Deconstructing Avatar – Part 1 of the Story

avatar part1

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

Allow me to open with what this is, and what it isn’t.  Actually, the other way around is better.

What this isn’t is a sequential description of the movie on a scene-by-scene basis.  For that you can simply go see the thing in a theater, or download the screenplay from Movieweb for free here.

Or, you can watch the movie online by clicking here.  Not sure it’s completely kosher, but it’s there for you if you have a beefy Intel chip and a bit of patience.

This series will deliver an analysis of how Avatar unfolds in context to what we’ve been studying here on Storyfix about structure, observing how the various criteria and milestones that comprise its parts manifest before your eyes.

Today we’ll look at the first half of  story’s Part 1 segment (one of four structural segments in a well-told story), with specific scenes pointed out for your reference.

To see these principles in play is to not only believe them, but to learn them, as well.

So what are we looking for?

You’ll recall that the first quartile of a story, called the set-up, has a succinct big picture mission to accomplish, along with several specific things to get across.  Many writers get this wrong by forgetting to establish a short list of requisite story context before things get really rolling, plot-wise. 

Which, by the way, happens at a very specific point at a prescribed place in the linear sequence of the story, called Plot Point One.  

The culmination of this opening quartile is that esteemed and venerable Plot Point One, which is arguably the most important moment in the entire story.  When you mess up the most important moment of pretty much anything in life, you’re in big trouble, and storytelling is no exception.

We’ll check in on all of this with Avatar, with an emphasis on understanding how, specifically, the film meets the various all-important Part 1 criteria.

Or not.

Bridging the Movie-Novel Storytelling Gap

There’s always a debate as to whether screenwriting and novel writing are in fact different expressions of the same storytelling skillset and model.

I say they are – I engage in both – but we must also recognize the differences between the end products, if not the processes.  Especially when using one or the other in a deconstruction exercise like this one.   

The primary difference for our purpose here, among several other differences, involves defining what a “scene” means in either form.

What would be easily rendered as a single scene in a novel is often delivered as a sequence of shorter scenes and cutaways in a film.  What the novelist can easily reference as a side-thought becomes a series of visual shifts on the screen – a cut or an edit, if you will – something the movie viewer assimilates as naturally as a reader comprehends exposition from the page.

The first four “scenes” from Avatar make this point clear. 

The Opening Hook

Our stories need to open with something that snares the interest of the reader on a conceptual level.  To literally make them want more, to ask questions and seek answers.

Avatar opens with a sequence of four scenes (slightly over three minutes) that are bridged with a voiceover from Jake Scully, our hero, as he travels from some obscure jungle location to the planet Pandora to take his dead brother’s place in a fantastic and ambitious scientific experiment.

It is the voiceover that launches this story, the visuals serving only as a sort of postcard illustration of the jungle in which he was injured, his awakening after five years of suspended animation in space, a cutaway to an exterior shot of the spaceship and the destination planet and its moon, Pandora, and a flashback to the day Jake was recruited at his brother’s cremation.

In a novel this could easily have been one seamless scene of narrative recollection and introduction. 

What’s more important to notice here, though, is that the hook is solidly in place in the first three minutes for a 156 minute story.

In three minutes we learn who Jake was (a Marine), who he is today (a wheelchair bound ex-warrior mourning his brother), where he is going (Pandora), and a quick and juicy glimpse of why (to take his brother’s place in an experiment).

But it’s what we don’t know that’s just as intriguing.  We have no clue what this experiment is all about, and yet, we absolutely want to know more about it and this new world that will be Jake’s new lease on life.

Hooked.

Conceptual and Character Introduction

Two of the missions of Part 1 of a well told story are to introduce the conceptual landscape, as well as the current life and world view of the hero.  The next 14 scenes (out of 30 in Part 1) do nothing other than those two things.

Actual plot exposition takes a backseat to defining this world and the essence of the concept.  The first real “plot” moment comes just as Jake is exiting the shuttle upon his arrival, when we see huge arrows protruding from the massive tires of an earth-moving vehicle that nearly runs us over.  It’s quick, and it foreshadows (part of the Part 1 mission) the promise of hostile locals wielding low technology.

We hear a briefing from the evil Security Chief about how dangerous this place can be, and how primitive the locals are (scene 7). 

Along with Jake, we see what’s going here – he and another new recruit will be “pilots” of Avatar bodies grown from conjoined human and local (they’re called the Naveed) DNA, yielding 9-foot tall creatures that bear an eerie resemblance to the human whose DNA resides in its cells crossed with a marine reptile.

By using coffin-like pods as an electronic linking post, the “pilot” transfers his consciousness into the body of his or her Avatar body, giving them complete control – literally a physical presence inside that body – over it, while maintaining their very human intellect, language and deductive powers. 

Sort of like putting on an Avatar Halloween costume, which we are sure to see next October ad nauseam.

This goes on for 17 minutes.  We meet Grace, the head scientist chain-smoker resident grouch, grossly over-written.  We meet the corporate scumbag who commands a mining enterprise seeking to extract a mineral called “unobtainium,” which despite its ironic name is worth $20 million per kilogram, or about what J-Lo’s wedding ring is worth.  We see all the cool technology at hand, a real fan-boy videogame fantasy come to glorious life.

By the 20 minute mark –precisely halfway through Part 1 of the story – we’ve come to know Jake, we understand what he believes to be his purpose, we’ve met his peers and his boss, we’ve met both bad guys, and we’ve been seduced by the visual tapestry and special effects (the equivalent of the writer’s voice in a novel), and we’ve seen our first real Avatar clone up close and personal.

