Every Story is About Fixing the Past

Every story is about the past and fixing the problems of that past, even if we don’t see that past. In “Rocky,” Rocky has a lifetime of being a second-rate boxer, but we only get a glimpse of this when we see him fighting in a dingy gym and see him working for a mob boss as an enforcer. In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s problem from the past is that he’s arrogant and helped break up his family even though he loves his wife. Yet we only get a glimpse of this when we see him argue with his wife when he arrives at her company’s Christmas party.

When you’re writing your story, the past must be a crucial factor as follows:

  • The past has hurt the hero somehow
  • We see glimpses of how the past as hurt the hero and limited him or her
  • The hero hits rock bottom and admits his or her flaw from the past
  • The hero defeats the villain and overcomes the problems of the past

Sometimes the past is hidden. In “Titanic,” Rose’s past is that she feels trapped in her life, being forced to marry a rich man she doesn’t love. On the Titanic, she feels like the only way she can escape is to kill herself. Only when she’s finally free on a lifeboat does she realize that she can no longer be passive but must take an active role in defining her life, which starts by jumping off the lifeboat and saving Jack. When she finally survives the sinking of the Titanic, she’s able to live the life she truly wanted for herself.

Sometimes the past is what we see in an early scene. In “A Quiet Place,” a little girl gives a noisy toy to her little brother, who plays with it and attracts a monster that kills him. Now the story fast forwards where the sister feels that her father no longer loves her. When trapped by monsters, the sister thinks the father won’t come to save her. Only when the father sacrifices himself so the girl can live does she realize her father loved her all this time anyway.

So make sure your story has a past that affects the entire plot. That history can be hidden, such as in “Crazy Rich Asians” when we (and the hero) don’t know her true family background. Sometimes that history can be shown in a brief, early scene such as “A Quiet Place” where a little girl gives her brother a toy that leads to his death.

Whether the history is shown or hidden, the past influences your entire story. Make sure there’s a past to your story or there won’t be a future for your screenplay.

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