What writers can learn from Avatar

I saw Avatar over the weekend, and loved it. I’m naturally inclined to like James Cameron movies. I think he’s one of the best storytellers working today. Not the most innovative writer, but the best storyteller. It’s an important distinction.

A lot of talk around this movie centers around the special effects, especially in 3D. Yes, they’re amazing. Yes, the 3D is used subtly, almost never throwing things “at” the audience, and provides an additional solidity to the CGI that you’ve never seen before. You feel like like you’re there, on the moon Pandora with the characters. And as Chuck Wendig points out, the 3D and CGI compensate for each other’s weaknesses, making everything seem just, well, real.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

A lot of the reviews and even snide comments on Twitter about the film mention is that the story isn’t anything new. They misunderstand something fundamental about storytelling and assume that this means Cameron is just “mailing it in,” using new visual effects to dress up a tired story that we’ve all seen before.

They don’t understand that the very best stories, by definition, are stories we’ve all seen before. That the very reason why certain stories have been told over and over and over for thousands of years is that they work. They resonate with us, down to an unconscious level. Was the plot of Avatar predictable? Sure. It’s basically “Dances With Smurfs.” But think for a second. How many times have you seen a story about a broken soldier who finds first companionship, then purpose, in the company of his enemy? Dances With Wolves? Pocahontas? Enemy Mine? How far back can you go?

If you really think about it, thousands of years. This story is one of the timeless tales you’ve heard before and will hear again. It comes from myth. Just like “coming of age”, or “the hero’s journey” or “pride goeth before a fall”, or any of the other fundamental structures hardwired into our primate brains. The story of Avatar was told around cooking fires in central Europe 10,000 years ago. The details change, but the story is eternal.

And that’s why the movie works. Because while the CGi gives you a sense of awe and wonder, and helps in the suspension of disbelief, it’s the story, and the characters of Jake, Neytiri, Gail and the rest that make you care. I was welling up several times during the film, a difficult thing when wearing essentially two pairs of Ray-Bans, and it wasn’t because of the CGI. It’s because I was caught up in the story, totally engaged and rooting for the characters.

Don’t mistake the simple for the inferior. All too often the best stories are those we know by heart.