Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Building Suspense in Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

I think suspense is probably the most powerful tool we have as filmmakers. It draws the audience into the story and ratchets up their anxiety, setting up a cathartic release. I’m going to conclude my in-depth look at Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) by looking at the techniques the film uses to build suspense in the dream caper (roughly the second half of the film).

At its most basic, suspense is created when we tell the audience something bad will happen if a character can’t accomplish a certain task. Suspense builds as the audience awaits the outcome. Hope and fear are crucial to suspense – we must give the audience something specific to hope for and something specific to fear.

And the best suspense builds in intensity. We achieve this by throwing increasingly difficult obstacles in the way of the character’s success. At the start of the mission in Inception, the characters have carefully laid plans and are reasonably confident they can pull them off. We hope for their success. But very quickly things go wrong – they discover Fischer has dream defenses they didn’t know about. Next Cobb reveals that, with the sedation they’re using, dying in the dream sends them to Limbo instead of waking them up. This immediately raises the stakes and gives us something specific to fear.

Then we have to tighten the screws, making the characters more desperate. One of the most powerful tools to do this is the ticking clock. When you put a time limit on your characters, any obstacle that slows them down increases our fear they might fail. The most cliché example of a ticking clock is the timer on a bomb ticking down as the hero races to defuse it.

Inception creates an overall ticking clock for the mission with the “kick” that wakes them all simultaneously. The team gets spread out across three dreams and have to complete their various tasks before the kick pulls them out. The tension is increased when the time gets truncated – Yusuf can’t wait as long as he should to activate the kick, and Saito has been shot, providing another ticking clock: they must finish the mission before he dies.

The team uses a song as a countdown to the kick, allowing them (and us) to track its approach. Of course the team misses the first kick, but fortunately they have a back-up – when the van hits the water. Cutting to the falling van provides a gauge for how much time is passing until this last, final chance at success. Any time limit serves as a ticking clock, but you have to find a way to show the audience how much time is left. In the case of Saito, we track his deteriorating health.

With these “clocks” counting down, various obstacles are thrown in the characters’ path. For example, Yusuf is being pursued by gunmen. The team needs to improvise in the second level with the Mr. Charles gambit. And after the others head to the third dream level, Arthur has to keep some security guys from getting to the hotel room.

And of course the biggest obstacle comes when Mal shows up at the medical complex and Cobb can’t shoot her. As a result, Mal kills Fischer, sending him to Limbo. Ariadne then hatches a plan to retrieve Fischer, but there is barely enough time left to pull it off. Tension is at its peak.

Individual scenes have their own arcs of suspense. For example, in The Mr. Charles scene, suspense is built over whether Fischer will trust Cobb. If he doesn’t, the background characters will tear the intruders apart. As the scene progresses, the background characters get more and more suspicious and aggressive (providing a ticking clock for this scene) as Cobb tries to win over Fischer. And there’s a twist when Fischer considers killing himself to “wake up.”

Looking at Inception, it may seem easy to build suspense. And, in fact, it’s actually not that difficult. But I read a lot of scripts that fail to exploit these techniques. It’s not hard, but you have to actually do it!

Consider whatever story you’re currently working on – is there a ticking clock? If not, can you add one? If so, are you tracking it clearly? Is it clear what we’re supposed to hope for, what we’re supposed to fear? Are you throwing enough obstacles at the characters? Can you add any twists that increase the stakes or reduce the time available?

If we’re going to improve our writing, it’s not enough to figure out how a film like Inception does what it does, we have to apply what we learn to our own scripts.


In other news, I have launched a Kickstarter campaign for my short film MICROBE. Please take a look and consider whether you’d be willing to contribute. Every bit helps, and we have some pretty nifty rewards for contributors, including access to an extensive behind the scenes website. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1470121165/microbe

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inception vs. Prometheus – Ambiguity vs. Confusion

(SPOILERS: Inception, Prometheus)

There’s a saying in filmmaking: ambiguity is good, confusion is bad. The meaning of this might seem obvious, but I’ve had difficulty explaining the difference when trying to help a student with a confusing script. I recently saw Prometheus (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) and found it a horribly confusing mess. And since I’ve been breaking down Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), famous for its ambiguous ending, I thought comparing the two would be a good illustration of the difference between confusion and ambiguity.

Clearly the makers of Prometheus intend to raise some questions that won’t be answered. That’s okay – that’s ambiguity. But there are also some flat out logic holes in the movie.

