In my opinion, the best writing exercises are ones that take a look at some of the best writing available. That’s why so many writers say the most important thing you can do as a writer is read–being exposed to new ideas, creativity, and well executed writing will help you grow your own skills. Which is why when I find myself trying desperately to buckle down and finish a major writing project, I turn to examples of the kind of writing I want to produce.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best examples of good writing that I can think of. There’s a reason it is considered an all time classic and favorite by many people. The character arcs, narrative, and episode to episode writing choices are for the most part brilliant, moving, and written both with skill and genuine emotion. So, for this blog post, I’m going to break down some of the reasons why I think you should watch (or rewatch!) A:TLA if you’re trying to motivate your writing.
1. Easy Breaks
The length of the episodes, as well as the light hearted content in many of them, make them perfect for writing breaks. If there’s one thing that suffering burnout has taught me it’s that you do need breaks–there’s a reason they’re legally mandated in most jobs. So, if you’re writing full time or even just writing in your spare time it’s crucial that you take a break. A good rule of thumb is that for every 2.5-3 hours worked you should take at least twenty to thirty minutes away. So, if screentime isn’t an issue for you and you need a quick break, sit down and watch an episode of A:TLA! The episodes are easily stopped after since the show came out before the time of serial binging, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck on a major cliffhanger (at least not until towards the end of the show).
2. Character Arcs
Many fiction writers struggle with character arcs in part because the fully formed character lives inside our head–we already know what should shape them into someone else, we just have to figure out a way to translate that for the audience. A:TLA does character arcs very well for the most part. The show Overanalyzing Avatar on YouTube actually points out during the very first episode that each character is introduced stunningly well. It can be easy to introduce characters without enough information or with too much information. Whether you’re in the writing stage or the editing stage, watch the first episode of A:TLA and take a moment to really pay attention to each of the main characters’ introductions–Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko. If you’re looking for a more engaging exercise, pause the episode after each character speaks their first line and write down all the things you’ve just learned about the character based on their appearance, tone of voice, and what they say. If you’ve never watched A:TLA before, this exercise might take some time to pay off as you’ll need to watch the show a little more to confirm your observations, but a veteran watcher should be able to check their accuracy pretty quickly.
Then, after you observe the introductions of these main characters, you can either think about their future character arcs (again, this is for veteran watchers of the show) or you can watch ahead to see how these arcs are shaped. While I would recommend watching the full show and taking notes on those arcs over time, or a single binge session if that’s your style, you should also be to consult the internet for guides on episodes that suit a character’s arc without needing to watch the whole show. For example, I found this article ranking Katara’s best episodes quickly, and I imagine that if you watch these episodes in chronological order you’ll get a great overview of her character arc.
3. Great Action Scenes
Action scenes are definitely not one of my strong suits. A:TLA is an excellent source for learning how to pace, prioritize, and describe your action scenes. The average A:TLA fight scene has a few main components: a bending skill, banter, unexpected consequences, and growth of the fantasy system.
- Bending skill – Whether the scene is setting up a new bending skill (such as metal or blood bending) or improving upon existing bending, some degree of skill is demonstrated in each fight scene. During each fight scene regardless of the stakes the character at hand demonstrates the growth of their skills. These scenes are pretty crucial for a fantasy system that relies heavily on their ability to bend in order to influence the world around them. Additional skills don’t develop out of nowhere, they’re demonstrated or at least accidentally demonstrated to set up future improvement of the skill. When writing a fight scene, identify the “bending skill”–is it a spell the character is learning, or a weapon they are training in?
- Banter – While a fight scene is primarily description of action, having some dialogue included can make a big difference. For A:TLA, the banter is both a way to lighten the mood (it is a children’s show after all) but also a way to provide exposition at the same time as a fight scene during a limited episode time. While good chunks of a written fight scene will and should be focused on movement, actions, etc. there should also be some sort of banter. This can take the form of dialogue, a monologue, an inner monologue, or even a narrator breaking in to explain something. During your fight scene, take a pause and look for the openings for some banter.
- Unexpected Consequences – In A:TLA, a lot of the comedy of the show comes in the form of unexpected or playful consequences during a fight. This comes from Aang primarily, but in more serious fight scenes these consequences aren’t as light hearted. Most fight scenes in A:TLA have some consequence that wasn’t expected by a member of the fight. This is an excellent opportunity to include a creative flourish–perhaps the main character is very clever, and you’d like to show it off with a unique diversion that their opponent wasn’t expecting. Or perhaps you’re working lore into the scene by foreshadowing a future repercussion of the fight for the characters. Every fight scene should have consequences for every participant, and perhaps even the bystanders, but it is up to you as the writer to decide what those consequences are.
- Fantasy System – The A:TLA fantasy system is revealed in bits and pieces across the entirety of the series. If you’re not writing a fantasy project, that’s fine I’ve still got a tip for you! Ultimately, every scene in your project should progress the story forward in one way or another. Fight scenes seem pretty obvious: they progress a conflict of some sort. However, if you have a lot of fight scenes it can be easy to slip into too much conflict and not enough development. So, each fight scene should also do something to further the development of your world. Maybe you’re writing an urban story with no fantastical elements–then your fight scene can include important revelations about how things work for your characters. If you are writing a fantasy world, use elements of the fight to reveal powers or creatures important to the world.
4. Emotional Storytelling
No story can be told without emotion. There is always something fueling the story, whether an emotion felt by the character or by the author. A:TLA does not pull its punches, and begins that emotional storytelling from the very moment that Katara starts narrating. If you’re revising a scene or trying to write one and find yourself stuck, take a moment. Pause. And then ask yourself: what emotion is fueling this scene? This story? This character? Yourself? If you can’t answer any or all of those, then it’s time to put the pen (or keyboard) down and think. It’s important that you know what your characters are feeling, what the feeling of their story is, and what you are feeling during a scene. Those feelings can absolutely be in conflict or contradict one another, but the important thing is that you are in touch with the emotions behind the story. If you aren’t, then your audience won’t be able to connect with them either, and the writing may be brilliant but it won’t make an impact.
So, there’s definitely more that can be said here. Hell, there is more that has been said here–I fully recommend falling down the rabbit hole of A:TLA content on YouTube sometime. But for now, I want to leave you with what I see as the core advice A:TLA can give you as a writer: connect to and love your story. Sure, the individual scenes can be fun to write and taking a break to watch a kid’s show makes writing a little more relaxed. But no matter how hard you work, it won’t matter if you’re not invested. If you don’t have motivation, if you’re burned out, if you don’t care, then your audience won’t care either. If that means you need to sit down and watch a couple of episodes of a children’s show before you can get back to writing, then so be it. And if you are there, if you are connected and care about your project, then expose yourself to other good, emotionally driven works that demonstrate phenomenal storytelling and the ability to weather the test of time.
2 replies on “Rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender as a Writing Exercise”
We love that you used ATLA to help with your writing. It’s such a great series!
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It really is! Such good writing, an excellent example to follow!
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