Tuesday 7 August 2012

What I Learnt from Back to the Future

I was making a risotto earlier. And I was thinking about the Back to the Future films. These two things are not connected. But they were happening at the same time. There are lots of things worth noting about these films, but for this blog, let us note two.

Good Set-Up
Time travel is, of course, preposterous. Clearly impractical, and doubly so when you throw in the hopelessly ill-conceived Delorean car. And yet, two words make it believable: 'Flux Capacitor'. Genius. Normally time travel isn't possible, but the Doc invented the Flux Capacitor. Now I believe it's possible, even with a heavy car made in Northern Ireland that couldn't make 88mph if you drove downhill with the wind behind you.

Think about it. Flux Capacitor. Neither word is silly by itself. Both words already existed. Blended together they sound plausible. We have a look at the thing - and it resembles a DNA coil, a hydrogen atom and some ovaries behind some emergency glass. Suddenly, all plausibility issues vanished with those two words. We have leapt from the lunatic world of Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science, dodged the apocalyptic craziness of Matthew Broderick in War Games and landed in Hill Valley in 1955. This is the power of words.

It is amazing how often a form of words can get you through a ton of exposition, back story or plausibility structures. I'm not sure how much we can learn from this, since these things tend to sneak up on you as a writer, but when you stumble across them, use them. If the audience are prepared to shrug and go 'yeah, I buy that', move on and explore your characters, tell their stories and do the jokes. The more pressure you place on this, the more silly it appears. So don't. Move on. The audience have.

Bad Set-Up
As I was stirring the risotto, one of my favourite lines from the third film popped into my head. It's when they're seize the train so it can push the car to 88 mph. According to IMDB, it goes like this:

Doc: Reach! 
Engineer: Is this a holdup? 
Doc: It's a science experiment!

It's a pleasing line and it gets a laugh, but on inspection, it's quite annoying. Why? Because of the set-up line. Crazy-haired Doc has a mask and a gun and ends up at the controls of a train with the driver/engineer. He sees the gun and the lunatic, and then says "Is this a hold-up?" Really? He said that? What a curious thing to say. You'd beg for your life, or something. You wouldn't say "Is this a hold-up?" I believe a Flux Capacitor before I believe that.

Any set-up line that you don't believe could be said naturally is going to take the air out of your joke. It may be a really good joke, but the clunky set-up will undermine it.

If you have that, spend an extra five minutes on it. How could the Engineer's line be more natural? Is there another character there who could say something to help that set-up? If they're not there, could they be there? By this point, it sounds like the joke's not going to fly and it's falling apart in your hands. That's no bad thing. You've found a weak point and can now make it better. Think of another jokes. This is already an extraordinary situation ripe with possibilities so it shouldn't be hard. Five more minutes.

Hey, no-one said it was easy. But then again, thinking up jokes for people to say on hijacked steams train in the Wild West so a Delorean can reach 88mph and take our heroes back to the future isn't exactly work, is it?


  1. Really interesting article. I was wondering about your final bit about Bad Set-Up. Surely, if its one of your favourite lines, its a great piece of writing? I think that it's a bit of dramatic old-school Western dialogue, which fits the crazy set-up of a steam-train towing Delorean used as a time travel machine.

    As much fun as shows like the Office and The Thick of It are, I think it's sad that they seem to be the only shows that get pushed out nowadays. A weird satyrical naturalism seems to have replaced almost every other type of comedy. Surely there's still space for a bit of dramatic flair, even if it doesn't feel logical?

  2. I always thought Doc said that line because he didn't want to be seen as a bad guy, even behind a mask. The engineer's line was weak, but maybe he was in shock. If it was modern, he could also have said incredulously, "My gosh, is that a gun?" because this has never happened before and he's never seen a gun up close. But I take your point. All very interesting. Keep thinking about stuff like that and, more importantly, keep blogging!

  3. Great post. How about an 80s film decontruction thing on twitter the next time it's on the box.

  4. How very continental, a risotto, did you go to a Public school?

  5. Maybe Doc could have taken the Engineer's line, sort of. Eg:
    Doc: Reach!
    Engineer: …
    Doc: Don't panic, this is not a holdup. It's an experiment.

    …although maybe that's worse? Er, Flux Capacitor! (runs away)

  6. I think "Is this a hold-up?" is fine. It's a comedy movie. The engineer has probably heard about these hold-ups taking place, and now he's face to face with one, he doesn't know what else to say. Nitpicking at its worst.