Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Three Act Structure of Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

I’m going to start my analysis of Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) by attempting to break down the three act structure. Though the story appears complex, it’s actually very linear (there’s a little flashforward to kick things off and several flashbacks, but otherwise it unfolds chronologically.) And there’s a clear main character – Cobb. However, there is one aspect that may not work in the traditional fashion – more on that in a minute.

Let’s start by identifying Cobb’s want and need. This is essentially a caper film so we would expect the want – the goal that is driving the plot – to be the successful accomplishment of the caper. And that’s what we have here. Cobb wants to “incept” or implant an idea in Fischer. You might remember that he’s doing this so he can get back to his kids, and therefore some might suggest that’s his want, but his kids are really the stakes. The story is about inception (it’s the title, after all). Whether he gets back to his kids will depend on the success or failure of the mission.

The need has to do with Mal. Ariadne says it halfway through the movie when she tells Cobb that in order to succeed he’s going to have to forgive himself and confront Mal. And in fact, Cobb articulates it at the moment he achieves his need in Act III, saying to Mal, “I need to let you go.” In this case, achieving the need is what will allow Cobb to successfully achieve his want.

So the Dramatic Question, then, is, “Can Cobb implant the idea into Fischer’s subconscious?” Pretty simple – it comes right from the want. Since the Catalyst is the point at which this question is asked, it’s pretty easy to identify it as the moment when Saito offers him the job and promises to return him to his kids if he succeeds. And if we define the Resolution as the answer to the question, then it’s obviously when Fischer takes the pinwheel from the safe, and they all wake up on the plane. Mission accomplished.

So far so good. And to me, those are the most important things to understand. They’re the definition of what the story is.

Inception is two hours and twenty minutes long, so we expect the timing of the beats to be slightly later than normal. (Personally, I don’t obsess about this timing, but many do.) And the Catalyst I identified comes at about fifteen minutes, right on schedule.

The Act One turning point is what I find most tricky about this film. Using a traditional definition, we find a likely candidate about forty-five minutes in: Cobb finishes assembling his team and they begin planning the caper. That works. He’s embarking on the journey, and with the longer running time it’s not too late. We could close the case there.

But there’s another interesting candidate. When Cobb and his team are getting on the plane, Cobb points out to Saito that if Saito doesn’t live up to his end of the bargain, then Cobb will go to jail when they land. Getting on the plane is the real point of no return for Cobb. That’s something we look for at the Act One Turning Point. But if you’re looking at the timing, it’s an hour into the movie – and an hour long Act One is highly unusual.

This is interesting enough that I think I may devote my next post to it entirely. But for now, let’s finish the breakdown using the first candidate for the Act One Turning Point.

As we approach the middle of the movie, the team has gathered in the warehouse on the first level of Fischer’s dream. Here, Saito’s been shot, and Cobb belatedly reveals that with the kind of sedation their using, death in these dreams will not wake them up. Plus, they realize that Fischer is better protected than they realized. These elements raise the stakes, a common function of the Midpoint.

Also at this point, they decide on a risky variation of their plan – the "Mister Charles" option. This throws a new twist into the proceedings. But the actual Midpoint is when they manage to get what they need from Fischer and can move on to the next phase. This occurs around 1:23, a little after the halfway point. Remember, if the hero will be successful, the Midpoint is usually a point of success.

I define the Act Two Turning Point as the moment where it looks like the ultimate Resolution cannot possibly happen. Since Cobb will be successful, the Act Two Turning Point is the moment of greatest failure. Here that would be when Fischer is killed by Mal. It appears that the mission is over – in fact a couple members of the team say just that. (This occurs at about 1:52, right where we expect.)

But then we get the Epiphany. Ariadne hatches the idea of going another layer deeper, into Limbo. There we have the final conflict where Cobb must face down Mal so they can rescue Fischer. And, as I’ve already covered, that leads us to the Resolution when they succeed.

Pretty simple, actually. All the parallel dream times and questions of reality have nothing to do with the structure. With a traditional three act base, enormous complexity can be built without losing the core of the story.

But then there’s that Act One question… I’ll delve into that more next time.


I now have a website and Facebook page for my short film!


James said...

I feel like it's insulting to screenwriters everywhere to claim Inception has only three acts, come on bro, that stone age screenwriting...even Shakespeare knew better than that

andrewbaker77 said...

To the writer, many thanks for your great insights, it helps me a bunch as I am writing a film along a similar path. And to the James commenter, learn how to be nicer, even to strangers who post on line, it will make your life better. - AB in Santa Barbara and Sabah Borneo

Doug Eboch said...

James, every one of Shakespeare's plays follows three act structure. You're confusing the technical act break of theater with structural act breaks. The words mean different things (like a "train" that travels on rails and "train" as in teaching someone). It's a common misconception.