I’ve discovered that some films follow a chiasmus formula in the way their stories are set up. What is a chiasmus? It’s an ancient writing structure in which ideas are listed in one order and then repeated in the opposite order to form a complete idea.
The nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” is a perfect example of a chiasmus. Every verse follows the same pattern:
A. Hickory dickory dock
B. The mouse ran up the clock
C. The clock struck one
B. The mouse ran down
A. Hickory dickory dock
Up ‘til now I’ve limited my focus to individual films to find their cinematic chiasmus. But I am happy to report that the entire Back to the Future Trilogy is almost perfectly symmetrical. This took some incredible planning to pull off, and I’ll discuss its implications at the end.
But now, let’s make history as we explore the chiasmus of all three Back to the Future films.
Here is the chiasmus. I will go into detail on each of these points further down, so don’t worry if it’s hard to process all of this at first. Note that Back to the Future I and III are symmetrical films while Back to the Future Part II is split right down the middle.
Back to the Future
A. Marty McFly gets blown back by Doc Brown’s amplifier and then talks with Doc on the phone
B. Marty meets with his girlfriend Jennifer Parker and expresses his insecurity about what others think of him
C. Marty goes home where he finds his family and Biff
D. The DeLorean time machine is revealed
E. Marty travels back in time to 1955
F. Marty alters history by destroying one of Peabody’s twin pine trees
G. Marty searches for Doc Brown
H. George McFly is too afraid to stand up to Biff Tannen at the café
I. Marty gets hit by a car in place of George
J. Marty’s mother Lorraine Baines falls in love with him because she doesn’t know who he really is
K. Marty and Doc sneak the DeLorean to Doc’s home and formulate a plan to send Marty back to 1985
L. Marty sees his parents at their high school and saves Lorraine from Biff
M. Marty eludes Biff and his cohorts in a chase scene
N. Lorraine tracks Marty down at Doc’s home
O. Marty warns Doc about his impending death in a letter
P. Biff and his friends attack Marty
Q. Marty sees his parents fall in love
R. Marty travels back to 1985
S. Doc avoids his own death
T. Doc drives Marty home
Back to the Future Part II
U. Doc interrupts Marty and Jennifer soon after Marty returns to 1985
V. Jennifer asks Doc too many questions about her future
W. Doc leaves Marty in 2015
X. Marty sees the Sports Almanac for the first time
Y. Marty defeats Griff Tannen after a chase
Z. Marty loses the Almanac to Old Biff soon after purchasing it
AA. Jennifer sneaks through her future home
BB. Old Biff apparently dies after stealing the DeLorean
CC. Doc and Marty time-travel to an alternate 1985
DD. Marty gets kicked out of his old home and almost gets killed in a gun battle
EE. Doc explains the alternate timeline to Marty
EE. Biff explains what caused the alternate timeline to Marty
DD. Marty avoids Biff’s gunshots and escapes from his new home
CC. Doc and Marty time-travel to 1955 to prevent the alternate timeline
BB. Old Biff gives Young Biff the Almanac
AA. Marty sneaks through his parents’ dance
Z. Marty loses the Almanac to Young Biff shortly after retrieving it
Y. Marty defeats Biff after a chase
X. Marty burns the Almanac
W. Doc gets struck by lightning and accidentally time-travels to 1885
V. Doc tells Marty all about his own future in a letter
U. Marty interrupts Doc right after Marty’s counterpart returns to 1985
Back to the Future Part III
T. Marty drives Doc home
S. Doc sees his own tombstone
R. Marty travels back to 1885
Q. Marty meets his ancestors
P. Buford Tannen and his friends attack Marty
O. Marty warns Doc about his impending death with a photograph
N. Clara Clayton tracks Doc down at his shop (Note: N and M take place out of order)
M. Doc saves Clara after a chase scene
L. Marty sees his ancestors at a festival and saves Doc from Buford
K. Marty and Doc discuss their plan to get back to 1985 and put the DeLorean on the railroad track
J. Clara hates Doc after he reveals who he really is
I. Marty’s name replaces Doc’s on the tombstone
H. Marty stands up to Buford at the saloon
G. Clara searches for Emmett Brown
F. Marty alters history by ensuring Clara Clayton doesn’t fall into a ravine
E. Marty travels forward in time to 1985
D. The DeLorean is destroyed
C. Marty goes home and is relieved to find his family and Biff back to normal
B. Marty finds Jennifer and shows that he has overcome his fear of others’ insults
A. Marty and Jennifer get blown back by Doc’s new time machine and then they talk with Doc one last time
This is heavy. Now let’s see the really cool details of how this chiasmus works.
