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July 11, 2022

Back to the Future: Screenplay Breakdown

Back to the Future is a cult classic that first hit our screens in 1985. But it's still adored by cinema lovers today. Why is that?

In this blog, we're going to break down the characters and the plot in Back to Future to try to understand what makes it so successful and how you can incorporate elements of it into your screenplay.

To do this, we will use the Save the Cat framework to reveal how simple and easy the structure is.

Let's dive into a Back to the Future screenplay breakdown.

Back To The Future in context

Back to the Future grossed $381.1 million, the highest of any film worldwide in 1985. There were two sequels: Back to The Future parts 2 (1989) and 3 (1990).

It stars Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd. The plot centers around a DeLorean time machine. The series' main themes are fate vs. how far we control our own destiny.

It was written by director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.

Watch this video for an in-detail summary of all the films in the franchise.

Main Characters

Marty McFly

The central protagonist, Marty, is a typical teenager living in California wanting to make something of himself as he enters adulthood. He is frustrated by his parents' lack of ambition and is aching for an adventure.

Jennifer

Marty's love interest. She becomes important in later films. However, Marty confides in her shortly before meeting Doc Brown that he dreads becoming like his parents, stuck in a dull and mundane routine.  

Doctor Emmett 'Doc' Brown

The eccentric professor loosely based on Albert Einstein, Doc Brown, has invented a time machine - the DeLorean - but is worried about the consequences of the device he has created. Anxious and caught up in his own thoughts, he's the perfect foil to Marty, who is largely cool-headed and street-wise.

George McFly

Marty's shy and retiring father initially lacks confidence and has difficulty standing up to his boss at work, Biff. By the film's end, he has become a successful science fiction writer.

Loraine McFly

Marty's mother is initially portrayed as depressed, reliant on alcohol, bored, and with little ambition. Marty is adamant that he cannot be like her.

Biff

The principal antagonist of Back to the Future, Biff, is a classic jock and bully at high school in 1955, and in the first version of 1985, he is George's boss from hell.

 Michael J. Fox is pictured in costume and at an award ceremony.
Michel J. Fox played Marty Mc Fly in Back to the Future.

Back To The Future: Screenplay Breakdown - Save The Cat

Let's examine Back to the Future using the Save the Cat beat structure, which reveals how every second counts.  

Act 1

Opening Image

The opening image is a ticking clock and a series of pendulums fixed at 5 minutes to 8 o'clock, symbolizing that we have the power to change our future at any moment.  

Theme Stated

We can argue the theme is stated when Marty bemoans not wanting to become like his mum and Dad to his girlfriend, Jennifer. What Marty fears most is wasting the precious time he has and not fully taking advantage of it. Back to the Future shows how we can take responsibility for our lives, and the future is what we make it.

Set-Up

The setup occurs when Marty encounters Dr. Brown for the first time in a parking lot. Dr. Brown reveals he has built a time machine, thus setting the rest of the plot in motion.

Catalyst

When Marty is transported to the past, he releases he has no plutonium to get back.

Things are further complicated when Marty encounters his father and mother for the first time, and his mother becomes attracted to him, creating a serious problem.

Debate

The Doc from 1955 debates with Marty, who warns him about interfering too much in the past because it might affect the Future. Marty conducts a plan to get his Dad, George, to rescue Lorraine from Marty's inappropriate advances on her.

Act 2

Break Into Two

Meanwhile, Doc destroys a letter from Marty warning him about terrorists trying to assassinate him for plutonium because Doc feels he should not have prior knowledge of future events.

B Story

Marty is locked in the band's van by Biff and his gang, thwarting his plan to get Marty and George together.

Fun and Games

After George intervenes and saves Lorraine from Biff, Marty is freed from the band's van by the gang. The lead guitarist injures his hand in the process, and Marty takes his place on stage, performing music ahead of its time to a shocked audience.

Midpoint

After Lorraine and George kiss, Marty heads back to meet Doc at a location they know a lightning bolt will strike, the only power source strong enough in 1955 to power the DeLorean.  

Bad Guys Close In

Marty changes the time to ten minutes earlier to arrive, just in the knick of time, to save Doc.

All Is Lost

The Dolorean breaks down, and Marty runs back to the mall in 1985 only to arrive just in time to see the Doc getting shot by terrorists.

Dark Night of the Soul

Marty grieves for Doc, feeling that all is lost.

A movie poster for Back to the Future.
Back to the Future promised to be an action packed blockbuster about time travel from the very start.

Act 3

Break Into Three

This beat is skipped. Remember, you do not have to follow the Save the Cat structure entirely, and you can adapt it where necessary, but our advice is not to change it completely.

Finale

Doc wakes up, revealing he has read the letter and wore a bulletproof vest. He takes Marty back home, where his father, George, is confident and full of life, and his mother is a lot happier while the rest of his family is also thriving. Then, Doc arrives again and takes Marty to the Future, 2015.

Final Image

The final image is the Delorean blasting off into space at lightning speed, striking a blast of energy at the screen as we roll into the title credits.

Back to the Future Script

Back to the Future begins with a lackluster, lethargic scene: alarm clocks ticking away the hours and minutes and ends with a sequence that feels like we are seizing the day and not wasting a moment.

Download Back to the Future here

Want to read the original screenplay? Click here!

Ready to try your hand at writing a sci-fi action film? Try out Arc Studio for free today!

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 Back to the Future: Screenplay Breakdown
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

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