Movie Structure Breakdown: Inception

Format: Movie

Released: 2010

Written and Directed By: Christopher Nolan

Run Time: 141 minutes

Character: Dom Cobb


A character in an Imperfect Situation faces Oppressive Opposition as he pursues an Initial Goal. But when there is a Disturbance to his routine, he faces a Dilemma regarding his situation, and must assume a New Role.

Professional dream thief and fugitive on the run (imperfect situation), Dom Cobb, faces interference from the government, his employer and his malicious ex-wife, Mal (oppressive opposition), as he attempts to steal corporate secrets from wealthy businessman, Mr. Saito (initial goal). But when the extraction fails, and Saito recognizes the skill of Dom’s deception (the disturbance), he offers to get him pardoned (the dilemma) if Dom performs an Inception on Saito’s corporate rival, Robert Fischer (the new role).

The Imperfect Situation: Saito suspects something is up. Dom inadvertently brings Mal into the dream, and she quickly ruins everything. It is revealed their employer will kill them for their failure, and they must now go on the run. Again. Additionally, Dom can’t return to the States for fear of imprisonment.

Initial Goal: We meet Dom and Arthur as they attempt to extract information from Saito in a dream.

Oppressive Opposition: Saito is skeptical of Dom and Arthur and appears suspicious of what they are selling. Mal shows up and makes it clear she intends to throw around some monkey wrenches. She rats them out to Saito who has them apprehended and shot before they can get the information they were trying to steal.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Disturbance: When their plan to raid the safe fails, they take Saito up to what turns out to be the next dream level. There, Saito reveals he set the whole thing up as an audition for Dom and his team, which they have failed.

My sideways gat should tell you I’m gangsta.

But as the dreamer’s unconscious constructions raid the city with torches, Saito realizes he is still dreaming and is impressed with their abilities, prompting him to consider hiring them for himself.

Turning Point One – The Dilemma: Start Time: 18 of 141 minutes (12.7%) – Saito tracks down Dom and Arthur. He offers to fix Dom’s legal issues and allow him to return home to his children in exchange for performing an Inception. Dom must choose between never seeing his kids again, and performing an impossible inception for Saito.

The New Role: While Dom is a skilled extractor, if he takes Saito’s offer he must become an inceptionist.

Act Run Time: 22 of 141 minutes (15.6%)


The character Learns the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation and faces Incidental Opposition in pursuit of a Transitional Goal. But when he receives a Reality Check, he makes a Commitment to his New Role.

Act Start Time: 22 of 141 minutes (15.6%)

Dom and his newly assembled team try to figure out how to perform an Inception (the unfamiliar situation) and must contend with Dom’s increasingly aggressive projection of his wife and Cobol’s murderous goons (incidental opposition) while trying to formulate a plan to implant an Inception in Fischer’s mind (the transitional goal). But when Ariadne follows Dom into his self-induced dream, it is revealed he is intentionally storing memories of Mal who is trying to convince him to stay in Limbo (reality check). When they awaken, they learn the elder Fischer has died, and Ariadne demands to come along on the mission for the safety of the team (the commitment).

The Unfamiliar Situation: Dom has to convince his father-in-law of the impossible; he has a way to clear his name. In fact, they must do many impossible things: find a new architect, find a chemist with enough skill to fit their needs, and figure out how to perform an inception.

Transitional Goal: Dom wants to assemble a team and figure out how to perform the inception.

Incidental Opposition: Dom is introduced to Ariadne who he initiates in dream sharing.

And then this happened.

But when Mal shows up and sticks a knife in Ariadne’s gut, their new architect reconsiders taking up this new line of work. Later, Dom visits Mombasa to recruit Eames, the forge, and is nearly shot up by Cobol’s goons. The team struggles to devise a plan because doing an inception is really hard.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Reality Check: Ariadne follows Dom into his Yusuf induced dream to see what he’s been up to. There she learns he is intentionally keeping memories of Mal. Ariadne also learns Mal is trying to convince Dom to stay in Limbo, as well as (a portion of) how she died.

