Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Finding The Story Opening Part 2: Avatar And The Day The Earth Stood Still

Two blockbuster classic SF films based on an essential child-fantasy (rescue me from this oppressive life; or "Get Me Out Of Here" -- or "Beam Me Up, Scotty!") are worth comparing because they are the obverse of each other.

When you add in Harry Potter, it's even more interesting.

Last week we discussed Finding the Opening of a story.


Avatar and The Day The Earth Stood Still have the same opening, while Harry Potter has a different opening. 

The "opening" moment of a story is when SOMETHING CHANGES.

In film, you "lay pipe" as Blake Snyder puts it in his Save The Cat! Series -- you orient the viewer within the life that is about to change, within the framework of the Hero's situation, or the society or civilization's situation. 

In a novel you CHANGE SOMETHING, then orient the reader. 

Each venue borrows the other venue's technique, just to keep people off balance and interested, but those are general rules.

If you're teaching yourself to write, first do 5 or 10 stories with one of those techniques, then another 5 or 10 with the other technique, master doing them, then interchanging them.  After you've fully internalized them and succeeded in placing stories using these techniques and analyzed your reader feedback, then venture into inventing variations.

But to start off, study why each of these works reliably with wide-wide-WIDE audiences. 

In Avatar, we meet Our Hero at the moment when he WAKES UP -- generally in text narrative storytelling that "Hero Wakes Up In Strange Place" is a recipe for failure to engage the reader.

But in film you have the two channels of communication with the viewer that you don't have in text.  In film you have VISUALS that contain information (we're on a space ship and the hero is waking from cryostorage is all conveyed by visuals in a space of time that narrative can't achieve), and you have SOUND that can carry information as well as mood and build suspense. 

With just words in front of a reader, you are much more limited.  In fact, in screenwriting you are limited to words and a lot of white-space on the page to engage a producer's imagination.  So in essence, a writer has the same problem in both media.

The question is, "What will interest the reader in this story?" 

You have two parameters to fit your imagination into so that what you're thinking will be couched in interesting terms for a readership/viewership:

a) Where is the origin of the conflict that will be resolved at the end of this story?
b) What is it about this story that this readership/viewership will find FASCINATING? 

In other words, the opening of the story has to presage, (technical term is FORESHADOW) the PUNCH you are going to deliver, but not deliver that punch at the opening.

If you open on a PUNCH (i.e. an action scene, army combat, explosions, destruction) then you have to keep PUNCHING with each punch coming harder, bigger, longer, more spectacular and with higher and higher and HIGHER stakes. 

In classic theater, there is the adage "less is more" -- and so the quiet, slow, creeping opening which is much LESS than what you will deliver, is actually MORE effective.

So look at the story of AVATAR.

The story actually has two beginnings that many writers might be tempted to write out in detail:
1) When the twin brother dies and how that grief hits Our Hero
2) When Our Hero becomes paralyzed, and all the usual angst/grief/remorse/shock/anger etc that goes with the story of such a physical loss for a physical person.

Note in AVATAR the combat-grunt-corporal loses use of his legs, but the intellectual-trained-knowledge-oriented twin loses his life, leaving the physically oriented twin a means of regaining the use of his legs.

What a potent story, what deep textured drama, what karmic questions and tormenting ethical decisions?

A novelist who "has the idea" for this story would be tempted to dive right into the tale where the two brothers have their conflicts over being physical or being intellectual, then race headlong into the major tragedies that spin off into the horrendous decisions regarding the extremely expensive Avatar body.

The film maker, however, STARTS way after the end of the novel and barely mentions in a couple of lines of dialogue the situations that "must have been" ever so dramatic.  Our Physical Hero barely mentions his Twin Brother The Genius, and we have no idea if there was resentment or strife between them! 

So AVATAR the film starts where Our Hero who will hurl himself into an artificial body for the rest of his life (which decision is never debated with all the angst it deserves) first wakes up at his new job -- driving an Avatar body on an alien planet where he can't breathe the atmosphere as a human. 

Think about that.  AVATAR starts not where the Hero DIVES INTO A NEW LIFE but where he actually hits the water.  The story doesn't start where he decides to take the job, or where he sets foot on the ship -- no, the story starts where he wakes up. 

Note after "pipe is laid" -- the first scene is Our Hero running free in his new Avatar body.  Think of the symbolism of that, and how we discussed icons on this blog.

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/04/turning-action-into-romance.html -- see the two iconic images, the poster of Face/Off and the cover of  Gini Koch's novel TOUCHED BY AN ALIEN


Avatar as a film takes off on the fantasy that sucks the young into videogames and creates the yearning to enter that alternate reality and stay there.  The very title of the film suggests gaming because plays choose an "avatar" (just as we do when creating a social network profile.)

So look again at a) and b) requirements for an opening.

a) conflict that will be resolved in AVATAR is "to walk or not to walk again."  It exists in this OPENING scene only as the inoperative legs of the Hero, which situation is not explained until we've already become fascinated. 

