Sequences and Setpieces Part II

In yesterday’s post we talked generally about sequences and how they can be used in a three act structure to give your plot a framework.  I ended with discussing the general concern that if you follow the traditional three act structure your writing might start to appear formulaic.  This is where your talent and artistry come in.  You can vary the pacing, or even vary the structure (think Pulp Fiction or Memento).  But even if you follow the three act structure to the letter, you can still have a unique and original piece of work by having unique concepts, characters and voice.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at a recent film that a lot of people (including me) found fresh and innovative, INCEPTION.  SPOILER ALERT- do not read further if you don’t want some (or all) key plot points revealed.  This movie follows the three act structure and its major components almost perfectly.  In Act II and III the sequences are so identifiable that they’re actually created and identified by the characters in the story- the levels of the dream the characters are infiltrating.  Let’s break it down.

Act 1- In Act 1, we’re introduced to Dom Cobb and his partner Arthur.  The first sequence consists of Dom and Arthur attempting to extract a memory from Mr. Saito’s dream.  The dream takes place on two levels and is interrupted by Cobb’s wife Mal.  Through the dream sequence, we learn that Cobb and Arthur are dream extractors and are introduced to the concept of infiltrating dreams to extract ideas. The second sequence of Act 1 is the call to action, as Mr. Saito makes Cobb an offer he can’t refuse: infiltrate the dream of Fischer, a young corporate heir, and plant the idea to sell off his father’s company.  Arthur is initially resistant, believing inception (planting an idea versus extracting it) to be impossible, but Cobb knows it’s possible.  Saito convinces Cobb to do the inception by promising to clear him of his wife’s murder so that Cobb can return to the United States and see his children.   This is the point of no return- Cobb decides to do the inception.

We now know the main character (Cobb), and the primary problem of the story (Cobb must infiltrate Fischer’s dream and incept the idea of selling his father’s business so that Cobb can clear his name and see his children).  

Act 2, Part 1- Having decided to do the inception, the first sequence of Act 2 is a combination of the common Act 2 elements of gathering the team and training.  Cobb assembles a team consisting of an identity forger (Eames), an architect to design the world of the dream (Ariadne) and a chemist with a powerful sedative to allow the team to go deep into the layers of the dream (Youseff).  The “setpiece” of this sequence is a scene where Ariadne and Cobb enter a dream and Cobb shows Ariadne how to design and manipulate the architecture of the dream.  

With the team in place, they plan how they will approach their target and infiltrate his dream.  The second sequence involves putting the plan into action, trapping the heir on a cross-country flight and infiltrating his dream.  The key emotional turn at the halfway point involves Cobb’s confession that he can no longer be the architect of a dream because his dead wife always infiltrates his own subconscious and destroys the dream.  Ariadne realizes that this weakness puts the entire team in danger, but keeps Cobb’s secret.

Act 2, Part 2- Once inside Fischer’s dream, the sequences are readily identifiable, each sequence tied to a specific level of the dream and a location unique to that level.  In the first level, the team finds itself in a city during a rainstorm.  The team must evade a security force, capture Fischer and manipulate a scene with Eames posing as Fischer’s mentor.  Once this sequence is complete, the team enters a second level of the dream in a van while on the run from Fischer’s security detail.  Mr. Saito is shot in the first level of the dream, and it’s revealed that if he dies in the dream he will be stuck in limbo, the deepest level of subconscious dreaming- putting a time constraint on the dream, as they must get out before Saito dies within the dream.

The next sequence takes place in Arthur’s  dream, while Youseff stays behind to drive the van.  Arthur's dream takes place entirely in a hotel.  Here, Cobb approaches Fischer and convinces him he’s on his security detail.   Youseff is still driving the van erratically in the first dream sequence, and the effect begins to alter the architecture of the hotel, forcing the team to get Fischer to the third and proposed final level of the dream, which is Eames’ dream level, a compound atop a snow covered mountain where Fischer’s father is on his death bed.

Act 3- the third act consists of two sequences.  The first sequence is the third level of the dream on the snow covered mountain.  Time is running out as Youseff drives the van in the first dream level off a bridge, creating a chain reaction of events in each dream level that will “kick” the dreamers awake.  Just as Fischer gets the idea to sell off his father’s company, he is shot by Cobb’s wife Mal, who appears in the dream to destroy it. This scene fulfills the "plant" or "promise" of the Act 2, part 1 revelation.

The second sequence of Act 3 involves a decision by Ariadne and Cobb to enter a fourth level, limbo, to rescue Fischer and Saito who dies on the mountain.  The climactic scene involves Cobb facing off against Mal just as Ariadne rescues Fischer.  Cobb confesses that his wife killed herself because she believed her life was a dream that she needed to wake from, an idea that Cobb successfully incepted to convince her to return from limbo to be with their children.  Through this confession Cobb finds peace, and he elects to stay in limbo to find Saito.  He does find Saito and reminds him of their business, giving them both the courage to die in limbo so they can wake in the real world.

The movie ends with all of the dreamers waking up on the plane with Fischer.  Fischer makes the decision to sell off his company and we know the inception was successful- thus the primary external plot is resolved.  The final scene shows Cobb about to see his children, this is the resolution of the interior, emotional arc of the story.  The scene mirrors a scene we’ve seen in his subconscious before, and its left open ended whether Cobb has returned to real life, or whether he is still dreaming.

With INCEPTION, the stakes are continually raised through each sequence, culminating in the life or death climax with time running out.  The story follows the three act structure almost perfectly, yet the plot is complex, surprising and original.  The three act structure is often vital to complex, non-linear plots, because it helps the reader to follow the action and keep track of what’s going on.

Think of the three act structure as the foundation on which your story will be built.  We may all start with the same six inch slab of concrete, and use the same materials to hold our stories together, but like buildings, each story will be unique.


Wow, this is an intense break-down -- and a lovely plot synopsis for non-movie-goers like me :P It's super-intriguing to see how you can apply these kind of techniques across all media forms. Thanks, Talia!

Really terrific posts--thanks so much for the sharing your thoughts on these uber-helpful strategies. Love it!

Yahong's comment intrigued me - I'm wondering if we could apply the three-act structure to poetry. Probably to some poems, but maybe not to all. At any rate, I'm still enjoying this take on story structure and looking at my manuscript in new ways.

To keep raising the stakes is something I constantly remind myself of. I want to watch “Inception” again to see the 3 act structure you described in such detail. I hope I have popcorn.

Love this movie! Loved analyzing it too.

This is a great breakdown! I love this movie-- it really had a tight structure and fascinating plot.

So glad you like the breakdown! After I wrote this, I realized that this post reminded me of writing a college paper. And now I do this for fun! How times have changed...

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