This post contains ancient spoilers!
I was twelve when I first saw Back to the Future at the cinema. I still love to watch it. It has a great concept at its heart, plenty of conflict, lovable characters, lots of rich detail, a satisfying resolution and a sense of the excitement to follow. There are more things fiction writers can learn from this film (and its sequels) than I have space for but here are some important ones for me.
Plenty of conflict
A good story should have conflict throughout. There should be an overriding problem to be solved, in this case, getting back to the future. But along the way there should be lots of smaller goals that are scuppered. Progress should always be tempered by setbacks. If it isn’t, you’ve got no story.
Imagine you’re Marty. You try to get to school on time but are distracted by a mad scientist and his wrong-time clocks and you get caught sneaking in late by a teacher who hates you. You try to kiss your girlfriend but get interrupted, first by a tin-rattler intent on saving the clock tower (foreshadowing), then by your girlfriend’s dad (and even at the end of the film when it looks like you will finally get a snog, the Doc shows up fresh from 2015).
You plan to take your girlfriend to the lake but find the car has been wrecked. You try to film a history-making attempt to travel through time, but get interrupted by murderous Libyan terrorists. Damned inconvenient! You attempt to escape certain death in 1985 only to find yourself in 1955 with a shotgun in your face, trying to escape certain death. Again.
And this is only the birth of the main problem. From here, Marty must change the course of history, escape his mother’s inappropriate advances, get his parents to fall in love, escape Biff and his minions, warn the Doc about the terrorists and get back to the DeLorean in time for the lightning strike which will send him back to the future. Each goal is made of smaller goals and conflicts. It’s genius, I tell you.
Revealing characters in their absence
Take the opening scenes where Marty goes to the Doc’s garage. We see his clocks, foreshadowing the importance of time in the film, and his other various contraptions. Already we picture a crazy scientist. He has a breakfast machine, dammit. All crackpot inventors have a breakfast machine.
A newspaper clipping tells us that his house burned down, and we wonder what on earth he was experimenting with to make that happen. We see on the news that some plutonium was stolen by terrorists from a secure facility, and we see Marty’s skateboard hit the case of plutonium in its hiding place under the bed. What does the Doc need plutonium for? How is he mixed up with terrorists? Is there anything he won’t do in the pursuit of scientific enquiry?
We see that Doc hasn’t been home for days (probably in hiding due to the stolen plutonium) and that he has a dog – he’s an animal lover. We see that his best friend is a teenager, and that perhaps he has been ostracised by his peers for being completely bat-shit. Their relationship is never really explained, it’s just a given, but we do know that the Doc has the biggest amp the world has ever seen, and that Marty plays guitar. Perhaps this was part of the initial attraction, who knows?
The scene is a great character sketch. When we see Christopher Lloyd for the first time, we feel we already know Doc Brown, and we love him despite his somewhat disrespectful attitude towards paradoxes.
Detail, foreshadowing and tying up loose ends
The film is a masterclass in detail. Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall after Marty knocks down one of the trees in 1955. Marty inadvertently gives Chuck Berry his “new sound” when he is forced to play guitar at the school dance. Marty plants the idea in young Goldie Wilson’s head of being the first black mayor of Hill Valley. Marty uses popular 1985 culture to terrify George into believing he is an alien, providing him with the inspiration to write science fiction. Doc is amused that an actor has become the president. There’s something beautiful about inventing the future. These are lovely little details that the film could certainly survive without but they make it richer and provide little a-ha moments for viewers. There are loads more of these moments. I’m sure I haven’t caught them all myself even though I’ve seen the film dozens of times.
Then there’s the music, the clothes, the language and all the other cultural differences that distinguish 1955 Hill Valley from the 1985 version, including a working clock in the clock tower. This makes 1955 very real for Marty as he’s never heard it chime before.
The loose ends of the story are tied up beautifully when Marty arrives back in his own time to find his family’s lives radically changed by his interference in past events. In the new 1985, Marty gets his dream truck. George finally believes in himself and becomes a sci-fi author. Biff no longer has any power over George. Marty’s siblings have lost their non-aspirational outlook. His brother now has an office job, and his sister is fighting potential boyfriends off with a stick. These are small but satisfying details that provide proof of how much things have changed as a result of Marty’s presence in 1955. His reunion with Jennifer shows that some things never change and reminds us that despite his adventures, his absence from 1985 has gone unnoticed.
It’s not often that past events can be foreshadowed by future ones. The early reminiscence of how George and Lorraine met foreshadows the action of 1955. Lorraine drinks alcohol when she parks with Marty in 1955, foreshadowing her future alcoholism, which we see at the very beginning of the film when she tells us she would never have sat in a parked car with a boy. It serves as a reminder of what she becomes, so that when we see her again at the end, fit and healthy, glowing with exercise, and positively encouraging Marty’s relationship with Jennifer, the contrast between the family’s fortunes and outlook at the beginning of the film and at the end come into sharper focus.
All of the positive changes in Marty’s life in the new 1985 are set up at the beginning of the film in the old 1985, so we need to see both his old life and his new life in contrast to make the story worth our time. Showing one or the other just wouldn’t work. We need both.
“Better get used to those bars, kid”. I love this line, and it’s another reminder of the downturn in the family’s fortunes in the original 1985 where Uncle Joey doesn’t make parole again.
Marty’s skateboarding skills, displayed at the beginning of the film, come in handy when he has to escape Biff and his minions in 1955 (and later in 2015). Biff’s car skidding into a manure truck also becomes a recurring motif throughout the films.
These are all great reminders for writers. Conflict must arise from the characters’ responses to the plot and it must never stop until the goal is reached. Characters can be effectively revealed in their absence. Their hobbies can be used to further the plot, e.g. escaping the bad guys on a makeshift skateboard or playing guitar so that your parents can have their first kiss on the dance floor. Their quirks can get them in trouble, especially if they involve Libyan terrorists or an aversion to being called “chicken”. Details provide richness and make other times and places seem more real and believable.
Foreshadowing, when used properly, hints at future events without making them explicit. It stops revelations from being so unlikely that we wonder where the hell they came from. Like Chekhov’s gun, if you set it up, make sure you fire it, and if you fire it, make sure you set it up.
If characters change on the inside during the course of the film, there will be physical changes on the outside because films are visual and we can’t see inside the characters’ heads. The relationship between George and Biff has been fundamentally changed and it manifests itself very physically through action and pert dialogue.
In a novel, emotional changes don’t necessarily need to manifest themselves physically because we can often see inside the characters’ heads, but that doesn’t mean we should leave out physical responses entirely. Our behaviour is as much an indication of change as anything we think or say, and can have more of an impact on readers than speech or thought alone. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
I was going to save this post for next year, 2015, when Back to the Future 2 is set, but I have a feeling I’ll be too busy on my hover board to bother with blogging.