That conflict is not defined until Quaritch offers Our Hero (Jake Sully of the jarhead clan) the side-job of spying on his employers, the biologists studying the planet.  The "pay" for this side-job for the military against the scientists is to get his human body's legs fixed and walk again.  His background is military (jarhead) so he seemingly has no conflict about taking this side-job.  The resolution is that our Hero does walk again, but in his Avatar body which he now inhabits permanently. 

b) the conflict about Our Hero's legs is NOT what's fascinating to the target audience.  This film baits in the audience by a glimpse of the vast POWER of a huge corporate structure exploring space, gaining ownership of a whole PLANET and the "right" to mine that planet for "unobtainium" -- the most valuable substance known.  The real villains of the piece (as in real life) never appear on screen.  A "corporation" doesn't have a face.  You can't argue with it, you can only defeat it.  That vast power is glimpsed manipulating "the little people" who have their own life-agendas (pure science; getting legs back; proving military dominance).  Space exploration per se is not what's fascinating here.  POWER in the hands of the venal, short-sighted humans who would destroy life to strip-mine for wealth is fascinating. 

So the STORY OPENING for Avatar is where CORPORATE POWER resurrects LITTLE HERO to a NEW LIFE.  The ENDING is "little guy wins."  It's David vs. Goliath or Gulliver's Travels.  There's nothing original in this film except the special effects technologies (which were new then.)  Check out the writer/producer/director's career on imdb.com  You don't start a film  career with a script like this, nor will it work well to start a novelist's career. 


The HERO is the plain, ordinary human woman with family, ordinary professor, ordinary but somewhat flaky minded dreamers on Earth. 

The Story Opening of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL  is where THE UNKNOWN comes into the ORDINARY LIVES (space ship lands on White House Lawn).  The ending sees "ordinary life" changed forever, and as in Avatar "Love Conquers All." 

Notice how the ending of DAY is the story before the beginning of AVATAR?  In DAY our Hero hurls herself into The Unknown, into the spaceship.  DAY ends with the decision to seize the unknown, get on the ship.  AVATAR begins with what happens after seizing the unknown, getting off the ship.

Ends and Beginnings have something in common.  Study that.  Stories are circular, or at least sine waves.

Life is full of cycles and epicycles which is why the study of Astrology is useful to writers regardless of whether you "believe" any of it. 

One common error beginning writers make is to confuse the ending and the beginning of the story they are trying to tell.  The Opening and the Closing points are not necessarily the same as the beginning and the end.  Very often drama is better served by "closing" before the "ending" and letting the reader imagine their own ending. 
So compare DAY with AVATAR again.  In DAY, THE UNKNOWN comes into THE ORDINARY.  In AVATAR the Story Opening is where ORDINARY LIVES come into THE UNKNOWN. 

It is the same opening in obverse. 

And this is the mainstay of the "formula" for the opening of any story -- where two contrasting elements meet and conflict, changing both in the end.

A story does not necessary OPEN at the BEGINNING of the story, and it isn't always necessary to recount or dramatize the beginning if you have a good opening.

Now consider HARRY POTTER -- go back to the first novel.

Harry is ORDINARY BOY living in oppressive but ordinary circumstances it seems.  What's extraordinary about his home life is revealed as his history is peeled back, and most of the extraordinary part is in his distant family or deceased family, not the adults who are raising him or his intolerable cousin-in-residence whom we meet in Chapter One.

But many kids feel oppressed and out of place at the threshold of adolescence.  Part of the job of the YA category of fiction is to rationalize that formless fear/fascination of adulthood's confrontation with Identity. 

This is a biological process common to all humanity.  We all live with the conviction that who we really are is not who friends, family, employers etc think we are.  Hence the gamer's Avatar, the avatar on your profile, and some people's cherishing the ability to post online anonymously -- or the utter fascination with Second Life as a game - can be seen as the adult extension of that state of mind. 

So Harry Potter is growing up in a family that doesn't seem to him to "know" who he is, and he doesn't know who he is.  Worse, he has no clue (he discovers) who his parents were. 

Into his ordinary, dreary, intolerable life comes THE UNKNOWN -- the message carried by the Owl, sweeping him away to a boarding school where he can become a new person to himself. 

But it's not THE UNKNOWN from outside that comes into his life -- as in DAY where a UFO lands, or in AVATAR where a human lands.  With Harry the Unknown is inside him, unbeknownst to him.  The Unknown doesn't come from outside, and he isn't lured, bribed or injected into the Unknown -- he discovers it inside himself, as we all do at adolescence.  He doesn't get to leave his horrid life behind and emerge as a butterfly from a cocoon as in AVATAR.  And he doesn't get rescued from mundanity by Love as in DAY.  He meets himself in the legacy of his parents, a legacy in his genes but denied by those who raised him. 

Compare all three openings, and notice the similarities among the obvious differences.  When you've nailed that, you'll nail the opening of your own story, if not the beginning.    

Think about how, with the years, Harry learns of all the baggage left him by his parents and matures into the young man who can handle it all.

But the STORY OPENING occurs long after the STORY BEGINNING (where his parents die). 

Harry arrives at his new school and doesn't know he's starting a mad scramble to catch up with his life and learn the truth about what happened to his parents -- and prevent that from happening to him (and others).

Imagine what it would have been like for him to know what he was getting into before he first boarded the train (or spaceship, depending how you look at it) to his new school.  He would have been tied in knots with dread and terror.  He wouldn't have behaved as well, found his feet and begun to unfold into an adult able to handle Situations. 

Imagine what AVATAR'S Hero would have done if he'd known he was going to end up stuck in an alien body when he first woke from cryosleep. 

And what Earthwoman could really consider bonding to an Alien? 

Uh, wait a minute.... isn't that what we imagine on this blog?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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