Back to the Future is a masterclass in Chekov's gun.

Writing Lessons from Back to the Future

Is Back to the Future better than Star Wars? I think it might be. I mean, I’m a massive Star Wars fan. Huge. But Back to the Future has a little more heart, I think. It has a tighter story, too and, quite frankly, I think it’s better written. Which is where this post comes from; there’s plenty of tips a writer can pick up from these films.

I apologise for the spoilers in this post, I didn’t have time to build it to scale.

Put the Gun on the Mantlepiece

Chekhov’s gun is a famous principle any writer should be aware of. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” The Back to the Future films are littered with brilliant examples of this principle. A dinner table conversation outlines how Marty’s parents met, so we recognise just what he has unwittingly interrupted later on. Doc Brown mentions he loved Jules Verne as a boy, so we recognise what he shares in common with Clara (and why he suffers a setback later on). Just before Marty goes back to the future, the engine dies, so we understand why he can’t get back to the mall in time. It’s actually quite hard to think of something you see or hear on screen that doesn’t serve a narrative purpose. Or, to put it in Chekhov’s terms, there aren’t many guns in Back to the Future that don’t go off.

Stay Loyal to the History

I don’t mean historical history. I mean the history of the narrative. Back to the Future ends with Doc ushering both Marty and Jennifer into the DeLorean to save their future children. Creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis never intended to follow up on that. It was just a fun way to end the film. But, when the studio pushed for a sequel, they found themselves saddled with the debt they had created for themselves. Zemeckis admitted that, if they’d planned to make a sequel, they wouldn’t have put Jennifer in the car.

So what to do? Undo it? Have them drop Jennifer off before they go? Do some time travel chicanery? Nope. They stuck to their canon. I wish they’d made Jennifer more than just a plot device, but you have to admire a writer who enforces upon themselves the rule of “no backsies”. 

English, Doc!

You’re writing about time travel and it’s going to get complicated. Even if you ignore the science entirely, the sheer practicalities of time travel can make anyone’s head hurt. But the audience must never be confused. Not ever.

Back to the Future uses the good old uninformed protagonist. Marty is as ignorant as we are and, better yet, he doesn’t understand the jargon. He needs things spelt out in plain English, which gives the writers a perfect opportunity to inform the audience at the same time.

Avoid Unnecessary Backstory

We don’t know why Marty and Doc are friends. We never find out how they met, why Marty hangs out with him, how they forged such a close bond. And we don’t need to. It’s tempting for a writer to share all the wonderful history of the world they created. But viewers of Back to the Future only need to know that Marty and Doc are friends. You don’t need backstory to establish that; their actions and their dialogue can establish that. Don’t burden the story with more history than it can shoulder.

Now go watch Back to the Future now (because it’s brilliant), and let me know if you think it’s better than Star Wars.

Get it from: Amazon US | Amazon UK

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