A storytelling cliché pops up from time to time, an easy get that reeks of desperation from low screening numbers: Characters who proclaim their goals out loud. Why must we suffer through this ridiculous conceit?
It’s not like this happens in normal day-to-day conversation. We don’t travel to work and say Today I’m going to finish that report! Those who do need therapy. And so should the characters of stories who react in kind.
Great stories work a goal without the fear of an audience not getting it because they didn’t hear it. Great stories work that understanding through sound story structure.
Great stories, like Back to the Future.
The Structure of Time Travel
But wait a second…Doc distinctly tells Marty, “We’ve got to send you back to the future!” Doesn’t that qualify as another vapid response to unclear structure?
The completion of a goal finishes a story. Marty successfully returns to 1985, yet unfinished business still lurks in the wings. The Libyans continue to roam the Twin Pines mall. Getting back to the future, it turns out, solves nothing.
Time Shifts and Story Structure
Many stories play around with the temporal shifting of events. Could it be that the shifts in time simply don’t factor in to the structure of the story?
Paraphrasing Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley (from the [March 2005 Dramatica Tip of the Month]): if the characters in a story are aware of the time shifts (as in Somewhere In Time or Back to the Future) then that awareness becomes a part of the structure. If they’re not (as with Memento or Pulp Fiction), then the time shifts are simply a storytelling device, and have little to do with the actual structure of the piece.
In this case, time shifts matter.
Tying Causation to a Story’s Goal
When appreciating the Goal of a story, accurate analysts nail down the individual events that turn a story from one dramatic tide to the next. The initial cause shines as the most important of all these. When identified with absolute certitude, the event needed to resolve a story’s issues reveals itself. Widely known as the Inciting Incident, this first marker drives a story into existence.
Separating Inciting Incident from Main Character
Many people incorrectly see the First Act Turn as the Inciting Incident. Whenever someone says that a story didn’t start for the first twenty or thirty minutes, they more often than not completely missed how the story began. (Unless they just finished Big Hero 6, a movie that took 30 minutes to get started). That 20-30 minute marker almost always becomes responsible for turning the First Structural Act into the Second. It is rarely the Inciting Incident.
These errors in judgment owe their life to the preconception that the central character, or Main Character, is also the Protagonist. The Protagonist of a story—the one responsible for pursuing the successful resolution of the story’s inequity—latches on to the Act Turns as a powerful symbiotic, part and parcel of the same structural tides.
The Main Character, on the other hand, showcases a point-of-view—a personal look into the issues at hand. Main Character and Protagonist are not always one and the same. They can be, but not always. But because many assume they are and because the Main Character often doesn’t shift into gear (pardon the pun here) until that First Act Turn, many see that moment as the story’s Inciting Incident.
While Marty certainly has a hand in this Act Turn that does not mean it starts the story. That jump through time certainly starts the “fun and games” moment of the movie, but it doesn’t start the story. Instead another event claims that title, an event that - if it had never happened - would have precluded the need for Marty to ever push the DeLorean to ninety.
The Driving Events of Time Travel
The Inciting Incident of Back to the Future happens when Doc screws over the Libyans. Substituting pinball machine parts for plutonium effectively starts the inequity of the story and guarantees the subsequent act turns. Without that event, time would have simply marched on as it always has.
Continuing the analysis of key structural moments, The First Act Turn would therefore be the moment Marty pushes the DeLorean to 90 mph. The Midpoint—or next major driving point—is when Marty bests Biff in the town center, cementing his mom’s affection for him. The Second Act turn, or subsequent major driving point, occurs when George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold. Each of these turns the story to an area where it cannot return. Each of these develops the initial inequity instigated by Doc’s scam.
Bringing an End to the Madness
So returning to that famous line, getting Marty “back to the future” must be the Concluding Event, right? No. The problem with that line of thinking lies within the fact that the story still needs to work through some unresolved business. Returning back to 1985 didn’t solve anything. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not truly what is at stake within the story. Instead, the Concluding Event finds itself tied to the Inciting Event.
Doc cheats once again.
By taping the pieces of Marty’s letter back together, Doc successfully brings an end to the problems caused by his initial egotistical blunder. Marty and Doc win. The problems of the story come to a resolution.
A Goal for All
Essentially then, the goal of Back to the Future was to beat the space-time continuum. They didn’t simply restore it, they kicked its ass. That was, after all, what Doc hoped to achieve when he first dreamt up the wormhole-chomping Delorean monster machine. He cheated the Libyans because he wanted to beat the timeline he felt trapped in. Marty jumped back to the 50s because he was cheating death. Same too with his efforts to head back to 1985 ten minutes earlier. Time’s a bitch as they say, and both Doc and Marty worked their mojo to overcome it. Doc’s final cheat was simply the final nail in the coffin.
They beat time.
Constructing a Solid Story
The key to having a story work out properly, for it to “make sense” to an audience, lies firmly within the application of the mind’s problem-solving process to the events of a narrative. Understanding how the Inciting Incident creates the inequity that the story-mind must resolve makes an Author’s efforts towards communication a purposeful endeavor. Having a character verbalize his or her goal panders to an audience and simply does not guarantee comprehension.
Goals exist as a tool for Author’s to construct meaningful stories. They are not a panacea for bad storytelling.
Advanced Story Theory for This Article
The concern with how things will be, if there will be a future, seems to lie more heavily within Marty himself. Doc has a thing or two to say about this, but when you factor in all the other characters—the mayor, the Libyans, the guy on the park-bench, the hormonal mom and the dweeb dad—the future simply doesn’t fit.
Marty’s Main Character Concern is the Future. Marty is a McFly, always has been, always will be. Escaping that prison of inheritance becomes everything to him. Returning home to find his future set translates into a Story Judgment of Good.
Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Physics, Obtaining, Self-Interest, AvoidanceConcepts covered: Inciting Incident, Main Character, Protagonist, Story Driver & Story Goal.