Analysis Culture

Inception: A direct metaphor for the impact of storytelling

If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t spoil it here — watch it first, then come back.

Inception: Delving into someone’s mind and planting an idea, then watching it grow into full-fledged actions in the real world. Or at least, that’s how they describe it in Christopher Nolan’s Inception from 2010.

This is also probably the most accurate definition of what a story does.

Many people shrug off the various forms of storytelling — novels, television, films, theater — as mindless entertainment, and they have done so for centuries. To their credit, rarely does one walk into a movie or crack open a novel, and then walk out with a deep intention to change the world. If you can be swayed to such ends in two hours, you’re likely going to be swayed every which direction every single day.

Sure, you may have seen a movie that really had a significant effect on you — Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave had such an effect on me. But I didn’t exactly quit my job and run off with that girl I had been seeing at the time. It’s effect didn’t necessarily translate to obvious, direct change the very next day…

But it still had an effect.

Storytelling doesn’t work its magic through overt conversion, the way seeing acts of real life valor might turn your life around in a single moment. Instead it works through inception. It seeds an idea into one’s mind — an idea that grows over time, gathering supporting ideas from all sorts of facets of the viewer’s life.

Want another word for it? Inspiration.

However, I actually think that inception is a better word for it than inspiration. The word “inspiration” is generally used in regards to positive change. Granted, Nolan’s movie Inception admits that positive emotions are easier and more effective to ‘incept’, but negative emotions still count too. A story could just as well inspire hatred and vitriol just as it could inspire courage and compassion.

An effective storyteller — whether they are a filmmaker, author, playwright, or just a father telling his daughter a story by the campfire — is essentially seeding ideas into the person’s mind. They might not take. They might begin to grow.

Fiction or non-fiction can work under the guise of emotion and entertainment, and yet can instill pretty profound ideas into the depths of our psyche.

Totem spinning top spinning, wobbling and stopping. Spinning top on mirror surface with toned smoke background light. Whirligig in action in dark room on table.

You can look at each form of media as a soldier in a culture war, pushing various narratives in one direction or another. They could be overt messages like “be kind to those around you,” or less obvious messages like “life is obscure” or “things don’t have to have meaning.”

The best of these stories “get at the heart of things,” as some might say. A bad story about a dictator shows him to be a flat, maniacally evil character with no real wants or desires of his own. An okay story will describe the dictator as a man who has pretty understandable reasons for becoming a dictator — like for example, maybe a freedom-loving sect of rebels killed his late wife, and his grab for power is really a quest for vengeance against all those who share their ideologies.

A great story, however, will dive into the essence of the power-hungry, what drives them, their ambitions, as well as the personal road this dictator has taken to get him to that point. It boils down the word “power” to its most basic forms and studies them, exploring the idea through the medium of story.

Stories help us understand ideas that we have a hard time tackling in the raw, so we place them in the context of fantastical or interesting scenarios — but at the end of the day, they’re just ideas playing out before our eyes.

This is perfectly exemplified through Inception. Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, understands that you must get “at the heart of things.” The whole idea is excellently played out in Inception, but is pretty plainly put in the following scene:

Eames: Listen, if you’re gonna perform inception, you need imagination.
Cobb: Let me ask you something. Have you done it before?
Eames: We tried it. Uh, we got the idea in place, but it didn’t take.
Cobb: You didn’t plant it deep enough?
Eames: No, it’s not just about depth. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind. It’s a very subtle art. So, what is this idea that you need to plant?
Cobb: We need the heir of a major corporation to dissolve his father’s empire.
Eames: Well you see right there you have various political motivations and anti-monopolistic sentiments and so forth. But all of that stuff, it’s um…. It’s really at the mercy of your subject’s prejudice, you see? What you have to do is start at the absolute basic.
Cobb: Which is what?
Eames: The relationship with the father.

“The relationship with the father” is the crux of what they’re trying to do in Nolan’s film. It’s the single idea they are trying to manipulate in order to inspire the son to dissolve his father’s empire.

Good storytelling does just this — it boils the story down to its core elements, explores and understands them, then depicts them in a fun or exciting context.


This is why overtly political films tend to be terrible, even if you agree with the message. They tend to focus on surface level political agendas that, even if right, do not explore the nature of the human experience, but instead explore “laws that are right” instead of “laws that are wrong.”

Bad war movies tend to focus on the politics of war, whether it’s right and how it vaguely messes you up, like some hazy disease you might catch on the battlefield; conversely another bad war movie will focus on “courage” and “service to country” as equally vague points which only serve to pander to a specific group of people. A good war movie explores the nature of human conflict, in all its gritty gruesomeness, as well as other more nuanced aspects of war like brotherhood and courage. In a good war movie, you delve into the true nature of war, not its politics.

Seven Psychopaths is an inherently pacifistic movie, down to its very bones. And yet plenty of my Ranger friends still really enjoyed it — because it’s done in a tasteful way that truly explores the side of human nature that desperately wants a non-violent resolution to conflict. It explores the various facets of pacifism in a dark, humorous way, and takes you along for the ride.

And while Inception is all about literally diving into peoples’ minds, crazy scientific technology, and the wild ride of seeing a dream before your waking eyes — it’s really about the essence of reality, the question of perception versus reality, and of course, “the relationship with the father.”


Featured image from Warner Bros. Second image from Adobe Stock; third from Pixabay.

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2 years ago

The ideas can be slow-moving, but–if the medium for the idea can stand the test of time and resonate across generations–incredibly pervasive. I got to spend an entire blissful semester of law school studying the impact of literature on society’s perception of what the law is and what it should be, effecting some pretty amazing changes over just a few generations. There’s a collective social sense in the present that this is how it always was, or at least how it always should have been….except that it wasn’t. At some point the ideas were new, revolutionary, disturbing, unsettling, and not… Read more »

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