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Archive for the Category "Structure"

Pocahontavatar Jan 05

Halfhearted Spoiler Alert

This article discusses the plot/structure of Avatar. However, since most of the joy of Avatar comes from the jaw-dropping visuals, it’s unlikely reading this article prior to seeing the movie will have any spoiling effect. Consider yourself halfheartedly warned.

Comparable Structures

Joseph Campbell popularized the concept of the hero’s journey or “monomyth” — which argues that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages.

While current scholars may question the validity and usefulness of that claim, one thing’s for sure: Hollywood churns out a lot of movies that are structurally identical.

Pocahontavatar

A number of recent articles in the blogosphere have compared the structure of Avatar to Disney’s 1995 movie, Pocahontas. A quick look at the image below will tell you that the similarities are striking.

Click for larger image

There are similar images for other movies (this guy has a bunch of them), such as Harry Potter vs. Star Wars, but in my opinion the Avatar/Pocahontas parallels take the cake.

Justifiable Criticism?

Most critics have hailed Avatar as a stunning achievement in special effects. Most of those same critics have also complained about the predictability of the story.

Is this criticism justified?

Yes and no. The story structure is very similar to any number of other movies, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Last Samurai to Dances with Wolves… that’s not a crime. It’s the old Hollywood mantra: “Give me the same only different.”

And that’s exactly what James Cameron did. He set Pocahontas on an alien world (where the aliens were blue and ginormous), crafted the concept of the “dreamwalkers,” added some flying dragons, floating mountain ranges and some bioluminescent flora, sprinkled in a Tree of Life, and many more original touches.

Why wasn’t the movie’s plot more original?

James Cameron is a creative genius and an encyclopedia of film knowledge. Of course he knew about all of these movie precedents while writing Avatar. His motivation for making this movie was to showcase visuals that would blow people to the back of the theatre.

You have to imagine that you’re James Cameron. You’re about to create the most expensive movie ever (again). Your movie relies on your ability to produce realistic 9 foot tall blue aliens in an impossible junglescape with technology that doesn’t currently exist or has never been proven.

Do you really want to take a chance with an experimental story? Probably not so much.1

By wrapping the stunning effects around a storyline that’s been proven to pack a punch, he knew that he could focus on creating the amazing world of Pandora and its inhabitants.

Of course that’s just my opinion, but it makes sense to me. What’s your take?


  1. Boing Boing has a great article which poses the question: “What storytelling risks could Avatar have taken?
Edgy Screenwriting (2B): 13 Ways To Kill Your Hero Dec 08

Skull TombstoneMore Edgy Screenwriting

In Part 2A of the Edgy Screenwriting series, I discussed why killing your hero is not a great idea for a spec script. But if you’re afflicted with the stubborn gene, and determined to kill your hero/protagonist anyway, this article explores some ways to do it right.

I always find the best approach is to look at movies where edgy screenwriting works and then reverse engineer them. But always keep in mind there are many variables at play in Hollywood.

The death of your hero requires not only perfect execution (no pun intended), but requires sympathetic readers, producers, studio executives, directors, actors and test audiences. There are  a lot of links in the chain that be easily be broken at any time. So kill your protagonist at your own risk.

13 ways your hero can get away with dying

Note: Often times a satisfying hero’s death will simultaneously incorporate many of these methods (listed in no particular order). These types of deaths are not just limited to main characters either. Beloved secondary characters will often exit utilizing these methods.

