Movie Structure Breakdown: Back to the Future

Format: Movie

Released: 1985

Written By: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Run Time: 111 Minutes

Character: Marty “Hello” McFly

I took advantage of being snowed in over the weekend and watched the entire Back to the Future trilogy in a single sitting. If there’s any movie franchise worthy of such a treatment this is it. All three movies are insanely interconnected and, as I only just realized as an adult, chronicle about 15 consecutive days in the life of Marty McFly (though only two full days pass over the whole series in 1985). I’ll be posting a video breakdown for YouTube for my next update.  Stay tuned, storytellers.

ACT ONE: DEALING WITH AN IMPERFECT SITUATION

A character in an Imperfect Situation faces Oppressive Opposition as he pursues an Initial Goal. But when there is a Disturbance to his routine, he faces a Dilemma regarding his situation, and must assume a New Role.

Teenage slacker Marty McFly is embarrassed by his loser family (the imperfect situation) and hounded by his school principal (oppressive opposition) as he tries to enter the Battle of the Bands and hang out with his girlfriend, Jennifer (initial goal). But when Doc calls Marty to the mall and reveals he’s built a time machine (the disturbance), the Libyan terrorists Doc double crossed for plutonium find him and kill him, and Marty inadvertently activates the time machine to escape (the dilemma) stranding himself 30 years in the past (the new role).

Hook: We come in on Doc’s lab. He has a ridiculous number of clocks and a Rube Goldberg machine for feeding his dog. After being missing for a week, Doc calls Marty and asks him to meet him at the mall at 1:15 AM in the morning. For science.

The Imperfect Situation: The news reveals Plutonium was stolen by terrorists. Marty is late for school, again. Mr. Strickland catches him and gives him detention after telling him he’s a slacker like his father. Marty’s submissive father loans his car to Biff who crashes it, ruining Marty’s weekend plans with Jennifer.

Initial Goal: Be a quintessential 80s teenager. Play rock and roll at the school dance and go to the lake with Jennifer.

Oppressive Opposition: Mr Strickland tells Marty he’ll never amount to anything just like every other McFly in history. Marty’s band is dismissed from Battle of the Band tryouts for being too loud. Biff wrecks Marty’s dad’s car, ruining Marty’s trip to the lake with Jennifer. Biff is pretty much running over the McFly household.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Disturbance:  A sleeping Marty gets a phone call from Doc shortly after midnight reminding him to come to the mall. When Marty arrives, Doc reveals his Delorean time machine and gives Marty a demonstration by sending Einstein one minute into the future.

Ah, the flame retardant fashions of the 80s.

Turning Point One – The Dilemma: Start Time: 18 of 111 minutes (16.2%) – After Doc refills the plutonium chamber, the Libyans arrive and gun him down before he can debark. Marty decides to jump in the Delorean and outrun them.  When he tries to hit 90 (willingly?) he is transported to old man Peabody’s farm in 1955. Marty is chased off by Peabody and realizes he really is in 1955. When the Delorean won’t start and he discovers he’s out of Plutonium, Marty hides the car and walks the two miles into town.

The New Role: Marty becomes a man out of time.

Act End: Marty looks at the “Hill Valley 2 Miles” sign as he walks along the highway into town.

Act Run Time: 35 of 111 minutes (%)

ACT TWO: LEARNING THE RULES OF AN UNFAMILIAR SITUATION

The character Learns the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation and faces Incidental Opposition in pursuit of a Transitional Goal. But when he receives a Reality Check, he makes a Commitment to his New Role.

Act Start Time: 35 of 111 minutes (31.5%)

Marty wanders around in 1955 (the unfamiliar situation) and is viewed as an idiot by the people of the era (incidental opposition) as he tries to figure out what to do and track down Doc (transitional goal). But when Marty meets his parents and interferes with their first meeting (the reality check), he finds Doc who informs him he must get his parents to fall in love or be erased from existence (the commitment).

The Unfamiliar Situation: Marty stumbles around 1955 Hill Valley confused by his surroundings.

