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Story Structure Lessons from Back to the Future

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As we’ve talked about before, story structure isn’t a set of boxes to tick. Structure is about telling a story in a way that creates a certain experience for the audience. The “rules” we follow are guidelines to achieve that effect. But stories are unique and there are always exceptions to any rule or guideline.

Can a movie still work, even if the structure deviates from the guidelines?

Yes! And when you find one that doesn’t hit the structural beats as you might expect but the movie works anyway, it’s a great opportunity to dig in and see what lessons we can take away.

I stumbled on an example earlier this week as I was looking for movies to talk about in the 80 Days program. It’s a movie many of us love and I think most would agree still holds up 35 years later: Back to the Future.

An enduring classic, right? What could possibly be the problem with its structure, you might ask.

There’s one particular… structure anomaly, let’s call it… in Back to the Future that I want to look at today. But more importantly, let’s look at how the movie works to keep us engaged and entertained in spite of that – which is what really matters.

The “rules” of Inciting Incidents

The guidelines for a good Inciting Incident tell us that this plot point should shake up the protagonist’s “ordinary world” and kick the story into motion. It’s here in the story that something intrudes on the status quo, forcing the character to respond – and that’s what we’re watching in this movie.

These are good guidelines and give you a solid target to aim for most of the time.

When a script’s Inciting Incident doesn’t follow these guidelines, it can feel like the story takes too long to start. That’s a pretty common issue we see in screenplays.

Okay, great – that’s how it “should” work. But what if it doesn’t?

Back to the Future: Act 1

In case you haven’t watched it recently, here’s a quick rundown of what happens in Act 1:

  • We open on a series of clocks and appliances set to timers. It appears that someone lives here, but no one’s been home for several days.  A TV plays a news report about stolen plutonium.
  • Marty arrives looking for Doc. We catch a glimpse of a case labeled “Plutonium” under the bed. Marty gets a phone call from Doc asking him to meet late that night in the mall parking lot.
  • Now late for school, Marty rides through town on his skateboard, establishing 1985 Hill Valley.
  • Marty and girlfriend Jennifer are caught sneaking around the school hallways after the bell. The principal warns Marty about hanging out with a troublemaker like Doc. The principal also says Marty’s a slacker just like his dad.
  • Marty and his band audition to play at the school dance but their performance is cut discouragingly short.
  • Jennifer tells Marty to send his demo tape out but he says he can’t because he wouldn’t be able to take the rejection. He feels even worse when he notes he’s starting to sound just like his dad.
  • At home, Marty sees “friend”-of-the-family Biff has crashed the family car. Biff bullies Marty’s dad, George, who takes it.
  • Family dinner. We see the family dynamics, get a sense of mom and dad and their relationship. We hear the story of how mom & dad met and their first kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
  • Doc calls to remind Marty to meet him at the mall. And bring the video camera.
  • Doc shows Marty that he’s turned a Delorean into a time machine – and it totally works. But it runs on plutonium, which Doc double-crossed the Libyans to steal.
  • The Libyans arrive in a hail of bullets. They gun down Doc. Marty escapes in the Delorean, zapping out of 1985 and into –

1955, and Act 2.

How Back to the Future breaks the rules

Looking at the Act 1 breakdown, can you identify a clear Inciting Incident? It’s not as big or obvious as you might expect. In fact, we have to look pretty closely to see a plot point that matches up with the guidelines we talked about.

The Inciting Incident is when Doc calls and asks Marty to meet him at the mall that night. This is going to be a real problem for Marty, he just doesn’t know it yet.

And that’s okay – the protagonist doesn’t always have to know immediately that they’re going to have to deal with the unexpected intrusion. Die Hard is one good example of the hero being initially unaware of the problem the Inciting Incident is causing for him.

But the difference is that in Die Hard we – the audience – know the terrorists arriving signals a big problem that’s going to have to be dealt with. In Back to the Future, we have no way of knowing what’s to come. And if the Inciting Incident doesn’t have a clear impact, if it doesn’t feel like it’s turning the plot in a new direction, then it doesn’t really fulfill the function of starting the story.

Why Back to the Future works anyway

So the Inciting Incident doesn’t have the ideal effect on the audience. And yet the movie works. How does it do that?

In short, Back to the Future distracts us. It may not feel as though the story has started, but we hardly notice because the movie itself moves quickly and forces us to pay attention to catch all of the details as we get to know Marty, see what it’s like in his world, and meet all of the colorful characters (including a Huey Lewis cameo!)

It distracts us with entertainment, which – again – is what really matters, anyway. Remember, the point of structure to engage the audience. Back to the Future engages us in a different way than usual, and it does so effectively. Ultimately we don’t care that the story hasn’t started when it “should.” We’re having too much fun.

And then Marty blasts back in time and we get even more of the entertainment that we came for.

But the story structure doesn’t break ALL the rules

One key thing to note: the Inciting Incident does function well in one important way, and that’s the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Break into Act 2.

The Inciting Incident introduces the problem (Marty’s involvement with Doc, the time machine, and the stolen Plutonium), and the Break into 2 is the response to that problem (escaping angry Libyans in the time machine) which sends us into Act 2 (1955).

After the Inciting Incident

And there’s more to it than just entertaining distraction. The movie does that really well, but it’s doing another important thing, too.

The section of script after the Inciting Incident is where the protagonist is usually trying to figure out how to deal with that plot event that just shook up their ordinary world. It’s the section that gets us on board with the big, audacious thing the protagonist is about to do in Act 2. It does that in part by establishing or reinforcing the meaningful stakes. Meaning, it gets us invested.

In Back to the Future, since Marty doesn’t know he needs to do something about the Inciting Incident until quite late in Act 1, he’s not thinking about what’s at stake.

But the movie still makes sure to establish some stakes in our minds, particularly along the emotional and thematic lines. We know if Marty doesn’t go through this story and learn the lesson it has to offer him he will end up like his downtrodden, risk-averse dad. We don’t want that for poor Marty, so by the time he’s in Act 2 we are truly rooting for him to come out ahead.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe