Deconstructing Avatar – A Quick Friday Preview

avatar avatarMy wife’s gonna kill me.

After sitting at the computer yesterday for six hours proofing my new characterization ebook (coming next week, or thereabouts), I owe her better.  She’s become my much appreciated typo Nazi, and when you see a typo here (which you do, and all too frequently), it’s because I’ve written the post in the middle of the night while she’s sleeping like a kitten.

But that kitten has a whip when she sees a typo here.  It’s pre-dawn as I write this, so it won’t have her stamp of approval, and while I’ll do my best before I hit the “Publish” button, I really do suck at proofing. 

But I owe you, too.  I’m excited about the forthcoming series of Avatar deconstruction posts, which begin tomorrow, and would like to share a few preliminary thoughts.

Why Deconstruct Avatar, or any other story?

James Cameron’s little sci-fi flick has chalked up over two billion dollars in revenue in less than two months.  That’s a juggernaut by any standard, and whether you like the genre or not, as writers we should strive to understand why it works.  Or not.

Many will argue that this success has little to do with the storytelling.  And granted, the visual presentation is unprecedented and off-the-charts stunning in both 2-D and 3-D.  A couple of Storyfix readers have told me that they’re looking forward to this deconstruction because they’ve heard there’s not a story there at all, that it’s all about special effects. 

Which, for me, makes the analysis all the more intriguing.  Not to prove anyone wrong, but to make the point that you can’t grab that kind of audience without a great story.

After going deep into it (while my wife was proofing the ebook yesterday I was busy watching Avatar online – a pirated version, I’m sure… I could hear a baby crying in the background the whole time), I began to appreciate the story in a new way.  The writing gets clunky in several places, but the core story is mythic, classic, even Biblical, and it obviously works. 

Story structure is a model that sounds almost too theoretical.

But when you see it in action, the clouds part and the storytelling sky turns a glorious blue.  The best way to get it is to see it in action.

That’s why I’m deconstructing this movie for you.  And it’s why I’ll be doing more of that on a regular basis.

The Movie vs. Book Delta

That’s engineering-speak for difference.  You haven’t lived until you’ve sat in a conference room full of engineers flinging that word around.  And you thought delta was an airline.

The first caveat is that movies break what would be a single scene in a book into several visual cuts that play like separate scenes.  The opening of Avatar does that, connecting them all with a first-person voiceover.  At a glance it seems like about five seperate scenes, including a flashback, but in a book it’d all be one narrative scene.

I’ll present it to you as it appears on the screen, but it’s important to grasp this difference.

Another caveat is that the story is 156 minutes long, meaning each of the four parts — and there absolutely are four parts — takes about 40 minutes.  Cameron understands that this story requires a rich set-up, so his first plot point happens at 41 minutes in, a little on the long side.

It reminds me that the standards of length in story structure are just guidelines, and that if you pack enough rationale into any violation of those rules it can still work.  Especially if your name is James Cameron.

So here we go.  Get ready to see a breakdown of Avatar from a writing perspective, with an analysis not only of structure, but also of characterization and the writing itself.

This form of analysis for both movies and books — it’s all story — is, in my opinion, the most productive self-training a writer can engage in.  But it only works when you view stories from an informed perspective, that you know what to look for and can recognize it (or the lack of it) when you see it.

There are plenty of posts here on Storyfix to deliver that ramp-up.  And, if I might say, an ebook, too.

See you tomorrow with the first Deconstructing Avatar post.

Gonna go make coffee for my wife now.  The kitten stirs.

(Postscript: found two typos in the feed version — betting you did, too — and five smaller clunkers after reading it as distributed.  All changed now.  The kitten never saw it and the coffee is hot, so all is well here in Storyfixer land.  God I love that woman.)


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10 Responses to Deconstructing Avatar – A Quick Friday Preview

  1. nancy

    I look forward to this deconstruction. Will you consider the fact that the viewer knows all along that the protagonist won’t want to leave this idyllic and logical world. It’s predictable. What do you think about that?

  2. I haven’t seen the movie—it’s not really my cup of tea—but I’m interested in the deconstruction as well. From what I understand the story is incredibly timeless.

  3. I’m really looking forward to this series.

    And Larry, I’ve gotta say, you’re doing a tremendous job. I really love StoryFix.


  4. I might to see Avatar so I can get more out of these posts!

  5. I saw Avatar last week and mentally noted what I thought were the plot points. I’m interested to see whether my notes match up with your analysis.

    I’ve analyzed several other movies since you suggested it here. It’s been an incredible exercise in better understanding both story structure and character arc. Thanks!

  6. Janet E.

    Wow, I just saw Avatar last night in IMAX 3D! Having bought your book: Story Structure – Demystified, I am finally on track with my fiction story. I did find myself “deconstructing” the story even though I felt like I was practically “in” the story with the great technology. Larry, thanks for all of your wisdom and looking forward to the posts!

  7. Adam

    I’ve not seen Avatar, but my good friend is a fan of the visual storytelling in it. i’m interested in making 3D animations of my stories, so this series really has my interest because of the differences in screen writing and novel writing. I’ve read a few screen writing textbooks purchased on the cheap at the local university bookstore, but none of them broke down the 4 part storytelling method like you do.

    You’re lucky Mr. Brooks, i wish my wife could edit my work. She gives great critiques, generally crushing the things i like in a constructive way, but just isn’t the proofreading type…

  8. I’m excited for the deconstruction! I reluctantly went to see Avatar after hearing it was all special FX, but I loved it, and found myself pointing out the turning points and such to my husband on the way home (much to his dismay).

    I had to laugh at your “The Movie vs. Book Delta”. My husband’s an engineer, and even though I have business degrees, I worked as a Mfg Engineer. I still use the triangle symbol as shorthand for “change” (change in) when I’m taking notes. Yeah, nerd.

  9. Pingback: Put it in perspective « The Edited Life

  10. Monica

    I’m looking forward to your deconstruction as well, Larry. I enjoyed Avatar, myself, despite what may have been lacking in an original story (call me easily distracted by shiny FX). Which is not to say there isn’t a story there, it’s just one that’s been done plenty of times.

    Thank you for explaining again the difference in movie and book scenes. Just this week, I had a chance to analyze a movie (like you suggested back in Nov.) and had some difficulties. One was b/c of this very difference. Understanding this should make things a bit easier.

    Another was simply in identifying the purpose/mission of the scene, and I assume that will get better the more I do this. But your providing more examples will help me ten times more, so I really appreciate that you’re planning on doing more of these analyses this year.

    My final problem of constantly getting sucked into the story – well, that’s my problem to deal with. (I have yet to watch a movie or show and successfully watch for all 4 points! I simply get sucked in and…)

    @Gwen: I use the ‘delta’ for “change” too! Great shortcut. Viva nerds!

    Thanks for this site, Larry.