What Am I Even Watching?)
The opening to the 2010 film Inception is quite confusing. We begin with Dom Cobb waking up on a beach and seeing two children in the distance. Before he can get to them, though, he is grabbed by security officers and brought to the opulent dining hall of a wealthy and ancient magnate. A few words are exchanged between Cobb and this old man, and suddenly we change to an almost identical scene, but one where the old man is now many decades younger, a Japanese Businessman by the name of Mr. Saito.
In this scene Cobb is explaining to Saito the importance of protecting oneself from invasions of the mind, and that he and his associate Arthur are offering their services for exactly that. Saito leaves, unimpressed, and suddenly the scene shifts again. Arthur, Saito, and Cobb are still present, but now they are in an apartment in a South American country that seems to be undergoing some sort of violent revolution. Also, Arthur, Saito, and Cobb are fast asleep, but tethered together through a mysterious device.
Back in the opulent dining hall Saito returns to confront Arthur and Cobb, claiming that he knows they are invaders in his own mind. A gunfight ensues, the whole building starts collapsing in on itself, and an inexplicable flood of water comes rushing through the place! All of this is interspersed with Arthur, Cobb, and Saito waking back up in the South American apartment, anxious about the nearing mob. And then all of this is further interspersed by the same men waking up on a train riding through the countryside.
In short, the opening of the film is rapidly shifting and incredibly difficult to follow. Audiences might catch on to some of the world rules being established, but some of it will surely go over their heads.
And that’s alright.
Because soon afterward the film introduces us to Ariadne, a young student who joins Cobb and Arthur on a new mission and they must explain all the complicated rules of dream invasion to her. As she learns the ropes, the audience also has all of that opening sequence made clear.
This is not an uncommon way to start a story. Spy thrillers like the James Bond and Mission: Impossible series frequently open with an operation currently in progress. We do not always understand the objective or which characters are on which side, but after the action winds down there is always a scene to explain to us who the players were, what they were trying to accomplish, and what the outcome of the operation means going forward.
Audience member’s are willing to go some time with lingering questions, so long as the answers do eventually come. It is up to the author to judge how long they can hold the viewer in suspense before giving them closure. Too many questions sustained for too long might erode the audience’s patience and make them abandon the story, but a few questions sustained for a short period of time can get them to keep turning the page.
Playing the Long Game)
While an audience might not put up with too many questions for too long, they are willing to put up with one or two big questions for a longer period of time. In fact, many stories work by having many short-term mysteries that are raised and answered quickly, but then one or two long-term mysteries that extend from the start to the finish.
There are examples of both of these in Inception. We’ve already discussed the short-term uncertainty raised in the film’s opening heist, and how that was all explained a little bit later with the introduction of Ariadne.
But there are long-term uncertainties as well. Perhaps the most obvious one is that of Cobb’s relationship with his wife, Mal. She is also present in the opening dream sequence, and she is antagonistic to Cobb and Arthur, intentionally revealing their plans to Mr. Saito. We soon find out that she was Cobb’s wife, whose death several years ago continues to haunt him. But exactly how she died and why remains a mystery for a great deal of the film.
And there’s an even longer-arcing uncertainty as well. As I mentioned above, the very, very first thing we see in the film is Cobb washing up on a shore and being taken by guards to the opulent dining hall of a very old Mr. Saito. Everything that follows afterward, when Mr. Saito is a younger man, is quickly explained. But that very first part with the old Mr. Saito isn’t understood until the film is almost over. In fact, the audience goes so long without this scene being explained that most watchers will probably have forgotten about it until they are reminded at the end. But then, the next time watching the movie, they will immediately understand its significance and appreciate the scene in a different way.
The Value of Confusion)
Which is one of the pleasant side-effects of these moments of confusion in a story, both of the short-term and long-term variety. These elements ensure that the audience will have one experience their first time going through a story, and a completely different experience every time thereafter. The first time they will be trying to just keep everything straight, the second time they will be picking up on nuances that were invisible the first time.
In my own story I have incorporated both short and long-term moments of confusion. On the one hand, everything that is going on in the story is strange and foreign. I continually mention new technologies and strategies, without explaining how they work, and so the audience has to learn by observation. Even when the audience understands what the group of hunters is doing, it still isn’t clear why, and what the end goal will even look like when it is reached.
Admittedly my story is a bit of a unique situation, though, because I’m only posting a thousand words a week, so the delay between question and answer is being artificially extended.
This was why in my last post I decided to raise a mystery and then answered it in the very same post. There came a moment that a monster thrust its snout through the hunters’ portal and tried to snap at one of them. Perry gave some rapid orders to his compatriots that probably didn’t immediately make sense to the reader. But then, a moment later, we saw the orders executed and saw how they trapped the beast in place.
I’ll try to lean more on these immediate explanations moving forward, due to the nature of my fragmented posting. Hopefully this will be tantalizing for the readers, inviting them to press onward, and not an exercise in frustration.