Watch a mediocre movie like “The Eternals” or “The 355” and you’ll see lots of action. However, all the explosions, car crashes, and gunfire in the world can’t hold anyone’s attention. What makes a story emotionally engaging is when the hero has a problem from the past that he or she needs to resolve.
Sometimes this haunted past occurs right in the beginning of the story. In “A Quiet Place,” a girl hands her little brother a toy that makes noise. Unfortunately, the little boy turns the toy on, attracting the attention of monsters who hunt by sound. When the monster kills the little boy in front of the whole family, everyone is traumatized, and this painful memory helps drive the story forward.
Other times the hero’s haunted past gradually leaks out over time, forcing us to piece together this painful past. In “Titanic,” Rose is the hero but we gradually learn that she’s engaged to a rich man who she doesn’t love. To make matters worse, this man is arrogant and domineering, leading Rose to believe she’ll be trapped in a loveless marriage.
The hero’s haunted past is what really drives a story forward, not more physical action, fighting, and car crashes (“The 355”). By the end of every story, the hero must resolve a problem from the past to emerge as a stronger, better person.
Dealing with this haunted past is what makes a story emotionally engaging because we want to know how the hero will overcome this painful past. In “Casablanca,” the big choice with Rick is whether he should use the plane ticket to take Ilsa away and let her husband take the ticket and risk losing Ilsa for good.
Initially, we have no idea why Rick is moody and aloof. Only until we learn his haunted past where he was in love with Ilsa and wanted to leave with her, but she stood him up, do we finally realize the emotional story. Then all the action in the movie supports this emotional story.
So ask yourself what’s your hero’s haunted past? That’s the true driver of your story. Watch a bad movie like “The 355” or “The Spy Who Dumped Me” to see what happens when you lack an engaging haunted past that the hero must strive to resolve and become a better person.
When a story lacks a haunted past to resolve, the story will likely lack an emotional element, which is the sign of a mediocre to bad story.