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.