What makes many screenplays hard to complete is that the screenwriter runs out of ideas. One way to make sure you have enough material to write a complete screenplay is to always remember this cardinal rule: Stories are always about redemption from the past.
In most cases, the hero has done something in the distant past or the recent past and needs to fix this problem. In “Cliffhanger,” the hero is an expert mountain climber but in the opening scene, fails to save a woman who falls to her death. From that point on, the hero needs to redeem himself to make up for his failure to save this woman.
In “Die Hard,” the hero’s tortured past involves breaking up with his wife because she got a great job and had to move to Los Angeles, which the hero was unwilling to accept. Now he’s trying to get back with his wife when terrorists threaten to separate him from his wife for good.
In most stories, the hero has a haunted past and needs to redeem him or herself. In “Thelma and Louise,” the two women have lived mediocre lives dominated by men. Now they have to free themselves and become the independent souls that they’ve always yearned to be.
Sometimes it’s not the hero who needs to redeem the past so much as it’s a mentor who needs to do this. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s past is that he’s always wanted to leave his uncle’s farm, but his mentor, Obi-wan, has a richer haunted past that involves his relationship with Darth Vader. Now Obi-wan isn’t just motivated to help Luke but to redeem himself for his past mistakes in helping create Darth Vader.
In “Ready Or Not,” the hero is a young woman marrying into a rich family. Part of her haunted past is that she was a foster child and never really had a family. However, the real strength of the haunted past occurs in her brother-in-law who tried to protect the hero’s husband from seeing a deadly game the family played when they killed a man. This brother-in-law’s haunted past occurs when he helped alert his family to the man they ultimately killed and now he feels guilty for doing so. This guilt is what motivated him in the present.
Ideally, give your hero and mentor a haunted past that they need to redeem. That way both your hero and mentor have a strong motivation and focus that drives their action.
In “Abominable,” the hero is a little girl who misses her father and as a result, remains distant from her remaining family members. Only after she helps a baby yeti return to his home and family does the hero eventually learn to return to her own remaining family members and finally accept that her father is gone.
Remember, let the haunted past come back into the present. This not only creates a believable motivation for the characters’ actions, but also creates a richer, more complex story at the same time.