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What I Learned Reading AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Pilot Script


By Aabusad PathanPublished 2 months ago 4 min read

Let’s set aside the magic and glory of Avatar: The Last Airbender and analyze the pilot script.

Imagine it’s a script written by unknown authors and hasn’t been produced yet. You stumbled upon Episode 101: The Boy In The Iceberg script online and decided to read it one night.

I have tried looking at it from this perspective. Still, upon finishing it, I couldn’t help but exclaim, ‘Wow! This is a masterpiece!’

Knocking on Nickelodeon’s Door

While it may appear as a simple read at first glance, delving into the script reveals that it was actually hard to pull off and incredibly risky.

Imagine pitching to a Nickelodeon executive a show that begins with a world engulfed in a four-nation war, all within a new fictional universe.

But that’s just the beginning. Then, you introduce the main character — a reincarnating soul possessing all abilities necessary to maintain balance in the world. However, he becomes lost for a century amidst the ongoing war between nations, the reason for which remains unknown.

Moreover, you explain that all these elements merely serve as the backdrop. You introduce a new villain with a backstory intricately linked to the nation that initiated the war.

Your main character emerges after a hundred years as a child who has yet to master any abilities, tasked with confronting this formidable villain.

And then,

‘Wow, wow, wow,’ the Nickelodeon executive exclaims, ‘That’s way too complicated for kids.’

You attempt to explain yourself but he refuses to listen because your story is even more complex.

That’s what could have happened, potentially robbing us of an incredible story.

The high concept of Avatar: The Last Airbender is intricate, yet the storytelling simplifies it, making it easy to understand and relate to.

With some Nickelodeon magic, they turned it into something a kid could watch.

Fast Introduction of The World and The Characters

The first thing that struck me was the efficient use of backstory in the script. The entire introduction and backstory of the world comprise only a small percentage, perhaps less than ten percent.

Similar to the ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ opening crawl of Star Wars, Katara narrates everything, introducing us to the world of the story.

From the very first page, everything falls into place. The stage is set. We are immediately thrust into the present moment where everything begins. We meet with the characters and get to know their personalities and relationships which dictates the tone of the whole show.

In the constant back and forth between Katara and Sokka we learn more about them which makes us relate to their situation and connect with them. Katara possesses skills and enormous potential but lacks the opportunity to practice and realize them, while Sokka battles insecurity over his lack of special skills and doubts his value.

We relate to these things.

As you immerse yourself in this incredible world, subtle elements such as inner conflicts may go unnoticed, yet without them, we wouldn’t have been able to connect with the larger conflict.

We then, meet with Aang, who is thrown into big responsibilities without being able to live his childhood and now realizes that he indirectly caused the suffering of countless people by not being there, and not being his full self.

Rather than focusing on wars or major events in the world’s backstory, the narrative delves into the daily lives and personal struggles of the trio.

Now, I should point out that this was not a live-action show. This was animation. So, if they wanted it, they could’ve shown more of bigger action scenes and sequences.

But they deliberately chose not to, because they knew we needed to connect with the characters and relate to their personal struggles first.

Three Acts: All End With a Twist

This made me think of the Japanese storytelling structure, kishōtenketsu, where each panel, scene, chapter, manga, or anime episode always ends with a twist.

The concept is quite simple:

Ki: Introduction

Shō: Development

Ten: Twist

Ketsu: Conclusion

This structure introduces the world and the characters, allowing for development, and then introduces a twist that upends the status quo.

It has been said that the kishōtenketsu structure lacks conflict, but the twist introduces conflict into situations, enhancing tension and raising the stakes while keeping viewers constantly hooked.

First twist:

In the first act, Katara asks Aang about the Avatar’s whereabouts, and Aang lies to her for the first time. This revelation comes as a shock just before the first commercial break.

Second twist:

The second act unveils Aang’s lack of knowledge about The Hundred Year War.

The last twist: (Though, this was more of a cliffhanger.)

The episode concludes with Zuko, who is determined to hunt down the Avatar, finally locating him.

Creating the Sense of Immediacy

I can easily imagine Aang’s story of hiding his identity, grappling with the state of the world, his inner conflict, and his relationship with Katara and Sokka. Their journey might have taken a different path if not for Zuko.

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