This is a guest post by Merry Farmer
What makes a compelling story? What gems cause the reader to come back again and again to see what you’ve got? Action, romance, thrilling adventure, and powerful emotions, right? We all know these elements stir the human soul. So as a writer, where do you go to learn these basics in the most vivid possible way?
Bollywood, of course!
I was first introduced to Bollywood through a strange set of coincidences that lead me to rent the film Salaam-e-Ishq, “A Salute to Love”, on Netflix. This three-plus-hour film is the Bollywood remake of Love Actually. Like its western counterpart, it follows the love stories of several couples through wild ups and downs, crazy hijinks, and more show-stopping dance numbers than you can shake a stick at. Three hours, and yet I was riveted the entire time. Why? Because Bollywood films know how to follow the formula and deliver.
Take my favorite B-town film, which is also my favorite film in any language, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (which translates as “God Made This Couple”). The premise: A dying man arranges for his early twenty-something daughter, Tahni, to marry his forty-something favorite student from days gone by, Suri, so that she will not be alone. Out of duty Tahni says yes and marries Suri, even though she’s not even remotely impressed with the shy, nerdy, glasses-wearing, power company employee. Suri, on the other hand, has fallen in love with Tahni at first sight. Tahni wants nothing more than to put aside her carefree younger self and become the dutiful Indian wife she thinks she should be. Suri wants his young wife to love him, but more than that he wants her to be the happy and carefree woman he knows that she is inside.
This premise is spot-on perfect. You have a hero and a heroine who each have goals, motivations, and conflicts that directly oppose one another. And you have the wise old mentor figure who starts them off on their journey. So many great stories start out with these basic elements. And the premise creates so many options. In the hands of another writer this premise could unfold itself into something sweet or tragic or horrifying.
But this is Bollywood we’re talking about.
One day Tahni discovers that a troupe from Mumbai has come to their hometown to teach a dance class. She asks Suri for permission to join it. Suri happily grants permission, but he also gets his best friend to come up with a disguise for him so that he can watch his wife dance. But when Suri shows up at the dance studio in his cool jeans, t-shirt, and sunglasses he is mistaken as a participant in the class. He is ready to run…until a twist of fate partners him with Tahni for the dance competition that will happen at the end of the class. And Tahni doesn’t recognize him. Suri creates the persona of Raj, a cool, hip, smooth-talking (ridiculously douchy) guy and becomes Tahni’s dance partner. Tahni, of course, has no idea that her mild-mannered husband is her flirty, over-the-top dance partner, Raj.
Typical Bollywood. Funny, colorful, slightly irreverent while still being innocent. The stakes have been raised. Now not only is the audience wondering if Tahni will let go of her grief and fall in love with Suri, they’re wondering if she’ll figure out that Raj and Suri are the same person. From a writing perspective the plot has no gimmicks, no whistles and bells, it just has another layer of complexity added to it. Suri is still trying to make his wife love him. Tahni is still trying to be who she thinks she’s supposed to be now. It doesn’t take much to keep the audience hooked. In essence it’s all still about “will these two fall in love?”
Ah, but then comes the major roadblock. After initially being put off by “Raj”, Tahni comes to like him. Suri is suddenly getting exactly the friendship and innocent affection that he wants from his wife. Except for one tiny problem. She thinks he’s Raj. She’s technically cheating on him. His moment of triumph is crushed by the realization that if Raj wins, Suri loses.
This major plot twist changes the direction of the story. What it doesn’t do is change the original motivations of the characters or the goal that needs to be achieved to have a happy ending. Suri still wants Tahni to love him. Tahni still doesn’t love him. But now, once again, the stakes have been raised. Now not only does Tahni not love Suri, Suri is in danger of losing her to a man that doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Tahni realizes that she has feelings for Raj, but her goal all along has been to become the dutiful wife. Which does she betray, her sense of duty or her heart? The audience is still waiting for the same thing to happen, for the lovers to be united, but the dramatic tension has reached an all-time high. How could these two possibly get together at the end? No question keeps a movie-goer watching or a reader reading like the impossible.
And then comes the moment when the course of action has gone as far as it can go without breaking. While at the temple, praying for success for Tahni and “her partner Raj” on the day of the final competition, Suri realizes that what he wants more than anything is not for Tahni to love him, but for her to be happy. Tahni realizes that this dorky old guy she married isn’t so bad and really she should just suck it up and be the dutiful wife. Later, right before the competition, Tahni tells “Raj” that she can’t run away with him because she wants to stay with her husband. But Suri hasn’t won yet. Instead of competing in the dance competition as Raj, he shows up on stage in his dorky clothes and glasses as himself, as Suri. And much to Tahni’s shock, he knows all of the dance steps perfectly. In a fantastic dance/flashback number she realizes that Raj has been Suri all along, that Suri loves her more than anyone ever could, and that she loves him more than she ever thought possible. Woohoo!
As I watched this film for the first time, I knew what was going to happen. Bollywood movies have happy endings—with dance numbers. The hero and the heroine almost always get together at the end. Just like in a romance novel. I knew what would happen. The joy of it came not in what but in how. When the announcer at the dance competition said Raj’s name and no one appeared in the spotlight I knew Suri was going to step out as himself. And when it did the payoff was so awesome that I laughed out loud and cried all at once. Bollywood plays with your emotions, carrying you along to just where it wants you on the force of your own expectations.
There are no original stories in the world. The best thing to do if you’re a writer hoping to move your audience is to remember that from the start. Sometimes the best way to thrill and captivate your audience is not to try to dazzle them with a unique plot but to blow their mind by letting exactly what they think will happen, happen in the most outrageous way.
Bollywood plots are simple: boy meets girl, obstacle keeps boy and girl apart, boy and girl overcome obstacle and live happily ever after. And they dance. And the audience dances with them. That’s what people are looking for. That’s why movie stars are practically gods in India and why theaters are packed more often than not. That’s the kind of magic that you want to capture as a writer. Keep it simple, keep it fabulous. And dance!
About this post’s author:
Merry Farmer is an award-winning novelist who lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. She has been writing since she was ten years old and realized one day that she didn't have to wait for the teacher to assign a creative writing project to write something. It was the best day of her life. She then went on to earn not one but two degrees in History so that she would always having something to write about. Today she is a giant History nerd and a hopeless romantic waiting for her own love story to start. Her first book, The Loyal Heart, is a swashbuckling Medieval Historical Romance involving a love triangle that will keep you guessing. Both The Loyal Heart and its sequel, The Faithful Heart, are available wherever eBooks are sold. The third book in the trilogy, The Courageous Heart, will be available in early November, 2012. She has also begun a new Western Historical Romance series set in Montana in 1895. The first of that series, Our Little Secrets, is now available. The second, Fool for Love, will be released in early 2013. Merry is also passionate about blogging, knitting, and cricket and is working towards becoming an internationally certified cricket scorer.