  1. The death is foretold or shown
    We see or are told about the hero’s death up front, so that when the death comes we’ve already accepted it as an inevitable tragic outcome. It imbues the film with dramatic tension where we wonder throughout: How is it going to happen? Who is going to kill him? Why are they going to kill him?
  2. The hero was already dead
    We either find out that the hero was dead the entire time, or we see his death early on and enjoy the hero’s supernatural exploits.
  3. The hero sacrifices himself for another
    When the hero performs this noble act (for another character or characters we care about), we respect and admire the decision — if it’s necessitated.
  4. The hero’s death reinforces the theme
    This one is required for almost all hero deaths. The death must support and reinforce the argument the movie is trying to make, and teach us something.
  5. There’s a brilliant twist involved
    Sometimes, if a twist that involves the hero’s death is spectacular, it can trump our desire to see the hero make it out alive.
  6. The hero achieves peace
    If the hero is a troubled soul, sometimes dying can bring about more peace than living can.
  7. The hero wins by dying on their terms
    Death makes the hero untouchable. Sometimes the only way to win is to journey to the other side willingly, usually for an ideal or cause.
  8. The hero is on his last legs
    If the hero has lived a long, full life, it’s sometimes easier to let them go.
  9. The hero flirts with death
    If the hero has a death wish, or lives by the sword… their death can certainly feel like an inevitable outcome to their lifestyle. Typically their death comes about because they can’t overcome their fatal/tragic flaw.
  10. It’s an historical event
    If your hero is a real life figure, odds are we’ve already accepted their death during history class.
  11. It’s a religious experience
    If your hero dies, but we see that they are going to a better place, it’s an up-ending.
  12. The hero’s a monster
    If your hero is a monstrous killing machine, it’s much easier to accept their eventual demise.
  13. We don’t see the actual death
    If we don’t actually have to see their death (either because the movie ends before the moment, or it happens off-screen), it’s easier to swallow. And who knows, there’s a small chance they even survived.

13 ways — see I told you it was unlucky1 to write that kind of ending!

Now let’s look at some examples.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

This article discusses the ends of a number of movies. I can’t even post the names of the movies as a heads-up because that, coupled with the title of this article, would still spoil the ending of the movie. It’s likely you already know the endings of these famous movies, but all the same, you have been warned.

Examples of movies where the hero/protagonist dies

Again, a quick reminder that most movies (wisely) employ a number of these methods. Therefore, many of the movies cited could easily have been listed in multiple places. I’ve only listed a couple of examples but, yes, I’m aware there are probably more obvious ones.

1. The death is foretold or shown

2. The hero was already dead

3. The hero sacrifices himself for another

4. The hero’s death reinforces the theme

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Theme: Authority oppresses the individual) [Amazon | IMDB]
  • Braveheart (Theme:  “… our enemies… may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” [Amazon | IMDB]

5. There’s a brilliant twist involved

6. The hero achieves peace

7. The hero wins by dying on their terms

8. The hero is on his last legs

9. The hero flirts with death

10. It’s an historical event

11. It’s a religious experience

12. The hero’s a monster

13. We don’t see the actual death

Do you have a satisfying way for your hero to die that isn’t listed? Please post it below.


  1. A number of movies where the hero dies have won awards, or are some of the most beloved movies of all time, or both. However, keep in mind that statistically speaking, you’re better off writing a spec that doesn’t involve your hero’s death.
Category: Characters, Structure  | 4 Comments
Edgy Screenwriting – Part 2A: Killing Your Hero? Dec 05

Mischievous Glint

That mischievous glint in their eye — at least one person in almost every screenwriters’ group has it. They’ve made a decision to end their script with the ultimate bang — by killing their protagonist.

You don’t see it all that often in movies — so it’s edgy and cool, right?

1. It’s only edgy and cool when it works. Unfortunately it’s very tricky to make it work, and to make audiences (and more importantly readers and producers) embrace it. Careful thought and planning must be taken to ensure viewers come away feeling satisfied.

2. Just like the point of my first article on Edgy Screenwriting (where I discussed the dangers of the “Jerk Protagonist“), killing your protagonist and giving your script a tragic ending isn’t actually all that rare — it’s just rarely ever made into a film. All things being equal, studios will opt for movies with “up” endings (as they’re typically better received than movies with down endings). So why take the path of most resistance?

