Back to the Future Writing Style - Candice Gilmer Books

Back to the Future Writing Style

Candice Gilmer

Everyone remembers Back to the Future, it is a classic movie that does an amazing job at moving the story along and generally keeping you engaged, without being overly complicated, even though it deals with time travel.

I find a lot of inspiration from that movie, when I looked at it from a story perspective rather than a movie to love.

So here's some of my tips, taking inspiration from Back to the Future.

  1. Laying out the essentials in an organic way (avoid info dump – think about the pacing in BttF and how information was presented)

     Open with Basics of the movie--how certain points brought out

  1. The plutonium and the Libyans
  2. Doc’s obsession with Time
  3. Marty’s desire to be a rock star
  4. Marty’s home life

                             How his dad is still bullied by his boss.

  1. How Marty’s parents met/the dance where they kiss the first time


  1. Anything relevant to the plot/climax should be introduced early and referenced. (The Shining – the very beginning of the novel, King introduces the concept of the boiler exploding, which is how the book ends – spoiler alert)


  1. In Signs, even though this is an example of the deus ex machina, the daughter’s penchant to leave glasses of water around the house was established and referenced throughout


  1. The Clock tower and the lightning -- Marty getting the flyer/Doc’s references about the 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity (hence the plutonium)/knowing where Lightning will strike because of the flyer.


  1. Make sure there is a payout. Imagine if the clock tower hadn’t played a part in the rest of the movie, if some of the BttF references didn’t factor into the conclusion.


  1. Example of this done poorly: Stephen King’s The Stand


  1. Example of payout done well: Ghostbusters: Don’t cross the streams.


  1. For pantsers and plotters alike: write notes to yourself. Don’t get so hung up on making sure everything flows seamlessly in the first draft. If you realize a third of the way through that the old family bible is actually a portal to a different dimension, write from that point as though that was your intention all along. The drafts that follow the first are where you can get these details ironed out. Don’t get so hung up in rewrites that your novel loses steam. Once you’ve identified the important pieces, you can always work it back in.


     Don’t be afraid to combine characters/places in your book to streamline. If you just love the waitress from the diner, make her important later in the story--give her a reason for being there. Otherwise, she can be cut.

     Remember -- if there’s a gun in Act I, then it better go off by Act III.

     Don’t put stuff in your book that’s not necessary later.

                 Pantster NOTE: Yes, you can meander about in the beginning a little when you’re first drafting--you almost have to in order to get the world going, but once you do, DO NOT go back and try to “fix” the beginning. That happens in edits. Get it WRITTEN FIRST.


  1. Avoid simple fixes to complex solutions by setting a precedent. The old family bible opens a portal to a different dimension that can only be closed by an expert Latin recitation. Make sure you’ve established one of the characters is a Latin scholar, and mentioned it enough times (Approximately 3 is usually enough) that the reader won’t make a WTF face when they get to that point in the story.


  1. One of the key points of any story is that “all is lost” moment (or moments) in the story that must be overcome.

     Even with all your set up, it HAS TO LOOK like failure is eminent.

                 BttF -- 1. Even though George McFly stands up to Biff in the parking lot, he still won’t stand up to the guy who takes Lorraine away from him at the dance, and it prevents the kiss, which is the moment for Lorraine to know she’s with her forever husband. (for a moment, anyway)

  1. Doc is panicked, worrying that Marty is late getting back to the clock tower as the storm kicks up.
  2. Marty gets to the starting line, starts the car. It dies (Precedence set earlier that it keeps dying)
  3. The tree limb falls, and undoes the line from clock tower to the connection line for the time machine, Doc must scramble to get it hooked, including almost dropping the line.
  4. Then line gets unhooked AGAIN at the street.
  5. Marty’s timer goes off, and he can’t get car started. Finally drives, and as he does, in that moment, we see Doc just getting the line hooked as the electricity flows from the lightning.


This keeps tension high all through the end, and makes the payoff that much more impressive.


So in closing, you don’t want to just throw an answer at the end without having set-up for it, HOWEVER, just because the answers are available, don’t make them necessarily easy to get.

If your characters never lose, then how can you appreciate when they really win?

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