A. Blown Away
The first time we see Marty McFly, he visits Emmett “Doc” Brown’s home and discovers a mess of dog food. He then proceeds to play one note on his guitar using Doc’s giant amplifier. The sound knocks Marty across the room. Doc calls right after that and gives Marty some instructions for later.
The last time we see Marty, he and his girlfriend Jennifer Parker visit the site of the mess that used to be a DeLorean. They are blown backwards by an incoming train Doc has turned into a time machine. Doc then shares some wisdom with Marty and Jennifer to help them in the future.
B. Marty Overcomes His Insecurities
Marty meets Jennifer outside their high school. After school, his band fails to get picked to play at an upcoming school dance and Marty expresses his worry about what other people think of him. Then he sees a truck he would love to drive someday.
Later, he drives that very truck and picks up Jennifer outside her house. After being insulted by a kid from school, Marty wisely chooses to ignore what that kid thinks of him.
C. Going Home to the Family
Marty is dismayed when he comes home to find his dad’s only car totaled and Biff pushing his dad around.
Later, Marty is relieved to find his family happy and healthy and his new truck freshly waxed by a humble Biff.
D. The DeLorean’s Debut and Demise
Marty sees the DeLorean revealed in dramatic fashion out of a truck. The first time it travels through time, its license plate gets left behind spinning around on the ground.
Right after the DeLorean travels through time for the last time, it gets hit by a train, completely destroying it and leaving the license plate spinning on the ground just like it did the first time.
E. Marty’s First and Last Time Travels
The first time Marty travels through time he’s being attacked by Libyan terrorists who threaten to blow him up with a bazooka. He’s just about to hit a small building when the DeLorean hits 88 MPH and transports him back to 1955.
The last time Marty travels through time, he’s pretending to be an Old West outlaw threatening to shoot a train conductor. Just before the DeLorean is about to go over a cliff it hits 88 MPH and is safely transported to 1985.
F. Marty Changes History
When Marty arrives in 1955, he accidentally drives over a pine tree, killing it. Thus, in the future the Twin Pines Mall becomes the Lone Pine Mall.
The last thing Marty does before leaving 1885 is to help Doc save his love Clara Clayton, who was supposed to fall into the ravine Marty is speeding toward. Thus, in the future, Clayton Ravine becomes Eastwood Ravine, after the name Marty took in the Old West: Clint Eastwood.
G. Searching for Doc
Soon after arriving in 1955, Marty tries to call Doc and figure out where he lives.
Later, Clara has a change of heart and calls for Doc, hoping to find him at his blacksmith shop.
H. McFlys vs. Tannens
Marty’s father George McFly is too afraid to stand up for himself when Biff demands he do Biff’s homework for him. He’s scared because Biff is bigger than him and will probably hurt him if he doesn’t do what Biff says.
Later, Marty finds a creative way to defeat Biff’s ancestor Buford Tannen in a showdown, even though he’s bigger, stronger, and quicker on the draw than Marty.
I. Marty Sacrifices Himself for Someone He Cares About
When Marty sees his father about to be hit by a car, he unhesitatingly springs into action and pushes him out of the way. As a result, Marty gets hit by the car instead.
Later, Marty doesn’t hesitate to go back in time to save Doc from dying at the hands of Buford. But after acting rashly, Marty sees his own name replace Doc’s on the tombstone in a picture from the future. I guess Marty is short for Martyr.
J. Marty’s Mom and Doc’s Lost Love
Marty’s mom Lorraine Baines falls in love with him the first time she lays eyes on him in her bedroom because he’s so mysterious. She has no idea she’s really his mother.
Later, Doc goes to Clara’s home and tells her the truth about himself – that he’s a time traveler. But she doesn’t believe him and her love for him instantly turns to anger.
K. Making Plans and Moving the DeLorean
When the Doc in 1955 is finally convinced that Marty is from the future, the two of them sneak the DeLorean back to Doc’s home. They then come up with a plan to power the time circuits with a bolt of lightning.
Later, Marty convinces Doc to leave Clara in the past after they sneak the DeLorean onto the railroad in preparation for their plan to push it up to 88 MPH with a train.
L. Marty Protects People He Loves from the Tannens
Marty pretends to be a student at the high school his parents are attending in order to get them to fall in love. Unfortunately, Biff shows up and starts fondling Lorraine, which nearly causes Marty to get into a fight until Mr. Strickland shows up and puts a stop to it.
