20 and 25 percent in to optimize dramatic tension.  

So such preliminary layers of story exposition are just that – a way to infuse the story with stakes as part of the set-up

Such foreshadowing and the introduction of stakes are critical to the mission of Plot Point One.

In Avatar, scene 19 (Jake’s marching orders from the Chief) doesn’t define Jake’s real journey in this story, just its contextual starting point.  It’s a twist, perfectly timed and necessary, but it’s not Plot Point One.

The opening act continues with its mission to further set-up the First Plot Point.

Welcome to Pandora

Some books and movies fall into a category called arena stories, in which the environment and/or culture is intended to be a significant part of the attraction and the basis for the story itself. 

A love story can unfold anywhere – in an accounting office, in a Target store, at a freeway rest stop, etc. – but none of those are arenas.  When that love story unfolds in a specific place or culture that is inherently interesting and/or unfamiliar – a funeral home, an insane asylum, flight school, or another planet – then it becomes an arena story because the story will be impacted and empowered by the setting.

Avatar is the poster boy for arena stories.  Everything about the story depends on the setting.  Which is why Cameron takes such pains to set-up the arena as he does.

More Part 1 Exposition

The scenes after Jake’s face-to-face with the Chief takes us on our first helicopter (or the future equivalent thereof) ride over Pandora’s bizarre jungle terrain.  After we land we see a science experiment – critical foreshadowing here, both in terms of plot and theme – in which Grace determines that the plants and trees are all connected by a network of common energy, implying a shared awareness, even a common intelligence, between them.

Then, of course, Jake encounters first one, then another species of hungry special effects beast, the latter of which chases him over one of those killer waterfalls, thus isolating him in preparation for the forthcoming plot point.

Some might believe this to be the plot point, but it’s not.  It’s certainly another plot twist – you can have as many of them as you want, big and small, as long as the critical First and Second Plot Points are where they need to be, and do what they are required to do – but it falls short of defining Jake’s story-related journey sufficiently to qualify. 

Think of a First Plot Point as someone turning 21 years of age.  Big party.  But does that mean that can’t have had any parties when they were 12?  Or 15?  Or 18?  No matter how many parties there were, though, that 21st birthday means something, it changes everything going forward.

The Pre-Plot Point Ramp-up

Sometimes the arrival of the First Plot Point is sudden and jolting.  Frequently though, you can sense it coming.  The actual Plot Point becomes the culmination of a series of scenes devoted not to foreshadowing and character, but to the mechanics of the Plot Point moment itself. 

Avatar does precisely that.

Grace tries to find Jake in the helicopter, but nightfall is upon them and they must suspend the search.  She fears he won’t survive the night – we already know better – which sets the stage for what happens next.

In the new darkness Jake realizes he’s not alone.  He’s surrounded by a pack of wild dog-like creatures with huge fangs and glistening skin, who are about to make him their dinner.  He fights like the champion warrior we know he is – note that in this scene, and in the prior beast-confrontation scene, Cameron gives Jake some of the most laughable and misplaced dialogue ever; he sounds like a UFC fighter who’s seen The Fast and the Furious too many times – but he isn’t enough for these critters.

Suddenly Jake gets rescued.  Enter the story catalyst, the love interest, Jake’s reason for a new quest.  Her name is Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana), and she is as beautiful (in a Na’vi sort of way) as she is fierce and courageous.

Neytiri mortally injures one of the beasts trying to rip out Jake’s throat, but instead of comforting Jake she finishes off the animal with a merciful stroke of her knife while in tears about this unnecessary loss (a foreshadowing moment).  She then turns on Jake and basically tells him he’s a child, albeit one with a brave heart.  After a harrowing pursuit through the fantastic Pandora jungle on Jake’s part, she tells him that he shouldn’t be there.

And then something magical happens.  So magical, in fact, that itr becomes the First Plot Point, occurring at about 42 minutes – roughly 27 percent of the total running time, a bit late, but it’s not an exact science –  into the movie.

The First Plot Point of Avatar

Like many First Plot Points, at first blush this one doesn’t seem to be as unexpected or jarring as some of the earlier plot twists.  But it does fulfill the requisite mission of a First Plot Point, and wonderfully so, which, in combination with its placement, make it the unquestioned First Plot Point.

When we see the glowing seeds of the Sacred Tree descend on Jake to perch gently all over his body, this means (according to Neytiri) that Jake is, for lack of a better term, the chosen one, a sort of messiah, a savior to these people.    

Jake, of course, doesn’t get this, but he’s paying attention and realizes things are about to change.

But we get it.  A new journey is about to begin.  One with stakes we already understand.  Jake’s mission as a spy for the Chief now has an obstacle in his new destiny as a savior, however that might take shape, and his new mission to save them has a huge obstacle in the company that wants to squash them like bugs. 

It’s a whole new ballgame. 

Jake must respond by working out who he is and what he wants going forward, juxtaposed against the stakes of having his legs restored and serving the needs of the Company that employs him.

Everything we’ve seen in the prior 42 minutes has been a set-up to empower this moment with meaning and emotion.  To invest the viewer in both Jake and the Nav’d he’s there to save them from the crushing machines of the Company.

The stage is set for a story about spiritualism, environmentalism, profiteering, greed, and love to emerge and evolve.

You can download James Cameron’s script for Avatar here.

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.

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