Listen to the Inception Podcast:
Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan used the Story Maps method to structure the screenplay of Inception. If you analyze the narrative, you will see every one of the elements of the “Basic” and “Full” Story Map.
The most important element in the Inception screenplay is the GOAL of the protagonist, COBB, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is so important to this particular story that it covers up potentially problematic story decisions and inhabits three of the nine main dramatic elements in the Basic Story Map…
Cobb’s External Goal, Internal Goal AND his Character Arc is to reunite with his children. That’s it. The method by which he will accomplish this is the plot, which is held together by the 11 crucial story beats that make up the Beat Sheet in the Full Story Map. It is only by building and perfecting these elements ahead of time so that they all generate conflict, work within the “story logic” of the film and generate strong lines of action that the script and film succeed. This is why it is absolutely crucial that you write from a detailed, rock-solid outline. A great screenplay is a finely-tuned machine that must always MOVE FORWARD, so you cannot waste time by writing off the cuff, producing pages and pages of undisciplined scenes.
The first challenge of Inception is that much of the story takes place in the dream world, wherein the normal rules of physics do not apply and one cannot die but can merely get stuck for long periods of time. So not only must the writers define all the “rules” of this new world and create stakes and consequences so there is a real sense of danger, but since they chose to introduce the “big heist” plot at the Midpoint, halfway through the film, they must hold the audience’s interest up that point. It is Cobb’s goals and arc that hold us because he has gained our sympathy and rooting interest. We know that all of the sequences and set pieces leading up to the big mission are all leading in the same direction: for Cobb to reunite with his children.
The mission is launched by Saito (Ken Watanabe), who hires Cobb to plant an idea in the head of his rival. The reason why he wants this is explained very briefly (something to do with preventing an energy monopoly?), and only in dialogue (and a few paltry visual aids). So how do the writers get away with motivating the entire plot with only a few lines of dialogue spoken by a man who’s proven to be untrustworthy?
In short, because it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that Cobb gets his kids back. Saito is giving him the method to achieve this goal (In screenplay terms, the Story Engine. The Story Map defines a Story Engine for each of the four Acts.) and that’s all we care about. But this is only achieved because the writers have gained our Sympathy for Cobb.
Sympathy is crucial. I see too many scripts and movies these days in which we’re given no reason to like our hero. You can have an anti-hero if you’d like and they can do awful things, but they still need to be motivated by a moral core and probably should be pursuing a goal that we believe in. If their goal is a cynical one or to hurt someone else, it’s going to be tough for us to emotionally invest in them.
In Inception, Cobb’s goal for the Story Engine for Act Two-B is to brainwash a man he does not know, who in fact is dealing with a father on his deathbed. The obvious device to offset this would be to make the man, Robert Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy) an awful person; to show him willfully hurting an innocent. This is done in every revenge story ever told. But they don’t do that. Why? Say it with me now…
Because we know that the only way for Cobb to get back to his children is to plant the idea in Cillian Murphy’s subconscious. And that’s more important than some billionaire’s son’s hurt feelings and, you know, damaged brain or whatever.
So what’s standing in Cobb’s way?
Firstly, the most complicated dream mission ever attempted: navigating three levels of subconscious to pull off an inception, which has only been done once, by Cobb on his wife, MAL. Who also happens to inhabit another of the Basic Story Map elements: the Main Dramatic Conflict. Mal is the villain, the Antagonist. But she’s not a living person, only a subconscious projection of Mal. How to make a ghost (for lack of a better term) enough of an obstacle to threaten the entire mission? Firstly, they define a rule in which one can get trapped in the dream world for years, and secondly they show us previous scenes in which Mal ruins a “sub-mission” before we get to the big one. We know what she’s capable of.
But we still know that you can’t really die in a dream — the killing blow will provide a “kick” that bounces you out of the dream state.
So they built in the element of the sedative that is so strong that if they attempt to kick too soon, they may never wake up. And if the dreamer “host” gets stuck in time, they will all be stuck.
Following the rule of Escalating Conflict, what happens right away when the big mission starts? The one character who must make it back to consciousness to ensure that Cobb sees his kids, Saito, is shot and is bleeding to death, blocking their kick out of the dream and condemning them to years in limbo unless they can figure out a way out of this mess. In story terms, this adds a ticking time clock of urgency on top of the already urgent timeline of the mission. And to take it even further…the impossible three-level mission has now added a fourth level. This takes us into Act Three, which is actually the fourth Act in the Full Story Map since Act Two is separated into A and B.
Hold on, this is getting complicated, right? I’m not even sure if I’ve got it all straight! So let’s get back to Basics. I mean, Basic. Story Map. Which defines the Theme.
So what’s it all about? What are the writers saying? If you think about it, a film about what takes place in a man’s mind must touch on the Theme of identity, right? (I don’t know if this is the Controlling Theme, necessarily, but it is an important one)
Is Cobb a killer? Did he kill his wife? Can he actually pull off an inception?
This theme is no surprise, considering Christopher Nolan’s filmography…
- The central mystery is who is the identity of the killer? By the end we realize it’s really been about who is our protagonist?
- Is our protagonist a corrupt cop? Did he shoot his partner to cover up his crimes?
- Who is the real magician, Jackman or Bale?
- Who are the ‘clones’ of Jackman and Bale that allow them to achieve the “transporting man?”
- Can Bruce Wayne become Batman, a crusader for justice who will save Gotham City?
- Who is Rhas Al Ghul?
THE DARK KNIGHT:
- Is Bruce Wayne the same as Batman? Can he separate himself and give up the Batman persona?
(go here for more about the Story Map of The Dark Knight)
- Is Cobb ruled by his own guilt? Can he leave it behind, in essence escape Mal’s grasp and find redemption/become a new person?
Or maybe the question of identity goes like this: Has this ALL been Cobb’s dream? Has it all been a projection of his unconscious? There’s plenty of evidence to back this up in the film, but it’s never conclusively proven.
The most important thing, in terms of craft, is that Nolan builds these question/s of identity into the lines of action in each script. (A line of action is composed of the scenes that show a character actively pursue a goal) The complicated interweaving of plot lines, character arcs and thematic symbols is the signature of Nolan’s work.
All of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplays can be outlined with the screenplay structure method which I call Story Maps. Analyzing your favorite movies with this tool can show you how the magic is made on the page before it ever gets to the screen.
You can learn how to develop your own concept for a movie into a powerful narrative that employs the story structure used by 95% of modern movies and the form that I was looking for as a Senior Screenplay Analyst for commercial production companies and major studios that produced movies like Chicago, Scream, Gangs of New York, Chocolat, One Fine Day, The Game and Ulee’s Gold.
copyright (c) Daniel Calvisi
The E-Books Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay and Booster Pack #1 include Full Story Map analyses of 19 hit movies, primarily from the last decade.
These successful films are great examples of professional screenwriting in many different genres and budget levels aimed at varied audiences. I stand by each title as a strong example of its genre and as a primer to learn the screenwriting craft at the level that you need to be: the “submission ready” tier that makes a good script into a GREAT script.
Read more about the Booster Pack.
Purchase the Story Maps E-Book and the Booster Pack at a special bundled rate.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
Related: Free Full Story Map: The Dark Knight
Related: Free Story Map sample: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Related: Free Story Map sample: Sex and the City movie