Jul 30, 2010


Inception takes off like a rocket and then slowly runs out of fuel. I loved the mind teaser of a plot, but found the longer the movie went on the less I cared. How a film can generate two such different responses has to do with the most important relationship in a story, the one between plot and character.

In the past with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, along with his co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, has shown himself to be one of the masters of movie plotting. Once again, Nolan gives screenwriters a masterclass in how to build plot. Plot is the most underestimated major skill in storytelling, with a lot of specific techniques you must learn to work as a pro. And make no mistake, the ability to pack more plot in your script is the single most distinguishing feature in a script and film that hits big.

Most writers don’t realize that many of the plot techniques they will use for a particular story are determined by one of the first choices they make in the writing process: what genres will I use to tell this story? Indeed, Nolan’s most brilliant move in writing this script was in combining two genres that are almost never together: science fiction and caper.

Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time. The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

By combining these virtually opposite forms, Nolan allows the audience to have their cake and eat it too. They get the epic power of science fiction with the driving speed of the caper.

Using the caper gives Nolan one other big advantage. The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

The rich plot provided by the caper is magnified many times when the mission takes us into the dream world where the rules of logic change. This is where the power of science fiction kicks in. Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.

To get maximum plot and puzzle, Nolan smartly creates three levels of the dream world, using the technique of “revelation plot.” Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

In combining the caper story structure with a three-level dream world, Nolan takes the audience on a high-speed but mind-bending journey down three levels and back out. In yet another level, the hero’s guilt-filled sub-conscious acts as the story frame and provides even more reveals. Like I say, this guy is a master of plot.

Spoiler alert!

Creating a multiple-level plot is a real blast, especially when it’s connected to such dazzling visual elements as the attacking freight train, the fold-up city and the ghost-town like land of limbo. But there’s a catch. All this plot can kill character and emotion if you are not extremely careful with the story set-up.

The character/emotion problem for Inception starts right at the desire line, the second of the seven major structure steps and one of the strengths of the caper genre. Desire is the hero’s goal. It provides the spine of the story, along with the stakes, or why this story matters. In Inception, the goal is a concept, specifically planting an idea in someone’s head. Not only is this a cold abstraction, it means the stakes are ultimately meaningless. We are told this idea will prevent ecological catastrophe. But that’s just a line of dialogue. We don’t see it, and none of the story is at all related to it.

Another source of an emotionless story has to do with the hero’s relationship to those most important to him, or lack thereof. No, I’m not talking about the other members of the team, which is where most caper stories gain their emotional juice. Think of the buddy camaraderie among the Ocean’s Eleven team. I’m talking about the hero’s wife and children. From the beginning of the film, the wife is already dead so there is no chance to get to know her or see her interact in the present with the hero. What interaction they do have is tainted by the fact that she is morose, deadly and generally a real drag. Supposedly the hero is doing all this to get back with his kids, but again he has no personal interaction with them, except to see them as an unreachable image.

With such a weak goal – which propels a story forward - and such a strong ghost – which pulls a story back, the narrative drive of Inception must inevitably grind to a halt. And that’s just what it does. We get some beautiful, haunting imagery, but the final part of the film feels like a slow trek through a dream museum.

And that’s the negative side of making your story world the land of dreams. Stories about dreams are almost always less than meets the eye. They seem highly intelligent at first glance, because we are entering the realm of pure mind. But they are also as evanescent as a dream, made of elaborately detailed walls that are just fronts to the nothingness behind.

There is one final structure element that causes this visually stunning film to slow down and become less involving as it goes on. In the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class, I talk a lot about the moral argument found in all great storytelling. Knowing how to execute this crucial element is one of the marks of a professional writer. It’s the sequence under the surface that made the plot of The Dark Knight build in intensity and was the real key to the film becoming a cinematic masterpiece and blockbuster hit. The plot of The Dark Knight is built on a series of moral tests that The Joker throws at Batman. Each test is progressively bigger and more difficult than the one before, ending with the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma where the passengers of two ships must decide whether to blow up the other ship first.

Don’t think for a moment that moral argument is primarily designed to increase the intellectual quality of a film. It increases the emotional power of a story many times over, because the stakes now involve lots of other people and not simply the psychology of the hero.

In Inception, Nolan again infuses moral philosophy into the plot. In this case we’re dealing with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” literally applied to love (a technique normally used in the thriller genre). But Nolan’s understanding of this moral principle is much weaker than his thoughts about the savior in Dark Knight, and it’s not applied to the plot in as seamless or sequenced a way. Viewers come out of the film confused and think it’s their fault. They believe that this philosophical complexity is the mark of a brilliant filmmaker and far above their meager powers to understand, at least on one viewing. Wrong. Moral argument in story is very complex. Sometimes you nail it, and sometimes you just don’t.

Inception is well worth breaking down structurally to see a master of the screenplay form try something new and challenging. But don’t get caught on the dazzling surface. Look at how the writer’s original choices in combining genres and setting up the story gave him both strengths and weaknesses. The more you learn about the all-important connection between plot and character, intellect and emotion, the better writer you will be.