Turning Point Two – The Commitment: Start Time: 60 of 141 minutes (42.5%) – When Dom and Ariadne awaken, it is revealed the elder Fischer has died. Knowing the risk Mal poses to the team, Ariadne demands to tag along on the heist. Dom agrees, committing himself to his New Roles as an inceptionist for Saito and psychiatric patient for Ariadne. This brings them into the Central Conflict of Fischer’s dream in the following act.

Act Run Time: 39 of 141 minutes (27.6%)


The character stumbles into the Central Conflict and faces Intentional Opposition in pursuit of a False Goal. But when there is a grave Turn of events, he has a Moment of Truth.

Act Start Time: 61 of 141 minutes (43.2%)

Cobb and the team enter into Fischer’s protected dream world (the central conflict) and must contend with his unexpectedly weaponized subconscious (intentional opposition) to implement their simple plan for the inception (the false goal). But when Saito is shot, and it is revealed Fischer’s subconscious has been militarized to protect itself from extraction (the turn), Cobb realizes the only way to survive to is to complete the mission and comes clean to Ariadne about how Mal died (the moment of truth).

The Central Conflict: Dom and his team battle Mal and Fischer’s projections.

False Goal: The team enters the dream world and attempts to kidnap Fischer.

Intentional Opposition: The team must outsmart a suspicious Fischer by slipping a mickey in his drink. When they enter the dream and kidnap Fischer, it suddenly comes to light that his subconscious has been militarized to protect itself from extraction. Saito is mortally wounded in the ensuing gun battle. The team narrowly escapes with Fischer and meets up at the warehouse rendezvous point where they establish their plan has effectively gone to excrement. Fischer’s projections move in on the building as the team tries to convince a resistant Fischer to fall for their ploy.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Turn: Ariadne gets in a car with Dom and a freight train immediately smashes into it.

In his defense, Mr. Magoo thought he was mowing the lawn.

Saito is shot. Fischer’s subconscious has been militarized to protect itself from extraction. If any member of the team dies they will be stuck in Limbo forever. The only way to survive is to continue the mission.

Turning Point Three – The Moment of Truth: Start Time: 70 of 141 minutes (49.6%) – Ariadne confronts Dom about Mal and the guilt he has brought into the dream. Dom tells Ariadne the (almost) full story of how Mal died. He tells her he and Mal went so deep in the dream levels they landed in their subconsciouses where they were stuck for fifty years. When they finally awoke, Mal believed the real world was a dream, and they needed to wake up. Mal set Dom up on their anniversary and killed herself for him to join her. Now he is on the run.

This effectively explains why Dom is willing to fight, no matter what, to finish the mission. Ariadne tells Dom he needs to forgive himself and confront Mal. She volunteers to confront Mal with him. This is masterful storytelling by Christopher Nolan. Dom has been willing to fight since the beginning, but it is in this moment we learn the (partly) true reason why.

Act Run Time: 21 of 141 minutes (14.8%)


The character implements a Doomed Plan and faces Self-Inflicted Opposition in pursuit of a Penultimate Goal. But when an unthinkable Lowpoint occurs, he pulls himself together and discovers a Newfound Resolve.

Act Start Time: 82 of 141 minutes (58.1%)

The team goes into the next dream to run the Mr. Charles gambit (the doomed plan) and intentionally draws attention to themselves (self-inflicted opposition) to convince Fischer that Browning set him up and trick him into willingly entering the inception room (the penultimate goal). But when Mal appears in the snow fortress and kills Fischer (the lowpoint), Ariadne comes up with the idea to go into Limbo after them and synchronize the kicks to pull everyone out (the newfound resolve).

The Doomed Plan: The Mr. Charles Gambit in the hotel and the trip into the snow fortress level are all for naught when Mal puts a bullet in Fischer.

