Thursday, February 13, 2020

What Korean TV dramas are teaching me about plot

My discovery of Korean TV dramas has coincided with my working through the book, Story Genius (SG) by Lisa Cron, which is about how to craft a good story.

Specifically, I am currently in the throes of a Netflix creation called “Crash Landing on You” (CLOY), which is still being released. The last two episodes (15 and 16) will be released on Saturday and Sunday—and I will be watching them, possibly in the morning of each day.

I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in a TV show, except maybe Twin Peaks, which my spouse and I (pre-DVR days) would rush from wherever we were to watch at home in real time. But that was back in the days when there was no social media engagement—so our interest was shared among ourselves and our acquaintances only.

This is the first TV show I have watched that is dropping in real time (instead of its entire season being instantly binge-able), so I have been waiting each weekend with tens of thousands of others for the next episodes to drop. Although the show hasn’t gotten much press in American media (no reviews from TV critics of the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) it is a fan favorite on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving a 96% audience score and 9.1 stars from viewers on IMDB. When a clip of it is posted on YouTube or when Hyun-Bin (one of the main actors) posts something about it on his Instagram feed, dozens of people comment about how much they are enjoying it—and a common thread among these comments (written in multiple languages) is something like: “Happy ending—please!!” Viewers are really engaged in the story. A few have (jokingly) threatened the writers if it ends sadly. So I am not the only one caught up in it.

It’s fun to enter this fictional world and anticipate the next thing that could happen, especially since almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger (and also to think there are so many people experiencing this euphoric anticipation along with me). But why, according to the tenets set forth in Story Genius, has this been such compelling viewing for me? I know it’s not the best thing I’ve ever watched and I am sometimes frustrated at the lack of action, when the actors just stand there and make moony eyes at each other while the camera pans around them. (Although there is often poetry in what they say to each other in such times--see example dialog at the bottom of this post *).

Since I am still learning what “story” is (apparently what I’ve written a lot of in the past is beautiful exposition), I thought CLOY would be useful as an exercise for me to apply some of Cron’s examples/questions about the elements of story to it. (I can’t apply her earlier questions about why I should care about the story, or what prompted it since I didn’t write it).

SG: What is the problem she/they can’t avoid?

• Yoon-Seri has crash-landed in North Korea—so the first and main question is: how will she get out? And how will Captain Ri help her get out? So simple, yet so compelling (despite the absurdity). She must get out—it is dangerous for her there. But they fall in love, so the secondary question is: how can they/will they reunite?

SG: What is the point?

I’m not sure about this question. Maybe: Love gives meaning to life? Or, if given the chance, people can rise to the occasion and be heroic (they both risk their lives for each other)? But in an online interview, Cron also said: “what most people are writing about is human connection, the cost of human connection. What does it cost me to connect.

This might be a better question for CLOY. Seri is a woman who has little close human connection—never accepted by her mother, hated by her brothers. Capt. Ri has shut himself down emotionally after the death of his brother. They learn to love and rely upon each other—but the cost is heartbreak, and the absence of a future together.

SG: What did the protagonist enter the story already wanting?

• Is the answer as simple as “to be loved and known”--? Not just romantic love but to find community with people, even those who are as different from you as they could possibly be.

SG: What is the protagonist’s internal change? How does the external dilemma/plot change her worldview?

Seri learns to love, to trust, to be giving—this is mirrored also by Capt. Ri’s internal change as well. But how heartbreaking—and the thing that drives the later episodes forward—that the thing that has changed her the most and given her the most happiness is the one thing she can’t have.

* Who wouldn’t love a man who can say something like this to comfort a weeping woman?

“Next year, the year after that, and even the one after that will all be good. Because I’ll be thinking about you. I’ll be grateful that you were born into this world. I’ll be grateful that the person I love is still breathing. That’s why your birthday will always be a good day.”

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