For example, why is the medical bed in Vickers chamber only calibrated for men? I’ve heard people suggest this is a clue that Vickers is a robot (or more comically, a hermaphrodite). Even so, if she brought the med-bed then it should be useful to her, which really invalidates both those suggestions. And she’s also not the only female crewmember… does she consider all women expendable? Not likely. More likely the writers simply thought this would make the scene more dramatic and didn’t consider the logic implications.

A sampling of other logic problems in the movie: If the Engineers created all life on Earth, and this is why we share their DNA, why is the DNA of all other life on Earth different? Why would the Engineers leave a map on Earth to their weapons facility (instead of, say, their home planet)? Why did Weyland pretend to be dead?

Those are flat out logic holes, but more common in Prometheus are characters behaving in extremely unlikely and stupid ways. For example, two scientists get lost in the alien base. Despite the fact that they are being tracked on a big 3D map in the ship. And they have radios.

Now, I suppose the captain and Vickers could be so incredibly incompetent they don’t noticed two of the crew they’re supposed to be tracking got left behind. And the other crewmembers are all too clueless to notice that none of the vehicle have been taken from the alien base. And maybe it doesn’t occur to these two scared, lost guys to radio and ask for directions. But that’s all pretty unlikely.

The first problem here is that when the basic plot beats and character motivations don’t make sense, I’m left wondering about things like why didn’t Shaw tell anybody she left a living alien baby in the escape pod when I should be left contemplating the nature and origin of humanity. I never get to the big questions because I’m too busy trying to figure out the pointless ones.

The second problem is that when a movie does dumb things like these, it’s hard for me to give credit to anything in it. If I’m to contemplate bigger mysteries, I have to believe everything in the movie is there for a good reason. If it’s possible the filmmakers just screwed up, that becomes the answer to every question. Some of the big questions in Prometheus are certainly intentional, but some are probably just places the filmmakers made a mistake. It’s hard to know the difference. In Inception, even if I can’t quite figure out what’s going on, I have faith that Christopher Nolan knows what he’s doing.

Inception may not bring up a lot of complex questions, but it does leave us with one doozy – is this all a dream? Now on the one hand, this is simply an unanswered plot question (though, crucially, it’s not a logic flaw because either answer would make sense). But it also brings up the thematic point of the film: how do we know if what we’re experiencing is real? What is reality? And the reason that ambiguity is so compelling is because the question is so clearly intentional.

So how do you avoid the kind of confusion found in Prometheus? First, make sure that everything that you don’t want to be ambiguous is perfectly clear. Earn the audience’s trust through rigorous plot logic and believable character behavior. Make sure the questions you’re not answering are clearly intended to be not answered.

Another little way to earn audience trust is by planting something early in the film and paying it off fairly quickly. And bring up a few questions and answer them early in the film. Show the audience that when something is on screen, you mean for it to be there.

The truth is most movies have a few small logic holes, but in the good movies we don’t notice. The industry mantra is, “if they notice that you’ve got bigger problems.” A good example from Prometheus is when people ask how the alien in the escape pod grew so big with no source of food.

It is a logic hole, but it’s one that was also in the first Alien movie (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) – and I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. That’s because we’re caught up in the story. But apparently Prometheus has bigger problems because people noticed. And I think one of the big differences is that in Alien the overall plot makes sense and all the characters behave in rational ways. But in Prometheus, once the audience starts to get confused, they notice every flaw.

So let me try to reduce these to simple definitions of the terms for screenwriters:

Confusion occurs when the film has conflicting plot information or inexplicable character behavior that does not ask a philosophical question.

Ambiguity occurs when the film clearly asks but does not answer a philosophical question.

I do have to give Prometheus some credit – everyone is talking about it. And how many movies do that? For that reason alone perhaps it’s a valuable film. But it’s certainly not a well-written one.

(By the way, if you’re a Twitter user, my handle is @dougeboch)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Elements of the Future in Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

There’s a collection of screenwriting concepts I gather under the heading “Elements of the Future.” It essentially encompasses those things we put in a scene to set up something later in the script. As I mentioned last time, Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) keeps us involved in complex plotting by creating a strong through-line. And it keeps us focused on the through-line with these elements of the future. So let’s look at how the movie uses some of those elements.


Advertising is when you tell the audience about something that’s going to happen or is at least possibly going to happen. It serves two purposes: giving the audience something to look forward to, and setting expectations about upcoming events.

One of the biggest things advertised in Inception is the mission itself. Early in the movie Cobb accepts the job that is the core of the movie. From there on, the audience is looking forward to seeing how that job comes out. That stays in the back of our mind through the training and character and planning scenes. We know this is all going somewhere – the infiltration of Fischer’s dream.

Another smart use of advertising in Inception comes when characters talk about how inception is “impossible” or at least very, very difficult. Cobb is in the business of infiltrating dreams, but we’re told that this job is a much bigger challenge than anything he’s done before.