James Cameron knows it’s time to give us something new and scary to chew on.

Break Out the Stakes

Scene 19, at the 20 minute mark (which shows you how many quick flashes of story narrative have been delivered, and at what pace), the story gets serious for three all-important minutes. 

It’s a milestone scene, easily mistaken for a – perhaps The – plot point had it been in the proper place, which it isn’t.  This is just a killer plot twist.

One of the important missions of Part 1 of a well-told story is to introduce and invest us in the stakes of the story.  Not just for the hero, in this case, but for the antagonistic force (the “company”) as well.

In this scene Jake comes across the linebacker Security Chief as he’s bench pressing twice his body weight in a make-shift gym next to all the cool machines, which is where all the future guys will undoubtedly workout.  As they talk the steroid-infused guy moves from the bench to take the helm of a giant robot straight out of Transformers, all the while informing Jake that they are kindred spirits, warrior brothers, who are both different and superior to all those science pukes looking to sing Kumbahya with the locals.  Jakes role as an Avatar will be to provide security for Grace as she continues her attempt to strike a peaceful accord with the Naveed, but that’s only for looks.  The Chief has something much more interesting in mind.

Jake’s real mission, says the Chief, is to be his eyes and ears, and to feed him information about the locals that can be used when it’s time to drop the hammer on them.  If he succeeds, the Chief promises, he’ll make sure Jake gets his legs back.  Literally. 

It seems the medical technology has evolved by this time (2058) to fix such physical injuries, but the costs are prohibitive on a G.I. disability bill.

Jake now has purpose.  He has stakes in that purpose.  And because he’s a nice kid, we care about him and these stakes.  We also may already care about the poor Naveed, who are surely to be the victims of these profiteering corporate types. 

This, in combination with our previously established fascination with this world, buries the hook even further.  Because we are beginning to care.

The Big Picture Context of Part 1

As a writer, it’s critical to understand where we are in this narrative sequence. 

On one level the story is well underway, but when you look closer with a writer’s informed sensibility, you see that it’s all just part of a long set-up.  That the real story hasn’t really started at all.

You know that won’t happen until Plot Point One arrives, at which time things will change, and dramatically.  You know that you’ve been given pieces of information about the story to come, most notably the stakes for Jake’s continuing along a prescribed path.

But in a story this complex – not because of the dramatic premise, but because of the requisite rules of the universe being created here, without which the viewer would be lost – there is much more setting-up to do.

Sixteen more minutes of set-up, in fact.  We have new characters to meet, a deeper understanding of the concept to absorb, and a lead-up to some serious drama that culminates in the arrival of the Plot Point One that will indeed change everything, and according to the structural rules of great storytelling.

To watch the Avatar trailer and other interviews and fan clips, visit YouTube here.

In our next post, we complete the Part 1 analysis of Avatar, including a detailed breakdown of Plot Point One and what it means, juxtaposed against the rigid criteria for this all-important story milestone.

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.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Deconstructing Avatar – Part 1 of the Story

  1. Martijn Groeneveld

    Hi Larry,

    I must admit I love deconstructed stories. I’m a person who learns by example, so I’m looking forward to the next post. And I’m a sci fi buff ever since I saw Star Wars as a kid, so…

    I had another question about Avatar concerning not the structure of the story, but I think it’s about theme. Isn’t Avatar in its essence the same movie as Dances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai?

    A man comes to live with a “primitive” people, at first as a spy, or a captive, but his intentions aren’t exactly noble. He then learns starts to appreciate and love the ways of the tribe, hooks up with a local woman and ends up fighting with them against the very people who had sent him in the first place.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Greetings,
    Martijn

  2. Monica

    Thanks so much for this, Larry.

    Seeing the plot points identified, stakes identified (why is that one so hard for me?) – and what they are NOT – helps so much. I should have a much easier time in identifying these when I try again to break down a movie on my own.

    Plus, it’s great to hear your take on Avatar. Everyone else is putting in their two cents. Might as well put in yours – and yours is actually _helpful_.

  3. One of the “ah ha” moments I’ve gotten out of your story structure series is understanding what Part 1 is all about. Understanding how all those first scenes through Plot Point 1 are setting up the world, the stakes, the characters, etc for the “real” story to begin.

    Can’t wait to read the rest. And I’m going to totally spoil this movie for myself, but I plan on reading all of this before watching it. 🙂

  4. @Martijn — that’s a good observation, this story is indeed a recycling of a very basic mythic fable. It’s a messiah story, a reluctant savior thing. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the timeless nature of this prototypical concept that prompts its return, over and over. We’ll see it agian, and in another setting.

  5. Love the deconstruction series Larry. Found you via Darren Rowse. Have you ever read STEAL THIS PLOT? Great book for any writer. It covers the finite number of plots that exists and how everything’s been done before, it’s just the spin we put on it as writers that make it our own.
    For example, the book compares the legendary Moby Dick with Jaws…and the comparisons were hilarious. The revenge seeking sea captain vs the great white fish….blah blah blah.

    I will come back to this blog often. Good stuff sir.

    Pai

  6. I think the alien species the avatars copy is the Na’vi, not the Naveed.

    Loving the deconstruction posts. Keep them coming.

  7. Lee

    In case anybody else is reading these excellent posts well after they were first written, you may have trouble finding the Avatar screenplay. Here’s a link I found that worked, via the Wayback Machine:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20100525105437/http://www.foxscreenings.com/media/pdf/JamesCameronAVATAR.pdf