In high school, one of my best friends was obsessed with it. She wanted to get me hooked too, but I was too wise for my own good, and told her that if I watched it I would become as obsessed as she was and would never get any study done.
When I started university, I gave up the battle, and found that I was right; I’m now obsessed and never get any study done.
But part of my lack of study is because I learnt so much that now I
justify call my new-found hobby ‘research’.
The truth is, I’ve learnt a lot about storytelling from K-drama.
I’ll take you through a few things I’ve learnt, as well as the shows I learnt them from, should you be interested in watching them yourself. As of the time of writing, all these shows are on Netflix.
1. Trust your audience to pick up on clues
Learnt from: Extraordinary You
This was the first K-drama I watched, and I was not prepared. But anyway, more interestingly, this comes under show don’t tell, which I won’t explain because, let’s face it, it’s been explained many times before. But usually we talk about the show-don’t-tell in terms of emotion: instead of ‘he was happy’, say ‘he smiled’, or setting: instead of saying ‘it was raining’ say, ‘the raindrops pattered the umbrella’, and so on.
But Extraordinary You shows major plot points, using visual clues alone, instead of characters spelling out what’s happening, so if you miss these clues, you’ve missed a plot point.
Alas, the part where I noticed it contains spoilers, so I’ll use a much more general example instead. The show is about a high school girl, Eun Dan-O, who realises she is a character in a comic book. Part of the show – and her life – is in what they call the ‘stage’, in sight of the readers, and under the control of the author, but most of it is in the ‘shadow’, where they can live their own lives. The stage is signified by a slightly whiter filter on the shots, and the shadow by a slightly yellower one. Slightly. There are other clues, such as costuming and the thoughts of the characters. *can’t contain herself any longer* but one clue they gave through costuming was when one of the characters later realises that she’s a character (most of them are oblivious), but they don’t tell you until much later – it’s only through an important part of her uniform that you know that she’s no longer oblivious.
There, I explained it without spoilers.
But it’s not just Extraordinary You that does this showing so well. I’ve noticed that generally, the Korean actors have to show their character’s emotions through their body language more than their dialogue, in contrast to Western storytelling. As an example, I’ve noticed that in Western dramas, they communicate more like this:
Person A: *sighs dramatically*
Person B: What’s up?
Person A: Do you think Person C will ever like me?
Person B: What? You like them?
Person A: Shh, not so loud! But yeah, I’ve liked them since middle school.
Whereas in K-dramas, it tends more like this:
Person A: *sighs dramatically*
Person B: *follows their line of sight to person C*
Person B: *smiles knowingly and a bit evilly*
Obviously this is a generalisation, but both the clues of Extraordinary You and the general acting style have given me confidence in my own writing to be less obvious in how I tell my story. I can trust my readers to be alert to clues I leave, to piece things together and thereby be more engaged in the characters, narrative, and mystery.
So how can I use this in my own writing?
Well, one example where I put this into practice is in my novel, An Experiment in Time and Memory, where one character tells another that he didn’t do something, when he really did. We don’t see him doing what he does, so when I wrote his lie, I felt a bit nervous that my readers would take him at his word and then become confused. ‘Wait, did he do that? The narrative seems to assume he did, but he said he didn’t.’ I wanted to make it clear, but… not too clear.
So how can I make sure my readers know he’s lying, without just telling everyone that he lied?
Here’s what I decided to do:
- Although I didn’t show him doing what he did, I showed him preparing for it and returned to him just after he finished.
- I wrote the lie from his point of view, so that I can show the emotions he’s hiding and the justifications he’s thinking.
It’s much smaller than Extraordinary You, but while writing it, it still felt like a big gamble. What if people are confused? Isn’t it just easier to tell them that he’s not telling the truth?
Well, yes, it’s easier. They won’t miss it if I just spell it out.
But where’s the fun in that?
Watching Extraordinary You, I saw their clues and had such a thrill, wondering if I was meant to know what I now did. It was like making a theory for how a show will end, putting together all the pieces in your mind and wondering if you’ve put them together the right way.
This is the power of show don’t tell. It draws your readers in and invites them to be a part of the story. If you spoon-feed them, you’ll deny them so much fun and enjoyment. Trust them to pick up on these clues. If you’re unsure, ask a friend to read it. They’ll tell you if they’re confused.
2. Don’t underestimate hugs :3
Learnt from: (mainly) Hotel del Luna
This is just my personal preference, so feel free to disagree, but I do like the romantic pace K-dramas set. The characters tend to build trust before romance in one another. It takes more time to develop, and maybe if I watched a Korean film it would feel as fast paced as Western films do, but I find the K-drama version of romance more satisfying emotionally.
I’ll compare two romances I’ve been watching recently: The To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sequel: PS I Still Love You, a Netflix film, and Hotel del Luna, a K-drama.
In PS, Peter and Lara Jean are a couple in high school. Peter says hello to Lara Jean with a kiss. He says good bye with a kiss. He kisses her throughout too.
