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November 8, 2022

Breaking Down Inception

Inception is a heady sci-fi concept. It is grounded by a clear heist plot and character-driven complications and ranks among the best films of the 2010s.

In this blog, we’re going to break down Nolan’s masterpiece using the Save the Cat formula and then consider what lessons we can apply to our writing.

Let’s dive into it. 

Free Inception screenplay

Be sure to follow along with this breakdown with our free PDF script of Inception. Download it here.

Nolan’s first big original hit

Inception was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard. It was released in 2010.

Nolan had brought the film to Warner Bros. as early as 2002 while working on another film, Insomnia. It took many more years to get the project to fruition, with Nolan directing Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight in the intervening years. 

Since The Prestige was based on a novel, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were based on Batman IP, Inception was Nolan’s first original film since 2000’s Memento. (Sort of. That film was based on his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori.)

Proving that original ideas had box office draw (at least when he was directing) Nolan’s Inception paved the way for his future original work in sci-fi and action work with Interstellar and Tenet.

Let’s now dive into the main characters.

Main Characters

Dom Cobb 

Dom Cobb is the leader and main protagonist in the film.

Cobb is a skilled extractor who can enter people's dreams. He is hired by Saito to carry out an inception operation on Robert Fischer, heir to a company that Saito wants to take over in order to expand his business empire.

Inception follows Cobb as he attempts this complex task.


Arthur is a reliable and smooth operator, who takes pride in his work.

He is the only person who knows about Cobb's wife, Mal, and it was his job to tell Cobb that she had left him. He also knows how to get back to reality from the dream world.

Arthur is portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


Ariadne is an architecture student, who is roped into becoming a mastermind in the inception operation. She helps Cobb find his children and Mal in his dreams, but also guides him out of limbo at the end of the movie. She is portrayed by Elliot Page. 


Eames is a forger who can impersonate anybody. He’s played by British actor Tom Hardy, and his character was originally written as a woman. In the course of the film Eames transforms into a woman. 


Saito is the mysterious Japanese mogul that hires Cobb's team to carry out inception on rival Robert Fischer. He is a powerful and wealthy man. Saito is portrayed by Ken Watanabe


Mal was Cobb's wife who committed suicide and comes back to haunt him emotionally. She was a projection of Cobb's subconscious, a character in the dream world, a manifestation of Cobb's guilt and his grief and regret.

Cobb is haunted by Mal because she represents one of his greatest regrets: moving on after her death too quickly. He has been carrying around this guilt for years now, blaming himself for what happened to her.

She is portrayed by Shannon Welles and Marion Cotillard.

Inception Breakdown Using Save the Cat

Save The Cat has been a relatively controversial book. Proponents see it as a simplification of the complexities of a screen story and opponents see it as a reduction of those very same complexities.

Regardless, the Save The Cat beat sheet has become a touchstone for amateur and pro writers alike.

Now that you have some context, let’s dive into this film.

Opening Image

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) wakes in the surf on a beach. He looks up and sees two children running in the sand. He calls them, but they don’t turn.

Theme Stated

Cobb says to Saito (Ken Watanabe) “Once an idea's taken hold in the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it- but it stays there.”


Saito uncovers that Cobb and his partner Arthur are attempting to “extract” secrets from him through dream-sharing technology. 

The audience comes to understand how dreams work, and how they can nest within each other.


Though unsuccessful in their attempt, Saito is impressed by Cobb and his team and offers another job: Inception.

He wants them to plant an idea in the mind of the heir of the company of his rival.


Cobb and Arthur are intrigued. Inception is notoriously tricky, but Saito sweetens the deal by promising that if done Cobb can return home to his family.

Cobb agrees to do it.

Break into two

 Cobb meets Miles (Michael Caine) to recruit a new “architect” before assembling the rest of the team.

B story

Cobb is introduced to Ariadne (Elliot Page, then credited as Ellen Page) who will become not only the audience’s surrogate with the rules of the dream world but to Cobb’s backstory as well.

