What gives a story depth is the past. Sometimes that past is seen right in the beginning of the story such as in “Cliffhanger” where an expert mountain climber fails to save a woman and watches her fall to her death. Now he has to redeem himself for his failure to save her.
Most often, the hero’s past contains a hidden, painful event. In “Silence of the Lambs,” the hero was traumatized by watching lambs get slaughtered as a child.
Whatever painful past the hero has experienced, either witnessed by the audience or hinted at throughout the story, the hero’s story is mostly about redeeming that painful past so he or she can move on and become a better person.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the hero has been a victim of a male-dominated society, so the entire story is about breaking free, even if that means dying in the end on their own terms. What gives a story richness is redemption from the past. When we realize the hero has redeemed him or herself from a painful past, then the story gives us a far more emotional ending than mere wrapping up of a plot can ever do.
In the Japanese comedy horror film “One Cut of the Dead,” a director is given the job of filming a zombie movie to air on live TV. Then a real zombie apocalypse breaks out and he continues shooting to capture the most realistic footage that will make his movie more believable.
Yet this director’s painful past is that he’s emotionally distant from his daughter and wishes he could be back with her. He stares wishfully at an early picture of himself carrying his little daughter on his shoulders with both of them smiling and laughing. Every time he looks at this picture, it reminds him (and the audience) what his emotional goal is.
At the end of the movie, the director successfully films the ending of his movie by having his daughter climb on his shoulders. Afterwards, they both realize how much they truly enjoy each other’s company and their damaged relationship has been repaired.
This emotional moment is short and fleeting, yet it provides the emotional foundation for the entire story. In hindsight, all the director’s actions and motivation has been to make his daughter proud of him once more.
Many novice screenwriters write a story and focus on piling on obstacles for their hero to overcome, yet unless these obstacles are related to the hero’s need to redeem him or herself from a painful past, the story will risk becoming unfocused and meaningless.
Stories need that emotional foundation of redemption to keep them focused. That emotional moment may not be obvious, but it must be there because without it, the rest of the story will make little sense no matter how much action, violence, sex, and special effects you may pile on to the story.