Transitional Goal: Figure out what he’s going to do. Track down Doc.

Incidental Opposition: Marty is viewed as an idiot by everyone he encounters.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Reality Check:  After meeting his dad at the cafe, Marty follows him for some reason. He sees his dad spying through a girl’s window with binoculars and realizes his dad was a Peeping Tom. When his dad falls into the street Marty saves him, altering the meeting of his mom and dad. Instead of his dad being hit by his mom’s father’s car and being nursed to health by Marty’s mom, Marty is hit and takes his place.

A classic brown chicken, brown cow or brown egg scenario.

He learns that his mom was actually a little sexpot, despite her prudish demeanor in the future. 

Turning Point Two – The Commitment: Start Time: 47 of 111 minutes (42.3%) – Marty goes to Doc’s house to solicit his help. Doc initially doesn’t believe him but when Marty recalls how Doc bumped his head and created time travel, the pair figure out they can use the clock tower lightning strike to send Marty back to the future. Doc tells Marty it is important not to interact with anyone. Marty reveals he already met his parents. Doc surmises Marty has interfered with their meeting and will be erased from existence if he doesn’t bring them back together.

Act End: Doc tells Marty his brother has been “Erased… from existence.”

Act Run Time: 20 of 111 minutes (18%)

ACT THREE: STUMBLING INTO THE CENTRAL CONFLICT

The character stumbles into the Central Conflict and faces Intentional Opposition in pursuit of a False Goal. But when there is a grave Turn of events, he has a Moment of Truth.

Act Start Time: 55 of 111 Minutes (%)

Marty must convince his mother and nerdy father to fall in love (the central conflict), overcoming George’s meekness, his mother’s infatuation and Biff’s meaty fists (intentional opposition) to get George and Lorraine to go to the dance together (false goal). But when Biff interrupts George asking Lorraine out and Marty’s interference only makes Biff and Lorraine come after him harder (the turn), Lorraine follows Marty to Doc’s and Marty comes up with a plan to make his dad fight for Lorraine’s affections (the moment of truth).

The Central Conflict: Marty must overcome his father’s ineptitude, his mother’s lust and Biff’s ill temper to bring his parents together.

False Goal: Get George to ask Lorraine to the Enchantment Under the Sea rhythmic ceremonial ritual.

Intentional Opposition: George is too scared to ask Lorraine to the dance. Lorraine wants to hook up with Marty. Biff wants to hook up with Lorraine and beat Marty to a pulp.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Turn: Biff bursts into the cafe as George is about to ask Lorraine out.

This is heavy.

Marty punches Biff in the face and leads him on a skateboard chase, only further enamoring his mother and leaving George looking like chopped liver.

Turning Point Three – The Moment of Truth: Start Time: 68 of 111 minutes (61.3%) – Marty returns to Doc’s where he finds Doc watching the tape from the night Marty left 1985. Marty tries to tell Doc the truth about that night (i.e. Doc is murdered to death), but Doc refuses to hear it. Lorraine shows up, revealing that she followed Marty, and asks him to the dance. Marty agrees to take her, but comes up with a plan to get George to come to Lorraine’s rescue.

Act End: Lorraine tells Marty she thinks a man should be strong so he can protect the woman he loves and asks if he does as well. Marty says, “Yeah.”

Act Run Time: 17 of 111 minutes (15.3%)

ACT FOUR: IMPLEMENTING A DOOMED PLAN

The character implements a Doomed Plan and faces Self-Inflicted Opposition in pursuit of a Penultimate Goal. But when an unthinkable Lowpoint occurs, he pulls himself together and discovers a Newfound Resolve.

Act Start Time: 72 of 111 Minutes (64.9%)

Marty enacts a plan to make George look like a hero (the doomed plan), but is foiled by his promiscuous mother and a vengeful Biff (self-inflicted opposition) before George can save Lorraine from her attacker (penultimate goal). But when George knocks out Biff only to revert to his timid ways at the dance, causing Marty to begin to disappear (the lowpoint) George rescues Lorrain again and the two have their first kiss (the newfound resolve).

