Monday, July 26, 2010

What KIND of movie is it? and other notes about INCEPTION

Now this will be a quick post, but I saw INCEPTION last night and wanted to make a couple of comments – without discussing in-depth until more people have seen it.

The movie is a great one to see not just because anything Christopher Nolan does is worth seeing, but also because it illustrates how useful it is to watch movies and read books with story structures specific to what you’re writing yourself. There are two things especially I wanted to suggest you guys keep in mind when you see it.

First of all – the movie is about the nature of dreams, sure, but while you’re watching it, ask yourself – “What KIND of story is it? (See here if you don't know what I'm talking about). It’s a very specific sub-genre that Nolan uses to tell this story, and all the conventions of that genre are used and laid out very -conventionally. Instead of giving you the answer, though, I think I’ll let you see it and tell me.

Also, the movie is interesting structurally because it uses a convention we haven’t talked about yet – a Point Of View character. Even though DiCaprio is the protagonist, we maintain a certain distance from him because he is so unreliable. So there is also a character who carries the emotional investment of the audience – a character who observes DiCaprio, worries about his mental state, and steps in at a crucial moment with a plan of her own. Ooops, there, I gave it away, but it’s not really a spoiler – I just wanted to mention that Ellen Page is serving as the point of view character, and you can see how that works. (Actually I think the Ellen Page character is a very weak character, and it’s a weak performance, but the presence of that character as written still works to build suspense about DiCaprio as a dangerous character, unsuited to do the job he’s supposed to be doing.).

Another good example of a point of view character is the Linda Hunt character, Mel Gibson's little person guide, in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY.

This is a storytelling trick used when you want to build in a whole other layer to your protagonist, and observe her or him as a character instead of simply being inside the character as a vehicle for your experience of the story. Often this character will actually BE the protagonist, the one with the biggest emotional arc.

Also, this is a great movie to watch for the outlining of the PLAN.

And oh, all right - what class MYTHS do you see working in this one? (One too easy for words, but not ALL on the nose...)

I’ll develop this into a bigger discussion some time, but can you think of other examples of a Point Of View character?

And yes, I want to hear what KIND of story you think INCEPTION is!

- Alex


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Taryn said...

And one of the most famous POV characters, Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby, through whose eyes we learn who Gatsby is... and isn't.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Absolutely, Taryn! There are some very famous other literary examples, for those of you thinking about it...

And it always seems that it's movies with literary aspirations which adopt this trick.

Anonymous said...

It's too early and I'm too tired, but of the Thirty-Six, right smack (close to) the top of the list is "Deliverance," which fits nicely as a Dramatic Situation.

Scott Michael said...

It's been said that Ellen Page's character is mostly there for exposition, something the film never ran short of...

How many folks do you think correctly understood the ending and the significance of the eternally spinning top? My guess is 50-50.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

-----BIG SPOILER------

Hmm, I think the intended mindfuck of the end is that the top starts to topple - maybe - before the cut to black. A Fatal Attraction kind of straddling...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Synapse, it's true, it's a Deliverance plot, but even saying that makes me realize why Polti's breakdowns alone don't ever do it for me.

"Deliverance" doesn't really tell me anything.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,


I'd say INCEPTION is an espionage thriller though it could also be looked at as an inverse Bankjob/Big Heist, if that's not a sub-genre I've just made up out of thin air.

I'm glad to see you mentioned the POV character in INCEPTION as being weak. My main problem with the film is that I loved the structure and the concepts but I thought a number of the relationships and characters lacked emotive immediacy and clarity. I felt distanced from events as a result and that killed a lot of the intended suspense and tension for me. On the other hand, I may just be an awkward and difficult-to-please movie-goer ;-)

I am guessing the obvious myth is Theseus and the Labyrinth. I could also see elements of the battle between Perseus and Medusa showing in the relationship between Cobb and the 'reflection' of Mal.


Anonymous said...

I despised Inception for numerous reasons, but addressing points made in your post, Ariadne is an Exposition Magnet. She IS the audience. POV characters treat the viewer as ignorant. She is not there to reveal another layer of the unreliable Cobb. It's lazy storytelling and gimmicky attempting to present itself as intelligent and deep. The only character worth giving a crap about is Fischer as the "voices" of all the rest are completely interchangeable. I suggest watching "Primer" again to any and all if you're looking for deep and smart.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...


"An inverse Bankjob/Big Heist"

I like it. "Caper" would also work.

Yeah, Theseus. I cringed that her name was Ariadne.

Hmm, Medea. I was kind of afraid of that end, actually, but didn't care enough to be really afraid, plus it's still Hollywood. No child killing!

Also Orpheus.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...


Actually the only ones I cared about were JG Leavitt and Tom Hardy but even they were more in an eye candy way than anything else.

Alexander said...

I really thought the movie suffered from a serious inability to "suspend disbelief." It's a problem I experienced in writing memoir, when I tried to write about LSD experiences or dreams that were important to me - since readers/viewers know none of it is "real" even within the fictional world, it's hard to care (i.e stakes equal zero).

Bobby Mangahas said...

I haven't seen INCEPTION yet, but another film that is a great example of this (and funny enough also a Christopher Nolan Film) was MEMENTO. In it, it's hard to really rely on Leonard's POV because of his inability to form any new memories.

Jake Nantz said...

I immediately thought of "Caper" as the "what kind is it" label, but that's just me. As far as a character through whom we view the arc of the "true" protagonist, what about Scent of a Woman? The Charlie Simms character is struggling with what to do, morally, but in the end he sticks to the same principles he's had all along. It's the Colonel Slade character that experiences an arc, and we view it through Charlie's eyes.

ssas said...

My WIP was one POV until I had a suggestion to expand it. Now it's 4 POVs and I'm told it's a much richer story for it. The main character is still the protag, but seeing him from many angles really fleshed him out.

I thought it was mostly a heist thriller. My genre is SF/F, so the dreaming bit felt like more of a vehicle than the focus.

Paula R said...

Hi Alex, it was great meeting you at Nationals last week. I started reading Book of Shadows and I am hooked.

Your post here is very helpful as well. I know I will be using it as a reference as I write. The workshop was great, but I hope to take a longer one with you again in the future. Will you be offering the online class again? I still haven't seen Inception yet, but I really want to. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Thanks for all the wonderful stories.

Peace and love,
Paula R.