Again, this could be my preference, but I almost found all the kissing uncomfortable to watch. It feels like they spend more time kissing than looking at each other, and you quickly get used to it. Lara Jean tells us that she wants her first kiss to be special, but they kiss so often that even that one doesn’t feel special to us.
K-dramas know that as soon as they introduce their protagonists, you as the viewer understand that they’re going to fall in love, even if the characters themselves don’t know that. We start the opening episode of romcoms and dramas looking for who’s going to be the main couple, and they use this to their advantage.
K-dramas don’t need to rush the romance because we can see it developing throughout. This is helped by the fact that they’re much, much longer than a film, but they’re also careful with their kisses. When the main couple have their first kiss, it’s a big moment. Because for about ten episodes (ie hours), we’ve watched them slowly develop feelings for each other, all while knowing that it’s coming, and finally we have that confirmation.
But even after that first kiss, you’d be hard-pressed to find a main protagonist who’s as handsy as Peter. Yes, they’re officially a couple now, but most of the romance is shown through their support of each other through the climax. Kisses are few, and therefore when they do happen, they’re very special. Instead, they hug, or touch them on the hand or, and this feels so dumb to write, they… make eye-contact.
Like I said, this is just a preference of mine. But I’d challenge you, as I challenge myself, to be deliberate about how your couples show that they love each other. Sometimes a hug or simple touch on the hand can be very effective, and it saves more intimate expressions of affection for when they’re truly special.
3. Why them?
Learnt from: I Am Not a Robot and The Secret Life of my Secretary
A man who’s allergic to humans and the woman from whom a groundbreaking new robot was modelled.
A man who can no longer see people’s faces and the one woman whose face he can still see.
Yep, K-dramas can’t be explained in words, but more importantly, when you look at those pairs, it’s obvious that the characters were deliberately made for each other.
The question we have to ask when writing love interests is, why did my character choose this person instead of, well, that one?
Both these dramas’ main characters are around 25-30 years old. They’ve had chances to meet plenty of people, and have dated in the past. But something I admire about these dramas is that it’s very clear why the characters are falling in love with each other. The shows give them opportunities to become vulnerable to each other and help each other, and despite what my terrible synopses might make you think, this goes both ways between the male and female protagonists. I’ll expand more on this in my fourth point, and I’ll use the same shows as examples.
Even if your romance is just a sub-plot, what is it about the love interest that makes your main character want to spend the rest of their life with them? Don’t be intimidated by the examples I gave. In fact, here’s another pretty pathetic example from my novel to make you feel better XD
Luc has never dated in the past, though this is a well-kept secret. Most women don’t take him seriously; while they’re amused by his permanently nonchalant performance, they don’t believe he has enough depth to have any kind of complex emotions. In Amber, he finds someone who, while still enjoying his act (it’s important to him that he can still at least pretend to be cool), knows that it is just an act and will stick by him even when it’s dropped.
Amber has dated casually before, but lost interest in each relationship fairly quickly, finding that they go through the routine and she can rarely see deeper than the romantic facade they put up on dates. In Luc, she finds someone with whom she can hang out with comfortably, whose acting is so bad she still knows what he’s thinking, and who defends and helps her when he has no romantic obligation to do so.
Ugh those were the two hardest paragraphs of this whole post 😐
What about your characters?
4. Characters’ mistakes should have consequences
Learnt from: I am Not a Robot primarily, though many others have similar tropes.
Where Western dramas have a hate-turn-to-love trope, K-dramas take it to the next level. ‘Instead of them bickering until it turns to flirting,’ they propose, ‘let’s have the woman deceive the man, use him, confuse him, then eventually fall in love with him. Sounds fun, right?’
In I’m Not a Robot, Ji-a deceives Min-gyu into thinking that she’s a robot sent to help him and keep him company, since his allergy means he lives alone. (Watch it if you don’t believe me.) He falls in love with her, but thinks he’s mad for falling in love with a robot. If she tells him she’s human, she won’t be able to see him anymore.
But as the series progresses, you see how much she hurts him in the deception, even as you’re still rooting for them to end up together. When I watched I Am Not a Robot, I was surprised at how long the big reveal took, and how much Ji-a’s deception hurt Min-gyu. The break of trust was a bigger issue for him than the joy at finding out he’s not mad for falling in love with her, and now can be with her.
I was surprised, but not unpleasantly so. I really love how they showed how hurt Min-gyu was, how guilty Ji-a felt, and how hard she had to work to slowly win back his trust and love. We know the characters will end up with undying love for each other, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt each other.
It’s refreshing to have characters having to pay for deceit, selfishness and hurtful words, because it’s part of what makes them feel human. If your characters start out hating each other, if they’re mean to each other, they can still hurt each other.
I don’t want to say how I’ll apply this because of spoilers 😉 But I’ll be keeping it in mind as I write about the aftermath of my character’s lie. He, like the rest of us, made a mistake. Why not give him a chance to make it right?
So, fabulous creators, what’s an unlikely source you’ve found tips and inspiration from?