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Take 5: What ‘Avatar 2: Way of the Water’ Can Teach Screenwriters of Any Genre

January 4, 2023
4 min read time

Not everyone has $350+ million to spend on making a technological marvel like Avatar 2: Way of the Water, but at the end of the day, it’s a movie that requires compelling characters and a story that excites the audience in order to be successful. Avatar 2: Way of the Water is the latest epic tale from James Cameron and stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang. Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the film returns us to Pandora where the Na’vi race tries to protect their home from colonial invaders.

Even if you’re not writing the biggest and most anticipated movie of the year, here are five screenwriting lessons you can takeaway from Avator 2: Way of the Water.

  1. James Cameron Uses Voiceover, and You Can Too

Voiceovers have gotten a bad rap, mostly because they are used as a device to provide exposition and are considered lazy. While that makes for a good argument, you shouldn’t be afraid to use it if you need to. From Shawshank Redemption to Goodfellas to Apocalypse Now to Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, some of the masters of filmmaking use this device to explain the plot, characters and situations within the context of the film.

The beginning of Avatar 2 starts off with a voiceover and there are instances throughout in which Jake Sully (Worthington) enlightens the moviegoer with information.

Using voiceover is okay as long as you’re not putting it in your story because you can’t figure out how to explain a situation. In that case, you shouldn’t be afraid to use voiceovers. And never mind those who automatically dismiss its use. Just like any piece of dialogue or action, it should be a tool to advance the story in the most effective way possible.

  1. What’s the Message of Your Movie?

Believe it or not, most movies have a message they want to share and place it within the context of the story. Avatar and its recent sequel while a dazzling special effects spectacular is about colonialism, militarism, environmentalism and more. This helps tell the story in a more relatable way and may cause the audience to think about the message in the context of their life and history.

Even Thor: Love and Thunder has messages around love, regret, religion and dealing with one’s place in the world.

The good news: you don’t necessarily need to know your message when you start writing. Most of the time it comes through on its own. If you are passionate about something though, use that as a starting point for a story. Maybe you want to discuss the possibilities of artificial intelligence. You can make it a sci-fi horror film like Terminator or maybe a more optimistic perspective like Finch.

  1. The Universal Concepts of the Movie

Along with the message of the movie, there are universal concepts that an audience can relate to. We may never live on a different planet and have bodies that connect to the animals and plants around us, but we understand the dynamics of a family. Sully and Neytiri (Saldana) are raising a family and have trouble with keeping them safe while also allowing them to grow up and experience the world on their own. This concept is relevant to just about anyone.

Not everyone has been hunted down either but can wonder what it would be like in the shoes of someone who is.

There are lots of universal concepts to consider in your own stories. The best part is they don’t have to be broad. People can relate to very specific ideas. Crazy Rich Asians is a prime example of a specific culture that was extremely relatable to most people who watched it.

  1. Discovering a New World with the Protagonist

In the first Avatar, the audience got a glimpse of Pandora and the world in which the inhabitants occupied. They learned about the Na’vi, how they connect with the environment and the external threats they faced.

Now that this world has been established with Sully and Neytiri, the sequel forces these two Na’vi and their family to flee as Sully becomes hunted. They arrive in a water-based part of their world with a species similar to themselves but ones who have adapted to their surrounding (water, as opposed to forest where Sully and others are from). This becomes a new journey that Sully and his family embark on with the audience joining them for the ride.

This gives the viewer to opportunity to learn the culture, customs and capabilities with protagonists absorbing the new world. The protagonist can ask questions we would want to know and experience new things with wonderment.

Recently, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever took a similar approach as the familiar Wakandans became immersed in a new world.

This is a great tactic to use in your story. This fish-out-of-water-type arc works well especially when it comes to explaining an often-overlooked world to your audience.

  1. The Importance of Supporting Characters and B Stories

Who are the antagonists hunting down Sully and his family? Not only is it critical for the audience to know their journey from landing on Pandora to the conclusion of the film, but it aids the story as well. How confusing would it be if we never saw the enemy or knew its whereabouts? The viewer gets to rediscover the difficulties of the terrain as the enemies get accustomed to their avatars– something learned in the first film – but also the audience sees ruthlessness of the villains and what matters to them. This gives the antagonist multiple dimensions and allows for greater investment into the story.

But it’s not just the enemies that make up the supporting characters and B stories. Sully and Neytiri’s children also have their own stories and arcs that help paint the full story of Avatar. They struggle to make friends in the new world in which they’re hiding while also discovering things about themselves they never knew.

Some stories are small and require only a handful of characters. Avatar is not one of them. If you’re world building and creating a grand story, you’ll need to bring in several characters and plotlines to keep conflict and engagement alive. It’s similar to TV dramas where there are several plots to follow as characters engage with one another and have their own lives away from the main protagonist. Better Call Saul frequently showed the lives of supporting characters. And how many characters and stories are there in Game of Thrones? These stories are filled with many compelling and well-defined characters.

Avatar 2: Way of the Water is currently in theaters.

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