The past is crucial. A story without a past basically has no foundation to build upon. Every story needs a past but there are two ways to reveal that past to the audience. The most common way is to hide the past and gradually reveal how that past affects the present over time. Think of how Luke gradually learns more about his father in “Star Wars” or how the past romance between the hero and her boyfriend defined the opening of “Legally Blonde.” When you make the past mysterious, you can gradually reveal hints along the way until the final truth is known.
In “Pale Rider,” Clint Eastwood plays a gunslinger/preacher who rescues a group of miners who are being pushed off their land by the villain, who wants their land because it’s rich in gold. Gradually as the story unfolds do we learn bits and pieces about Clint Eastwood’s character until finally we understand everything at the end. By keeping the hero’s past a mystery to the audience, the story compels us to keep watching so we learn more and gradually put the hints together.
A second way to reveal the past is in the beginning where we can experience what happened to the hero. “Finding Nemo” lets us experience the hero’s trauma as a barracuda kills his wife and every egg but one. “Maleficent” shows us the hero’s early life when she was betrayed by her friend. “There’s Something About Mary” shows the hero’s initial awkward date with Mary that went totally wrong. When we experience the hero’s traumatic past, we can better understand the hero’s desire to correct the past.
So how do you want to introduce the past in your story? Keep it a mystery and reveal tidbits of hints along the way, or let us experience that trauma in the beginning? “Casablanca” is unique in that it drops hints about what happened to the hero until it finally reveals the truth though a massive flashback that lets us experience that traumatic event.
However you choose to introduce the past, you must introduce the past to show how it affects the present. In “Liar, Liar,” we gradually learn that the hero is a liar but who loves his son. In “Alien” we gradually learn what the corporation’s goals are when it comes to dealing with an alien life form (the crew is expendable). Every story needs a past because every story is about correcting the problems of the past.
In “The Karate Kid,” the hero doesn’t really have to fix a problem from the past, but a problem that recently occurred when the villain beats him up. However, the hero’s mentor, his karate teacher, needs to fix a problem from his past by overcoming the loss of his wife from the past.
The past is crucial to making your story more interesting and appealing by dribbling out hints of the past that’s shaping the present. When we don’t know the past, we want to know more. When we experience the past though a flashback or opening scene, then we’re left wondering how the hero will overcome this problem that we emotionally experienced ourselves. Don’t forget the past. It’s a vital ingredient to any story.