Since we’ve been talking about the structure of individual novels this month, and I mentioned the way act three of a book can tie into writing a series, it’s time I look at what it means to write a series and how we can use the three act structure and the Beat Sheet. In order to do this, I’m going to be drawing examples from Avatar: the Last Airbender (AtLA) because, frankly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. If you haven’t seen the series, you may still be able to follow my analysis and can use the Wikipedia summary of the events of the episodes to help you follow it.
Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced. In series like Nancy Drew and Murder She Wrote, there isn’t a metaplot, and each book is a stand-alone tied to the others only by the occasional reference and the same main characters. I’m not writing this for that kind of book series, so if you’re not using a metaplot (and you aren’t required to), this blog isn’t for you.
Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced.E. Prybylski
As I said two weeks ago in my second act blog, the second act is typically half the story, which means that the third season of Avatar: the Last isn’t actually the third act of the story. In fact, act two continues well into the third season of the show, as we’ll discuss in the next segment.
Much the same as each book, you’ll have the three act structure and, personally, I use the Beat Sheet for planning out my meta plot as well because the beats work in roughly the same way, though you may have multiple books in a single beat of the story (just as you may have multiple episodes of a television show in a single beat of the metaplot). However, this is one of the reasons the trilogy format is so effective. Three acts, three books/movies/video games etc. It makes the whole thing somewhat easier in terms of structuring the meta (even if this is done unintentionally by the author) and tends to make sense to the reader.
While I acknowledge the existence of the five act structure and other act structures, I tend to default to the three act model because it’s what I know best and what I use personally. However, none of these models are “wrong” exactly. They just break down the story in different ways even if they are more or less all saying the same things.
So, on to Avatar the Last Airbender! Let’s do a “quick” zoom through the episodes that fit the beats in the story and where they are. There are twenty episodes in the first season of AtLA with some episodes covering multiple beats in the meta plot, and each episode itself more or less following the Beat Sheet. If you haven’t seen AtLA, I apologize that this may be a poor analogy for you, but it’s a series I know very well and is extremely popular. Besides, I’ve been using nothing but Star Wars and Dresden Files examples for awhile now, so it’s time to shake it up. Also, spoilers, I guess? Though the show’s been out long enough that “spoiling” it is unlikely.
Right now, I’m focusing only on the way the Beat Sheet covers all of season one. The next blog will cover how all three seasons fit into the Beat Sheet since each season has its own metaplot that ties into the overall story of Aang defeating Fire Lord Ozai. That’s right, this series has meta nested within meta, and we’re going there. It’s okay–it’s not as scary as it sounds, I promise.
Opening Image: Katara and Sokka are introduced as Water Tribe (after the opening intro that gives us a status of the world and an introduction to Fire Nation aggression). [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]
Set Up: Katara and Sokka find Aang frozen in an iceburg and wake him up, discovering that he is the long-lost Avatar. They wrestle with this and bring him back to their village where Katara and Aang adventure onto a Fire Nation ship, alerting the Fire Nation to someone being active there and drawing the attention of Zuko, who is introduced as the villain. [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]
Theme Stated: After alerting the Fire Nation to Aang’s presence, Zuko and the Fire Nation attack, causing Aang to be kicked out of the Southern Water Tribe village. Katara and Sokka join him, refusing to let him go alone. They then start the journey to the Northern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending. [Ep 2: The Avatar Returns] The theme of this season is more or less Aang learning about the changes in the world since he was trapped in the ice a hundred years ago. It also introduces the theme of the entire series which is Aang’s avoidance of his destiny as the Avatar and desire to just be the twelve-year-old kid he is.
Catalyst: Aang, on the way to the Northern Water Tribe decides to detour to visit his home in the Southern Air temple. Though he discovers it has been ravaged by war, and that his mentor, Monk Gyatso, was slain by Fire Nation forces. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]
Debate: This realization causes him to start taking his role as Avatar seriously as he realizes that running from his responsibility the way he has caused a huge amount of strife in the world and, personally, for him. In this episode, we also see the introduction of Zuko’s story and what his motivations are. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]
Break Into Two: Now we hit the main meat of the story as we start with the main characters spending their time on their journey learning from other people. Aang has decided he is going to be the Avatar and will not stand for further Fire Nation attacks, so begins to treat this with more seriousness. Sort of. He still acts like a child, but that’s because he is one. Aang meets the Kyoshi Warriors and basks a little in the hero’s reception he receives on Kyoshi Island. Sokka and Katara get some development through here, too. Namely Sokka discovering that “fighting like a girl” is far more badass than he’d given it credit for. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]
B Story: In addition, this is where we start to see Aang trying very, very hard to impress Katara. His interest in her and their relationship developing becomes a strong theme of the story, so we have the first blossoms of romantic interest appearing on screen here. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]
The Promise of the Premise: The next two episodes fall into this space. (See? More than one in a beat!) We have episode five, The King of Omashu where the team meets with Aang’s highly eccentric friend, King Bumi, who he asks to teach him Earthbending. Bumi refuses, but not before a bunch of hijinks designed to make Aang rethink what he believes and knows about the world and himself.
