John Truby is regarded as the serious writer’s story coach and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre courses to sold-out audiences. Truby continues to serve as a story consultant to the major studios, including Sony Pictures, HBO, and Disney Studios. Truby‘s best-selling book The Anatomy of Story newly out in paperback, has received glowing reviews and is used as a textbook at film schools across the country.
Today John Truby reviews the summer blockbuster Inception in four parts (links to the other parts are at the bottom). Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan.
On to part 3…
The character/emotion problem for Inception starts right at the desire line, the second of the seven major structure steps and one of the strengths of the caper genre. Desire is the hero’s goal. It provides the spine of the story, along with the stakes, or why this story matters. In Inception, the goal is a concept, specifically planting an idea in someone’s head. Not only is this a cold abstraction, it means the stakes are ultimately meaningless. We are told this idea will prevent ecological catastrophe. But that’s just a line of dialogue. We don’t see it, and none of the story is at all related to it.
Another source of an emotionless story has to do with the hero’s relationship to those most important to him, or lack thereof. No, I’m not talking about the other members of the team, which is where most caper stories gain their emotional juice. Think of the buddy camaraderie among the Ocean’s Eleven team. I’m talking about the hero’s wife and children. From the beginning of the film, the wife is already dead so there is no chance to get to know her or see her interact in the present with the hero. What interaction they do have is tainted by the fact that she is morose, deadly and generally a real drag. Supposedly the hero is doing all this to get back with his kids, but again he has no personal interaction with them, except to see them as an unreachable image.
With such a weak goal – which propels a story forward – and such a strong ghost – which pulls a story back, the narrative drive of Inception must inevitably grind to a halt. And that’s just what it does. We get some beautiful, haunting imagery, but the final part of the film feels like a slow trek through a dream museum.
And that’s the negative side of making your story world the land of dreams. Stories about dreams are almost always less than meets the eye. They seem highly intelligent at first glance, because we are entering the realm of pure mind. But they are also as evanescent as a dream, made of elaborately detailed walls that are just fronts to the nothingness behind.
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