How can you avoid formulaic writing?

Writing lessons

During one of my lectures on screenwriting, I asked the students to draw parallels between three recently released webseries. Students were to watch all three web shows simultaneously and speak out aloud whatever they noticed as storytellers. The exercise resulted in some exciting interpretations. Let me chalk out what was our collective understanding.

The Shows

The Last Hour Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller | May 13, 2021 (United States) Summary: A mysterious young shaman, on the run protecting a secret gift, joins hands with a seasoned city cop to hunt down a dangerous figure from his dark past. But when he falls for the cop's young… Read all
Countries: India

The Last Hour

Released: 14 May 2021

Elevator Pitch:

A mysterious young shaman, on the run protecting a secret gift, joins hands with a seasoned city cop to hunt down a dangerous figure from his dark past. But when he falls for the cop’s young daughter, he is torn between duty and love.
Genres: Crime | Drama | Mystery | Thriller
Creators: Amit Kumar, Anupama Minz
Stars: Sanjay Kapoor, Karma Takapa, Shahana Goswami

Candy Thriller | September 8, 2021 (India) Summary: In misty Rudrakund, the brutal murder of a school student pushes troubled teacher Jayant Parekh and cop Ratna Sankhawar to unravel a web of sinister secrets involving rave parties, cold case… Read all
Countries: IndiaLanguages: Hindi

Candy

Released: 8 September 2021

Elevator Pitch:

In misty Rudrakund, the brutal murder of a school student pushes troubled teacher Jayant Parekh and cop Ratna Sankhawar to unravel a web of sinister secrets involving rave parties, cold cases, a demon in the woods, and a hallucinogen, Candy

Genres: Thriller
Creators: Debojit Das Purkayastha, Agrim Joshi
Stars: Ronit Roy, Richa Chadha, Manu Rishi Chadha

Aranyak Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller | December 10, 2021 (United States) Summary: Political ploys, personal agendas and a beastly myth all surface as two mismatched hill station cops navigate a web of suspects after a puzzling murder.
Countries: IndiaLanguages: Hindi

Aranyak

Released: 10 December 2021

Elevator Pitch:

Political ploys, personal agendas and a beastly myth all surface as two mismatched hill station cops navigate a web of suspects after a puzzling murder.
Genres: Crime | Drama | Mystery | Thriller
Creators: Charudutt Acharya, Rohan Sippy
Stars: Raveena Tandon, Ashutosh Rana, Parambrata Chattopadhyay

 

Comparison

The Last Hour:

The Last Hour is a story based in a remote hilly town in North India. A young woman is brutally murdered. The locals believe the killings could be an act of mythical legend, Yama Nadu.

The case is investigated by a two-member team, comprising an outsider Male Lead and a native Female Lead. The Male Lead is a Cop, dealing with the grief of his recently deceased wife and the challenges of raising a troubled teenage kid.

As the investigation deepens, the plot thickens, revealing several local characters with hidden agendas to be connected with the case.

Candy:

Candy is a story based in a remote hilly town in North India. A young boy is brutally murdered and found hung high on a tree in the forest. The locals believe the killings could be an act of mythical legend, Masaan.

The case is investigated by a two-member team, comprising an outsider Male Lead and a native Female Lead. The Male Lead is a Professor, dealing with the grief of his recently deceased young daughter and the challenges of living with a mentally retarded wife.

As the investigation deepens, the plot thickens, revealing several local characters with hidden agendas to be connected with the case.

Aranyak:

Aranyak is a story based in a remote hilly town in North India. A young girl is brutally murdered and found hung high on a tree in the forest. The locals believe the killings could be an act of mythical legend, Nar-Tendva.

The case is investigated by a two-member team, comprising an outsider Male Lead and a native Female Lead. The Male Lead is a Cop, dealing with the grief of his recently kidnapped young son and slipping into depression due to which he gets divorced by his wife.

As the investigation deepens, the plot thickens, revealing several local characters with hidden agendas to be somehow connected with the case.

 

Takeaway

All three shows were aired on premium OTT platforms and were fairly publicized before release. All three shows had a good ensemble of cast. Then there was the similarity between the story plot and primary characters. The broader storyline is a genre-bending narrative of a murder mystery laced with a tinge of mythical folklore.

To address the elephant in the room, let’s first understand why these three stories came so close to each other. The obvious rationale would be that given the popularity of the genre and past successes, they were briefed to churn out a thriller based in a remote hilly town against a mythical backdrop. Storytellers may have cashed in on their knowledge of certain topics or perhaps researched for the job. Whatever folklore they found interesting was then used as a backdrop to weave a murder mystery. End Result – three different shows who appear as if they were triplets.

Despite all these similarities, each of these shows enjoyed a different audience reception. While there could still be several other factors responsible, but in the end, everything boils down to storytelling and Audience Engagement.

From a characterization perspective, Jayant Parekh (Ronit Roy | Candy) stood out compared to Arup Singh (Sanjay Kapoor | The Last Hour) and Angad Mallik (Parambrata Chattopadhyay | Aranyak).

While Arup and Angad are both cops, Jayant is an ordinary profession, which serves as a disadvantage when the hero is pitted against seasoned criminals. With Jayant, his depression is well carved out for the audience. With Arup and Angad, it comes and goes as a passing mention. We never really see the Protagonist struggle with grief and depression. While Angad gets to exhibit some level of rage, for Arup, even that is not a scope. He’s shown as a constantly smiling man. It is left for the audience to assume that his smile is a mask to hide the pain within.

Of course, my conclusion was that despite the similarity of the story plot, what makes a story unique is the characterization. Distinct Characters and Different Settings can result in an entirely different storytelling experience. Take, for instance, stories like Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, and Romeo & Juliet. These stories have been explored by different storytellers who have presented the story in their unique version with a distinct set of characters and against different settings.

My students were understandably disappointed. As a budding writer, everyone believes they will get ahead based on their originality. And then the reality hits them in the face. But the goal of the exercise was not to demotivate the writers. Rather, the aim was to point out what makes a story stand out. How despite having a similar plotline, one can carve an entirely different story.

It may be disheartening to see that today’s cinematic storytelling resort to formulaic and template-driven stories. Yet, there is a silver lining somewhere. As long as Storytellers can add their unique style and tone to the existing stories, they still can weave a brand-new story.

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