This justifies why the movie is focused on this particular mission and builds suspense. If inception had been common in the story world, the movie would be a lot less exciting. If you’re doing a story with a caper like this you want to explain why this specific caper is the biggest the character has ever undertaken (this is true of sports movies too – why is the last game/match bigger than all the others?)

There’s also a lot of advertising of Mal – discussions where various characters talk about her and the potential damage she could do on the mission. Just one example is when Arthurs says, “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” after the opening extraction gig. And of course Ariadne frequently expresses her concern on this point. This sets us up to fear Mal’s appearance in Act III. We know she’s a significant threat.

Planting and Payoff

Another “element of the future” technique is planting and payoff. This is critical for any caper style movie. We need to set up all the tools and obstacles for the final job. Inception is no different.

For example, Arthur shows Ariadne how to create an endlessly looping staircase in one of the training sequences, then he uses the impossible physics of just such a staircase to get rid of a pursuer later in the hotel. By establishing the staircase earlier there is no need to explain to the audience what is going on in the middle of the action scene.

More interesting is the way Inception creates motifs with objects, images and dialogue. Several motifs are planted, referenced, paid off and then paid off again. One example is the totems/top. We see Cobb spin the top before we even know what it is. Then the purpose of totems is explained to Ariadne – that they let the user know whether they’re dreaming. But she’s warned not to let anyone else touch her totem or it won’t work.

Then later we learn that the top Cobb uses belonged to Mal, and he manipulated it in Limbo to convince her they were in a dream. This is done with an image – Cobb breaking into a safe and spinning the top. Because of all the plants, he doesn’t have to explain directly what he did. And this of course pays off at the very end of the movie in the famous shot where he spins the top and the film cuts to black, making us wonder whether the whole thing might have been a dream!

Another motif is the image of Cobb’s two children. The image first appears when Cobb washes up on the beach in the first scene. It recurs several more times until Cobb final explains the significance of the vision to Ariadne. And Mal uses it against him in Limbo. This image serves multiple purposes. It can serve as a warning that Cobb’s subconscious is starting to intrude, as when the kids appear in the bar during the Mr. Charles gambit. Mal also uses it against Cobb in Limbo, a scene we wouldn’t understand if the children hadn’t been planted. And their repeated appearances continually remind us what Cobb has at stake on the mission.

Some other examples: the pinwheel, seen repeatedly in a photo in Fischer’s dream wallet, and then appearing in the safe in the dream hospital. It comes to symbolize his feelings for his father.

And then there’s the train motif. A train appears in the elevator dream and another interrupts the action on the first level of Fischer’s dream. There’s dialogue references in a mantra Cobb and Mal share that begins, “You’re waiting for a train…” Of course we later learn Cobb and Mal committed suicide by train to escape a prior Limbo dream.

These motifs serve not only to remind us of the stakes or to represent Cobb’s subconscious slipping into the dreams, they also bind the story together and help us stay in touch with the through-lines of plot and character. Plus, they build subtle confidence that everything is present in the movie for a purpose. Even if we get a little confused or lost in the multi-level dream world, these touchstones give us comfort that everything will ultimately make sense.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Exposition in Inception

(SPOILERS: Inception)

One of the main reasons I wanted to analyze Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) was to examine how it handles the enormous amount of exposition required for the story. Like any story with magic, super powers or sci-fi technology, the audience needs to clearly understand the rules of the world. And the rules of the dream-infiltrating technology are particularly complex.

I already mentioned one of the techniques the movie uses: Ariadne. In the opening sequence of the movie, Cobb loses one of his team members, the architect, and has to replace him. So he recruits someone completely new to the business. She becomes the stand-in for the audience. As Cobb explains how things work to Ariadne, we get to learn about it as well.

There are several training scenes where big chunks of exposition are delivered. The first is the exploding café scene where Ariadne learns the basics including how time works differently in dreams. Soon after is the folding city/footbridge scene where Ariadne learns about the flexible physics of dream reality and the source and danger of subconscious “extras,” and is warned not to build architecture from memory.

A couple of things to note about these scenes: First, they happen well into the movie. The concept of dream infiltration is introduced in a dramatic thriller scene at the opening. This is important – early in the movie the audience is figuring out the world of the movie, so we have to introduce our big conceits quickly. In the opening sequence, we get some of the rules and concepts of the main conceit – the dream-within-a-dream, how things in the real world manifest in the dream world, and that when you die in a dream you wake up but pain feels real.

