Smarter Story Structure (online course)

Write Addictively Entertaining Stories—Faster

With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

Enroll today and learn how to use story structure to get on audiences’ good side. Click on the button below to learn more:

Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from Back to the Future

The plot of Back to the Future

Today’s Plot Point Thursday features the time traveling 80’s classic, Back to the Future.

If you’re already familiar with this screenwriting tool, head on straight to the plot points. If you aren’t, here’s how to use it:

  • First, write down each plot beat onto an index card
  • Second, arrange the cards into columns so that the card at the bottom of each column is either a major turning point or an Act break
  • Finally, evaluate the (sub)plotting & pacing of the story: how did this movie weave together the A story with the B story? How did it alternate action sequences with slower ones? Comedic set pieces and sentimentality? Etc, etc.

This list of plot points is not just meant to help you master screenplay structure. You can also advance your repertoire of screenwriting techniques if you use these plot points along with the Screenplay vs Film analysis of Back to the Future I posted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

For quick access here are the links:

Screenplay vs Film: 12 Screenwriting Tips from Back to the Future (Part 1)

Screenplay vs Film: 12 Screenwriting Tips from Back to the Future (Part 2)

Screenwriting Structure & Back to the Future

Back to the Future is still a great movie to watch and a great movie to study. It excels in two key areas that a lot of aspiring screenwriters have trouble with: cause & effect and setups & payoffs.

A lot of amateur screenplays suffer from aimless plots where the plot points aren’t sufficiently connected to each other. When plot points aren’t connected, the screenplay stops making sense, and your reader will start to disengage from your story, which you want to avoid at all costs.

Your plot should resemble a chain reaction: after the catalyst occurs, it causes event A to happen. Because of event A, event B must occur…and so on and so forth. It seems really simple, but you’d be surprised how many times screenplay plots are missing this connectivity.

I think one of the main reasons for this is because in our mind, we know all the connections. So things may seem related to us, the screenwriter, although they’re not readily apparent to someone who hasn’t lived and breathed the same story for several months.

If you think your screenplay suffers from “aimless disease,” then you should seek feedback from a friend. They don’t even have to be a screenwriter; everyone has an innate instinct for cause & effect!

Setups and payoffs are also tricky beasts. Most amateur screenwriters mess them up because they use far too much exposition to set something up, which does two bad things to a screenplay: it slows it down, plus it draws attention to the setup making the payoff less surprising (and less satisfying). If you want to know how complicated events are setup without overdoing the exposition, study Back to the Future, especially the way it sets up the importance of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, the Biff issue, and the clock tower.

