Storyclock Research Log

Back To The Future

By Seth Worley

Back To The Future

This week in the Research Log, we're going BACK TO THE FUTURE. As usual, we've watched the movie and used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the film's structure in the form of a clock (which has never been more appropriate).

Let's Break It Down

  • Opening Image: Opening titles over a long fluid master of Doc's workshop, which is mostly clocks. We get hints at sooo many things to come in the story, that it would be exhausting to try and list them all here.
  • Normalcy: We meet Marty. He likes rock and roll, his girlfriend Jennifer, and hanging out at an old man's house doing science experiments. He's late to school, Strickland tells him he's a slacker from a long lineage of slackers, to which Marty responds with foreshadow: "history is gonna change." His parents are losers, but they were in love once. According to his mother, Lorraine, it was back in high school at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance.
  • Normalcy Disrupted: Marty is summoned to the Twin Pines Mall in the middle of the night to help Doc test his new time machine. Literal terrorists (this movie really is bonkers when you put it on paper) show up and shoot Doc dead.
  • Break Into Act 2: Marty tries to escape the terrorists by driving the time machine in circles in the mall parking lot, accidentally activating the flux capacitor and sending him back to 1955.
  • B Story Begins: Marty runs into young George and Biff in the diner. Everything suddenly clicks for the audience and we understand what this movie is going to be about now. Marty follows George and ends up pushing him out of the way of a car, getting himself hit instead.
  • Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: Marty wakes up in his mom's room, and she's all about Marty. Like all about him. Marty finds younger Doc to get his help to get home. They discover that Marty has upset the trajectory of the future, erasing him and his siblings from existence.
  • Midpoint/Arrival at Solution: Doc and Marty go to George and Lorraine's high school and realize that the Enchantment Under the Sea dance is their chance to get things back on track, Marty just has to get his parents to fall in love with each other. No bigs.
  • Things Get Worse: Marty convinces George to ask out Lorraine, but Biff shows up and ruins it. Marty's intervention accidentally turns into a display of his awesomeness, throwing fuel on the fire of Lorraine's love for him. She shows up at Doc's and asks Marty to the dance.
  • Hero's Last Resort: Marty goes to the dance with his mom and attempts to orchestrate a heroic moment for George. But not before writing a letter to Doc to warn him that in the future he's going to get shot by terrorists (seriously, how is this movie not terrible?).
  • Game Over: But Biff shows up to that, too, replacing Marty and putting Lorraine, and Marty's future, in peril.
  • Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: George shows up discovers Biff there. But instead of running, he shows true heroism and refuses to leave until Biff does. He ends up punching Biff in the face with one magnificent cinematic hit. A version of this happens one more time during the dance, with Marty's hand disappearing until George finally kisses Lorraine. Boom. We did it.
  • Hero Gains Upper Hand: Marty celebrates by inventing Rock N Roll real quick, then heads off to the clocktower to get his time travel on.
  • Shadow's Final Push: Doc finds Marty's letter and, fearing disasterous spacetime repercussions, tears it up. A tree branch disconnects the wires on the lightning cable. Doc has to climb to the top of the clocktower to reconnect it.
  • Ultimate Breakthrough: Doc get the cables reconnected and sends Marty Back To The Future™️. Marty gets back to 1985 early enough to warn Doc, but the time machine won't start, so he has to get to the mall on foot. He gets there too late, only to find that Doc was wearing a bulletproof vest, because he taped the letter back together.
  • New Normalcy: This is the most new normalcy-y new normalcy of any movie ever, showing us that everything in Marty's normal life has been upgraded to the 80's version of good.
  • Final Image: Doc shows up in the time machine saying he needs Marty to go back to the future with him to do something about his kids, cornering everyone into a sequel first act they probably wouldn't have chosen otherwise.

Stuff That Stood Out To Me

  • This movie is front-heavy, with a long first act that has a lot of pipe to lay. What we remember as the main plot of the film comes after the midpoint, which is when most movies slow down and get sidetracked. The section on the clock usually reserved for fun and games and trailer moments is mostly setup here, but we don't care or notice because that setup is all so damn fun. (The original TOY STORY is structured this way, too.)
  • This movie is super fast-paced, and yet it opens with a solid four minutes of clocks ticking.
  • There's no physical antagonist in this story. Biff gets in the way, for sure, but he's completely oblivious to the hero's objective. The actual antagonist is Murphy's Law -- everything that can go wrong, totally goes wrong. I never realized this until this viewing, and I love it so much I want to marry the movie. Again.
  • The first act does a lot of subtle stuff to suggest that 1985 is kind of a dump compared to 1955, but it doesn't overdo it. We're never taken to a cynical or nihilistic place.
  • This movie is so efficient that when anything happens, it's either setting something up or paying something off.
  • When Marty holds up the clock tower flyer to show Doc Jennifer’s number, and you see the flyer side facing the camera -- putting the solution right in our face -- that’s the point where I realize this movie is perfect.
  • Symmetrical Moments: Save the Clocktower Lady exposits about when the clocktower was struck by lightning + lightning strikes the clocktower.
  • Symmetrical Moments: The first diner scene (where Marty watches Biff bully George) + the second diner scene (where Marty intervenes and picks his own fight with Biff).

Final Thoughts

There's a lot to learn from studying the crap out of this movie, but I'd like to end this post by talking about what this movie almost was. The first draft of BACK TO THE FUTURE was just bonkers insane:

  • Marty and Professor Brown run a video pirating business from the third floor of an abandoned movie theater.
  • Einstein is a monkey named Shemp.
  • Doc needs to find the missing chemical component to convert radiation into energy. Marty accidentally spills Coca-Cola on it, revealing it to be the missing ingredient.
  • Marty manipulates Doc to get to stay for an extra period of time to pursue his dreams of becoming a rock star by inventing rock and roll.
  • They have to harness the radiation from an atomic bomb to send Marty back in the time machine (which is a lead-lined refrigerator, not a DeLorean).
  • When Marty arrives back in 1985 at the end, he finds Doc in a flying car, which he built having advance knowledge (from Marty) about the whole Coca-Cola thing. Because of this knowledge, the future is now a Worlds Fair kind of future. Also George is now the middleweight boxing champion of the world, because he punched Biff and stuff. And because rock and roll was never invented, everyone does the mambo.

The lesson is this: first drafts are dumpster fires. Early ideas are often garbage. If you believe in the potential of your story, embrace what it is now, and keep working to make it into what it deserves to be. If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Bonus Features

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this recent episode of the Defocused Podcast, where I got to hang out and talk about BACK TO THE FUTURE for an hour and a half.

You might also like this Red Giant Film Team Experiment where I recreated the time traveling Delorean effect with my Chevy Malibu Maxx using Adobe After Effects:

Storyclock Notebook

A notebook designed for screenwriters and story nerds.

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