Summarizing Inception in a blog post would be like trying to distill Finnegan’s Wake into a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. It’s a complex, multi-layered plot, but while the story offers as many questions as answers, it gave me enough “aha” moments to keep me glued to the screen. And the subject at the heart of the movie–“shared dreams” and the planting of ideas–is so closely related to storytelling that I wound up scrawling notes on the back of receipts I dug out of my purse as I watched.
In “shared dreams,” two people share a surreal sleep-world created by an “architect” who creates a labyrinthine vision. The goal is to plant an idea – an “inception.”
To do this, a dream needs to have more than one level so the dreamer is drawn deeply into the dreamworld. This can only be done on a subconscious level, so it the dream has to dig deeply into the mind and bypass all the analytical filters and reality checks that defend the dreamer from losing himself in the dream world.
In a way, fiction is a shared dream. When you’re drawn into a really good book, you’re not aware of reality. You buy the author’s vision of the world completely, immersing yourself in it and living in it. This is what makes reading a well-written book so immensely pleasurable—our real-life world, with all its problems and petty concerns, fades away in the bright beam of the fictional world.
One character notes, though, that while a dream architect can plant an idea, “real inspiration is impossible to replicate.” I think that’s true; inspiration is a creative spark unique to the artist or writer, where all the elements of his experience come together to create something new, and that can’t be induced by any outside entity.
But Leonardo Dicaprio and company make the process way too complicated. All you need to do to plant an idea in someone’s head is a powerful story—one that infiltrates the reader’s subconscious.
I don’t pretend I’m able to do this on any profound level. My novels are romances, designed for pleasure and escape. But there are writers that have planted ideas that changed our culture for better or for worse. George Orwell with 1984 and Animal Farm planted fears for the future, but while many of his visions came true, I wonder if the book hasn’t prevented others by alerting us to the chilling possibilities. And how far has To Kill a Mockingbird gone to fight racism and prejudice? By creating a world that absorbs and involves and by introducing compelling characters, these writers have changed the real world—or at least nudged it in a new direction.
To create that shared world, a writer follows the same rules as the dream architects in the movie. You need to draw your reader deeply into your story with details to reach him on a subconscious level. As the film’s architect-in-training points out, “I thought it would be visual—but it’s a feeling.” That’s why you can’t just wax descriptive of the forest and the trees; you have to draw on all five senses and create a depth of experience that rivals reality.
Stories have all the magic of the multilayered dreams in the movie. They take you deeply into an experience the author creates, and let you share the writer’s view of the world. The best ones linger in the mind to create a new sense of the world that becomes the reader’s reality, putting a new idea—hopefully a new truth—in his mind.