Friday, January 22, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Useful

What Can Be Learned from Watching Avatar

At Clarion West, Connie Willis and Cory Doctorow used movies to point out important plotting techniques. Ever since, I haven't been able to watch any movie without taking note of the things that make that movie work. This week, when I watched Avatar for the second time, I not only took note of the plot, but also saw a good many reasons why the plotting of speculative fiction can end up being more problematic and more complex than the plotting of a text set in the real world.

This is where I put in the SPOILER ALERT using some underwater photos I took during my scuba diving days back in the 80s because underwater landscapes are almost as pretty as those on Avatar's Pandora, and much prettier than a line of asterisks.

A Gorgonia tree near Farukolufushi, Maldives:

A living, white cowrie shell with its glittering mantle near Solitary Islands, NSW, Australia:

I took these pictures with a Nikonos IVA underwater camera and a Sea & Sea YS150 strobe at a depth of about 40-60ft.

Now, back to Avatar:

For the purposes of simplicity, let’s reduce Avatar to its romantic plot:

Jake meets Neytiri on Neytiri’s turf. Jake stays.

Not many words were needed for that.

So, to make it more interesting, let’s turn it into a historical romance:

Jake meets Neytiri at the height of colonial expansion. Jake likes Neytiri's turf, fights off single-minded colonizers, and stays.

As you can see, a few more words were needed to convey a sense of the past.

But that’s been done before, so let’s turn it into a future-fantasy romance and see what happens:

Jake meets Neytiri on this awesomely weird planet that has a poisonous atmosphere, a Mothertree and unobtainium. In order to fit in, Jake has to be an avatar. So now we’ve got to see how an avatar works. If Jake wants to stay, we also have to see how he can reside permanently inside an avatar, so we have to foreshadow how it’s done through drama. Hence we not only attempt the mind-transference thing on Grace first, but we also see an opportunity to kill her off in order to increase the tension when it’s Jake’s turn. But then we have to make the whole concept of mind-transference believable, so it doesn't look like a deus ex machina. To do this we have to really play up the whole mother/computer tree concept and use it dramatically, so that it's not just backdrop. And even though all those battle sequences bored me, at least they helped turn the computer tree into an active character in its own right. (Here I’m not talking about the whole Gaia-Eywa thing, but the fact that the setting actually means something). If there wasn’t any drama, then we’d end up with large passages of expository lumpage (info dump) and the story would be even more boring than a battle. This is not to say that a battle was the only way to go, but this is a movie, right? Hopefully a book would be different.

So that’s what I saw in Avatar:

Drama and foreshadowing in the place of info dump.
Setting as an active character in its own right, rather than merely backdrop.
Some good reasons why speculative fiction requires a whole lot more plotting than fiction set in the real world.


  1. Yes, more plotting, and great skill in worldbuilding and setting, too. It requires a certain skillset on the part of the reader as well - there's a great post on the Tor blog this week on that very topic: view=blog&id=58637

  2. Satima, thanks for pointing me to that article. It explains it all very well.

    It's interesting, I've seen the 'foreshadowing' I talked about in mainstream movies. There, it was used to show unusual character abilities or traits that come to play an important part in the movie later, so the reader can suspend disbelief. In SF it's just a whole lot more obvious and necessary, I think.

  3. Very interesting, Carol. I'm trying to focus on how character and setting interact in my story at the moment, and this is a good reminder about why, especially in speculative fiction - where we need to make the unfamiliar familiar - it's so important to think of plot, character, world-building and specific details of setting as intertwined, not as separate entities. This is something Avatar does particularly well, to the point where the boundaries between those elements become completely blurred and ultimately, for Jake, transformative.

  4. I didn't see Avatar, but it sounds a lot like Pocahontas. Except they've made it scientific and futuristic.

    Do you find that, as a writer, you can recognise the sign posts which set up for the dramatic and fulfilling ending, and therefore you are rarely surprised by a film?

  5. Yep, a lot like Disney's Pocahontas which follows a tried and true formula, unlike the real Pocahontas story that has more than one telling.

    If the movie is done well enough, I'm still surprised by the ending even if I did recognize the set up. Like I knew what was going to happen. It was set up sooooo well, that it had to. However, I still wanted to *see* it happen and I still got an emotional buzz when it did.

    What I liked about Avatar and a lot of movies is that although the set up s are way more obvious than what we expect in books, they are worth remembering, even if, as writers, we aim to do it differently.