Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future isn’t only one of the most iconic movies of all time – it’s also a great example of how to tell a story using the classic Three Act Structure narrative framework.
In this beat sheet, we’ll look at how the plot of Back to the Future fits into Three Act Structure to create such a compelling story. So grab your flux capacitor and let’s get started!
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Act 1: Setup
Beat 1 – Exposition:
We meet the protagonist Marty McFly, a fun-loving teenager living in 1985 California with less than inspiring siblings and parents – his mother is an alcoholic and his father is bullied by his boss, Biff, a main antagonist. An aspiring rock musician, Marty likes playing guitar, skateboarding, seeing his girlfriend Jennifer, and helping out his close friend Doc Brown, an eccentric scientist and inventor. That night, Marty heads to the mall to assist Doc, who says he has made a major breakthrough.
Beat 2 – Inciting Incident:
When Doc reveals he has transformed a DeLorean car into a time machine, Marty’s ordinary world is shattered. After successfully testing it, Doc shares it is powered by plutonium, which he stole from Libyan terrorists. As he prepares to travel into the future, the Libyans arrive, seeking revenge. Doc is shot and killed.
Beat 3 – Plot Point 1:
Marty jumps into the DeLorean to escape and a car chase ensues. As the DeLorean speeds up, it suddenly disappears and Marty is transported 30 years back in time to 1955. After crashing into a barn, Marty hides the now dysfunctional time machine and wanders into town, bewildered by the new world he has entered.
Act 2: Confrontation
Beat 4 – Rising Action:
After finding his teenage father George at the local diner being bullied by a young Biff, Marty follows him only to get struck by a car outside his mother Lorraine’s home. Marty wakes up recovering in her bed; she is clearly infatuated with him. When she asks him to stay overnight, Marty flees to Doc Brown’s home, who agrees to help him get back to the future. The only problem: how are they going to restart the DeLorean?
Beat 5 – Midpoint:
When Marty shows him a newspaper from 1985, Doc sees the answer. A bolt of lightning will hit the local clock tower in seven days; if they can harness it, they can get Marty back to the future. Except they discover another problem that must be resolved first: Marty’s behavior in 1955 has interfered with his parents falling in love, putting himself and his siblings existence in peril; they’re even fading from his photographs. He and Doc then visit the local high school and craft a solution: George must take Lorraine to the upcoming school dance, where they’re supposed to have their first kiss.
Beat 6 – Plot Point 2:
With his existence at stake, Marty tries several ways to get his father to ask his mom to the dance, but accidentally causes his mother to ask him to go instead. As a ploy to get his parents together, he agrees; when Marty makes a pass at her, George is to intervene and save the day. But when they get to the dance, Biff attacks Marty and locks himself in the car with Lorraine against her will. George sees Biff, dares him to a fight, and knocks him out. He takes Lorraine to the dance, where they share a glorious first kiss. Finally, Marty family’s timeline is back on track, and he can safely return to 1985.
Act 3: Resolution
Beat 7 – Pre-Climax:
After a quick celebratory rock solo, Marty heads to the clock tower to meet with Doc, where a series of problems develop to put the mission in peril. First, Doc rips up a letter Marty has written him with instructions to prevent his death in 1985; a tree branch somehow disconnects Doc’s lightning cable, forcing Doc to climb the clocktower to fix it; and then the DeLorean’s engine suddenly stops. With just a few minutes until the lightning strikes, it appears all may be lost.
Beat 8 – Climax:
The engine suddenly restarts and Doc manages to reconnect the cables; when the lightning strikes, it successfully sends Marty back to the future. He returns to 1985 early enough to prevent Doc’s death, but the car breaks down and he has to run to the mall. He appears to arrive too late, only to find Doc is actually alive and wearing a bulletproof vest; he taped up Marty’s letter and read it after all. Now, Doc finally gets his chance to go to the future himself, heading off to 2015.
Beat 9 – Denouement:
Marty wakes up with his life completely transformed: he somehow has his own car, his parents and siblings are happy and successful, and Biff is now working for them. Everything is looking great until Doc shows up in the time machine, commanding Marty to come with him to 2015 to do something about his kids – hooking us into a sequel. The movie ends with Marty and Doc heading off in the DeLorean for whatever adventure awaits them.
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