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Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Avatar

Guest post by Mik Bennett

Which is weird, because I first saw it because of somebody I met at writing group. What was I doing at writing group if I hadn’t learned anything about writing yet?

Much as I love Avatar – and I do; I drove all the way to Dallas to pick up my copy of the DVDs (and I live in Australia!) – there’s more than one way you can learn from an example. For instance, you can learn not to make the same mistakes. I’ll start with a couple of things they got wrong, though I can’t really blame them for the first:

1: Get a uniquer name.

Hands up if you’re thinking about smurfy-cats? Or even just wondering, ‘Which Avatar does he mean?’

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These are not the Avatars you’re looking for.

I’m talking about Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I’d love to be able to call it Avatar and not have to explain myself. Even though the TV show had the name first, and they have the subtitle to help get rid of that ambiguity.

The Legend Of Korra has it more right.

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This probably isn’t what you think of when you hear ‘The Legend of Korra’

Make your story title unique. My rule is: Google it; if you get a thousand wrong hits before your story, you’re doin’ it wrong.

2: Target your marketing right

This was probably my first exposure to Avatar:

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Actually, it was probably a similar ad for season 1.

I hated it. An angry hero, glaring at me from the page? Dull, uninspired colouring? What could be a modern world Mortal Combat-style fighting show? No thanks. Nothing about it appealed to me.

The show is the polar opposite of this ad. (Go watch it!)

The whole point of an ad (or a movie trailer) is to get your audience to judge your work. You want them to judge positively, but if you can’t do that, at least get them to judge your work based on what it is, not on what it isn’t.

Remember that; because your audience will judge your work based on your marketing!

3: Protect your legacy

Choose your collaborators carefully.

This goes for artists if you’re writing comics or picture books, co-writers, editors and, if you’re making movies or TV, directors. (This assumes you’ll have a choice!) Whether you’re planning to adapt your story to a movie, or drop dead before finishing the twelfth book, make sure you get the right co-conspirator to do the job. If you’re writing about a cheerful, happy kid, don’t choose a director who always directs dour, unsmiling children and act shocked that the movie wasn’t popular. Don’t choose a director who’s proud of his ability to expand a superhero origin to fill the entire film, and hope he’ll be able to do a good job compressing a full season of TV into one movie.

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Cheer up, emo boy.

But I’m not here to tear Avatar apart. I’m here to talk about what it did right; so, let’s do it already:

1: Young Hearts, Run Free

Let loose your imagination.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you watch the show (watch it… watch it!) is the flights of imagination. ATLA is set in a rich, imaginative world. It showcases some amazing sets, creatures, and powers.

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Don’t be afraid of your genre – if you want to write fantasy, write fantasy. Aim it at people who love fantasy, not people who hate it. There are plenty of us left.

If you want to aim it at people who hate fantasy, write something else.

2: Why so serious?

You don’t have to be serious to be intelligent.

You really don’t have to be serious to be good, or fun, or worth watching. Quite the contrary, to my tastes.

Frankly, I’d rather enjoy it than take it seriously. Whatever ‘it’ is.

This is a show that tackles some interesting issues at times. What springs to mind is the main villains of the piece, the Fire Nation (and if you’d watched it like I told you, you’d know that). Thing is, when we get to the nation itself and see the people in their natural environment, they aren’t a bunch of villainous monsters. They’re ordinary people, living in an oppressive regime. Some of the Fire Nation support the war, some don’t.

This is more depth than a lot of villains have in adult works.

And the show is still enjoyable. It can even poke fun at itself (Ember Island Players springs to mind), and the audience, at least the parts of it that are me, go along for the ride.

The show is joyful and good-spirited Fun.

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The very meta Ember Island Players

3: Don’t talk old to me

You don’t have to condescend to be for kids. Avatar is aimed at kids, and it’s about kids, but it’s fun for adults.

Don’t condescend, and you can broaden your audience.

I generally prefer things I can enjoy as an adult, but wouldn’t have a problem sharing with a child. There are exceptions – I probably won’t be reading my nephew any Stephen King any time soon, or showing him A Nightmare On Elm Street, but I’d love to get him into Avatar. I’d never show him Man Of Steel, either, but he loves Harry Potter.

4: Don’t worry, Be Happy

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Sokka is a bit of a woobie.

The characters on Avatar know how to have fun. Yes, they have their dark moments…

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…but you’re not watching some emo acting depressed all the time so the show can ‘be taken seriously’.

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Just don’t let DC see what you’re doing. Seriously, these guys both have wind powers too.

The characters are fun, and they’re people you’d actually want to know. Even the villains are fun to be around, and you find yourself rooting for Zuko.

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 5: Sad Songs Say So Much

… That said, it’s good to tug on the heartstrings every once in a while.

Anyone who hears Little Soldier Boy without tearing up just a little (which I’m doing just writing this!) needs a heart check, stat!

6: Kill Whitey!

You don’t have to tear somebody down to build somebody up.

If you want to support minorities, great. You don’t have to attack the ‘majority’ to do it. There is not a single white person in Avatar. Not a one. We don’t exist on their world. Two of the three main characters are Inuit (equivalent) – and how often do you see that?

And that’s okay.

(Yes, I know all the good guys in the movie are white. That’s part of why we Do Not Discuss It. Also, NB: Like most anime / manga -style characters, they’re drawn with some European features. That’s the style of Japanese works.)

They showcase Eastern philosophy without saying ‘All Christians are evil’.

The show never makes a big deal about it – it just is how it is. It doesn’t try to make you hate yourself for being white, or for in any way not being a minority – but by not showing ‘the majority’ it still works for minorities.

A lot of writers could learn a lesson from this.

 7: The world is not enough.

The show gives you a world you spend time in week after week. Your guides are people you’d want to share that time with.

 

They’re heroic; their entire journey is ultimately to end war and save the world. But they take the time out to have fun. They don’t spend the entire time moping and angsty, or trying to act so cool they forget to be relatable. They fill you with joy, rather than making you depressed.

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Riding a flying bison through landscape that’d make New Zealand jealous? Flying on a kite above misty mountains?

You know you want to.

That said, they still feel like a genuine family; they’re not all happy-happy-joy-joy; they truly care about each other, but they have realistic arguments and disagreements. You can watch them and feel like part of their group.

8: We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you

Furry animal sidekicks don’t have to be annoying and comic relief characters don’t have to be useless.

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Momo is not this annoying!

Momo, Appa, and Sokka are the sidekicks here. We call Sokka a sidekick because he gets kicked in the side a lot.

a14 They’re often played for laughs, but they don’t get in the way of the show, you never ask why the main characters haven’t shot them yet, and they actually contribute!

Appa has a long story arc that’s very intense and emotional (see #5). Sokka has a character arc that’s all about becoming more than a comic relief sidekick; and he does. And Momo…

Momo is as Momo does.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

9: Move along, folks

Keep the story moving.

The show is anything but formulaic. It tells an ongoing story by showing us lots of little stories (that are each distinctive episodes – they don’t all blur together so you can’t tell one from another). The show moves on, characters develop and even age, and things happen that make a difference.

The characters in the first episode aren’t the same as they are in the last – but they’re still recognisable, and you still have the same love and loyalty you did for them in the first episode; Aang, Sokka, Katara, Toph– okay, bad example.

10: Progress your sequels

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Because zeppelins always make everything cool.

The Legend Of Korra is a natural progression. It may not be as popular as ATLA, but it’s still well-done. It shows their world in the future, and the technology is different. It’s moved from a pure fantasy world to more a 20’s New York or San Francisco.

Forget it, man, it’s Chinatown.

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