Your ending must be unexpected but inevitable

Killing your protagonist may make for a surprising ending, but that’s only part of the equation. Satisfying an audience means ensuring your ending is unexpected, yet feels somehow inevitable1. It means that the tragic ending with your hero dying must feel right, like it shouldn’t have ended any other way.

All too often the novice screenwriter with that glint in their eye isn’t thinking so much about the inevitable part of the equation. They are merely preoccupied with the novelty of killing their hero — regardless of the build up, rooting interest for the hero, or the message of the movie.

No ending is an island

The ending of your movie doesn’t stand alone. It’s the culmination of everything that has come before. It therefore must be a natural conclusion to the events, and it must reconcile with the theme that has thus far been supported.

If your hero is a cop, and the first 90 minutes of  your movie speaks very strongly to the theme: “Crime doesn’t pay,” then at the end, the villain pumps the hero full of lead and makes off with the loot — how well do you think that movie’s going to be received by test audiences (and long before that — prospective producers)?

More than one way to kill your protagonist

In the follow-up to this article I’ll look at various movies where the protagonist does die, and why those movies work.  In the meantime, if you think that killing your protagonist is just the “shock value” or twist your screenplay needs, you may already be scriptwrecked. I recommend a bottle of extra-strength Visine to take that mischievous glint out of your eye.

Photo by: kkelly2007


  1. For further reading on the makings of a great ending, please see Terry Rossio’s article, “The Big Finish
Category: Characters, Structure  | 3 Comments
What’s your inciting incident? Nov 24

ArmageddonMy what?

Your inciting incident. You know — your story catalyst; your protagonist’s call to action / adventure.

As Robert McGee writes in his fantastic book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting:

The INCITING INCIDENT radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.

It’s that event or circumstance that shakes up your protagonist’s world and sets your main story in motion. It usually occurs within the first 15 pages of your script.

Can you pinpoint it in your script?

“Of course I can!” you scoff.

I know it may sound like an easy question, but apparently it’s not. I’ve read several scripts lately where an event occurred early on, that I’m sure the writer believed was the inciting incident, but was really just part of the set up.

The writers forgot one critical thing about the inciting incident. To quote McGee again:

The protagonist must react to the Inciting Incident

Let’s take Armageddon, for instance. When the first meteors destroy the Space Shuttle and strike the earth — is that the inciting incident? Nope.

What about when Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), at NASA, discovers the implications of the Texas-sized asteroid that’s flying toward the Earth? Nope.

That’s all set up.

The inciting incident occurs when the protagonist, Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), is summoned to NASA from his oil rig. That’s when his world changes.

Isn’t this all just a bunch of dirty rotten semantics?

Who cares what you call it, as long as it’s in there somewhere, right?

Wrong.

The problem is that your first audience (i.e. the script reader) expects it early in the script. Back when 120 page scripts were standard, the inciting incident was expected by page 15. These days page 12 is typical, and there are many producers and execs that now expect it by page 10!

Rocky PosterIt’s not about the page count

In reality, it’s not about the specific page count. But page counts do coincide with the leeway those reading your script are typically willing to give you.

The reality is, if your inciting incident doesn’t occur until page 30 (like Rocky), you had better have some terrifically entertaining stuff to read while we wait until then. In Rocky, we have the romance between Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to tide us over until Rocky gets his big shot at fighting the champ.

Note: This movie is a RARE example. In today’s market, if you put your inciting incident on page 30, your script will likely go down for the count.

That’s why it’s important to know your inciting incident

If you think you’ve given it to the reader on page 12 (e.g. the scary new crime boss comes to town), but it really doesn’t happen until page 25 (when the crime boss’s son kills the protagonist’s grandma at the Circle K) you may be scriptwrecked.

Make sure you know your true inciting incident. The further out it’s located from page 12, the more challenging it becomes to hold and engage your reader. And that’s what it’s really all about at this stage.

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Category: Structure  | 2 Comments