*If you haven’t see Inception, be warned: There are spoilers ahead!
Writers talk an awful lot about plot and character. No surprise there, right? Writing a good story means putting characters readers will root for in situations that keep them turning pages. But of course, that’s not enough. For a book (or any narrative art form) to be truly excellent, it needs more: fluid language, natural dialogue, and something I think of as “fine structure,”
If the plot is a path through the mountains, the fine structure is the pavement under your feet—it’s how each scene is stitched together with its neighbors. When the trail is smooth and well-maintained, you won’t even notice it, but if it’s choppy and uneven, it’s distracting. In a novel, the fine structure is where paragraphs, sections, and chapters break. In movies, it’s in the scene cuts. The best example of good fine structure I’ve encountered recently was in the movie Inception, and it's a good thing they got it right. The success of the movie, in my opinion, hinged on the success of its fine structure.
In a typical narrative, we’re used to abrupt scene changes with transitions that alert us to the passage of time or space. Dreams, as Dom points out, are different: Your stream of consciousness is seamless while the world around you shifts. Inception conveys a dreamlike feel through the high-gloss polish of the sets and costumes, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough without the brilliant, dreamlike scene cuts.
The first place this sort of scene transition shows up is in the sequence with Dom and Ariadne, when she’s learning how to create dream-worlds. We sense they're in a dream before Dom lets on that we are, because while the music and dialogue are without break, Dom and Ariadne move abruptly from a crowded hallway to a rooftop terrace. These dreamlike transitions occur throughout the movie, but for me, the most memorable cut in the move is the last one. When Dom leaves the airport, he moves without pause from the passport check to baggage claim, then to meet his father, then to his home. It’s the transition from the airport to his house that’s best of all. Something about the way Dom and his father move relative to one another makes the scene-shift seem as though they’ve stepped from the airport to Dom’s living room in a single leap. Whatever you decided about the ending, I think this is a clue.
I’m not writing anything that cross-cuts narrative flow the way Inception does.** Still, I think I can learn from the craftsmanship that clearly went into the movie. Having a good story means having believable, empathetic characters and an engaging, well-paced plot. Having a well-executed story is about the quality of the language and the seamlessness of the narrative. There’s an art to knowing how to piece scenes together, where to cut them for the best reading experience. Something for me to keep in mind as I take the collection of scenes I’ve written for my second book and forge them into a story.
**The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book that plays with time the way Inception plays with reality, is similarly brilliant in how it’s pieced together. In my opinion, the fine structure of that novel is damn near perfect.