Feb 2, 2010

The Avatar school of really basic writing success

So, I went to see Avatar the other week. Did you? I bet you did! Did we like it? I thought it was pretty shiny...it kept my attention for three hours, which is a pretty handy trick. Made me a little motion-sick for a bit in the beginning though.

The storyline and plotting were extremely simple, which made me think this would be a great illustration of a couple of basic writing points that get made all the time and authors never seem to quite buy into. To whit:

1. "You don't have to overdo the back story. Readers can fill in a lot from just a few hints, and they don't need to know everything."

Authors love writing back story. They love their characters, know them inside and out, and want to tell you every little thing that the main character's best friend's great-aunt went through when she immigrated to America and endured great hardships.

There is, of course, a time and a place for back story. But what Avatar proves is that given the opportunity, audiences will happily truck along with the barest information. Did they tell us how that guy lost his legs, or what he and his brother did as kids, or where any of the minor characters were from, or what was going on back on earth, or how technology had gotten to awesome or the history of the avatar program or...anything? They did not.

They couldn't get around explaining why everyone's on this planet, so they show us that rock in that one tiny scene and tell us it's really, really expensive and it exists on this planet. Not who discovered it, not what it does or why people pay so much for it, just the bare essentials - it's a thing, and it's expensive.

Based on this absolutely scant amount of background, pretty much everybody on Earth was able to watch, understand, and enjoy this movie. And those points they skip over aren't boring, irrelevant ones. Any one of them could be a whole story on its own. Audiences would probably love to know all that stuff, if they had five hundred hours to spend watching the extended version.

Again, this isn't to say that you should oversimplify your work and cut out all the back story. It's just to point out how smart your audience is, and how much they can guess without being explicitly told anything.

2 - "Introduce important stuff early, in context, and be subtle about it."

I think there's a lot of fear, especially with less experienced authors, that readers will miss any point they aren't beaten over the head with. The danger is, of course, that if it's totally obvious that something is going to be relevant later in the book, readers won't get any surprise or pleasure out of the reprisal.

To be fair, Avatar is pretty obvious. It's clear that the big dragon thing will be relevant later, as will the thing where the people get unplugged and their avatars fall down, and the thing where the tree has the power to bring people back to life as their avatars.

But still, everything is introduced plausibly, in context, and as part of a scene and a plotline, which is where I see a lot of struggling occur among authors. If it's really important, make a scene about it. And be creative! Don't just force a scene where some random character happens to be talking about some topic that will be relevant later. Make it really fit, an integral part of the story. Unless, you know, you're writing a satire.

Goodness, I've rambled. I hope some of that is helpful!

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