Fun & games

Ariadne’S training includes manipulating architecture in cities and building out dream worlds.

She receives her “totem” , an object which will help a dreamer understand if they’re dreaming or not.

She also encounters and learns of Mal (Marion Cotillard) Cobb’s wife, who passed away but is still present in his dreams. Additionally, the team is assembled. Cobb recruits Eames (Tom Hardy) who will impersonate people in the target’s life. They learn more about their target, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and begin to concoct the plan for inception.

With everything ready, the team has orchestrated a flight in which they have access to the target until the plane lands. They begin and all start dreaming.


The team enters the first (of three) dream worlds and realizes that Fischer has been prepared for such an event as they’re attempting. This will be more difficult than they realized.

Bad guys close in

Eames’ plan to impersonate a confidant of Fischer fails. The team must go to the next level of dream worlds. They are administered in a van that is being chased. Additionally, Saito has been shot.

In Level 2, to incept Fischer, Cobb must convince him to go into another dream. As they enter Level 3, Arthur must watch over them all in the hotel in Level 2, which has lost gravity, as in Level 1, the van is in free fall.

In Level 3, the remaining members of the team attempt to incept Fischer but are chased among ski slopes by his subconscious. Additionally, Mal continues to stalk Cobb’s dreams.

All is lost

Enemies surrounding the team struggle to reach Fischer. Mal gets there first and shoots him.

Dark night of the soul

Saito is dying, and will be lost in limbo (unconstructed dream space). Fischer, their target has been shot and will also be lost in limbo.

Break into three

Ariadne convinces Cobb to travel one level deeper, to limbo, to find Saito and save Fischer. But doing so will mean that Cobb must finally confront Mal.


They travel into limbo and find Fischer, he is being held by Mal. Cobb confronts her and tells her that she is not his wife, she is a projection.

They’re able to save Fischer, and send him back to Level 3, where Eames helps complete inception.

The team begins to wake, but Cobb remains behind to find Saito in limbo. He does and saves him.

Final image

Cobb returns home to see his children (the same children from the opening at the beach). As he runs to them, the camera lingers on his totem, a spinning top. Is Cobb dreaming?

Key insights

One of the things that struck me while reviewing the screenplay of Inception was that for all the mind-bendiness of the script, it has an incredibly straightforward plot. The central aim of the plot is to “put this idea in this guy’s head.” It functions as a sort of reverse heist. Its simplicity is what allows space for all the various dream concepts explored throughout.

The script for this film is 147 pages long, and the team gets on the plan on page 71 to begin the job. That’s nearly exactly halfway through, and so the entire back half of the film is the job.

It’s a great example of the midpoint beat because it’s not a significant “turn” or “reversal” like we might expect at the Break Into Two or Break Into Three, but it is a significant point-of-no-return for the protagonist.

While it has a lot of exposition to dole out, both in concept and in character, Inception’s script is relatively restrained in its exposition dumps. I’d go so far as to say there aren't any large exposition dumps at all. 

Instead, the film keeps stringing together many small independent scenes, each with a tiny piece of information that will be built upon later. The average scene size (in terms of page count) in Inception is much smaller than in most films. This is particularly true in the first half of the screenplay, where most scenes are only one or two pages.

Big idea, simple story

Inception is a masterclass in keeping your story simple. At no point during this script do you wonder, “why are they doing that?” in terms of plot or purpose. There’s always clarity in what the team is doing.

When this film came out, nobody complained about being spoon-fed information. Because they were too busy being mind-blown by the way these concepts unfolded on screen.

If you’ve got some big ideas in the first draft of your screenplay, is your story simple enough to support them?

The main characters of Inception stand on top of a building watching skyscrapers from a different world seeming to collapse in on themselves.
Inception is a complex film in which the main characters journey through memories and different alternative dream worlds.

If you’re plotting your first script today then be sure to consider downloading Arc Studio which is full of great tools to get you all the way from your first idea to landing that green light from the studio of your dreams. 

Happy writing!


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Breaking Down Inception
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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