Then episode six, Imprisoned drives more toward the development of the kids as revolutionaries as the kids break an entire town’s worth of earthbenders out of a jail by inspiring hope in them. Interestingly, Aang only plays a secondary role in this episode, and Katara takes center stage as the inspirational character. She more or less takes this role through the series as the steady, certain leader of the group even though she isn’t the “main character” of the series. However, this strongly establishes her role in the story and in the main character pool.
Midpoint: Now, remember when I said in my blog about the second act that the midpoint is the height of tension? Here we are at it. The midpoint of this season hits with a two-part episode (which is one of the ways you can tell it’s the midpoint). During this two-parter [Ep 7, The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) and Ep 8, Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Pt 2)] we learn more about the Avatar’s ability to commune with spirits and see him interact with the spirit of Avatar Roku who reveals to Aang that they need to go to a specific location at a specific time to get information about the overall story. In the second part of Winter Solstice, they arrive at their destination and gain the information they need, learning that the Fire Nation plans to use the power of a comet’s coming to fuel their final assault in the war they’ve been waging against the entirety of the world. This now puts the characters on a timeline they weren’t on before, and they start to feel the pressure, realizing they need Aang to master three styles of bending (which typically takes years of training) and stop the Fire Nation’s plans in a matter of a few short months. This is the peak of tension for the characters when they realize what’s at stake and how little time they have to pull off the impossible.
You also may notice that out of twenty episodes, the midpoint isn’t exactly in the middle of the story, but it’s pretty close (two episodes away). As from our talk about the second act, this is common. It doesn’t need to be bang on the center of the word count (or episode count) in this case, but it does need to be in the center of the tension.
Bad Guys Close In: Over the course of the next several episodes, the main characters start to feel the squeeze, and it takes a toll on their friendship. Infighting becomes more common until it reaches a peak in episode 11, The Great Divide. Through this, Zuko gets closer and closer, and they can feel his breath down their necks as they try to navigate their own responses to this tension with Katara stealing a waterbending scroll [Ep 9, The Water Bending Scroll], which ignites jealousy in her over Aang’s ability to learn bending at an unheard of rate (hanks to him being the Avatar, of course). Then she and Aang get taken in by a group of rebels of questionable morality which pits she and Aang against Sokka who doesn’t trust them for a minute [Ep 10, Jet].
This leaves Aang sort of in the middle without anyone, which is displayed with clarity through his experience trying to guide two warring tribes of Earth Kingdom people through a canyon where their fighting causes major problems. Aang, at this point, feels extremely alone, and this is displayed by his being separated from both groups through the whole experience and trying to manage both by being rejected by everyone. It is a reflection of his role as the Avatar and his desire for peace between Sokka and Katara who, after the events of Jet, are busy fighting each other and not the actual enemy. [Ep 11, The Great Divide]
All Is Lost: While there is a break in episode 14, the tension continues to mount through this segment of episodes. Through this part of the show, Aang wrestles with the enormity of what he has to do and is somewhat crushed by it. This kind of reaches a peak when a literal and metaphorical storm cause Aang to relive the moment when he chose to abandon being the Avatar [Ep 12, The Storm], and he has to confront the fact that his choices and abdication of responsibility contributed to everything that has happened in the world. Also, his continued conflict and desire to bridge the gap and find some way to heal the situation before taking the step of direct and open conflict is violently rebuffed despite hints of the possiblity of peace. [Ep 13: The Blue Spirit]
There’s a break in this bleak sort of outlook for an episode where Aang and the others save a village from destruction by a volcano (caused by their own unwillingness to see the signs and reliance on fortune telling), but it comes to a head shortly thereafter. [Ep 14: The Fortuneteller]
Dark Night of the Soul: There is a telling moment when the main group splits up for an episode due to Aang’s fears of abandonment overcoming good judgement, and he chooses to hide a message from Katara and Sokka’s father that he is both alive and misses them. [Ep 14: Bato of the Water Tribe]. While they don’t stay apart for more than half an episode here, this moment is very telling and is probably the bleakest point in the first season. The sense of loss is potent, and Aang struggles to face the repercussions of his actions even as they close in on the end of the time period alotted before the arrival of the comet. Also, at this point, Aang has still mastered none of the three other forms of bending he fears he will need before the comet’s arrival.
