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.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to Deconstructing Avatar – The Second Half of Act II

  1. Ed

    Seems there is a good example of the “Pre-Plot Point 2 Lull” as well: Lot’s of weeping at the devastation of the fallen Home Tree, the love story goes sour, and the heroes are locked up thinking about what went wrong.

    Love these posts that break down popular stories, Larry. You could keep these coming for a long time.

  2. After reading your story structure series, I sat down with three different movies and took notes (all of which did exactly as you said they would)…but the hardest part for me was always recognizing the pinch points. I get the concept of what they are for, but FINDING them was something of a challenge at times.

    So the second pinch point was the Chief reminding us of his goal: to wipe out the camp, correct?

    You said: “in combination with the line drawn in the narrative sand here” as something that helps to identify a pinch point separate from other instances (besides placement in the story). So the Chief reminds us what the original story stakes were, but then his declaration that enough is enough …is that the line in the sand that identifies it?

    I’m hoping (err, suggesting?) that after this is all done with, you might devote a blog post solely to pinch points? 🙂

  3. @Ed — thanks for contributing, what you say is absolutely true and very well stated. That lull is a consistent presence in stories that stick close to the principles, and when you sense it you know the second plot point is right around the corner.

    @Jeannie — pinch points can be tough to spot because the story is full of references to the primary conflict. And, they can come from any point of view. Location is the primary indicator, and it’s less important that we, the reader/deconstructor, find them than it is that the writer understand how to use them, not matter how subtlely.

    The second pinch point in Avatar is actually when the Corporate boss tells the Chief to pull the trigger, which is a more dramatic return of the primary conflict than the Chief saying he’s had enough.

    You mention doing a post about pinch points — you haven’t heard the last of them here, and I’ll be sure to highlight them in future deconstructions, which I’ll be doing more of. I’m not getting much reader feedback on this series, to be honest, but those I am hearing from seem to be really getting a lot out of this effort, so it’s worth it. The link below will take you to a pinch point post that was part of my Story Structure Series a few months ago. And of course, I give it a lot of coverage in my ebook. Let me know if you have specific issues or questions. Thanks for participating, Jeannie. L.

    http://storyfix.com/story-structure-series-9-%e2%80%93-pinch-points

  4. Larry,

    It’s fascinating how closely Avatar resembles Dances With Wolves.

  5. Thanks for the clarification on the pinch point. I have all the posts of your story structure printed out and I’ve read the pinch point one a couple of times, and I have the book to delve into as well…hopefully by the time I’m done reading that, I’ll have a better handle on how to spot them… because for me, that makes it easier to figure out how to insert them into my stories.

    I know I found it extremely helpful to sit down with the movies after reading your series and note the structure on my own. It made the concepts click in a way that just reading it wouldn’t have. Reading your analysis is just as helpful – I hope you get enough feedback to do more of them.

    Thanks again!

  6. Lisa Miller

    Larry,
    Thanks so much for this breakdown of Avatar!!!
    I’m revising my own novel right now and using your Story Structure book and Character book and Avatar posts to solidify what I need to happen in Parts two and three and four.
    Examples make it so much clearer.
    So keep those movie/story analysis coming.

  7. Mae

    Hi Larry, You website rocks. I feel like I have struck a gold mine, the treasure I’ve been looking for. I’m reading Shudder Island and hope you will continue to deconstruct movies. I bought your book and reading it over and over taking notes. I’ve tried so many blogs and workshops. Yours is the best yet. Please don’t stop. I didn’t know you relied on the posts to decide if you would continue. I will write more often. Thanks a million.

  8. @Mae — just a quick word of thanks for your kind words and feedback, totally makes my day. Thanks for hanging here on Storyfix. there’s lots more good stuff on the way.

  9. Second pinch point should be at 62% (not 66%) and as it happens at 63%, I’d say it’s dead on.