Plot Points from Back to the Future

  1. An assortment of clocks tick away at Doc Brown’s lab. A tv news report informs us that plutonium has been stolen from a nearby research facility. A robotic arm–one of several operating inventions–opens dog food and dumps it into a dish already overflowing with uneaten food.
  2. Marty McFly enters on his skateboard. He doesn’t see the plutonium under the bed. He amps up his guitar. The amp blows out and knocks him over.
  3. Doc calls and asks Marty to meet him at the Twin Pines Mall at 1:05 AM.
  4. Marty skateboards to school, and is greeted by his girlfriend, Jennifer. Both are scolded by a teacher who tells Marty, “no McFly amounts to anything.”
  5. Marty’s band auditions to play at the school dance — but are told they are just “too loud.”
  6. Marty loses hope about a music career; Jennifer gives him a pep talk. They’re about to kiss when they’re interrupted by a lady raising money to save the clock tower.
  7. Biff Tannen ruins the McFly car and yells at George, Marty’s father, even though he’s the one responsible.
  8. We meet the rest of Marty’s family. They’re a sorry bunch. We learn that Marty’s parents got together at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance which happened the same night as a thunderstorm. Also, Marty’s mom, Lorraine, had her first real interaction with George when her dad almost ran him over.
  9. Doc reveals the DeLorean time machine to Marty and sends his dog into the future by one minute.
  10. Doc shows Marty the flux capacitor, which runs on plutonium, and how to operate the DeLorean.
  11. The Libyans, from whom Doc stole the plutonium, arrive at the mall in a VW van and shoot Doc. To escape, Marty jumps into the DeLorean…and accidentally goes back to 1955.
  12. He slides into a barn. The owner thinks he’s an alien (Marty’s wearing a radiation protective suit) — and shoots.
  13. He drives away and hides the DeLorean.
  14. He finally realizes he’s in Hill Valley, 1955. The clock tower works!
  15. He tries to call Doc. He witnesses Biff bullying his dad, using dialogue similar to what he had used in 1985.
  16. Marty follows George — and Lorraine’s dad almost runs Marty over (instead of George, which was supposed to happen).
  17. Lorraine’s dad brings Marty home. Lorraine is highly intrigued by this stranger.
  18. Marty eats with the family, but when Lorraine makes a move on him, he abruptly leaves.
  19. He finds Doc Brown’s house and has to prove to Doc that he’s from the future…he finally convinces Doc when he tells him how Doc imagined the flux capacitor.
  20. They watch the recording Marty made to memorialize Doc’s achievement in 1985.
  21. They plan to harness the lightening that struck the clock tower to power the DeLorean (instead of plutonium) to get Marty back to the future.
  22. Marty’s brother disappears from a photo Marty has because Marty interfered with his parents meeting each other. He must correct the situation, otherwise he won’t be born!
  23. At school, a teacher bullies George, as do other students. Marty tries to introduce George to Lorraine, but she only has eyes for Marty.
  24. George writes science fiction in the cafeteria, but tells Marty he doesn’t share the stories with anyone for fear of rejection.
  25. Biff paws Lorraine; Marty rushes to defend her and gets into a scuffle with Biff.
  26. In a radiation suit, Marty blasts Van Halen into George’s ears and threatens to melt his brains if he doesn’t ask Lorraine to dance.
  27. George approaches Lorraine. They share a moment, but Biff enters the cafe. Before he can terrorize George, Marty trips him. When Biff rises, Marty punches him.
  28. Marty rushes out the cafe. Biff chases him in a fancy car, while Marty uses a makeshift skateboard. The chase ends when a truck of manure gets dumped onto Biff’s car.
  29. Doc shows Marty his plan to harness electricity.
  30. Lorraine tracks Marty to Doc’s and asks Marty to ask her to the dance.
  31. Marty hatches plan where he’ll pretend to put moves on Lorraine so George can punch him to protect her.
  32. Marty writes a letter to Doc warning him of how he’ll die because of the Libyans.
  33. Marty and Lorraine park. She calls him “a square.” Lorraine kisses Marty but realizes it feels wrong.
  34. Biff pulls Marty out of the car and hands him to his cronies. He paws Lorraine.
  35. Biff’s cronies lock Marty into a car belonging to the band playing at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
  36. George goes to rescue Lorraine, not realizing it’s Biff pawing Lorraine for real — not Marty faking it. Nevertheless, he still warns Biff to get off of her. Biff twists George’s arm.
  37. The band gets Marty out of the trunk, but the band leader slices his hand.
  38. Lorraine tries to help George. Biff pushes her away. George gets so upset, he punches Biff.
  39. George and Lorraine attend the dance together, but Marty’s siblings are still erased in the photo. He plays guitar at the dance so they can have their first kiss–but someone cuts in. Marty falls to the floor in pain, but George finally pushes the interloper away and kisses Lorraine.
  40. Marty recovers. His siblings are restored in the photo, and Marty celebrates by playing a very enthusiastic rendition of Johnny B. Goode.
  41. Doc and Marty review the plan to get Marty back to the future. Doc destroys Marty’s warning letter.
  42. A cable becomes unplugged, jeopardizing their plan. As they try to rehook it, Marty tries to warn Doc about the Libyans, but the clock tower chime drowns out his warning.
  43. Doc scales the clock tower to join the cable ends.
  44. Marty has trouble starting the DeLorean, but it finally starts after he bangs his head against the steering wheel.
  45. There’s no slack in the rope Doc’s using, so he can’t connect the two cables. When he addresses that issue, another cord becomes unplugged. Doc creates a zipline with the cables and slides down to the 2nd unconnected cable to fix it just in time.
  46. Marty returns to 1985–10 minutes earlier than when he left, but he’s still too late. The Libyans are already on their way to kill Doc.
  47. Marty witnesses the whole thing all over again. He mourns Doc’s passing, only to discover Doc is still alive. He wore a bulletproof vest!
  48. Doc goes 30 years into the future. Marty returns home at night. When he wakes up, he finds his new 1985 family, wealthier, thinner, happier, and more confident than his pre-time travel one.
  49. Biff sucks up to George and Marty, who plans to drive his dream truck up to the lake with Jennifer.
  50. But Jennifer and Marty are interrupted by Doc, who takes them back to the future…

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mahdi July 28, 2012, 10:36 am

    I have no words to express how important your articles on Plot outline and now, this Back to the Future layout, just as my research on Quantum Physics and storywriting leads me to believe that I can write my own story and time travel to the dimension of my choosing. My greatest gratitude to you. Oh, and my name is Marty, freaky right?

    • scribemeetsworld July 28, 2012, 7:05 pm

      Good luck on your time traveling/screenwriting adventures, Marty! Which dimension would you travel to?

Previous movie:

Next movie: