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.

11 Comments

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

  1. I’m curious to see what you do with the 3rd act – that is where I heard it fell apart a little.

  2. Excellent. I’m with you so far.

    I’ve seen the film in 2D and 3D; now, this Friday, I’ll be seeing it in IMAX 3D. But all that won’t keep me from analyzing the story structure yet again. I learn something new every time.

  3. Avatar is everything wrong with a good story. The special effects? Great. The creative story? Nonexistent. C’mon “unobtainium”, really? How clever. Kill me.

  4. @Jason — yeah, I about gagged when I heard “unobtainium” come out of the character’s mouth. Let me clarify — I only said the story was a clinic on structure. Never said it was a good story, per se, or everybody’s cup of tea.

    You actually open the door to making a good point here: even the most solid story structure does not a good story make. It’s a point I pound on continually here — good isn’t good enough. When it comes to story, covering the bases, putting everything in the right spot, may not be enough. It’s art, and there’s no real forumla for that. Thanks for commenting. L.

  5. Monica

    This is great, Larry! Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at this movie’s popularity, if it sticks so well to the proper structure.

    I was a little surprised at the mid-point (meaning, I got a little lesson there). I always think it has to be dramatic, a plot twist the reader/audience can feel. This scene was major, but we knew it was coming too. The key is it was major for *Jake*, and it shifted the context of *Jake’s* world. An important distinction.

    I’m a little befuddled by the Pinch Point, though. If the pinch point is supposed to remind us of the stakes and “the primary antagonistic element,” then why is it the point when Grace moves them to the mountain lab and not perhaps the previous scene where we are with that antagonist and perceive the intentions to shut Grace down? I guess I’m interpreting ‘primary antagonistic element’ to mean the reminder involves that antagonist. A little clarification on that would be great.

    Looking forward to Part 3. Thanks!

  6. @Monica — you could be right, this isn’t an exact science as we look in from the outside. But it is an exact science when we’re writing it, and that’s the point. Sometimes two scenes that achieve the very same thing can sit right next to each other, and it’s fair to say that “together” they comprise the pinch of the milestone. Both of these scenes fulfill the criteria for a pinch point — I chose the one I did because of it’s timing, it was right on the 37th percentiile of running time.

    It’s great that you noticed. The benefit of deconstruction isn’t when we’re right, it’s when we understand. And you obviously do — good on you! Thanks for commenting. L.

  7. Robert

    I actually was pleasantly surprised by the story – however, I flinched when I heard the character say unobtainium … Cameron, in my opinion, should have replaced the word with diamond. Jason, your comment gives me the impression that you’re an academic.

  8. @Robert — “flinched” is the prefect word. Me too. I also flinched a few other times, especially at Jake’s dialogue while in Avatar mode. Like when he was squaring off with the charging animals, and later, when confronting Tsu-tay around the campfire. He sounded like a punk-ass (a word he actually uses) city kid trying to imitate a punk-ass street kid as a poseur in a psuedo-street fight, which clearly Cameron has never been in or near. It was imitatioin intimidation. For those who aren’t caring for the movie (a very scarce minority), these little weak touches are part of the reason.

    Just goes to show, we can structure a story perfectly, but if we don’t put a great coat of creative skin over that skeleton, the story won’t be as well received as it deserves.

  9. Wow, so unobtainium wasn’t just your clever way of making fun? Yikes…that’s really a word used in the story? LOL

    Loving the series so far, even though I haven’t seen the movie, it is illustrating the points of story structure perfectly.

  10. Marilyn

    One good point (pun intended) after another. Thanks to Larry and commenters. Two side bits: 1) If you didn’t read David Brooks’ piece, “The Messiah Complex,” in the NY Times, look it up. He points (there’s that word again) out that Avatar is part of the formula tradition in which a white man saves the noble natives. I’m not a Brooks fan, but this one is good, and even kind of funny.
    2) Larry, please do a brief deconstruct of the main points in “October Sky.” I think the first plot point comes when the kid retrieves his rocket-making materials from the garbage, his first real rebellion (about 22 minutes in). The second plot point is when he’s committed to the Science Fair(?) Is the main plot the father-son story with redemption for both, or is it a subplot to the follow-the-dream story? I love it that the writer did this with the true-life story of Homer Hickam.

  11. I don’t know if I agree with every plot point you mention, Larry, but I agree with most of them. And you are absolutely right, the story brilliantly follows the three-act story arc structure all the way from the beginning to the end. And don’t say that the story is bad. The story is just fine (and so is the term “unobtanium”). And just because a story is not completely original does not automatically mean that it’s bad, and the story for Avatar is actually quite good.