This is given a little bit of a breather when Aang begins training under a firebending master who starts him down the path, but Aang’s own impatience and fear drives him to try too much, too quickly, and he seriously injures Katara. While Katara discovers the ability to heal herself very shortly thereafter, this realization of this own distructive capacity hurts Aang to the core of his peaceful, airbender soul, and he eschews ever working with fire again. [Ep 16, The Deserter]
Aang’s negative, selfish, and angry attitude continues into the next episode where he is confronted by a group of refugees living in one of the Air Nomad temples. They have transformed it and the man in charge of this group is (even unwillingly) designing weaponry for the Fire Nation to wage war. Sokka’s ability with both tactics and inventing is unveiled here as he comes into his own in this episode and helps the leader of the group drive off the Fire Nation soldiers who have been threatening him. However, this does give them a brief taste of the way the mechanist’s inventions are being used in the form of steampunk-style air balloons that can drop payloads on targets. [Ep 17: The Northern Air Temple]
Break Into Three: The arrival of the kids at the Northern Water Tribe’s fortress heralds the closing of this season (since it completes the journey begun in episode two). Aang finally starts full instruction of waterbending under a master and fights to have Katara allowed to study as well, since the Northern Water Tribe is a distinctly patriarchal society. Something Katara chafes at since she comes from a very different background and resents not being allowed to use her waterbending for anything but support.
While this training is underway, Sokka meets Princess Yue, the ruler’s daughter, and falls hard for her though soon learns she is engaged (against her wishes) and is left with those feelings as the comet’s due date closes in.
Finale: Again indicated by a two-part episode, the finale of the season comes when the Fire Nation launches its attack on the Northern Water Tribe using the power of Sozin’s Comet. Aang and his compatriots fight back against this menace. During this conflict, it’s revealed the Uncle Iroh (admittedly my favorite character of the series), Zuko’s mentor and travel companion, is not as loyal to the Fire Nation as might be imagined by others. He, in fact, is willing to stand up against them in order to try and protect the balance of the world since unlike many of the others in the Fire Nation, he has a deep understanding of spiritual affairs and knows that the balance being destroyed by this conflict is something that cannot be restored.
Zuko fails to fight and win against Aang, despite his best efforts, and he flees in disgrace, and the Fire Nation assault on the Northern Water Tribe fails despite heavy losses on both sides.
Final Image: In contrast to the opening of Katara and Sokka being nothing more than average kids surviving in their world and Aang avoiding his responsibilities, we see Aang having faced the Fire Nation with a great deal of power and focus. He’s successfully defended an entire city and thwarted the attempt, giving hints of what kind of feats he will be capable of as a fully realized Avatar. Which is what he becomes at the end of the series. So in terms of the meta structure of the whole series, this is the end of Act One with Aang having faced the question of whether or not he’s really going to do this, and dealt with his world having been rocked to its core.
Let’s pause and chew on that for a second.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, I applaud you. This has been a haul. But this is a breakdown of a whole season and the meta of the season. Each individual episode also follows the Beat Sheet separately, and I could do this kind of analysis on every single episode of the show. The reason I did it is because this shows how each episode fits into the Beat Sheet individually. If you consider each episode to be a single book in your series, it demonstrates how you can use each story to fit into the broader structure of your metaplot while still having each book (episode) use the three act structure independently. Every episode of the show has a problem that has to be solved and deals with patterns of rising and falling action, and at the end of the episode, the world is a little different, and the characters have learned something new or grown somehow. Then each of those episodes fits into the broader scheme of the story in the manner I demonstrated above.
It also demonstrates how much of an Avatar: the Last Airbender nerd I am. So now you know that about me.
Next week we’re going to take this even further and evaluate how each season (I’m not doing this level of breakdown on the other two seasons, don’t worry) fits into the story of the entire show. Meta on meta. Plus more Avatar goodness.