The Doomed Plan: Marty comes up with a plan to get handsy with Lorraine on their date and have George come to her rescue. This plan backfires when Lorraine is revealed to be looser than she let on to Marty in his past, and Biff interrupts instead of George.

Penultimate Goal: Get George to beat him up to win Lorraine’s love. 

Self-Inflicted Opposition: Against Doc’s wishes, Marty writes Doc a note to warn him about the Libyans. Marty can’t go through with his own plan to get handsy with his mom, and his past transgressions against Biff come back to get him.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Lowpoint: Biff interrupts Marty and has his goons lock him in the trunk of a car. Thinking he’s stopping Marty, George busts in on Biff molesting Lorraine. When Biff pushes Lorraine to the ground, George deck him one, winning Lorraine’s affection. It is revealed that Marvin, the band’s guitarist, injured his hand getting Marty out of the trunk. Marty takes his place to get his parent to kiss on the dance floor. When someone pushes George away and takes Lorraine, Marty begins to disappear.

Turning Point Four – The Newfound Resolve: Start Time: 85 of 111 minutes (76.5%) – George steps back in, pushes away the dweeb and lays one on Lorraine’s kisser. Marty plays Johnny B. Goode to celebrate.

I feel Goode!

Act End: After Marty leaves his parents at the dance, Lorraine tells George, “Marty. Such a nice name.”

Act Run Time: 19 of 111 minutes (17.1%)

ACT FIVE: TRYING A LONGSHOT

The character tries a Longshot and faces Ultimate Opposition while trying to accomplish the Ultimate Goal. But just when it seems All is Lost, he makes a Final Push against the forces of antagonism and either succeeds or fails.

Act Start Time: 91 of 111 Minutes (82%)

Doc and Marty try to catch a bolt of lightning (the longshot) facing off with nature and the space time continuum (ultimate opposition) to send Marty back to 1985 (ultimate goal). But when tree debris disconnects Doc’s contraption, the Delorean starts to malfunction and Marty can’t warn Doc about his impending murder (all is lost) Doc scales the clock tower like a boss, and ziplines down to reconnect everything as Marty is jolted back to the future to stop Doc’s murder (the final push).

The Longshot: Doc and Marty attempt to catch lightning to send Marty back… to the future.

Ultimate Goal: Use the clock tower lightning strike to send Marty Back to the Future.

Ultimate Opposition: Everything has to be perfectly aligned. The forces of nature and space time disagree with Marty and Doc’s plan. Doc still ain’t trying to hear no talk about his future.

Turning Point Catalyst – All is Lost: Doc finds Marty’s letter. The storm knocks over a tree branch, separating the cable. Doc nearly falls to his death from the clock tower. Marty has the idea to go back earlier and save Doc, but the time machine malfunctions. Doc has to repel down the clock tower to reconnect the cable in the nick of time.

Turning Point Five – The Final Push: Start Time: 101 of 111 minutes (91%) Marty arrives back in 1985 against the protest of hobos. When the Delorean won’t start he rushes back to the now Lone Pines Mall via skateboard. He watches himself flee from the terrorists after Doc is shot by the Libyans.

Insert Benny Hill music.

Shortly after Marty discovers that Doc is alive and actually read his letter of warning.

Act End: Doc shows Marty the letter from 1955 and reveals that he read it. Because, “What the hell.”

Act Run Time: 14 of 111 minutes (12.6%)

ACT SIX: LIVING IN A NEW SITUATION

Having accomplished (or failed to have accomplished) the Ultimate Goal, the character is shown living in a New Situation.

Act Start Time: 105 of 111 Minutes (94.6%)

Marty’s family is now successful and all his previous troubles are over (the new situation).

The New Situation: Marty returns to his home. When he awakens the next day, he finds his brother and sister are now successful, his father is a confident author, his mother is healthy, and Biff is the family’s obsequious manservant. Marty also now has a sweet 4×4.

Act Run Time: 6 of minutes (5.4%)

To learn more about six act structure, purchase your copy of “Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret” today!

 

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