What I Learn about Writing from Avatar

Those of you sick of this subject, feel free to click on over to a more interesting blog. I won’t feel offended (or even know!) 😆 I do have a tendency to camp on a subject (see ten-plus posts on The Shack, for example), but just so you know, I really tried to spark thoughts on a new topic. I visited other blogs, thought about the book I just finished, about what I read in my quiet time, and current events. Sorry, nothing there to share with you all.

So I’m back at Avatar one more time. I’ve thought about how this movie really seems to have three or four level. I identify the story level, the theme level, and the creative presentation level.

  • The story level includes the plot and character development (though some people might divide these two, which I would not disagree with).
  • The theme level includes the religious views and the sociopolitical ideology.
  • The creative presentation refers to the visual effect.
  • Most people agree that Avatar came up short on the story level. Sure, it had a sweet romance, but nothing was a surprise. From the moment Neytiri rescued Jake, it was apparent they would fall in love and that he would ultimately join the Na’vi.

    In addition, the characterization was weak. In a three hour movie, we learned very little about any other member of the Na’vi. And the earthlings were pigeon-holed neatly in their roles—the gun-happy military guy, the greedy and stupid capitalist, the tough on the outside but tender on the inside woman scientist, the geeky co-worker.

    I question whether anyone would come if Avatar, as written, were presented in the theater. I suspect the scathing reviews of the story would have the play shut down after the first week.

    The second level has to do with the message. Here Avatar either succeeded hugely or failed miserably, depending on whether or not you agreed with what James Cameron said. Some people camp on the environmental message or the anti-technology message, depending how you look at things. Some viewers wept because of the portrayal of the military while others wept for the loss of the Na’vi’s tree home.

    Another group of us either laud the movie or criticize it because of the religious views it espouses.

    On this thematic level, Avatar is steeped in controversy—never a bad thing for sales. But does it make for a quality movie?

    The last element is the creative presentation. This movie was a visual experience. I felt transported. I lived on Pandora for those three hours. I found myself frustrated with the sections of the movie that showed Jake on the military/commercial/scientific base and away from the real world of Pandora.

    Those latter sections made me feel as if I was running across the rim of the world after having been in a wheelchair for years, as if I had learned to ride a flying creature past the floating mountains. It was beautiful, stunning, exhilarating. It was an experience.

    Which brings me to what I as a writer learned about this movie. Reading should be an experience. Through story, characters, setting, the writer should transport the reader somewhere else.

    But not having the benefit of 3D or first-time technology, writers can’t afford to have flat characters or a warmed-over plot (and certainly never both in one story!) Nor can we afford to be heavy handed with our themes.

    Still, the goal for the novelist is the same—take the readers somewhere. Into the lives of your characters, into the world you’ve created, into the high-stakes issues you care about. Let them experience—beyond the adrenalin rush, beyond the tear-jerk moment. Transport them Elsewhere and keep them there to the last page.

    In the end, I have to believe such a book is more powerful, influential, timeless than Avatar can ever be.

    Now if I just knew how to write like that …

    Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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    1. I think an author can transport readers in ways he/she never dreamed while writing. I know that Nancy Moser’s Time Lottery struck a chord in me that had me fascinated (obsessed) for literally months. It was not the ‘world-building’ that got me since there wasn’t that much; the story involved people being able to go back and relive a part of their past with the possibility of changing it. That ‘mechanism’ was not well explained in a technical sense but the idea so caught me up that I had to force myself to stop thinking of what moments I would relive if I could!!

      Guess that just shows the power of fantasy (even a small bit of it!) to catch people’s imaginations in ways that are impossible to foresee. I know I watched people years ago when I belonged to a historical recreation society; there were so many people I met there for whom the historical recreation and living out a ‘persona’ was more real to them than their everyday lives. And to return to Avatar on this topic, have you seen the articles online about the people who are so caught up in Mr Cameron’s world that they are suicidal because they can’t go to Pandora [search the CNN website for keywords ‘Avatar” and ‘blues’ for links to the Jan 11 article if you doubt!!]


    2. Great points, Kathy. I agree that even a “character driven” story can transport readers. It’s not necessary to have extensive world-building, but it is necessary to draw the readers into the world the characters are experiencing. Interesting parallel with historical re-enactment.

      And yes, I did see the article about the people saying they were borderline suicidal afterwards. Me thinks there might have been something else working there, beyond pulling readers into the movie experience.



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