B – Back to the Future (and the 4 Act Structure)

This post is the letter B for the Blogging from A-Z April Challenge.

I should have reminded myself about the 4 Act Structure back when I was in a screenwriting class. Not because my screenplay was really bad, but because it would have helped with the outlining. (In the end, the screenplay remains unfinished). But, the 4 Act Structure can help out when analyzing a movie. So we’re going to look at the Greatest Movie of My Childhood: Back to the Future!

Note: This post contains spoilers.

"He wasn't in time for his classes . . . He wasn't in time for dinner . . . Then one day, he wasn't in his time at all."

Back to the Future details the adventures of Mary McFly, a teenager in 1985 who is sent to the year 1955. In addition to finding a way home, Marty has to make sure his parents get together. Lucky for him, he has the assistance of Emmett “Doc” Brown, the eccentric scientist crazy enough to make a time machine out of a DeLorean.

The 4 Act Structure is simple. There are four acts, each roughly 20-30 minutes in length, and defined by the goals of the main character. The acts are separated by a Turning Point(TP), which is an event that changes the main character’s goals. So it’s as follows:

Act 1). Prologue
Act 2). Developing Action
Act 3). Complicating Action
Act 4). Climax
*Epilogue (optional)

Don't look so shocked - it's a simple structure

This is how it looks when applied to Back to the Future. Keep in mind that there is not a right or wrong way to break down the movie, but this is how I would do it.

Act 1). Marty wants to take his girlfriend camping to the lake. He gets called to help Doc with an experiment involving time travel.
TP Marty is sent back in time in the DeLorean.
Act 2).  Marty has to figure out a way that can get him back to 1985. Meanwhile, he bumps into his parents and interferes with their first meeting. He finally hunts down Doc.
TP – Doc concocts a plan to power the DeLorean enough to send Marty home. He also realizes Marty’s existence may be in danger.
Act 3). Marty’s attempts to get his parents to meet always involve Marty looking awesome. Meanwhile, George (Marty’s dad) still has his eye on Loraine (Marty’s mom). They come up with a plan to happen at the school dance.
TP –  The plan goes awry but George takes care of things.
Act 4).  Marty wants to warn Doc about his fate in 1985, but Doc refuses to hear. The storm approaches. Adventurous music ensues.
*Epilogue – Doc visits Marty in the time machine to go on an adventure in the future.

It’s important to know that the goals of the main character (Marty, in this case) change throughout the movie. He goes from typical teen to teen-on-life-changing-adventure and probably learns something about himself along the way. What does this mean for writing? It means that your character’s goal should not be static throughout the story. The world should conspire against your main character, and they must be forced to rise to the challenges thrown at them. The 4 Act Structure isn’t just for movies, although you can totally apply it to a bunch (like Star Wars and Indiana Jones). It’s a useful tool to keep in handy, but don’t use it too much. Like sugary sweets, this type of thing is best in moderation.

Hanging around with all the time in the world.

Discussion Question: What’s a movie you grew up watching?


9 thoughts on “B – Back to the Future (and the 4 Act Structure)

  1. Lovely post, I found it really interesting as its not something I had considered and I never know where to start when writing movie reviews and subsequently dont. A movie I grew up with…it would have to be back to the future and the goonies and weird science and pretty much anything end of the 80s early 90s.

    • That was a good time for movies, wasn’t it? Or perhaps that’s a generational thing. Anyway, I didn’t watch Back to the Future a lot in my teens, and when I re-watched it when I first started college, I was surprised by the amount of swearing that was in it and how little swearing I picked up as a kid.

  2. Nice. I like how short and sweet your description of the four parts are. It tends to seem harder than it is until you look at it like and realize that it’s really quite easy.

    One of my favorite movies growing up was Star Wars: A New Hope. We didn’t own the movies so, every Saturday (it seems like it was on that often, anyway), I would run into the living room to see my favorite Wookiee run across the screen.

    A to Z Blogger & SF/Fantasy Writer
    Visions of Other Worlds

    • Spike TV has these Star Wars marathons on the weekends now. So whenever I visit my parents for a weekend, I know there’s at least SOMETHING to watch on TV.

  3. I grew up watching Back to the Future, also! Plus, Indiana Jones. Labrynth. Goonies. Thanks for the great breakdown.

    I’m your co-host for the A-to-Z! If you didn’t get an email from me the other day, it may have gone in your spam box. Please feel free to contact me via my profile or reply to that email if you need anything or have any questions.

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  4. Back to the Future was one of my faves too. And all the 80 classics (Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, etc.) Your post very helpful – daughter is participating in Script Frenzy this month; its a challenge to write a screen play in 30 days.

    • I agree! I think it’s a bigger challenge to write a novel in a month! And yet people do that too. Good luck to your daughter!

  5. I love how you warned for spoilers – I think 25+ years we are safe from the spoiler zone 😉 Teasing!

    I’ve heard of fiction writers gleaning knowledge from the screenwriting world (“Save the Cat” for instance) and I think this would help me. I just have to focus a bit on plotting.

    Back to the Future is one of my top favorite movies from the ’80s. Another fave is Ferris Buehller’s Day Off – so many quotable lines!


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