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