What you can learn from Avatar

Cameron's Avatar plot offers classic examples of universal theme, high stakes, and strong GMC.

Have you been enchanted yet by Avatar? James Cameron directed this film, which has become the newest, highest grossing film of all time, knocking off Cameron’s last major film, Titanic, which has enjoyed that exalted position for lo, the past thirteen years.

 Avatar became the first movie to earn over $2 billion worldwide, and it was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Cameron has enjoyed major box office and Academy Award success with a string of movies – Terminator, Alien, True Lies, Titanic. How can he so consistently hit a home run? 

 The story is involves a fish-out-of-water protagonist in a new world, and features eye-popping special effects.  In the future, Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine war veteran, is brought to another planet, Pandora, where the Na’vi, a gentle humanoid race, leave in idyllic harmony with other species and their world.

 When his brother is killed in a robbery, Jake takes his place on a mission to the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate plans to claim the natives’ rich woodland, thereby gaining access to the precious mineral below.  In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake assumes an “avatar” identity to gather intelligence for the military unit, lead by Colonel Quaritch. In a plot development reminiscent of “Pocahontas,” a romance develops between Jake and the beautiful alien Neytiri, as she teaches him the way of the Na’vi.  Ultimately, the ruthless Colonel advances his extermination plan, forcing Jake to take a stand and fight back in an epic battle for Pandora.

 What can you learn about Avatar that can strengthen the appeal of your next novel?

 Universal theme.  In order to defeat the enemy, the protagonist, Sam Worthington “joins” the Na’vi enemy by donning the “uniform” of the enemy. This is a frequent theme in literature, where the protagonist eventually learns enough about the enemy that he or she “turns coat” and joins the enemy, attacking his home team.  Other examples: Paul Bettany in “Legion.” Ethan Hawke in “Daybreakers.” Arnold Schwarzenegger joining the humans in “Terminator 2.” Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves.”  Think of a universal theme that has proven to resonate with huge audiences, and strengthen it with the following story elements.

 From the general themes in literature – bravery, loyalty, friendship, good v. evil; historical, cultural, and social – select the top-selling novels in your genre and isolate the theme.  It should be a universal theme, transcending race, gender, sexual preference, and creed.  Select the one that resonates most to you.  Tomorrow, I’ll post more about Avatar, including raising stakes and maximizing good old GMC.

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