Later, Marty joins Doc at a festival where Doc is hoping to romance Clara. Buford crashes the party and attempts to assault both Clara and Doc. Marty saves them, but tensions rise between Marty and Buford until Strickland’s lawman grandfather shows up.
M. Chase Scenes and True Love
Marty’s parents are on the verge of falling in love when Biff shows up again and ruins everything. Marty intervenes, and Biff chases him around the town square in his car. Marty barely avoids being smashed into a manure truck, but Biff’s car isn’t so lucky.
Later, Marty and Doc race after an out-of-control horse carriage driven by Clara. Doc catches up to her and pulls her to safety just as her carriage falls into a deep ravine. The moment those two lay eyes on each other they fall deeply in love.
N. Girls Track Down Marty and Doc
After his stunt on the skateboard, Marty gets a surprise visit from his mother in Doc’s garage. Doc and Marty hastily cover the DeLorean, and then Lorraine asks Marty to ask her to the school dance.
After Doc saves Clara from her carriage, she surprises him at his blacksmith shop. Doc and Marty quickly cover the DeLorean once more, and she invites Doc to the festival.
O. Marty Warns Doc About His Impending Death
Because Doc won’t allow Marty to tell him directly that he’s going to be killed by the Libyan terrorists, Marty writes a letter so Doc can take precautions to prevent that tragedy.
When Marty meets Doc in 1885 he immediately shows him a photograph he took of Doc’s grave in 1955.
P. Tannen and His Friends Attack Marty
Biff is angry with Marty over the $300 he had to spend to repair his car after the manure incident. He and his men punch Marty and throw him into the trunk of a car. The owners of the car manage to rescue Marty, though.
Buford gets angry when Marty calls him Mad Dog, and he and his men drag Marty behind their horses to the courthouse where they attempt to hang him. Doc saves him, but then Buford says he’s going to take revenge on Doc for $80 he lost on his horse. Adjusted for inflation, $80 in 1885 is close to the same value as $300 in 1955.
Q. Marty Sees His Future in the Making
At the dance, Marty watches as his parents finally fall in love, ensuring he will eventually be born.
After arriving in 1885, Marty stumbles upon the McFly farm where he meets the family that is responsible for his existence in the future in Hill Valley.
R. Marty Time-Travels to Save Doc
Doc rips up the letter Marty gave him, so Marty thinks his only option is to go back to 1985 a little earlier than planned in order to save Doc’s life. But he’s just barely too slow to stop the Libyans.
Later, Marty travels to 1885 to save Doc once again. But he’s unable to warn Doc in time to simply pay Buford $80 to avoid his death.
S. Doc Is Dead?
In 1985, Marty is horrified to find Doc’s seemingly lifeless body, but a few moments later Doc sits up and shows how he survived the attack.
In 1955, Marty is shocked to find Doc’s grave, and a few moments later Doc comes to see what the commotion is about.
T. Doc Drives Marty Home and Vice Versa
After Doc’s successful time-travel experiment in 1985, he drives Marty to his home to get some sleep.
After the successful clock tower lightning strike in 1955, the returned Marty drives an unconscious Doc to his home to recover.
U. Doc’s Interruptions
The morning after Marty returns to 1985, Doc appears out of nowhere and tells Marty and Jennifer he’s got to bring them “back to the future.”
Seconds after Marty disappears from the clock tower in 1955, he suddenly reappears, giving Doc a terrible shock. He exclaims that he just sent Marty back to the future, but Marty says, “I’m back from the future.”
V. Doc’s Feelings About the Future
Jennifer is amazed to learn that she’s in the year 2015. She starts asking about her future, which worries Doc because he feels no one should know too much about their own future.
Later, Marty is amazed to learn that Doc is stranded in the year 1885. Doc has no problem with telling Marty (and his younger self) all about his own future in a letter.
W. Doc Leaves Marty Behind
After Doc drops Marty off in 2015 to complete an assignment, he goes to retrieve his dog and do a few other things.
After Marty and Doc finish their work in 1955, the DeLorean gets struck by lightning, accidentally sending Doc back to 1885.
X. The Sports Almanac
On his way to the Café ‘80s, Marty spots the Sports Almanac in a store window, setting off a chain of events that create an alternate timeline.
Later, Marty finally burns the Almanac, destroying that alternate timeline and restoring the proper one.
