What Is the Best Format For Your Story?

How Avatar 2 feels like we are going backwards

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash


I saw the original Avatar in 3D, despite knowing it would not work for me.

With the polaroid glasses in place over my own, the faster sequences in a 3D film are too much for my little brain. Instead of a convincing three dimensional, ‘what the…., that’s amazing!’ reaction, I get a trail of speed echoes that leave me dizzied.

So I stopped choosing the 3D option at the cinema, preferring to watch in 2D when I could, and slowly the filmmakers seemed to get the message.

Avatar 2

And yet here we are with Avatar 2 in 3D. Not only that, but two-thirds of the audience on the opening weekend went to see that version. What is happening? I don’t want to pay more to see something that takes me out of the action immediately.

But then again, maybe Avatar 2 will not be my film. My preference is for a film that is rich in story, not special effects.

3D stories

If I want a story told in 3 dimensions, then I will choose the theatre. I had a conversation with someone recently where they couldn’t understand the difference between going to the cinema and seeing the same story on stage.

A theatre production is a shared experience between the audience and the performers. Last month I was in the Vicar of Dibley at a community theatre. Each night, the performance was different because the audience was different.

They react to different things.

They laugh in different places.

They are quieter, or not, in the emotional bits.

The performers pick up on that emotional energy in the room and the performance changes.

This is where I think 3D cinema is going wrong. When we want to be immersed in a story, it is not the visuals and sound effects that do it. It is the quality of the storytelling.

A portrait is worth a thousand selfies

Stepping back, consider if we take away the movement. Instead of the action of a movie, think about a still image.

Do you like taking selfies? My husband loves them. He has perfected the art of holding a camera at arm’s length and framing his subject. But does a selfie really show who we are?

A portrait painter can capture us entirely with an image that objectively looks nothing like us. Beyond the visual, they might see us as we truly are. They are telling a story that is bigger than the image.

On a writing course I attended in October, we used portraits from the National Gallery as prompts for a character. Great portraiture conveys the personality of the subject but is also about the viewer’s response.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Step back further and take away the visual representation. Think about a written story. We only have the words to express what needs to be seen and heard.

But with that limitation, we also have an opening up. We can now experience the other senses. With words I can describe smells and tastes, the touch of something, how it feels to be inside someone’s skin.

And more, I can tell you what the character is thinking. I can express their reaction that only happens internally, where no-one normally has access.

Beyond that, there is the relationship with the reader. I can present an unreliable narrator and leave the reader to fill in the gaps. With good storytelling, the story will not just be what is on the page.

Writers are often told to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. But that is exactly what cinema is for. In the cinema, you can only show, unless you resort to voiceovers and text on screen. Visual imagery is the only form available to you.

With a written story, you have access to so much more, so don’t show everything. Make sure you do the right amount of telling.

Tell me what the character is thinking.

Tell me what the character is feeling.

Tell me what they hear and smell,

and touch and taste,

and want and need,

and hope and fear.

The Future

I’m not against new technology. I hope we will continue to find new ways to tell our stories. Just let it not be at the expense of the storytelling.

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