How Avatar: The Way of Water Gets to "Level 3" Storytelling

"It was a sensory thing that communicated on such a deep level, that, to me, that was the true spirituality of the film. It's that yearning that you can't give a voice to." —James Cameron
by Kole Lyndon Lee - updated on May 9, 2023

We all have those specific movies that we deeply connect with, creating complex emotional reactions that sit with us long after the screen fades to black. According to early reviews and fan reactions, James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water might just be one of those films. But how — and why?

We know that Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the most technologically advanced films made to date, but what's just as impressive is James Cameron's approach to its storytelling.

During a conversation on “The Marianne Williamson Podcast", the director explains how he taps into the “third level of storytelling” in the Avatar sequel by reaching the subconscious mind and beyond, connecting with the innermost desires of our hearts and minds so that the things we long for come to life on screen.

Check out that episode of the podcast below and continue on for more.

What Are James Cameron's 3 Levels of Storytelling?

An important thing to note is that none of these levels are more important than the other. They are all integral in telling a great story. In fact, all the best movies seem to beautifully intertwine these three levels of storytelling to balance the full cinema experience.

Level One: Character

The first level, the most commonly explored, is all about character, conflict, and resolution. This is where you have the opportunity to create a deep connection with your audience, to suck them in, and to get their sympathy. This is where the plot unfolds. This leads to that, which leads to this. And this level is important because if you do not do a good job of creating that deep connection with the audience, they will not be willing to go into the deeper levels with you.

Read More: How to Make Your Audience Love a Character in 157 Seconds

Level Two: Theme

The second level is all about theme. What is your movie really trying to say? Whether you consciously insert a theme into your story or not, it is there. (Actually, some filmmakers and screenwriters talk about theme coming later.) The first order of business is story and character, and the more you learn about your story and characters, the clearer your themes will become. 

But some start with theme, seeing it as the primary driver for the story. Connecting to the deeper truth is what allows you to learn about your story and characters. There’s no right or wrong, but it is worth learning what works best for you.

Level Three: The Subconscious

But the third level? This is an idea that you don’t hear many people talk about. This is where the real magic happens. As James Cameron said in “The Marianne Williamson Podcast,” this is where you can tap into the subconscious mind and beyond. This is where you tap into the ideas that words cannot express.

How Does “Level 3” Storytelling Go Beyond the Subconscious Mind?

We are all familiar with the idea of the subconscious mind and using it to fuel our story, but what about the ideas that transcend even our own minds? This is what James Cameron tries to articulate by delving into how “Level 3” storytelling takes us into a more spiritual realm — the internal reality of the human experience.

Cameron talks about how he had to threaten to fire all the writers he initially hired for The Way of Water because all they wanted to do was focus on the new stories and characters rather than try to understand what made the first movie resonate so deeply with audiences. This is such a great insight into how Cameron’s mind works, and how he was trying to get to the third level of storytelling before he even knew what that meant. He knew that there was something about the first movie that went beyond just being a good story, creating a yearning in audiences.

After Cameron and his writers recouped and refocused, exploring what made the first movie so impactful, he finally started to understand the third level of storytelling in Avatar. In the podcast, he says:

"There was a level that was dreamlike that you couldn't really express in a sentence. It was not about 'this', not about colonialism. It's not about feminism — it didn't have any 'isms' to it. It was jut a dreamlike sense of a yearning — a yearning to be there experiencing that thing, being there in a place that was safe and where you wanted to be — whether that was flying, that sense of freedom...exhilaration, accomplishment. Whether it was being in the forest where you could practically smell the earth. It was a sensory thing that communicated on such a deep level, that, to me, that was the true spirituality of the film. It's that yearning that you can't give a voice to.

We actually created and rejected many storylines for the second and third film because they didn't take us to that transportive 'dreaming with your eyes wide open,' aspirational feeling."

That is such a beautiful way to think about what this deeper level of story means and leads me to the next question.

Avatar: The Way of Water

'Avatar: The Way of Water' (2022)

What is the Importance of “Level 3” Storytelling?

In the same podcast mentioned above, Cameron shares the unfortunate news that his brother passed away, unexpectedly, which gave him a serious reality check. It made him realize that we are all on borrowed time and that most of us are focusing on unimportant things in life. He says:

“Every day is an opportunity to be kind to others. Existence is just ripples moving across a great pond that eventually becomes nothing. None of us will be remembered, but we contribute to the continuum of kindness with everything we do.”

I bring this up because that gets at the heart of “Level 3” storytelling. It is no secret that Cameron is an environmentalist who cares deeply about our planet. He talks about it often. And it is obvious that he has used the Avatar universe to communicate these themes to the general audience. He started from the very beginning consciously wanting to tell a story that could impact people on a deeper level, perhaps influencing them to care more about the important things all around us, including the state of our planet.

Again, in the podcast, Cameron mentions how important it is in filmmaking to have respect for the average person and how they navigate through life. Many people are struggling with all kinds of things and do not have the luxury to worry about some of the bigger issues around us. Their worry is how to make rent next month, which can consume every ounce of our bandwidth.

The powerful reality of cinema is that it can allow all people to get away from the harsh reality they might be facing. That is how cinema was born. But what Cameron tries to do is both allow his audience to escape while also allowing them to experience the deeper layers of emotion and connection by delving into the third level of the story.

Avatar: The Way of Water

'Avatar: The Way of Water' (2022)

How Can You Explore “Level 3” Storytelling in Your Own Work?

One insight that I always get when listening to James Cameron talk about his movies is how important it is to develop your story, to just sit with it and allow the deeper aspects to come to the surface. A lot of us can be impatient. We get a good idea and we start writing. If you want to explore "Level 3" storytelling, try to practice patience.

It can take time for the best ideas to come to the surface, but you know they are the best when they just will not leave you alone. Not only that but do what Cameron did with his own work. Study.

Read More: Screenwriting Wisdom from Auteur James Cameron

Study movies, study craft, study the emotional impact that movies have made in the past and try to understand why they made the specific impact they did.

I think the most important thing to remember, to repeat what Cameron said before, is that there really is a magic to this craft that just cannot be expressed with words.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying, right?

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