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In Conversation With - Bob Gale

Bob Gale attended film school at the University of Southern California, and went on to become an award winning scriptwriter, producer and director of numerous Hollywood productions, including, of course, co-writer (with Robert Zemeckis) and executive producer of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Story Consultant DAVID BABOULENE spent two days with him in Los Angeles, and talked to him about his thoughts on what makes a story tick.

What do you think about theories on how to write?
First and foremost – don’t let anyone tell you they have a ‘method’ for making a story into a success. Nobody does, and if anyone says they do, they are lying. There is no magic formula, and mercifully, there never will be. If there was such a method, there would be no bad stories, and I don’t think that’s the case now, is it?! All you can ever do as a writer is write your own story your way. Master your craft, of course, by reading stories, and learn from what other writers say about what worked for them, and from teachers about story theory. The information you can get this way is all interesting, and adds to your personal ability, but you must accept all these opinions only for what they can do in helping you to establish for yourself a working method that works for you.

Remember, even with a formula or rule book that seems incredibly convincing or appears to be globally accepted, all that’s happening is that someone is giving their opinion; and often that someone hasn’t actually had any success themselves. Formal learning is only useful if it helps you to find your own voice and establish your own personal method. Your rules are the only ones that really matter for your story.




Bob Gale

Bob Gale







Do you consider story structure in your own development process?
No. Of all the magic ‘how to write’ methods, I specifically don’t agree with any that are based around story structure. Structure is not a good starting point for a creative process. Stories develop around characters and their behaviours, learning and growth. Structure results from this development. Of course, structure does exist at the scene level, and as you write your scenes, your story will gain a structure under the surface, but it’s not a starting point for development. People talk about acts and how they must deliver the story in three acts or five acts, but acts don’t even exist for a novelist or scriptwriter! Acts are there for practical reasons in physical theatre – to change costumes and switch scenery around – but acts have no place in defining how you create your story. Yes, you can define where acts start and finish once a story is complete (I’m not sure why you’d want to, but you can) but there’s no sense whatever in trying to write a story driven by acts – or even consider acts - unless it is genuinely going to have a curtain going up and down, or the modern equivalent – advertisement breaks in a TV story. For a novel or film script – forget about acts.  


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How do you develop your own stories?

All writers face the same starting point. We start with a story idea and the challenge is to get from this idea to a beautifully developed story that remains faithful to that original idea. Let me tell you how Back to the Future came together.

Like any other writers, Robert Zemeckis and I started with an idea, and ours looked like this:

“A kid goes back in time. He meets his parents when they were young and his mother falls in love with him.”

That was it. The idea. The starting point. From here, we began with the logical assumption that the story will have three characters – a son and his parents. What do we reasonably know about these characters? Well, if his mother is going to fall in love with the son instead of his father, he must have different qualities from his father. So we said, what if, instead of his father being paternal to him and telling him how to behave, it was the other way around? After all, in 1955, his father is just a kid himself, so why should he be paternal? Marty from 1985 could be the streetwise, strong one, and his father can be unassertive and learn from his son. It is this difference between them that attracts his mother to Marty instead of his future father. Excellent.

So the character of George McFly takes on some shape, as does the character of Marty and Lorraine, and the story is developing through this knowledge of character. If he goes back in time, how did he time travel? In a time machine – where did it come from? Who built it? What does it look like? Maybe a corporation is making it. But, why? Maybe it is government property and it gets stolen. Maybe it’s a product of a crazy inventor, and bingo, we knew that was right, and Doc Brown was born – our fourth character. How, what, where, why...?

And for each answer we came up with, there was a set of logical implications that began to build the story. So, for example, we asked ourselves, if Marty goes back in time, what will he do when he gets there? Well, what would you do in Marty’s position? We would invent something we know about from the future that would make us famous, wouldn’t we? So we said, wouldn’t it be great if he invents rock and roll? What would this mean to the story? Well, it set the timeframe - it meant that he had to go back to around 1955. It also meant that, somewhere in the setup, Marty had to show he can play music, so his band in 1985 and his ability to play guitar and his musical ambition got its place in the story setup, and therefore in his character. Similarly, we thought why doesn’t Marty invent the skateboard? Same thing – we decided Marty would invent the skateboard in 1955, so we needed to establish him as a skateboarder in the setup. You can see straight away from these two small examples that Marty’s character is emerging all by itself – the character actions deliver behaviours – he’s going to be a guitarist in a band and he’s going to be a skateboarder – and this in turn affects the plot – he enters a Battle of the Bands competition and he gets about town using a skateboard. Plot driven by characters reacting in accordance with their natural character.

Just from these few questions and answers leading to more questions and more answers we have characters and behaviours that drive our story, in service of that original idea. We know that Doc Brown is a crazy scientist who invents a time machine. We know Marty is a streetwise cool kid, who rides a skateboard, plays in a band and goes back in time. We know that Marty’s mum, Lorraine, in 1955 is a romantic. She’s looking for a boyfriend and is constantly thinking about love. We know that Marty’s dad, George, in 1955 lacks confidence and is unassertive, and that is why Lorraine will fall for Marty instead of George when they meet. Look at that! All directly deduced from the original idea, which means the characters and behaviours make sense and the story has a cohesion and integrity as a result.



Sounds good. What next?

What we did with the answers when we liked them was we wrote the story event on an index card, and put it out there as a scene or sequence that would need to be there. The index card would say something like: ‘Marty invents rock and roll’. This, in turn, would drive out another index card, which we knew must come before this one. If Marty is going to get on stage and play rock and roll in 1955, we’d better establish he can play, so we wrote on another index card: ‘establish Marty can play rock and roll’, and we placed it chronologically to the left of the one saying ‘Marty invents rock and roll’.

Over time the process of asking questions and finding answers puts out more and more index cards, and the story develops in front of you. I would recommend that you get off your computer and do the same. Get a pile of blank index cards, write the scene aim on each and further index cards that establish what needs to be in place to facilitate the scene taking place. When you lay the cards out on the floor you can see your story in front of you much better than you can see it on a computer screen. You can move things around and work with your instincts to see what goes where.

Seems pretty random. Is there any organisation of these questions and answers?
It is pretty random – we just let the questions and answers take us where they do, but there is a natural logic to the index cards that is quite intuitive; most events find their natural place in the order of things, and it just finds its own shape. This said, we thought strongly about the ending early on. If you don’t know where the story is heading, you can’t aim towards it, so we did focus on the ending from the start of the development process.



As it develops, how do you write the individual scenes?

In writing scenes, the primary question is to ask whether the action does its job in delivering the big picture. Not all scenes need to carry conflict and antagonism and ‘turn’ and so on. If all scenes carried that much power throughout your story, I think it would be hard to watch. The scene where ‘Marty invents rock and roll’ carries none of the things that the rule book guys would tell you a scene has to have. There’s no antagonist, for example. The scene doesn’t even deliver towards the main plot or any sub plot, but does it work? Judging by what people I meet tell me, it’s the single most memorable scene in Back to the Future. You have to just be creative and natural sometimes, so if you write a scene in the way it ‘feels’ it should be, and it does the job you asked of it on the index card, it’s probably right.

I always try to find innovative ways of delivering the plot. Keep saying, ‘what if…?’ and turning the possibilities on their heads. Don’t just settle for your first ideas and say, ‘that will do.’ Question everything and find original ways to deliver your story.
Any advice for new writers?
I think limitations are important to writers. When you are frustrated, or up against a deadline, or forced to work under pressure, that’s when the good stuff comes out. Too many writers have too much time, and nothing ever gets done. Once Back to the Future was well underway with Universal, they priced it all up and told us we had to lose a million dollars off the budget. The movie could be made, but it had to be made at a price, and we were a million over. Our story was finished. We didn’t want to make such a significant change, but it was not negotiable. Bob [Zemeckis] and I wandered around the back-lot at Universal and we realised our climax was the key. At the time, we had an ending that revolved around Marty and Doc Brown harnessing power from a nuclear facility out in the desert. It was a million dollar location shoot all by itself. We could take out the million by changing the ending to one that didn’t require a location shoot – one that could be filmed on the studio premises. But... changing  the ending? That was a tough challenge. If the change wasn’t going to ripple through the entire story, we had to deliver the same ending, but in a different way.

We worked hard and came up with the idea for the bolt of lightning, and it turned out that this new ending was much stronger than the one we had previously. The constraints that had been put upon us by the studio forced us to think more deeply, and we ended up with a better story because of it. I think this happens a lot, and the point is this: Placing constraints on a writer forces out ingenuity. The monster in Alien was brilliantly kept from view for three quarters of the story. This excellent use of implication was not a conscious decision. The reason it didn’t appear was because they couldn’t get a convincing, scary enough monster out there cheaply enough, so they had to imply it instead. This constraint made it the best monster ever, because the audience made it up in their own minds.  So embrace constraints. Try to force yourself to do better than your first idea.

My main advice if you are writing a screenplay is that it is very difficult to sell direct to agents or studios, because the financial risk they take is so enormous. These guys are much more likely to take on something that someone else has already shown some belief in, so if you can get a book published or a community play staged or a short story out there or a radio play broadcast or any other exposure through any other medium to give it some credibility, the movie business is far more likely to pick up on it from that point than it is from cold.

Other than that, like I said at the beginning, the best advice is to be true to yourself and to write your story your way. Nobody knows the secret of how to write a hit – because there isn’t one.



Trying to stay cool sitting with my hero...




David Baboulene

is an author, scriptwriter and story consultant. The complete conversation with Bob - and other luminaries from stage, page and screen - is in his book: ‘The Story Book – guidance for aspiring writers to story creation, optimisation, analysis and marketing’.

For details on the book and lots more, visit: www.baboulene.com


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    (C) David Baboulene 2011 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED    


In The Story Book are the full transcripts of my conversations with:

Lee Child - 16 million Jack Reacher novels sold. The Man Who Knows tells all authors how to get the job done. Brutal, unromantic, commercial, unsentimental. But successful...

Willy Russell - is there a more influential man in theatre of the last century? Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine...

John Sullivan - television comedy God - Only Fools and Horses; Just Good Friends; Citizen Smith. Fascinating man.

Mark Williams - an actor's perspective on Story from the man in the Fast Show; the Harry Potter movies; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations and many, many more.

Stewart Ferris - MD of Summersdale - a leading independent UK publishing house. Stewart has commissioned hundreds of books. And rejected thousands. How to put on your salesman's hat and take your work to the people who can change your life...

And a chapter on the factors that seem to be common to all wise thinking on what makes a great story - the principles that lie beneath ALL good stories.

The Story Book