About Other Stories · About Writing

Inception’s Lesson for Novelists

Today, I’d like to share an analysis of the movie Inception that I posted on my original blog in December 2013. I’ve made some minor corrections, but otherwise, this is the same as it was then.

Inception poster: Four men and one woman with guns standing around on a road that's weirdly folded

A common theory states that the popular movie Inception, directed, written, and produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (plus half the cast of the Dark Knight trilogy), is in fact Nolan’s metaphor for film-making. If you haven’t seen Inception, I recommend you stop reading now and go watch it a) because there are tons of spoilers in this post and b) because it’s one of my favorite movies and thus you must watch it.

Basically, Inception is a science fiction movie about an “extractor” who gets into dreams to steal ideas/secrets/information. He’s been separated from his family because of this ability and is now doing it illegally. In Inception, he’s given the task to instead implant an idea, which is considered impossible, and is told that in return for completing the mission he will be allowed to return home.

If you want to know more about the film-making theory, here’s one article about it. As I said, it’s very commonly accepted. What I’m going to talk about today is a slightly altered angle on the topic. Because the arts are so intermingled, I think it is very possible to make a case that Inception is also about writing. Here’s how it reflects the process of writing a novel.

WHAT THE CHARACTERS’ ROLES ARE

In the film-making theory, each character has a specific part to play that relates directly to the roles of film-making. Because novel-writing is a slightly more solitary task, many of these characters can be combined to represent different personas that the author takes on in order to build the perfect story.

The main character, Dominick Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio, is said to reflect Nolan himself, i.e., the producer. In terms of the writing metaphor, Cobb thus represents the core author persona. Cobb is the leader of extraction missions and of the inception. As stated in the above-linked article, “Cobb can literally create a whole new world. Not only does he determine how he wants his target to feel, not only does he invent a story to inspire these feeling, but he also supervises the creation of an environment… in which his story will unfold.” 

Dominick Cobb

Cobb has many qualities of the stereotypical author. He has a tough life and an even worse past, which is common among artists. He struggles often with what’s real and what isn’t, which is a theme I’ll address later on. He is, in the end, alone and suffering. He makes the hardest decisions and deals with the most heartbreak of all the characters in the movie because he’s the one with the strength to do it. 

Arthur

In the film-making metaphor, Cobb’s right-hand man, Arthur, played by Joseph Gordan-Levitt, stands in for the writer/director. In this metaphor, he is merely a different side of the author. Arthur is the most practical and logical member of the extraction team, focused on how to best put the scenarios presented by Cobb into effect. He balances Cobb’s more wildly human, passionate, and conflicted nature with clean-cut decisions. Arthur also has a bit of a critical and sarcastic edge. 

As such, Arthur is the editor persona, the side of the author that balances and counteracts the other personas by presenting logic that organizes Cobb’s ideas and by questioning anything that Cobb is starting to run too far with. This persona creates the parameters of the story and works to keep those parameters running.

Ariadne, played by Elliot Page, is often overlooked in the film-making theory. Fans argue over whether she represents the writer or the production designer, all the while failing to see her most key role in the movie. Yes, she was brought into the extraction team to design and build the setting of the dreams, but this is not the reason she features so predominantly in the story. Her job did not require her to enter the inception. She chose to enter it because she alone knew what Cobb was facing and she needed to be there to help him deal with his emotions while protecting the rest of the team from the dangers his subconscious presented.

Ariadne

Thus, Ariadne is the final member of the author’s triad of psyches, the counselor persona. This side of the author contrasts the editor persona by working with the author’s emotions and the deeper meanings that they bring into the story, where the editor persona would overlook or shut those feelings down. The counselor persona helps the author overcome their personal problems while protecting the core of the story itself. The name “Ariadne” originates from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Ariadne is a princess who guides Theseus out of the Labyrinth. The counselor persona (and this Inception character) fits this exactly, pulling the author through the twists and turns of their story in order to reach the purest truth at the end.

Besides the core three, there are three other members of the extraction team, plus one important character outside the team.

Saito

First, there is Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, the man who requests the inception in the first place. Saito provides the money and the proper incentive for Cobb. In the film-making theory, he represents the studio executive, who pays for the creation of the movie. In the novel-writing theory, he instead represents the publisher, who grants the author the chance to do something real with their work, something that will give them the creative catharsis they desire, in return for what the publisher wants, which is business success. 

Eames, played by Tom Hardy, is a forger brought into the inception in order to pretend to be the subject’s godfather. This trick is used to implant the idea in the most vulnerable place of the subject’s mind. In the film-making theory, he is the actorin novel-writing, he is the basic frame of the main character. Notably, as the inception progresses, Eames no longer has to act as the subject’s godfather. The godfather begins appearing himself as a separate identity in the dream, a reflection of the subject’s own mind. This represents one of the most important parts of writing: the ideal character, after being created, takes on a life of their own and begins making decisions that the author leads them into but cannot and should not control.

Eames
Yusuf

The final member of the team, Yusuf, played by Dileep Rao, is also much debated in terms of the film-making theory. He’s a bumbling side character brought onto the team partially because they needed an extra hand to hold the inception in place, but predominantly because he created a sedative that keeps the subject locked into the near-impossible three-layer dream. Most people have concluded he represents special effects or perhaps production design, and while that might be true, I see him as actually an abstract conceptsuspension of belief, the phenomenon that allows readers to enter a story where impossible things happen and believe in those things for the sake of the story.

The final character to examine is the subject of the inception, Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy. Saito seeks out Cobb because he needs Fischer to come to a momentous business decision. The purpose of the inception is to implant the idea in Fischer’s head in a way that will make it truly take. Fischer thus, very obviously, represents the audience. Fan theorists note that the way Cobb’s attitude towards Fischer changes throughout the movie, from impersonality to actual understanding and even empathy, reflects how the producer/author, views the audience as time passes in the artistic process.

Robert Fischer

WHAT THE MOVIE’S PLOT TEACHES US

Inception begins rather confusingly with an old man and guns and Leo DiCaprio on a beach. This scene does not make sense until much later, but it’s presented first as a hearkening to the “dream within a dream” concept of the entire inception, showing how fine the line can be between reality and fantasy.

Then we move back to the actual beginning, where Arthur and Cobb are working to steal information from Saito’s mind. One of their team members fails them, and a woman named Mal shows up to betray Cobb. Because of this, Cobb and Arthur fail to acquire the information. However, Saito has in fact been auditioning them. He presents his offer: if Cobb can create the inception to convince Fischer to break up his dying father’s company, Saito will give Cobb the option to go home again.

It has been pointed out by theorists that home represents not just the producer’s personal life, but also his creative fulfillment. Though at the beginning we don’t know what it is that’s keeping Cobb from home, it’s fairly clear it has something to do with his work. This point will be discussed more later.

Cobb assembles a new team, keeping Arthur by his side and recruiting important characters like Ariadne. Through Ariadne’s lessons, we learn about how the extractions work and about the mechanics of dream-building. One important fact is that the dreams built by the extractors are filled by people created by the subject’s subconscious. This is a reflection on how readers play a large part in the interpretation of a story.

Another subject of interest appears after Ariadne builds a bridge in the dream taken directly from her own memory. Here, Cobb warns Ariadne not to use full scenes from her life, only pieces. This is a very important issue in writing as well. The author cannot help but include their experiences in their writing, but this must be done subtly or the story will fail. Soon after this, Ariadne goes too far in changing the setting of the dream, and the subconsciously created people attack her. This is a further statement on suspension of disbelief. If you take it too far, the reader’s mind will turn on the author. 

Inception poster featuring the team on collapsing city streets

Ariadne also creates for herself a totem, which is a unique object that tells her whether she’s in a dream or not. The totem is an important motif in Inception. It further centers the idea of reality vs. fantasy, that the author must work to stay aware of the lines between their real life and the story they are creating. Also of note is that the only three totems we actually see are the ones that belong to the main trio of the author’s psyche: Cobb, Arthur, and Ariadne; the top, the die, and the chess piece.

One more fact we learn from Ariadne’s training is that time in a dream moves more quickly. This is true as well for stories, which can span across years of time while in real life, only hours have passed. (It also takes way longer to create a novel than it does to read it, as you’ll know if you have any idea of the publishing process.)

At this point, the team begins planning the inception. It’s pointed out that the only way to make the idea legitimately take is to make Fischer believe it’s his own. In order to do this, they have to go to the heart and seek out a way to affect his emotions. Cobb insists that positive emotion, some sort of catharsis in the strained relationship between Fischer and his dying father, is the best way to do this, a point that might be argued. But people do love a happy ending.

As time passes, Ariadne grows more and more curious about Cobb’s subconscious. She’s seen Mal once already and finds the situation worrisome. So she connects herself into Cobb’s dreams, which are actually comprised of a series of moments that he regrets. In this, Ariadne learns of Cobb’s dark past: how Mal, his wife, went mad and killed herself, leaving behind evidence that Cobb had murdered her and forcing him to leave his children behind. Since then, Cobb’s personal life has intruded on his work, causing havoc. Horrified, Ariadne insists that she accompany the team into the inception in order to protect everyone from Cobb’s mind.

When Fischer’s father dies, Saito arranges for the team to be taken to the place of Fischer’s father’s funeral. They sedate Fischer and go into the first layer of the dream. Here, they kidnap Fischer, but during the process, Cobb’s subconscious creates a train where it shouldn’t. The team is then attacked by Fischer’s subconscious, which has been trained to recognize intruders. This, as has been pointed out by others, is a commentary on how audiences today are more aware of the media and harder to hold in a suspension of disbeliefSaito, who insisted upon coming into the inception, is shot and badly wounded. Normally, if you’re killed in a dream, you wake up, but because of the sedation they’re using, the dreamer will instead become trapped in Limbo, deep unconstructed dream space. The fact that Saito is placed in danger after having forced his way into the inception is said to mean that higher-up business people (like studio executives or publishing companies) shouldn’t risk interfering with the creative process.

With this urgent problem, the inception is forced into double-time. Eames, disguised as Fischer’s trusted godfather, Robert Browning, pretends that the kidnappers are torturing him because they want the code to Fischer’s father’s safe, in which there is a new will that would split up the company. This is where the first part of the idea is planted: that Fischer’s father doesn’t want Fischer to keep the company intact. Fischer indicates at this point that he believes his father was disappointed in him. In order to appease the “kidnappers,” however, he gives the team a random set of numbers.

At this point, the team places Fischer in a car and begin driving towards a bridge. While Yusuf drives, the rest of the team takes Fischer down into the second dream level, where time moves still slower. In this level, Cobb reveals to Fischer that they are in a dream, but places himself in the role of a trusted representative from Fischer’s subconscious. This speaks again of the growing complexity of creating fictional worlds in a culture that fights suspension of disbelief. The author must convince the reader that they are only reflecting the psyche of the reader, not working towards another motive. 

Cobb leads Fischer back to his team, and they set up in a hotel room, at which point Robert Browning appears, no longer played by Eames but now created by Fischer’s own mind. The new twist is that Browning was in fact working with the kidnappers to gain the code so that he could hide the will. Browning states that he didn’t want Fischer to rise to his father’s “last taunt”, but Cobb says that Fischer is lying.

Inception poster featuring Cobb standing in water on city streets

The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Here, the team splits up to enter a fortress in a snowy mountain area where, supposedly, Browning is keeping the secret Fischer needs to find. In the midst of this, however, things go wrong again, and the “kick” meant to wake them up goes off too early. The team makes a decision to try to hit the next kick, and Arthur, on the second level, constructs a new kick of his own using an elevator. The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Fischer and the team cut through the fortress, but then Mal appears and kills Fischer, sending him down into Limbo.

As Cobb and Ariadne arrive, Saito also dies, and they realize they have to enter Limbo in order to save both Fischer and Saito. As they do so, Cobb reveals more of his own past. Before Mal had killed herself, she and Cobb had entered Limbo, spending almost a lifetime there building a fantasy world. They had killed themselves finally in order to leave Limbo, but Mal, still believing they were in their dreams, had killed herself again to get back to “reality.” The evidence she’d left against Cobb was designed to make him join her, a trick which failed but forced him into illegal operations away from home.

