Inception is one of the most thought-provoking and confounding films ever made – and there’s a lot we can learn from its 145+ page script. We’re going to break down the Inception script by looking at its characters, fight scenes and ending. By the end, you’ll know why Inception is a prime example of Christopher Nolan’s best and worst writing traits. 

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WHO WROTE inception SCRIPT?

Written by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is a British-American filmmaker who is widely regarded as one of the greatest living commercial film directors. Nolan has received widespread acclaim for the visual creativity used in many of his films, including The Dark Knight, Interstellar and The Prestige

INCEPTION SUMMARY

STRUCTURE OF THE INCEPTION SCREENPLAY

Here is the story structure for the Inception plot:

Exposition

A trio of men – Arthur, Cobb and Nash – attempt to steal secret documents from a tycoon named Saito within a dream. We cut in and out of dream states as chaos unfurls in the “real world.” The group fails to procure the documents and are forced to go on the run.

Inciting Incident

Nash betrays Arthur and Cobb and Saito intercepts them before they can leave. Saito says that if Cobb can plant an idea in a rival competitor against his will, then he’ll reunite him with his children.  

Plot Point One

Cobb recruits a young woman named Ariadne to be the new “architect” for Saito’s “dream” job. He then travels to Mombasa to ingratiate Eames, a former colleague, into the fold.

Rising Action

The group of six – Cobb, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito and Yusuf, hatch a plan to sedate the target, Fischer, while he’s aboard a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles.

Midpoint

Ariadne’s constructed dream has three levels, each longer than the last. The group goes into the first level and kidnaps Fischer but are ambushed by his subconscious. Saito is hit and begins to bleed out and is told that if he dies before the sedation wears off, he’ll be trapped in limbo.

Plot Point Two

Cobb reveals that he and his ex-wife, Mal, were once trapped in limbo for fifty years. When they finally regained consciousness, Mal still believed that she was in a dream and that the only way to escape was to die. So she killed herself and framed Cobb for her death so he would kill himself too. 

Build Up

Cobb leads Fischer into his own subconscious to find the information for Saito, but before they’re able to reach the inner sanctum, Mal appears. Mal kills Fischer, sending him to limbo. Cobb and Ariadne enter limbo in pursuit of Fischer.

Climax

Cobb and Ariadne find Mal within limbo. Cobb reveals that when he was previously trapped in limbo, he performed “inception” on Mal, and convinced her that reality wasn’t real. Saito dies from his wound.

Finale

Ariadne escapes limbo with Fischer. Cobb finds Saito years later in limbo and convinces him to return to reality. The group arrives in Los Angeles on time and without suspicion from Fischer.

Denouement

Cobb returns home. He spins the totem to see if he’s still in a dream, but before he’s able to see if it stops or not, he’s greeted by his children. 

Inception Script Takeaway #1

Inception characters aren’t developed

Inception is a tricky script to tear down because there are so many individual aspects of it that don’t work great, but as a whole, it’s still genuinely intriguing. I don’t think many people would argue that the Inception movie screenplay does a poor job of developing characters (other than Cobb).

As such, Inception struggles to build an emotional resonance that matches the lofty heights of its visual spectacle.

I suppose it makes sense that Inception doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on supporting characters, considering so much of the story is dedicated to explaining what’s going on. But still, it would’ve undoubtedly benefited the narrative if supporting characters were more developed and defined. 

We imported the Inception movie screenplay into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a look at a scene where Nolan does a good job of introducing a new character, but then drowns their entrance out by action.

As you’re reading this scene, think about a few different ways Eames could have been characterized more effectively. Consider the lack of emotional resonance we alluded to earlier and how some brief context might have made us care more about his character.

Inception Movie Screenplay PDF  •  Read the Eames Introduction Scene

Perhaps this introductory scene would have worked better if Eames decided to take the job because he needed money to pay somebody off. Or maybe he always wanted to achieve “inception” but his team refused to try – anything would’ve worked better than nothing. Obviously Christopher Nolan is a great screenwriter, but in Inception, he struggles to give his characters defining, emotionally resonant traits.