Y. Marty Defeats Griff and Biff
Marty gets into a fight with Biff’s grandson Griff Tannen. Marty winds up stranded on a hoverboard in the middle of a pond and Griff speeds toward him on his own hoverboard, ready to hit Marty with a bat. Marty jumps into the water at the last second, and Griff and his friends fly into a giant window.
In 1955, Marty fights with Biff over the Almanac. Marty winds up on his hoverboard inside a long tunnel with Biff gunning his car engine, ready to mow Marty down. Doc lifts Marty into the air from the flying DeLorean at the last second, and Biff hits a manure truck.
Z. Marty Loses the Almanac
Doc is unhappy with Marty when he learns that Marty bought the Almanac hoping to profit off his knowledge of future events. Old Biff overhears their conversation and he takes the Almanac for his own purposes.
Later, Doc is delighted to learn that Marty has retrieved the Almanac. Marty is distracted by his counterpart’s conversation with his parents, allowing Young Biff to steal the Almanac back from Marty.
AA. Jennifer and Marty Try to Remain Unseen
Jennifer gets taken to her future house where Marty’s parents are visiting. She has to sneak around to avoid being seen by anyone. She sees Future Marty lose his job and attempt to play his guitar, but then she runs into her future self and they both pass out. Doc was worried that such an event might trigger a paradox.
Later, Marty gets chased into the school dance where his parents fall in love. He sneaks around to avoid being seen as his counterpart plays the guitar on stage. He knocks out Biff’s three goons to save his counterpart, which Doc said prevented them from triggering a paradox.
BB. Old Biff’s Plan
While Marty and Doc are distracted, Old Biff steals the DeLorean. He soon brings it back and dies (or disappears in the deleted scene).
Later, we see what Old Biff did after he stole the DeLorean. He traveled back to 1955 and gave Young Biff the Almanac, which altered history and made Old Biff fade out of existence.
CC. Doc and Marty Enter and Leave an Alternate 1985
Doc, Marty, Jennifer, and Einstein unwittingly go back in time to an alternate version of 1985. They leave Jennifer asleep on her front porch.
Once they discover it’s not the right timeline, Doc and Marty leave Jennifer and Einstein behind and travel back to 1955 to fix the future.
DD. Marty Escapes His Old and New Homes
Doc drops Marty off at his house. But Marty soon discovers it’s not his house anymore and he barely avoids taking a beating from the current owner. He also survives a gun battle at Strickland’s house before getting knocked out by Biff’s goons.
Later, Biff shoots at Marty several times and Biff’s goons chase Marty to the roof where Doc picks him up and knocks out Biff.
EE. Explaining the Alternate Timeline
The turning point of the entire Back to the Future Trilogy comes when Doc’s shadow appears on George McFly’s tombstone, startling Marty out of his grief. Doc explains to Marty that the timeline they are currently in is an alternate 1985, caused by Old Biff giving the Almanac to Young Biff. All they need to find out is how, where, and when it happened.
So Marty goes to ask him. He walks up behind Biff while he’s watching a Clint Eastwood Western and turns the TV off. Then Biff explains how, where, and when he got the Almanac from his future self.
I love that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale managed to create such a perfect trilogy. Not only is each film completely satisfying, but each is part of a larger whole that, as it turns out, follows an almost completely symmetrical pattern. This is why there will never be a Back to the Future Part IV. Back to the Future I, II, and III form a complete story in a Biblical way.
The first film focuses on Marty and his parents. The second film is mostly about Biff. And the third film is about Doc. In fact, Doc and Marty switch positions in the third film to the point that they even repeat each other’s catchphrase, “Great Scott!” and “This is heavy.” And now we see that not only are the characters reversed in those films, but the story is, too.
I would like to thank my wife for suggesting I take a closer look at this series after I had already figured out that Back to the Future Part II is a chiasmus. And I am also grateful for an anonymous commenter who asked me to publish this article sooner rather than later. I had wanted to wait until 2015 to do it, but I guess there’s no time like the present.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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EPIC! This was a great read! Won’t look at this series the same way again.
Thank you! That was a lot of fun to put together, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Always enjoy your writing.
Wow! You’ve put a lot of work into this and produced a fascinating and convincing post. I’ll definitely be back for more! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel).
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Can you actually prove that Zemeckis/Gale intentionally setup the trilogy this way or that they just hit the same beats in the sequels because they were so satisfying the first time…?