Cobb and Ariadne find Fischer being held captive by Mal in a home Cobb and Mal built, and the final confrontation occurs. Cobb finally admits that he is the reason that Mal killed herself. Mal wanted to stay in Limbo, believing it to be real, and Cobb performed an inception to make her realize it wasn’t. But when they came back to reality, the idea was still there, and it drove Mal to madness. The theme behind this is fairly clear: ideas are incredibly powerful and can thus be dangerous. 

Cobb orders Ariadne to escape Limbo with Fischer when the kick comes and tells her that he is done being haunted by Mal. He will seek out Saito and find a way for them to both return to reality. So Ariadne kills herself, Mal, and Fischer and returns with Fischer to the third dream level.

On that level, Fischer faces a wall with a key code. He enters the code he spoke in the first dream level, and it opens to reveal his dying father. As Ariadne watches, Fischer speaks with his father, who says that he is disappointed, not because Fischer wasn’t like him, but because Fischer was trying to be. This implants the final part of the idea, that Fischer’s own father wants him to break up the company and make his own way in the world. The final kicks go off, and most of the group wakes up. 

We return then to the first scene, where Cobb confronts an aged Saito in Limbo, asking him to take a leap of faith and come with him back to reality. Saito agrees, and he and Cobb awake on the plane a bit later than the others. Cobb goes through the airport into America and returns home at last. He begin spinning his totem top, but then his children cry out in joy, and he runs to them, leaving the top spinning on the table. The ending throws a lot of people off because it leaves the question open as to whether Cobb is actually in reality or not. The point, as other theorists have remarked, isn’t whether it’s real or not; it’s that Cobb doesn’t stay to see. He no longer cares. The catharsis that occurs in the dream is real, even if the dream wasn’t, and that’s all that matters now. 

(I would like, however, to affirm another fan theory: some people have pointed out that the top couldn’t have been Cobb’s totem because it started out as Mal’s. They note that his wedding band appears in scenes where he’s dreaming and is gone in reality. In the last scene, the wedding band isn’t there. So the ring is his actual totem, and in the end, he is really back home. It’s a helpful note for people who need something more definite, LOL.)

WHAT MAL REPRESENTS

Mal

In that analysis, you may have noticed that I skipped around the more personal conflict, where Mal appears from Cobb’s subconscious and causes chaos and death as Cobb struggles to confront her. Let’s talk about that now!

As I said before, Cobb’s home represents creative fulfillment. If that’s so, then what does Mal represent in her constant thwarting of this goal? Well, in another article, the author proposes that Mal represents the Muse. The conflict forces Cobb to choose between Mal and Fischer, or the Muse and the audience. In other words, the producer must choose between his own personal vision, directed by the Muse, and the effect the story actually has on the audience. While this isn’t a bad theory in terms of film-making, I have a slightly different (but compatible) view.

I believe that Mal represents Cobb’s personal life. A huge issue throughout the movie, and not just with Mal, is that Cobb’s subconscious keeps leaking into the dream. Basically, he struggles to keep his personal life from destroying the story. When you’re writing a novel, it is hard to find the right balance with how much of your own emotional experience to put into it. The line is thin between a good story that uses deep truth bolstered by personal feeling to affect readers and a desperate novel-writing therapy exercise where the author tries to fix everything in their life by “escaping” from reality. I know because I’ve struggled with it when writing many of my books. It’s not wrong to cope with your personal problems through writing–that’s a lot of what you’re there to do, hence the importance of the counselor persona–but for the sake of good storytelling, you have to focus on the book, not what’s happening in your own life. You have to pick Fischer over Mal, Saito over Mal, home over Mal.

At the beginning of the movie, Cobb has let his personal life take over too much and has thereby lost his creative fulfillment. The only way to get it back is to get over Mal and focus instead on completing the inception. That is the central meaning of this movie. It’s the truth for which Inception itself became an inception in our lives.

Images via IMDB.

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