Penultimate Goal: Dom and the team attempt to convince Fischer that Browning set him up, and trick him into willingly entering the inception room.

Self-Inflicted Opposition: The team attempts to pull off the Mr. Charles gambit, which involves making Fischer aware of the fact he’s in a dream. This deliberately brings the wrath of Fischer’s subconscious projections on them. Because of this, the team is pursued through the hotel, and Arthur must do battle with the projections while everyone else goes into the next dream level.

When you’re the designated driver.

There, the others storm a heavily fortified fortress. The coup de grâce to their doomed plan occurs when Mal shows up to assassinate Fischer and Dom can’t bring himself to shoot her first. This is self-inflicted opposition at its finest.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Lowpoint: Fischer is shot and killed by Mal. Dom and Eames logically conclude this scheme of theirs has failed.

Turning Point Four – The Newfound Resolve: Start Time: 113 of 141 minutes (80.1%) – Ariadne comes up with a plan to go into Limbo, rescue Fischer, complete the inception and pull everyone out with a synchronized kick. Good thing she haphazardly decided to tag along.

Dom makes the decision to face his projection of Mal to return to his kids.

Act Run Time: 33 of 141 minutes (23.4%)


The character tries a Longshot and faces Ultimate Opposition while trying to accomplish the Ultimate Goal. But just when it seems All is Lost, he makes a Final Push against the forces of antagonism and either succeeds or fails.

Act Start Time: 115 of 141 minutes (81.5%)

Dom and Ariadne go into Limbo to rescue Fischer (the longshot) and confront Dom’s guilty projection of Mal (ultimate opposition) to finish the inception (the ultimate goal). But when the rest of the team is overrun, and it seems Dom will be overpowered by his guilt for Mal (all is lost), he reveals he was responsible for implanting the inception that drove Mal to suicide, and that he’s finally ready to let her go (the final push).

The Longshot: Dom and Ariadne go into Limbo to stop Mal, save Fischer, and allow the team to finish the inception.

Ultimate Goal: Dom wants to confront his projection of Mal, rescue Fischer from Limbo and finish the inception.

Ultimate Opposition: Dom must face Mal and his regret over implanting the inception that led drove her to suicide. Arthur’s sets up charges in an elevator for the hotel kick. The projections close in on the snow fortress. Eames sets up charges in the hospital while Saito tries to hold off the projections. Saito repeats the no room for tourists line before kicking the bucket.

Turning Point Catalyst – All is Lost: Eames is overpowered by Fischer’s projections. Saito dies. It appears Dom will be overpowered by his guilt for Mal.

Turning Point Five – The Final Push: Start Time: 10 of 141 minutes (7%) – All the kicks go off at once. Ariadne leaps to her “death” to awaken to the next dream level. Dom decides to stay behind to find Saito in Limbo, knowing he may end up trapped there as well. Fischer tells Browning/Eames he will break up his father’s company. Dom washes up on the now wrinkly Saito’s doorstep and convinces him to shoot himself in the head to wake up.  

Just let me finish my prunes first.

Act Run Time: 22 of 141 minutes (15.6%)


Having accomplished (or failed to have accomplished) the Ultimate Goal, the character is shown living in a New Situation.

Act Start Time: 137 of 141 minutes (97.2%)

Having successfully performed the inception, the team (and Fischer) awakens back on the airplane. Saito makes a phone call, and Dom is granted entry to the United States.

The New Situation: The team awakens on the airplane. Everyone is all smiles, while Fischer looks thoughtful, seeming to have taken the Inception. Yay! Saito makes a phone call, and Dom walks through customs without being sent to prison for the rest of his life. Dom’s father-in-law, Michael Caine, picks him up at the airport, and the two go to Dom’s house. Dom sees his children playing in the backyard and reunites with them… until the sequel.

Act Run Time: 4 of 141 minutes (2.8%)

To learn more about six act structure, purchase your copy of “Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret” today!

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