What Writers Can Learn From Watching Inception

Inception is many things to many people: a straightforward thriller, a happy ending, a con-game on the lead character, a con-game on the audience, a metaphor for filmmaking –

But as with any dream, you can fall deeper.

Each new way of seeing the film is like one of the phantasmagoric layers in the film itself: go deeper and time distorts, and abstraction becomes the rule of the day.

Here’s an abstraction, then: Inception is a metaphor for storytelling.

To be frank, I’m not going to go chopping that apart to see all the fiddly bits, but what I do know is that Inception has a lot to teach writers and storytellers. I don’t mean that the way the film was written or made has lessons, though that’s likely true — no, what I mean to suggest is that the nature of Inception’s story, and in particular the rules about dreams and dream architecture, can help inform the way you tell stories.

So that’s what we’re doing here today.

You want to know what you, as a writer, as a storyteller, can learn from watching the tangled Gordian-knot-plot of the film unfold? Then read on.

(Light spoiler warnings, of course. Just about the rules and laws of the land.)

One: Convince Them That This Is Not A Dream

The first goal of the Cobb’s team in Inception is that they must convince the dreamer that this is not a dream. This, then, is your first goal as a storyteller: to convince the audience that it is not a story.

They must become lost in the world you build, in the tale you tell. An audience who is hyper-aware of the storyness of your story is then hyper-aware of all the mis-steps you make, of all of the paths you take, of all the predictions possible. The audience isn’t lost. You want them lost. You want them forgetting that what they’re doing is reading a book, watching a movie, playing a game.

How do you do that? Well, perhaps Inception tells us.

Two: Control The Audience With An Unseen Hand

Cobb knows the deal: to get what you want from the dream, you have to control the dreamer. It gets mixed up in terms of storytelling, but the gist remains the same: if the audience is going to get what they want from the story, then the storyteller must control the audience.

Cobb’s team members each possess a role, and in a way, you as storyteller must assume some of these roles, too. You create characters as The Forger. You create worlds as the Architect. As the Extractor, you go even deeper, creating themes and moods and meanings and metaphors — the Extractor’s job builds in those details that bind it all together. (I could even get goofy here and suggest that the Point Man and the Tourist are best represented by an agent and editor, respectively — but you could also argue that it’s your job to edit your own material as a stranger to it, as someone cautious and pragmatic.)

And you must do all this with an unseen hand.

The audience doesn’t want to know it’s being herded.

This is especially true of storytelling in game design: players must get from Point A to Point B, but they do not want to feel your hand urging them forth. And yet, that hand must be there. As they convince Fischer that the inception was his idea, not theirs, so you must convince the audience that what they get from it is born from their own minds, not from yours. They go to Point B by their own inclination… or so they think.

Three: Remember, The Subconscious Fills In Details

My favorite of all the rules is this one, because it allows you as the storyteller to relax, to let go of control. In Inception, they build dream-worlds, but they do not populate those worlds with details they don’t need, and the reason they do this is because the dreamer brings a boatload of that to the table.

Same thing works with storytelling.

You do not need to describe everything.

What you do not bring, the reader will.

The reader will envision the crowds if you tell them they are there. The reader will envision the flowers on the table, the fixtures on the wall, the plane flying overhead.

Your job is only to provide those most critical details, those details that are crucial to the con or key to the theme or mood — let the audience do the heavy lifting. They will. They want to.

Hell, they need to. We see patterns where they do not exist. We fill in gaps with details. It’s part of our nature as human beings. You, as storyteller, can use this. Let the audience mind the gap.

Four: Beware — The Projections Will Rebel

In the film, if you violate the dream, the dreamer — via his subconscious projections — becomes aware of the false nature and slowly rebels. The projections amass, violent and mindless as a horde of zombies.

Once more, a lesson to be learned for the storyteller: if your architecture is false, if you break the rules and conventions you’ve put into place, if you change too much (a character no longer acts like a character, for instance), then the audience becomes aware of your callous storytelling machinations — they see the pulleys and curtains and Deus Ex Machinas descending from ropes. This too speaks very much to the need for authenticity: authenticity to the genre, to your own rules, to your own story, characters, to your own voice. Betray that authenticity and you betray the audience.

And when this happens, the audience rebels.

Worst case scenario, they rebel by turning off the movie, quitting the game, or putting the book down on the nightstand — never again picking it up.

Five: The Truth About Inception Is An Old Law, Indeed

An inception only works if you convince the dreamer it was his own idea. And the way you do this is by trickery, and that trickery means you orchestrate a con around the target. In storytelling terms, this moves into familiar advice: show, don’t tell. You cannot tell the dreamer the idea of inception and have it take hold: but if you show them a path and let them take it, the idea becomes their own and then like a plant it grows roots. (Deep roots, if you’re a truly gifted storyteller.)

It’s critical advice for storytelling: you tell the audience something, they’re aware that it amounts to instructions, and the audience isn’t fond of instructions. Think of every reader, player, and watcher as someone suffering from Oppositional Defiant Disorder: they buck authority and don’t like being told what to do. And so the best storytellers show: they paint the picture with a distant hand.

Too many writers tell us things. It feels false. It feels forever like their idea, not yours.

But let the audience own the idea, and now your story is their story.

(That, too, is a good lesson for game design and transmedia experiences — show them the way, but do not tell it to them. Allow them to claim ownership over the story and the world.)

Six: Find Your Minotaur In The Maze

Final lesson:

We all have a Mal in the dream, a minotaur in the maze.

Meaning, we each have demons that haunt the halls of our storytelling architecture — sometimes we can turn these demons to good use, especially if they are demons made of our own fears and foibles. Because we as writers can use our fears and frailties and make something powerful of them. But sometimes the demons are not so useful: they are our crutches, our darlings, our worst inclinations during the telling of a story. They are demons of over-confidence and laziness, of stung ego and damaged esteem.

The one thing that is certain is that, like with Cobb in Inception, we better become aware of our maze-bound minotaurs lest we keep running into them again and again without warning or understanding. Every time we write we will fall into the same traps because we are not self-aware. But once we see the nature of what lurks in our story-built buildings and what walks our narrative alleys, we can deal with it.

We can either use it by turning it to our benefit.

Or we can kill the beast by running a sword through its heart.


  • A lot of stories – my novel included – fall into the Joseph Campbell category of guiding the hero (and thus the reader) from A to B to C in terms of their development. On the surface, that’s kinda boring.

    If you do it well, though, if you build the dream well enough, forge the right simulacra and extract the right mood and feelings from the reader, it won’t feel like the same kind of hero’s journey they’ve experienced before. It’ll feel new and different. They’ll finish the story, want to read more, and tell their friends.

  • Cogent analysis, Chuck. INCEPTION isn’t just a fiction about a con, it’s a fiction about fiction. Meta-meta-fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is very much how Nolan himself conceptualizes the story.

    Of course, I loved it for the hotel hallway fight :)


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