Hi kfangirl it’s me again, I found that your last post reply to my question was very helpful and very well explained so thank you very much and I’m here with another question (sorry). Basically I was wondering why is it that so many dramas employ the same, sometimes very cringeworthy tropes (wrist grabs, accidental kisses, chaebol family drama etc) and viewers like me, who have seen them so many times before, still continue to lap them up? That was a very long winded question sorry, and adding to that why is it that writers continue to add in these tropes. I became interested in this when I began watching Crash Landing on You thanks to my undying Hyun Bin love ever since I watched secret garden. The show definitely has a lot of these tropes and yet I still continue to get sucked in. Am I the only one?
That’s a very interesting question; one that I haven’t given much thought to before, to be honest. So thank you for being the catalyst that caused me to wrack my brain a little bit, to hopefully figure this out, a little bit.
As a disclaimer, let me just say that I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I did put the ol’ brain to work, and here’s my best attempt at explaining this odd little phenomenon.
As always, everyone, please feel free to add in your own thoughts and insights, to make this conversation richer. 🙂
WHAT’S A TROPE?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a trope as:
1. A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression. For example, “both clothes and illness became tropes for new attitudes toward the self”
2. A significant or recurrent theme; a motif. For example, “she uses the Eucharist as a pictorial trope”
In reference to dramas and movies, however, the word trope is used in a more, uh, negative manner. Essentially, it refers to clichés and formula, and when we say that a drama is tropey, this implies that the drama in question lacks originality, because it’s relying on a group of stereotypes to present its story.
HOW DID DRAMA TROPES COME ABOUT, ANYWAY?
This is completely anecdotal and unscientific, but here’s my theory of how drama tropes came about, at least in kdramas.
I noticed that when I watched older kdramas (say, from 1994 to around 2000), I didn’t notice a definite pattern of tropes. In fact, part of the novelty of watching these older dramas, came from the fact that I often found certain plot developments unexpected, not because they were particularly inventive, but because the stories didn’t have a formula to follow, at the time.
I think that in the earlier days of kdrama, that writers were more experimental, and as they tried different premises and characters, they found that audiences reacted more strongly to certain elements than others. As you might have noticed, kdrama writers do tend to put effort towards pleasing their audiences, like extending popular shows, for example. Or switching male leads to the more favored actor, like in Beautiful Days, back in 2001. Or giving a minor character more screen time, like for Ahn Jae Hyun in You From Another Star, in 2013/2014.
So it makes sense that as audiences gravitated towards things like contract marriages, birth secrets and Fated Love (among many others), that kdrama writers would work to serve up more of the same, in the hope of pleasing audiences and improving ratings.
I feel like as they did that, that it became a comfortable pattern for them, because creative writing is hard work that requires time and space, and very often, kdrama writers do not have the luxury of time or space, as they race to push out scripts to keep on par with the drama’s live-shoot schedule.
I believe relying on tropes became like a formula for kdrama writers; a tried-and-tested, fast and easy way of engaging their audiences, while coping with all the other demands that come with writing scripts for dramas, like the insertion of PPL.
And that, folks, is my version of the origin story of kdrama tropes, heh.
DO DRAMAS STILL USE MANY TROPES NOWADAYS?
The short answer is, yes, but a little less, nowadays. And, things seem to be evolving.
I feel like drama tropes had their peak roughly from around 2004 to 2010 or so. For a while, everywhere you looked, you could find a rich, cold, distant, jerky male lead just waiting to be reformed by his One True Love – who often turned out to be a poor, warm, effervescent Candy of a female lead. Cue a bickering meet-cute, forced proximity, and growing hyperawareness, and soon enough, True Love will blossom. Especially once the OTP realizes that they had a Meaningful Connection as children, possibly after accidentally re-enacting that Meaningful Childhood Moment, thus unlocking forgotten memories. 😉
Do we still see lots of drama tropes in more recent dramas? Yes. It’s not hard to find them in our dramas, and you could easily play a drinking game involving the spotting of drama tropes, which would quite likely leave you quite drunk, heh.