No, I can’t prove that they meant to set up these three films to be a chiasmus. My purpose in uncovering this pattern in certain films is to show that often works of art have multiple levels to them that are unconsciously done by their creators.
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale worked hard to make everything they set up pay off later. And in the process they did something far more clever. A chiasmus was a pleasing way of telling a story or expressing ideas in ancient times, and it’s really cool to see them pop up in modern films.
When I watched the trilogy back to back a few years ago I discovered that there certain alterations to Martys character. The main one was the no one calls me chicken and fear of being a coward, so my question is : was this a character trait from the alternate Marty who existed in the new timeline created when George hit Biff? If so was the Marty born into the new timeline with stand up George wiped from existence?
Great trilogy and more great review!
OFF TOPIC: Do you believe in “movie fusions”? For example: I think that “Airheads” (with Brendan Fraser and Adam Sandler) is a fusion between “Dog’s Day Afternoon” and “Blues Brothers” and “In the company of men” is a fusion between “Dangerous Liasions” and “Thank you for smoking”.
This is rather amazing.
I’m glad someone asked the question whether or not it can be proven that the writers structured their stories in this way. While it can’t be proven, it’s interesting to note that this method of storytelling is never mentioned in a modern context. When I see examples like The Empire Strikes Back and this trilogy following the formula perfectly, I wonder how that could be if it was not intentional. So, if writers are working in this fashion intentionally, why is nobody teaching this in writing classes, screenwriting or otherwise? Unless they are and I have been under a rock for a long time, which is possible. 😉
I’m going to write a story of my own that follows this formula intentionally and see how it turns out. Working on the beat sheet alone has already helped me with the second act tremendously.
Thanks for another fantastic article! 🙂
wow…i ran across this page totally by accident..cuz i was doing a search about Strickland. how old is he throughout the series….50s or 60s? u could swear the guy was immortal or something…he never seems to age. Doc tho…no offense….well ya he kinda does, but thank god he has the energy of someone in his 30s even in the 1985 timeline. i never thought about the trilogy this way, but that does seem a bit logical. it would still be nice to see a potential fourth film maybe, but where could they possibly go? what else have you reviewed? are they all listed here on this site? very well done 🙂 Ty
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I really appreciate that. You can find lots more examples of Cinematic Chiasmus and other articles on this site. Just check out the various categories. Thank you for your kind words.
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Reblogged this on ZachsMind and commented:
This is simultaneously a ‘wow’ to me and a ‘oh come on!’ it appears to be a sort of literary magic trick using logical fallacies. The writer makes a presumption and then describes the scenes of a film in such a way as to symbolically reflect itself symmetrically. Reading into events as if they have similar meaning which isn’t there in a straight linear experience of the film. Fascinating, but I’m not sure if this means the films in question are deeper than they seem, or if we are reading too much into the narrative of these stories. If only a handful of chosen films reflect this, it could be more pomp than circumstance. Just saying. I’m simultaneously intrigued and repelled, but am attempting to withhold final judgment. Can this be done with any film, if one stretches the premise enough? How much does one have to stretch it? Are there rules to the symmetry or in the narrative of the narrative, does anything go? It may warrant further study.
Well, I think the author of this “theory” is simply presenting a subjective interpretation of the various scenes in a way that supports contention. He never really claimed it was intentional, merely that the narrative can be presented in a way that conforms to this literary device. Certainly others are free to disagree with his ideas, but I don’t think he made any claims that would justify you being “repulsed,” lol.
It’s no coincidence. The two Bobs are master storytellers, and all good stories come full-circle. I also love how in all three films, Marty wakes up (in the strange position of having his arm behind his back) and says “Mom is that you?” There are so many little touches where the 2nd and third film mimic the first one – I love it!
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Wow, great job! . I’m a great fan of the Trilogy and I found this very interesting. Regards from Argentina
Mi suegra es de Argentina! Mucho gusto. 🙂
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Finding this very, very late but I’m surprised to find that this holds up pretty darn well. Bravo.
However, for the first “W” in BTTF II where you say that Doc leaves Marty in 2015 to go to 1985 and get Einstein, I believe you are mistaken. I just watched the scene in question and it’s very clear that Doc leaves Marty to intercept Marty Jr. and put him to sleep (which doesn’t work out) after which he says that he picked up Einstein at a “suspended animation kennel” which would obviously be in 2015, not 1985.
Otherwise, good job!
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Thank you very much! Yeah, I definitely messed up there. I’ve thought about fixing it ever since I published it, and maybe I will finally do that.
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