Every Story Has a History

One of the quickest and easiest ways to run out of ideas is to start making up your story as you go along. Eventually you’ll run out of ideas. One way to avoid this problem of running out of ideas is to rely on history.

Remember, every story has a history that happened before the story even begins. Then through the story, tidbits of that history get teased out throughout the story. Sometimes that history comes from the hero, sometimes it comes from the villain, and sometimes it comes from the mentor, but it must come out somehow.

Every story should never start at the beginning. Instead, every story should start as close to the end as possible so the hero is right on the verge of changing. That means a large chunk of the hero’s background is never seen at all. Instead, we gradually learn bits and pieces of the hero’s history. Each time we learn a little more, then tory holds our interest because it’s like learning more about someone you like. Imagine meeting a new person that you like. You may be excited being around that person but as you get to know each other, you may be surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) as you learn more about that person. Each time you learn more, you start to feel you know and understand that person better. That’s exactly how stories need to treat their heroes.

In “Star Wars,” Luke is the hero with a past. He doesn’t know who his father is and he wants to leave his uncle’s farm. Without this history being gradually revealed, Luke isn’t that interesting. He’s more interesting because we constantly want to know who he is and by learning about his past, we gradually get to know who he is.

In “The Karate Kid,” the mentor has a past. At first he appears to be a harmless and somewhat eccentric apartment handyman but gradually we learn he knows martial arts and that he’s sorry for his painful past where he lost his wife and child. Not knowing this still makes the mentor interesting, but knowing his painful past makes him more memorable.

In many action thrillers like James Bond movies, the villain has a past. At first, we only see the villain doing something bad. Then we see the villain pursuing a goal that we don’t quite understand. Later, we learn what the villain’s plan might be. By gradually revealing the villain’s goal, the villain becomes more fascinating. Since we don’t know what the villain’s doing at the beginning, the villain is simply interesting but puzzling.

In “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” the villain starts off as a drug cartel leader. Then we learn that people taking drugs are getting sick. Finally we learn that the villain deliberately doped her drugs to blackmail the US President into legalizing her drugs and making her a respectable business woman. Each gradual revelation about the villain moves the story along. If we knew everything about the villain from the beginning, the story would have nowhere to go.

That applies to the hero and mentor. If we know everything about the story from the start, the story has nowhere to go but down. If we don’t know everything from the start, then learning clues about the hero, mentor, or villain pulls us along through the story by surprising us with new information.

Every story doesn’t begin at the beginning but near the end. Then the early history of the major characters gradually gets revealed because that history plays a crucial part in the story somehow.

When the hero (and audience) learns more about the mentor’s painful past in “The Karate Kid,” it makes us understand the mentor more and makes the story feel more important since we know about the painful past that the mentor has suffered. Now when the hero achieves victory in the end, this victory also lifts up the mentor and that makes the story ending more emotional and compelling.

In all good stories, the hero, mentor, or villain (or sometimes all three) have a past that gradually gets revealed. This gradual revelation is what makes every good story fascinating to watch.

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