In Conversation with - Bob Gale, Co-Writer of Back to the Future
Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies. This is due not just to the fact that I love eighties films, but also to the acting, directing, and most importantly, the writing. One of the best interviews I've read was a conversation with Bob Gale, one of the co-writers of Back to the Future. I'd like to share a little bit of the interview with you.
What do you think about theories on 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 about 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. Formal learning is only useful if it helps you to find your own voice and establish your own personal method. Your rules are the only ones that really matter for your story.
Do you consider story structure in your own development process?
No. Of all the magic ‘how to write’ methods, I specifically don’t agree with any that are based around story structure. Structure is not a good starting point for a creative process. Stories develop around characters and their behaviours, learning and growth. Structure results from this development. Of course, structure does exist at the scene level, and as you write your scenes, your story will gain a structure under the surface, but it’s not a starting point for development. People talk about acts and how they must deliver the story in three acts or five acts, but acts don’t even exist for a novelist or scriptwriter! Acts are there for practical reasons in physical theatre – to change costumes and switch scenery around – but acts have no place in defining how you create your story. Yes, you can define where acts start and finish once a story 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.
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. 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 here, we began with the logical assumption 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? In a time machine – where did it come from? Who built it? What does it look like? Maybe a corporation is making it. But, why? Maybe it is government property and it gets stolen. Maybe it’s a product of a crazy inventor, and bingo, we knew that was right, and Doc Brown was born – our fourth character. How, what, where, why...?
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? Well, what would you do in Marty’s position? We would invent something we know about from the future that would make us famous, wouldn’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 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 why doesn’t Marty invent the skateboard? Same thing – we decided Marty would invent the skateboard in 1955, so 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 using 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 mum, 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 a cohesion and integrity as a result.
Of course, this is only a short excerpt of the interview. To read the whole thing (which I recommend doing), you should go here.