How to Write a Story:
Learning from Back to the Future
The greatest and most productive way to study the art of writing fiction is not, in my opinion, by reading books about it. It's reading fiction itself, and watching it as well. Movies are the visual of books, pages come to life, characters suddenly taking real form. They take what readers imagine and bring it to life (sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn't)
But I'm not talking about the movie adaptions of books. I'm talking about movies themselves. Particularly, in this post, about one of my favorites: Back to the Future.
Though I don't write science fiction, I have watched this movie enough to realize just how well it executes successful fiction writing. From its plot structure, setting, and character development, we have a lot to learn from the movie (actually, three movies). Let's break down its individual successes, and see what we can learn:
Strong, Unforgettable Characters
Anyone who has seen BTTF will most likely never forget its characters. I mean, seriously, does the image of Doc Brown soon leave one's mind? Not for me. I first saw the movie when I was young, then didn't see it again until a couple of years ago. I didn't remember much, except for the characters. Those are the kinds that should be in your book. Let's dig deeper:
The Protagonist: Marty McFly
They made him pretty much a stereotype: High school senior, “Slacker” according to his principal, madly in love with his girlfriend, plays a mean guitar (And is “Too darn loud”)
But in that stereotypical character is woven a complicated young man who is secretly afraid of rejection – just like his father. His self-doubt of his abilities leads him to avoid showing them off, and his incessant need to prove that “Nobody calls him chicken” ends up getting him into trouble more than once. And then of course there was the infamous sports almanac, and his underlying greed is what sent part 2 into a tailspin.
The creators of Marty kept one of the most important rules in mind throughout the series: Don't be afraid to have a main character with faults. Marty sure did, and it played a major role in the plot. But in the end, he gained the courage and determination to right his wrongs and fix the alternate reality, and his ultimate good heart wins us all over.
The Secondary Lead Character: Emmett (“Doc”) Brown
If ever there was a phenomenal character, it was Doc Brown. From the first moment we see him, he is instantly intriguing. He too, was built upon a stereotype, but at the same time made a brilliant, unique, and unforgettable person.
He was undeniably eccentric, with his inventions (most of which didn't work), and his wild-eyed, crazy-haired scientist look. But his passion and willingness to sacrifice his image (as explained by Marty's principal) for the “Betterment of mankind” makes him admirable.
Also behind this crazy scientist is a lovable and caring grandfatherly-type man who treats Marty like his son, and often shows that he cares more for his young friend's (and his dog's) well-being than his own. The perfect combination of all of these characteristics makes him instantly lovable.
“You're my density”
No one will soon forget that. One wonders just what genius inspired that line to be written into the script. It may seem small, but just that one line has long been remembered, so much that Lea Thompson in an interview said that it was the first thing fans would tell her when they met her. Why? Because it's different, unique and unexpected. Yes, you'd picture George McFly inching towards the girl he loves and passionately (if awkwardly) telling her of his affection. But no one would expect him to call her his density. It's brilliant.
That, along with several “Great Scott!”'s, and the fabulous use of 1980's terms in the 1950's ("Why is everything so 'heavy' in the future?” The '50's Doc asks at one point.), is what makes it so unexpected. Even the scientific terms (Flux-capacitor? Where does one come up with that?) are iconic, and have lasted decades.
That is what exactly you want your dialogue to turn into - memorable, quote-worthy lines that add to the depth of the characters speaking them, and do nothing but enhance the story line.
Integrating the Setting
For most of us (as writers and readers), setting doesn't play as vital a role as, say, characters or plot. It's usually the background to the story, which, I suppose, is what it was designed to be. But this movie puts an unforgettable spotlight on its setting that is worth noticing.
Because there are four distinct settings (1985, 1955, 2015, 1885), the makers of the movie put tremendous detail into each one, and made subtle pieces of each setting tie into each other. (For example, the “Twin Pine Mall” becomes the “Lone Pine Mall” after Marty runs over one of the two infamous pines thirty years before.) Landmarks set in the 1885 Hill Valley are noted in the modern day setting, (most memorably the infamous clock tower) and not one detail is overlooked.
Such care is given to each setting to make it both memorable and functional in the overall story that one can't help but recognize, writer or not.
An Extraordinary Plot
This truly is the greatest element of this movie series. Although, according to the screenwriters, a sequel was not planned upon the release of the first installment, each plot integrates perfectly and, to all amazement, flawlessly into each of the other movies.
At the end of the third movie, events that happened were clearly related to events from the first and second, and vice-versa. Without the screenwriters planning it, the first movie not only set up for the others, but also foretold them.
The greatest element to this plot was that it never stopped moving. There was not one dull moment in any of the movies, and there was never a moment that one would use to get up and get a drink. No. The first time you see it, (and in my experience every time after that), your eyes are glued to that screen, because the plot is so complex and so riveting that there's no way you're leaving until it ends.
There were no plot twists in these movies – the entire story line is one big plot twist in the “Space-Time continuum.” Every time they thought they had solved the problem, the chain reaction caused yet another, sending them back into the quest to fix time all over again, and keeping you in front of that screen until the credits were rolling.
You never knew what was going to happen next.
Every element played its role, culminating in a movie that is still loved decades after its release. A plot that is so captivating that it still has an audience thirty years later, and characters that are so lovable that my three-year-old brother considers Marty McFly to be his hero.
Every writer wants their story to become an icon. Every writer wants their characters to be loved, their plots to be riveting, their dialogue to be quoted, and their settings to seem like real places. Every writer has that ability, if you use it well, cultivate it, and learn from the best, your story can become the next Back to the Future
That's why I say hats off to some of the best, Robert Zemenckis and Bob Gale, for writing what is considered by critics to be one of the greatest movies of all time.
Now that's really heavy.