The Storytelling of Back to the Future
Well, Back to the Future Day is over. From now on, Back to the Future is officially a historical film. Instead of bemoaning the passage of time, let’s take a moment take a moment to appreciate what makes this movie so classic. Because aside from being funny and wildly entertaining, Back to the Future is well written and tightly plotted, rare virtues in Hollywood or out*.
Setups and Payoffs
This movie is all about setup and payoff. The first act, especially the scene with the McFly family at the dinner table, is stuffed with detail about the characters, their pasts, and the history of the town, all of which will become pertinent to the plot in the second act. But the exposition is never forced. It always flows naturally out of the characters’ actions. For instance, Marty needs to acquire the flyer about the clock tower, but simply being handed the flyer isn’t enough; he would have no reason to keep it. Solution: Jennifer writes her number on the flyer. The additional detail that she’s at her grandma’s house explains why her boyfriend doesn’t already have her number. This kind of precision continues throughout the movie.
Practically every joke has a setup and a payoff, too. This joke structure is great for a time-travel story, since it gives a sense of repetition. And every time Marty’s parents do something that he did earlier (or vice versa) it underlines the main theme of the movie: Marty learning to understand his parents and discovering how much he has in common with them.
But all those setups require a long first act, which could easily lose interest (notice how the movie drags whenever the jokeless Jennifer is onscreen). So the structure of the jokes varies. Most have the setup first, followed by the joke. But sometimes, like when Marty blows out the speaker, the joke comes first and a callback comes later. And better still, whenever possible, the setup and payoff are both jokes.
And isn’t it great that the movie allows Marty to be the butt of jokes instead of relegating him to the role of good-looking straight man?
Back to the Future has three main sets of stakes: Marty must return to the future, he must hook up his parents, and he must warn Doc about his death. (More on the latter below.) Notice the order in which the stakes are established. Marty’s initial goal is to get back to his own time, but before he can find Doc and figure out a plan, he’s already met his parents and accidentally changed their future.
This strengthens the story for two reasons. First, since Marty meets his parents before Doc warns him about changing the future, it comes across as an understandable mistake rather than a stupid blunder, maintaining him as a sympathetic character. Second, the overlapping order of the goals ensures that there’s never any downtime where the characters don’t have anything to do. Marty and Doc must wait a week for lightning to strike the clock tower, but Marty spends the entire time trying to deal with his parents. Meanwhile, the knowledge that Doc will be killed back in 1985 is an undercurrent throughout the film.
Compare this to an alternate plot structure: Marty goes back in time, finds Doc immediately, learns that he can’t return until Saturday, spends some time bumming around 1955, and then accidentally changes his parents’ future. While this tells essentially the same story, it’s a much weaker plot because it leaves gaps during which Marty has no active goal. The plot as written is tightly paced and keeps the viewer engaged.
Marty’s attempt to prevent Doc’s death is the film’s only non-comedic stakes, and it requires careful handling. If Marty doesn’t put enough effort into warning Doc, their relationship will seem cursory and insincere. On the other hand, if the film focuses too much on Doc’s death, it will lose its comedic value. Marty’s letter allows him to think he’s succeeded in warning Doc so that problem can take the back burner during the second act. Then, in the third act, he makes every possible effort to tell Doc until it becomes physically impossible, which makes his concern feel very authentic.
It’s the climax so great they put it in all three movies. The basic climax required by the plot would have been exciting enough: Marty must hit the wire at the exact time lightning strikes while going exactly 88 miles per hour. But they just keep piling on more beats: The wire gets unplugged and Doc must climb out onto the clock tower to plug it back in, then it’s too short to reach, then the Delorean won’t start, then the wire gets unplugged again, each beat increasing the tension.
Not only does this create an exciting, high-stakes climax, it’s also an incredibly fun climax. Action comedy is difficult. Jokes tend to undermine tension, so most movies set aside the humor during their action scenes. But Back to the Future seamlessly weaves them together, using the humor to build the stakes and vice versa. Action comedy this effective wouldn’t return until Guardians of the Galaxy.
Good plotting is invisible: While plot holes immediately jump out at the viewer, a well-constructed story moves through its beats without drawing attention to itself, leaving the viewer’s attention where it should be: On the characters, the action, and the jokes. Back to the Future is full of great jokes and memorable moments, but it’s the care taken with the writing and plotting that really elevates it and makes it a classic.
*In this post, I’m only discussing the first film. The sequels, while entertaining, aren’t nearly as tightly written.
Back to the Future is the property of Universal.