That exposition is important, but many of the rules are not really explained yet. And because we’re hooked in with character and action, we want to hear the explanations. By the time Ariadne has things directly spelled out for her, we’re happy to tolerate a rather dull scene that answers our questions.

Second, these training scenes are an excellent example of “wallpapering” – the technique where you place a boring scene in a visually interesting setting. The dream world conceit of Inception makes this easy. The action in the scenes is really just Cobb explaining stuff to Ariadne, but the visuals include a café blowing up and a city folding in on itself, making them far more interesting than their story content warrants.

Wallpapering also comes into play in some of the character exposition scenes I mentioned last post. Most notably, when Ariadne slips into Cobb’s dream to find out what he’s hiding – we get an elevator that opens onto a beach, a train and various settings from Cobb’s past.

There are more of these sorts of scenes – Arthur showing Ariadne how to make a stairs that is an impossible loop, for example. Eventually they move from training scenes to briefing scenes where the team plans the job, laying out more information we’re going to need in the final half of the movie. But the same techniques come into play.

Another trick to revealing exposition elegantly is to do it in conflict. What you want to avoid is having characters say things they have no reason to say. Here Inception uses a second character: Arthur. Arthur is Mr. Negative, constantly doubting and questioning Cobb’s plans.

This is how the concept of inception itself is explained. When Saito asks if it’s possible, Arthur says no. Saito wants to know why not, which leads to a verbal analysis of a concept that everyone in the conversation already understands but the audience does not. If Saito had simply said, “I’d like to hire you to perform an inception,” and Cobb and Arthur accepted, the plot would move forward just fine but how would the audience know what they were talking about?

Look at the way we get the explanation about how, in the triple-dream plan, when you die you don’t wake up but end up in Limbo. Cobb doesn’t tell them this detail before the mission. Arthur’s pissed, but Cobb says he didn’t mention it because the dream wasn’t supposed to be dangerous – Arthur failed to discover that Fischer had been trained in dream defenses.

The story would work just fine if Arthur had discovered the defenses and Cobb had told them about the wrinkle with the sedative before hand. But creating an argument between them over who’s to blame allows the information to be revealed more dramatically.

Sometimes conflict and the ignorant character are used in tandem. For example, when Cobb suggests the Mr. Charles gambit, Arthur thinks it’s a bad idea. This leads Ariadne to ask him about it, giving Arthur a chance to explain to the newbie. Also, Ariadne’s concern about Cobb’s secrets causes her to push him for explanations of his backstory at several key moments. There would be no reason for these explanations without her fear.

One other reason we are happy to sit through some of the complex explanations in Inception is that we are involved in the bigger story. The movie gives us a strong through-line to hold onto. And one of the ways that’s kept alive is by using elements of the future. And that will be the topic of my next post!

(Note the element of the future used in that last sentence!)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Inception Dramatizes Character and the Internal Story

(SPOILERS: Inception)

First of all, let me apologize for the extended time between posts – got a little busy with my paying gigs!

Now, continuing my ongoing analysis of Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), I want to look at how character is dramatized and how the inner journey is revealed. This is a universal challenge for screenwriters since we can only write what can be seen and heard. Today I’m going to concentrate on the main character, Cobb. (And note, I’m working today from the shooting script, so my quotes are from that. I haven’t checked them all against the film, but my memory is they’re pretty close.)

Let’s start with the character introduction. Cobb is given an entrance in the first scene of the movie – he’s washed up, grungy and bloody, on a beach. In the script, he’s identified as BEARDED MAN. We’re not meant to know it’s Cobb, though in the movie, we recognize Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the differences between a script and a movie that’s worth thinking about… hard to disguise the identity of a star.

The real introduction of Cobb’s character comes in the following sequence where Cobb is invading Saito’s mind. The first thing we see is Cobb making a smooth pitch for his dream security service. In the script, he’s simply described as “35, handsome, tailored.” We see that he’s a fast talker, smart, a salesman. Then Mal comes in – we learn there’s history between them, and children. We see Cobb rappel down the side of the building to cut in through a window, we see him kill a guard, break into a safe – he’s agile and trained in spy-like arts.

The scene continues, as you’ll probably recall, with more twists and turns. Things don’t go well for Cobb and he has to improvise. And even though he’s the last to wake from the first dream, he immediately disarms Saito – our hero is the toughest guy in the room. Then, when Saito realizes it’s a dream within a dream, he tells Cobb he’s impressed. Even though Cobb failed, we know he’s good at his job – and the failure was really the architect’s, not his.

One failure was Cobb’s, though: Mal. After they get back to reality, Arthur asks Cobb what happened. Cobb tells him he had it all under control and Arthur responds, “I’d hate to see out of control.”

So what we’ve learned about Cobb is that he’s smart, a little cocky, can think on his feet, and thrives at the edge of chaos. We also know that he’s some kind of highly skilled dream spy. All of this is dramatized with a prologue that shows him in action, rather than having Cobb or anybody else tell us these things directly through dialog. This is important – it’s wise to open your movie with your character in action (whatever that means in your genre) so that you can reveal character by behavior. 

Also interesting to note the scene with his father-in-law where we learn how Cobb became a thief – that something happened that gave him no choice. We're keeping the character likable.

One thing I think about when creating my characters is giving them plans that the story interrupts. This helps them seem like real people living ongoing lives. Inception gives us a little of this: we open with Cobb failing at a job and going on the run from his employers. And he has his long term goal of getting back to the U.S. to see his kids. Both things end up being relevant to the main plot. That keeps the story tight, but also makes the world seem a little less “real” in my opinion. Still, we open with a character in the midst of an ongoing life.

Previously I’ve discussed Cobb’s character arc. His want (the one that’s driving the plot) is to plant an idea in Fischer’s mind. If he succeeds, he can get back to his kids, which is the stakes (perhaps we could also refer to this as a “deeper want”… hmm, might I have stumbled on a new character development idea?) His need, which he will have to overcome to achieve his want, is letting go of Mal. Dramatizing that evolution is a significant challenge. Let’s look at how Nolan does it.

One major tool is the character of Ariadne. Nolan doesn’t make Cobb’s backstory explicit up front. Instead, he has Cobb keep those things secret out of guilt. And then he makes Ariadne suspicious that Cobb’s secrets could jeopardize the mission or even her mental health. So Nolan sets up a subplot mystery of Ariadne trying to uncover Cobb’s secrets.

This allows him to reveal Cobb’s character piecemeal throughout the movie as Ariadne learns about him. And Ariadne’s fears give this mystery its own stakes. Backstory is exposition – but this particular exposition has enormous importance to the current story so we, like Ariadne, become anxious to know more. That’s much more interesting than Cobb spilling it out in some big emotional monologue, or Arthur just telling Ariadne what happened.

Although bits of Cobb’s backstory come out regularly throughout the movie, there are a few scenes that are particularly revealing or provide important turning points in Cobb’s internal journey. The first is when Ariadne sneaks into Cobb’s dream – the scene with the elevator. At one point Ariadne realizes what’s going on and says, “You can’t let her go,” thus articulating Cobb’s need or flaw. This is a great example of how Nolan uses Ariadne’s curiosity to uncover Cobb’s character. And it's always best to put this kind of direct revelation in the mouth of a supporting character.

Later, when they’re in the warehouse and Ariadne learns that Cobb was trapped in Limbo before, she demands Cobb explain what happened between him and Mal. After he does, Ariadne says “If we’re going to succeed in this, you’re going to have to forgive yourself, and you’re going to have to confront her. But you don’t have to do it alone.” More of the character arc revealed.

One of the key moments comes toward the end of Act Two. Cobb is in the tower in the third level of Fischer’s dreams shooting guards that stand in the way of Fischer reaching the safe room. And then Cobb sees Mal. He can’t pull the trigger. Ariadne reminds him that Mal isn’t real – and Cobb says, “How can you know that?” He can’t shoot Mal because he hasn’t let go of this dream version of her.

And because of that Mal kills Fischer – the Act Two Turning Point. This is an excellent example of how the internal story moves the external story and vice versa. The apparent failure of the mission is a direct result of Cobb’s inability to let go of dream-Mal. And the scene is set up to show that in a dramatic way.

The final turn comes later when Cobb realizes that Mal has taken Fischer to Limbo because she wants Cobb to come down there after her. He goes, and Mal tries to convince him to stay. She tells him he can choose what reality he wants to live in. She tries to show him the children, but he closes his eyes (another nice external dramatization of what’s going through his mind – he’s afraid of the temptation.)

Cobb finally admits his big secret – that he’s responsible for Mal’s suicide. And by confronting this guilt he’s finally able to accept that she isn’t real. He chooses to go back to the real children, telling her, “I miss you more than I can bear… but we had our time together. And now I have to let go…” And then Mal dies.

Choices are the best way to demonstrate character arc. Inception forces Cobb to choose between dream-Mal and the mission twice. The first time, in the tower, he chooses not to shoot her and suffers negative consequences. The second time, in Limbo, he chooses reality, which leads to his successful completion of the mission.

I mentioned that backstory is exposition, and how important Ariadne is to revealing that backstory. She’s instrumental in other exposition as well. Exposition is one of the main things I wanted to look at in Inception – so I think that will be the topic of my next post!