That being said, there are some great Inception quotes:

  • "Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange."
  • "An idea is like a virus."
  • "Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man filled with regret waiting to die alone?"
  • "Admit it: you don’t believe in one reality anymore."

These are just a few of the best Inception quotes – there are plenty more. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!

Inception Script Takeaway #2

Inception shows us how to write action

There were a lot of people who were confused by the high-concept metaphysical plot of Inception, but that’s not the only facet of the story that had people scratching their heads. Plenty of viewers were also perplexed by the breakneck speed at which the action scenes were cut together.

But although some critics regarded the action as too frenetic, others felt it added a much needed visceral element to the story. I tend to agree with the latter perspective. And after reading the script, it’s easy to see that Nolan was very purposeful with how and when he chose to cut his action scenes.

Let’s refer back to the script to see how to write a fight scene like Chris Nolan. Even if you’ve seen Inception before, imagine how this scene might look if you shot it – there’s no doubt enough material to conjure up some inspiration.

Inception Movie Screenplay PDF  •  Read the Hallway Fight Scene

For some writers, fight scenes and actions are much more difficult to write than dialogue. Think about a dialogue heavy screenwriter like Woody Allen for example – in most of his scripts, the dialogue is what sets the pace of the scene. But for somebody like Nolan, who writes near-equal amounts of dialogue and actions, either one can set the pace. 

Nolan loves to intercut scenes to build frenetic energy – just like he does in the Inception “hallway fight scene.” By framing three scenes at once, all interconnected by plot points, he’s able to raise the stakes in a meaningful and exciting way.

Let’s look at a video essay that explores some of how Nolan pulled this off.

Inception Plot Analysis  •  Dream Fight Between Inception Characters

It’s truly unbelievable that Nolan was able to shoot the hallway fight scene with practical effects. In many ways, the end result speaks for itself. Just remember that all of the foundational aspects of that visual spectacle were established in the script. 

Consider watching the full scene with the script in hand to see how Nolan’s dream was visualized for maximum effect.

Inception Script Takeaway #3

Inception ending is ambiguity done right

The first thing we usually bring up when talking about Inception is its ultra-famous ending – and for good reason; Nolan took a big risk by refusing to give concrete resolution to the narrative, but in the end, it worked out. 

Oftentimes we say that a story has to have a resolute denouement to be successful, but Inception proves that doesn’t always have to be the case. Sure, resolute endings usually result in a greater sense of resolution, but when a story is so reliant on ambiguity and epistemological themes, then it actually works better when the ending doesn’t give us all the answers.

Let’s review how Nolan pulled off the unforgettable Inception ending. As you’re reading, pay special attention to the idea of “prop symbolism” as it relates to the spinning top.

Inception Screenplay PDF  •  Read the Inception Ending

Throughout the story, we’re reminded that Cobb’s spinning top is the totem he uses to determine whether or not he’s in reality. We learn that he uses the totem because his wife Mal used to as well. 

When the top stops spinning, we know that Cobb is in reality. But in the end of Inception, we don’t see if the top stops spinning – Nolan even makes a point in the script to say the top is “STILL SPINNING” up until the very end.

But in the final cut of the film, we see the top tremor and begin to slow down. Let’s take a look.

Christopher Nolan Inception Script  •  Watch the Inception Ending

What do you think? Did Cobb escape his dreams? Or is he still trapped in limbo? If you’re looking for more theories on the topic, check out our Inception Ending Explained article where we break down everything you need to know about the film’s last scene.

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Christopher Nolan demonstrated some of his best and worst writing qualities with the Inception screenplay. If you want to continue reading screenplays, we have similar titles like Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in our screenplay database. Browse and download PDFs for all of our scripts as you read, write and practice your craft to become the next great screenwriter.

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