Friday, October 23, 2015

Three Screenwriting Lessons from Back to the Future

(Spoilers: Back to the Future)

Earlier this week was “Back to the Future Day.” October 21st was Marty’s temporal destination in Back to the Future Part II (story and characters by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, screenplay by Bob Gale). In honor of the day, I re-watched the first Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale). It has a fantastic screenplay, demonstrating many of the techniques I’ve talked about in this blog. Here are three in particular that stand out.

The Ticking Clock

A ticking clock is a screenwriting technique where we apply a time limit to a story goal. This allows us to increase the tension in the movie. Back to the Future uses the lightning strike on the clock tower to create a deadline: it’s the only source of power big enough to power the time machine, and it will hit at a precise time. If Marty and Doc Brown can’t harness the electricity of the lightning at just that moment, Marty will be stuck forever in 1955.

This puts pressure on Doc Brown to construct the method of channeling the electricity into the DeLorean within that time frame, and pressure on Marty to get his parents together in the same time frame. Once that deadline is established, the filmmakers can up the tension by creating obstacles to the characters’ success. These obstacles range from big (Lorraine falling for Marty) to small (the DeLorean’s faulty starter, the tree branch falling on the wire).

The photograph of Marty and his siblings is related to the ticking clock idea. It’s a “measuring device” to evaluate Marty’s success or failure in restoring his parents’ romance. As a clock, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense – how long does it take changes in the past to affect the future? The question is kind of nonsensical. But the movie clearly establishes the rules of the photograph, and we buy it because we’ve bought into the whole time travel premise. So, when a rival cuts in on the big dance between George and Lorraine, tension rises because we see Marty slowly vanishing in the photograph (and on stage).

(For more on using Ticking Clocks, see: Increase Tension in Your Screenplay with a Ticking Clock)

 Plants and Payoffs

I could probably fill several blog posts just listing the plants and payoffs in Back to the Future. Part of the fun of the movie is connecting things from 1955 to things in 1985. So we get some delight from finding out that Uncle Joey, who we know is in prison in 1985, enjoys his prison-like playpen as a baby in 1955. Or that the principal was already losing his hair thirty years before Marty’s run-ins with him.

But there are other plants and payoffs that demonstrate the more important reasons for the technique. One use of planting is to set up story logic. For example, just before he’s going to use the DeLorean for the first time, Doc Brown mentions he almost forgot the spare plutonium and comments how he could have been stranded. Then the Libyans arrive and shoot Doc, and Marty’s forced to flee in the DeLorean without the spare plutonium. The payoff comes when he realizes he is stranded – just like Doc suggested. Because of the plant, we don’t question why there is no spare plutonium in the vehicle, and it sets up the whole ticking clock mentioned above.

Also important to the ticking clock is the flyer Marty brings back with him. Marty and his girlfriend are handed the flyer by a woman raising money to save the clock tower. It has the important date and time of the lightning strike on it. This pays off when Marty shows the flyer to Doc and realizes they can use the lightning strike to power the time machine.

Other examples of using plant and payoff for story logic include the story Lorraine tells in 1985 about how she and George met and fell in love. This provides the information Marty (and the audience) need to understand how Marty fractured his parents’ relationship and what he must do to restore it.

Back to the Future also uses planting and payoff to cleverly reveal character and show character change. For example, in 1985, Lorraine insists she was a good girl who wouldn’t be caught dead chasing after a boy. So it comes as a revealing surprise when she pursues Marty very aggressively, and when she hints in the car at the dance that she’s messed around with a lot of boys before him.

This also helps show the changes that have happened when Marty finally gets back to 1985. Biff is a prime example. In the opening, we see Biff in 1985 forcing George to do his reports for work. When Marty runs into Biff and George in 1955, Biff is forcing George to do his homework. When Marty returns again to 1985, Biff is now waxing George’s car. This new interplay dramatizes how the future has been changed.

(For more on Planting and Payoff see: Using Planting and Payoff)

Scenes of Preparation

Scenes of preparation set up the big set pieces of a film. One common use of a scene of preparation is to lay out the characters’ plans so the audience can tell when they go wrong. For example, in Back to the Future, Marty has a scene with George where he explains his plan for how George will win Lorraine’s heart. Marty will get handsy with Lorraine in the car outside the dance, and George will sweep in and pretend to save her. Then when we get to the scene in the car, we understand why Marty is trying to put the moves on his mother and what it means that George isn’t the one to actually intervene. Without the scene of preparation, the writers would have to resort to awkward dialogue to get that information out.

This scene of preparation serves another purpose: It shows us how nervous George is about the plan. Scenes of preparation allow characters to reveal their feelings in a way they likely couldn’t in the plot point scene. And understanding George’s fear of even faking a fight sets up the significance of when George actually stands up to Biff later.

(For more on Scenes of Preparation, see Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath)

Bonus Technique: Escalating Obstacles

While I’m talking about the scene in the car, look at how nicely the writers escalate the obstacles. We know the plan: Marty pretends to force himself on Lorraine, then George pretends to save her. But things immediately go awry when Lorraine is more randy than Marty. How can George save her if she doesn’t want to be saved? The obstacles then escalate further when Biff intervenes before George arrives. Now the danger’s even greater – Marty’s been hauled away by Biff’s henchmen, the chances of George and Lorraine getting together seem remote, and Lorraine is in serious danger of sexual assault.

There’s a reason Back to the Future has stood the test of time to the point where thirty years later people have created a “holiday” around it. A big part of that reason is the tight, expertly crafted screenplay.


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