Some dramas use the tropes as romantic shorthand, and the end result isn’t.. very pleasing. And since I always say that one man’s meat is another man’s poison when it comes to dramas, I can only speak for myself, on the shows where I thought the tropes felt tired and overused. For me personally, this category would include shows like Hwarang (2017), Heirs (2013) and My Secret Hotel (2014).
However, there are other dramas where I feel like the tropes are well utilized, and still manage to feel fresh and fun, despite the clear tropeyness of it all. I thoroughly enjoyed You’re Beautiful (2009), Bride of the Century (2014) and You From Another Star (2014), even though they were full of tropes. I think the key to this, is that the writers often used the tropes tongue-in-cheek, so it felt like we were being invited to laugh at an inside joke, when a trope was used, &/or, the writers found a way to integrate the tropes into the story, in a meaningful way. More recently, I thought The Last Empress (2019) did a fine job of blithely trucking out trope after trope, for the sheer fun of it.
Essentially, I feel like more dramas are now doing a better job of integrating tropes into their stories in meaningful ways, &/or using the tropes facetiously, so that the tropes become sources of amusement rather than frustration. Also, I feel like more dramas are daring to step out of the comfort zone of drama formula, to be their own fresh and creative thing. Recently, I loved Search: WWW and Be Melodramatic, for this very reason. Both shows felt unique and organically grown, and when tropes were used, they were used ironically, more often than not.
If this is any indication of the trajectory of kdramas as an overall genre, I think it’s a great sign indeed.
WHY DO WE STILL FALL FOR DRAMA TROPES?
One of the key reasons I think we still fall for drama tropes, is because there are still dramas that are making good, meaningful use of them in their storytelling. If the context is meaningful, Show has my heart, whether it used a trope or not.
On the other hand, what about tropes that are thrown in there as part of lazy writing? Why do we sometimes still fall for those?
I think, just as tropes became romantic shorthand for drama writers, tropes became romantic shorthand for us as viewers as well.
Recently, for work, I read bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (you can find a short summary here). (Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)
In his book, Kahneman explains (using lots of research and experiments to back him up) that our brains operate on 2 main “systems” – System 1 is fast, automatic, overconfident, and can’t be switched off, while System 2 is analytical, controlled, and effortful. System 1 is the process through which we first encounter the world, and when System 1 runs into trouble and needs some help, that’s when System 2 is harnessed. But System 2, because it’s effortful, is also lazy, and therefore might pass off incorrect conclusions as accurate.
My take is that our brains’ System 1, having experienced that these drama tropes have brought us certain feels in the past, has formed an association in our brains, linking certain emotions to certain tropes. Forced proximity = anticipation of romantic feels; a piggyback ride = warm and fuzzy feelings; amnesia = angst; as our System 1 encounters these tropes, the remembered reflex is triggered. And because System 2 tends to be lazy – and I think, is especially lazy &/or tired when we unwind to a drama after a long day – System 2 accepts System 1’s proposition.
Basically, I think that our brains have learned the shorthand that our drama writers use, and in an unguarded, relaxed state, we’re more prone to go with the shorthand, and accept – maybe even embrace – the feels that the writers are offering us, via the tropes.
WHAT ABOUT OUR EVOLUTION AS VIEWERS?
Are we at the mercy of the drama trope? Certainly not.
Continuing with the System 1 and System 2 analogy, we can always activate System 2, to get a more critical, less “gullible” response to the tropes that drama writers serve up. Of course, that will require a little more time and energy, but it’s definitely doable.
Additionally, I do think that as we watch more dramas, that many of us develop more discerning drama palates. After we’ve seen the same tropes employed numerous times, it actually takes less effort than at first, to figure out whether a trope has been well-used, and whether writer-nim is falling back on lazy writing, or bringing something fresh and creative to the table, even in their use of tropes.
In the past, I used to feel like I had to concentrate a lot more and be a lot more intentional, when watching dramas that I wanted to write about on this blog. These days, though, I often wear a much more casual sort of lens, and yet, I find that I’m still able to do a decent amount of critical analysis, even while leaning back in my chair with my feet propped up, and using a free and easy lens on the drama that’s playing on my screen.
We’re all growing and evolving as viewers, and I think that’s a pretty cool thing. So the short, final answer to whether or not we will always fall for drama tropes, is, I think: No, not unless you want to. 😉
I hope that helps to answer your question!
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!