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.
And here is part 4….
There is one final structure element that causes this visually stunning film to slow down and become less involving as it goes on. In the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class, I talk a lot about the moral argument found in all great storytelling. Knowing how to execute this crucial element is one of the marks of a professional writer. It’s the sequence under the surface that made the plot of The Dark Knight build in intensity and was the real key to the film becoming a cinematic masterpiece and blockbuster hit. The plot of The Dark Knight is built on a series of moral tests that The Joker throws at Batman. Each test is progressively bigger and more difficult than the one before, ending with the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma where the passengers of two ships must decide whether to blow up the other ship first.
Don’t think for a moment that moral argument is primarily designed to increase the intellectual quality of a film. It increases the emotional power of a story many times over, because the stakes now involve lots of other people and not simply the psychology of the hero.
In Inception, Nolan again infuses moral philosophy into the plot. In this case we’re dealing with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” literally applied to love (a technique normally used in the thriller genre). But Nolan’s understanding of this moral principle is much weaker than his thoughts about the savior in Dark Knight, and it’s not applied to the plot in as seamless or sequenced a way. Viewers come out of the film confused and think it’s their fault. They believe that this philosophical complexity is the mark of a brilliant filmmaker and far above their meager powers to understand, at least on one viewing. Wrong. Moral argument in story is very complex. Sometimes you nail it, and sometimes you just don’t.
Inception is well worth breaking down structurally to see a master of the screenplay form try something new and challenging. But don’t get caught on the dazzling surface. Look at how the writer’s original choices in combining genres and setting up the story gave him both strengths and weaknesses. The more you learn about the all-important connection between plot and character, intellect and emotion, the better writer you will be.
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