Inception: Christopher Nolan’s Masterclass on Storytelling Sep05


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Inception: Christopher Nolan’s Masterclass on Storytelling

Promotional image from Inception.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan is known for making mind-bending movies. From Momento to The Prestige to his Dark Knight trilogy to Dunkirk, Nolan’s signature style rests in cerebral storytelling that often takes the viewer by surprise, either at the end of his films, or at multiple points along the way as the stories unfold and you realize what you’re watching is not, exactly, what is happening—or at least, not what’s happening at the moment you think it’s happening. It’s a particularly effective storytelling method because it causes you to engage with his stories on another level, whether you want to or not. In Nolan’s films, pure story meets logical function and the faculties of analysis are engaged.

As an exceptional storyteller, Nolan recognizes the power stories hold. All stories have the ability to change minds and hearts, and therefore culture, because it is through stories that ideas are planted. I maintain that storytellers are the most powerful people in society. Culture—more than politics or economics or anything else—changes the tide of history. Ideas have power, and it is our art, our stories, that plant those ideas into our psyche, where they take root and grow.

Storytellers can slip inside the mind and change people from the inside out just like the architects in Inception.

In 2010, Nolan gave us a movie that showed how keenly aware he is of the importance and power of stories. But not only that, in the movie itself, he instructs us in how to harness that power—a power that can be both very good, or devastating. The movie is Inception, a word he redefined for the purpose of the film as the implanting of an idea into the mind. Inception is Christopher Nolan’s masterclass in how to incept people through storytelling. The whole movie is a cautionary tale on the power of implanted ideas—the power of story. For me, it has long been the ultimate meta-narrative, as far as my career as a novelist is concerned. It’s been a tool for me, both in learning how to be a better storyteller and in instructing students on the art of storytelling.

Inception is about a team of architects involved in corporate espionage who craft dreams for subjects to enter into for the purpose of stealing ideas from their minds. In a plot twist that introduces the main conflict of the film, a wealthy business mogul hires these dream extractionists to do the opposite: perform inception—plant, rather than steal, an idea in someone’s mind. In order to perform this difficult task, the head architect, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team have to train a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page) to help them, and instruction in the art of dreamscaping begins.

Dreamscaping is essentially storytelling, and architects are therefore storytellers. As such, Inception is a lesson within a story within a story, bending the fourth wall to instruct the viewer in the art of storytelling as Cobb and his team teach Ariadne how to construct dreams that won’t alert the subject’s subconscious to the fact that they are dreaming—because when that occurs, the subject’s subconscious attacks. In Inception, inside the dreams, once a subject’s subconscious identifies the foreign agents (begins to lose secondary belief, if you will), the dream starts to shake, and even fall apart. The brain itself attacks the foreign agents. The foreign agents bring parts of themselves into the dreams with them, just as a reader or viewer always brings parts of themselves to a story. Every writer, likewise, also inserts part of themselves into their creations.

Stories have the ability to change culture because it is through stories that ideas are planted.

These are just a few of the challenges that I must take into consideration when I write my stories and construct my own worlds. As a writer of fiction, I have to build stories that trick readers’ subconscious into secondary belief. Because I am not God, however, I can’t possibly ever build a complete, limitless world. To attain verisimilitude, it is absolutely crucial that I build a world where my readers never find the edges, as Cobb and his team instruct Ariadne to do in the film. When, and if, the subject notices their world has limits, the dream—the story—begins to fall apart, and I lose whatever impact or effect I’d hoped to have on them. Or, at the very least, that effect is greatly lessened. My story becomes, perhaps, a bad story.

If they are good at what they do, storytellers can slip inside the mind and change people from the inside out just like the architects in Inception. The more skilled the storyteller, the more likely the subject/reader will be incepted. The craft of building our worlds can be a powerful vehicle, not just for mere entertainment, but for social and cultural change. As Cobb says at one point in Inception, “Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it is almost impossible to eradicate.”

Though Christopher Nolan emphasizes the power of ideas and stories through logic in Inception, the craft of dreamscaping is not all deduction and analysis. As I often tell my creative writing students: in order to be successful storytellers who create tales that are true, beautiful, and good, we have to be whole-brained writers. World-build with precision, but never neglect those right-brained impulses, either. As the character Eames says in the movie, “If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination.” Every story is, in a sense, a waking dream. And every storyteller is, in a way, planting an idea inside your mind, whether big or small, important or unimportant. I maintain that authors—storytellers, entertainers of all sorts—incept people (and cultures) all the time. Powerful stories do this. This is why I don’t think our consumption of stories should be mindless, but neither should our creation of them be.

K. B. Hoyle

K. B. Hoyle

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
K. B. Hoyle is an award-winning author, a public speaker, and a former classical educator. She and her husband have four sons who test their sanity on a daily basis. Learn more about her and her books at
K. B. Hoyle

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