Once upon a time… I had the privilege of talking story theory with Bob Gale who is, of course, co-writer (with Robert Zemeckis) and producer of the Back to the Future trilogy. He is also a film school graduate and a respected expert on story theory.
Back to the Future exhibits most of the principles that lie beneath a good story, and, perhaps even more of an accolade than being my favourite story, it is generally recognised as one of the top 100 movies of all time. I began our chat by asking him his thoughts on theories of ‘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 of 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. Don’t forget, for hundreds of years, everyone accepted that the universe revolved around the Earth. The moon, the stars – it all revolved around us; there was even scientific proof that this was the case! Then along came Copernicus, and suddenly all that theory was rubbished and all those experts were proved wrong. Formal learning in a creative field is only useful if it helps you to find your own voice and establish your own personal method.
Do you consider story structure in your own development process?
Sometimes. Of all the magic ‘how to write’ methods, I specifically don’t agree with any that are based around so-called ‘act structure’. Stories develop around characters and their behaviours, learning and growth. Of course, structure does exist, and as you write your scenes, your story will gain a structure under the surface, but it’s not a starting point for development.
For example, people talk about acts and how they must deliver the story in three acts or five acts, but “an act” is really a practical construct of plays created for the theatre, to provide a way to change costumes and switch scenery around – but “acts” should not be a benchmark in defining how you create your book or film story. You can certainly try to define where acts start and finish once a screenplay 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. I don’t know where the act boundaries of Back to the Future are, and I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter.
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. We have to deliver that idea using characters and plot – and the way I do this and simultaneously keep that faith is to ask and answer questions that the idea naturally evokes.
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 this, we can reasonably deduce 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? We decided it should be via a time machine, so we had to ask more questions: Where did it come from? Who built it? What does it look like? Maybe a corporation is making it. Maybe it is government property and gets stolen. Maybe it’s a product of a crazy inventor. Bingo! We knew that was right, and Doc Brown was born – our fourth character.
How, what, where, why…? We asked questions relating to our premise , 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? When we put ourselves in Marty’s position, we all assume we would invent something we know about from the future that would make us famous, don’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 would 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, wouldn’t it be great if Marty invented the skateboard? Same thing – we decided if Marty was to invent the skateboard in 1955, then 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 on 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 mother, 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 cohesion and integrity as a result.
Sounds good. What next?
When we liked what we got from the questioning process, we wrote the resulting 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 require 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.
Is there any organisation of these questions and answers?
It is initially pretty random – we just let our imagination go and 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 the whole story takes on 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. Initially, we knew two things about the ending: firstly, that we wanted Marty to make it back to 1985, and secondly, we wanted him to come back to a better life than the one he left in the first place. Most time travel stories end up as salutary tales of how bad everything will be for you if you screw with time. We wanted ours to be positive and different, so we made Marty unhappy to find himself in 1955 – he never wanted to travel through time in the first place – and his basic aim was to get back to his girlfriend and his life in 1985. We also made him screw with time accidentally [by interfering with his parents’ meeting], and find himself obliged to fix things up before he could go home. This gave us excellent dependency – the main plot couldn’t resolve until the subplots did, and the clock was ticking down. We also needed something more than simply his return to 1985 as the endgame. He had to come back for a dramatic purpose, which is why we came up with the idea of Doc Brown being shot and apparently killed in 1985. Marty had to get back earlier than he left in order to save the Doc, and suddenly the story worked beyond the matter of getting back to his old life.
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 like to work hard on the dialogue. A lot of writers struggle to deliver realistic dialogue. It’s just one of those things some people have an ear for and others don’t. Sometimes I put an actor or person I know in my mind when I write the dialogue for a particular character in order to give the character a distinctive way of speaking. I check my dialogue by looking at the words on the page and saying to myself: ‘if the character wasn’t identified for this line of dialogue, could I tell who it was from what they say?’
Dialogue is critical and needs a lot of thought. Sometimes the problem is that characters talk unnecessarily. In particular, you cannot have two characters tell each other things the audience already knows, or worse still, things that the two characters already know. It’s a common difficulty and it totally ruins the realism of your story if you get it wrong. You will find yourself in this situation, and you must find clever ways to get around it. Don’t just let it happen.
In Back to the Future we had loads of setup exposition that the audience needed to know before we could get into the meat of the story and we had to find ways of getting it out there without just stating it or letting the story drag. For example, we needed the audience to know in advance how George and Lorraine first got romantically involved, so we had Lorraine in 1985 feeling wistful about her past. She tells her children the story of how she met their father. Now, the kids already know this, so we had her daughter, Linda, interrupt her and say:
‘Yeah, yeah, Mom we know – you told us the story a million times! Grandpa hit him with the car. You felt sorry for him, so you decided to go with him to the Fish Under the Sea Dance’.
And this is natural conversation. Parents always repeat themselves and kids always roll their eyes because they’ve heard it all a million times, so we got the exposition out there that way. Don’t just settle for your first ideas and say, ‘that will do.’ Question everything and find innovative ways to deliver your story.
What advice would you give to new writers?
There are a couple of wise sayings out there that are the truth for all writers. David Mamet said: ‘Ask who wants what from whom; ask what happens if they don’t get it – and why now?’ For me, this is more interesting than talking about acts and inciting incidents and rising action and so on, because it makes you focus on characters, behaviours and drama rather than technical stuff.
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. [The sequence objective remains the same, the method of delivery changes.]
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. This happens a lot, and the point is this: Placing constraints on a writer results in 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 we in the audience made it up in our own minds. Similarly the shark in Jaws. It’s a truly great movie, but the shark is only scary before you actually see it. These days, seeing that plastic shark is pretty much a joke, but not seeing it was really powerful. So embrace constraints. Try to force yourself to do better than your first idea.
This said you must not consider budget when developing your story. Apart from anything else, the first thing that happens to your story is that somebody reads it. They need to enjoy the story as a good read. Later on, there may well be changes made for budgetary or other practical reasons, but you must not let these factors influence you and your creativity.
My main advice if you are writing a screenplay is that it is very difficult to sell original material to producers 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 or a radio play out there 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, nobody knows the secret of how to write a hit – because there isn’t one. The best advice is to be true to yourself and to write your story your way.
If you have enjoyed this post, you will be pleased to know that there are half-a-dozen conversations on the subject of what gives a story a beating heart with some of the biggest names from page, stage and screen, including novelist Lee Child (Jack Reacher series); TV comedy writer John Sullivan (Only Fools and Horses; Just Good Friends; Citizen Smith…); publishing supremo Stewart Ferris; theatre legend Willy Russell (Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine; Educating Rita…) and others, all feature in The Story Book.
Oh, and I have another HUGE name from film and TV coming to this website soon!