Dear kfangurl: Why do I still fall for drama tropes?

This is me: kinda-sorta falling, but not quite. 😉

diti writes:

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?

Hm.. let’s see.. why DO we still fall for drama tropes..?

Dear diti,

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?

Fight My Way (2017): Unexpected proximity & hyperawareness between friends counts as a trope, right?

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?

Winter Sonata (2002): probably one of the birth places of Fated First Loves, amnesia and birth secrets.

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.

Beautiful Days (2001): Serving up accidental close proximity – before switching out the male lead.

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?

Crash Landing On You (2020): Why yes, falling asleep on your handsome companion’s shoulder is perfectly normal – in a kdrama 😉

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).

You From Another Star (2014): Featuring the classic kdrama almost-touch.

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?

Search: WWW (2019): Cha Hyun, still eating up drama tropes with a spoon <3

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?

Will the drama trope ever lose its hold on me?

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!

Love! ❤

~kfangurl

Crash Landing On You (2020): So tropey, but still so cracky. <3

POST-SCRIPT:

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!

33 thoughts on “Dear kfangurl: Why do I still fall for drama tropes?

  1. merij1

    > 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.

    Yeah. Thing is, if they’re done well, tropes like that really can be powerful. In this example, Healer and Chocolate come to mind. (Ha ha. There I go with my Chocolate references; better still, I paired it with Healer, which I know you love.)

    What I could use much less of is the cold jerk guy whose heart is unlocked from captivity deep in the lower dungeon of his soul by the one true love of his life . . . whom he treats like a doormat up til episode 12. That may be every girl’s dream, but too often it’s a false hope that shouldn’t be encouraged. Often, that guy’s heart died long ago in that lonely cell and will only appear to be revived long enough to entrap her.

    But for what it’s worth, Another Miss Oh and Chocolate both handle this trope well.

    My favorite anti-trope is Kang Dan-i in Love Is a Bonus Book rejecting the opportunity offered by charming book designer Seo-joon, after he finds her lost shoe and fits it back on her foot in the rain on the night of her deepest despair. He then explains how he found it, ending with a knowing grin by saying “How was that story? I just made it up.” Dan-i replies with an equally knowing smile that, of course, every girl knows and loves the story of Cinderella. But that she’s too old to believe in fairy tales and knights in shining armor. Instead, she’d prefer to write her own story.

    Reply
    1. beezrtp

      I have to object to Healer being included to point out that unlike most Kdramas that use the “childhood meet” just out of providence/destiny/cuteness – in Healer the OTP knowing each other in childhood was natural because their parents were close friends whose story influenced everything that led up to the OTP’s lives being entangled. So to me, that doesn’t qualify as the usual “met randomly as children” trope.

      @merij1 – you’ll find that the way you mention Chocolate – I mention two shows ALLLLL the time. (And I get excited if anyone else mentions them too! 😆) One is Healer. The other is CHUNO! (Which must always be referred to in all caps with an exclamation point!)

      Reply
      1. merij1

        Ha. The funny thing is, I only liked Chocolate. Which is to say, it’s a very good B or maybe B+, but not on my loved-it-to-death A-list. However, that one aspect was exceptionally well executed.

        The woman immediately recognizes the guy as her first love from childhood, but he doesn’t recognize her at all. (Partly because he’s shut down emotionally due to the life-changing trauma that occurred soon after they met as kids. She suffered similar trauma; how they help each other recover is the actual theme of the show. Ditto for his equally damaged cousin, played by the best-friend actor from “Familiar Wife.”)

        Then, after a full season of investment in this one-sided recognition, there’s an incredibly powerful epiphany in the penultimate episode, where he finally connects the dots and his mind is blown. Because she was his long lost first love as well. He just didn’t make the connection.

        As to Healer, please note that I offered it as an example of how that trope can be powerful when executed well. Let’s just see:

        1. Meaningful Connection as children? Check!

        2. Possibly after accidentally re-enacting that Meaningful Childhood Moment, thus unlocking forgotten memories? C’mon, Beez! Check!

        Remember how she couldn’t sleep in the presence of strangers? But then her dad found her sleeping like a princess with her hand entwined with Healer’s? Just like when they were little kids? They didn’t consciously recognize each other, but their bodies did. I call that: Trope Done Well!

        Reply
        1. beezrtp

          I probably didn’t explain my objection very well – not that Healer’s childhood connection doesn’t check all the boxes of the trope, it’s just that most Kdrama childhood connections seem thrown in just because it IS a cute trope and writers know audiences like it. In comparison, I didn’t feel that Healer had the child-meet for that reason but rather because it made sense within the story.

          Reply
        2. beezrtp

          I probably didn’t explain my objection very well – not that Healer’s childhood connection doesn’t check all the boxes of the trope, it’s just that most Kdrama childhood connections seem thrown in just because it IS a cute trope and writers know audiences like it. In comparison, I didn’t feel that Healer had the child-meet for that reason but rather because it made sense within the story. I’m a Healer fanatic so I am very biased 😆 but I truly believe that if the childhood connection wasn’t necessary to the story, Healer’s writer wouldn’t have included it. I felt ALMOST the same way about Fight My Way.

          I haven’t seen Chocolate and even though Ha Ji won is one of my favorite actresses, the minute the synopsis mentioned “hospice”, I knew I’d never watch it.

          Reply
          1. merij1

            Yes, Chocolate mostly takes place in a hospice. Various characters are introduced during their final weeks on earth and then they die. So there’s that. On the other hand, it’s handled quite beautifully. They give and share a lot of life with one another during those precious final moments.

            As to Healer, I guess I don’t buy the interpretation of “trope” that they’re necessarily lazy or cliches. They often are, but most TV is lazy and cliched, if we’re being honest. The reason they became tropes is that they have some quality that many of us appreciate. Done well, as Healer certainly was, they can be awesome.

            Reply
            1. kfangurl

              Just butting in to say that I agree that tropes can be done well, which is when we don’t mind at all, that they’re making an appearance in a story. But because they’re used lazily in so many other shows, we can’t help but pick up on the fact that the narrative device, while very well used, still belongs to a family of tropes. Just my 2 cents – I hope it helps 😅

              Reply
    2. kfangurl

      Ahaha!! Yes, that cold jerk who’s changed by his One True Love is so overdone! I like that kdramas seem to be leaving that trope behind more and more now, but it stills seems very popular in modern C-dramas and to some extent, manga-inspired J-dramas, though I’m no expert since I’m only just now starting to dip my toes back into J-dramas after a longish break. I think girls dream of being The One who can change a guy, but you’re right, it’s unrealistic, and it’s an unhealthy idea to push. So I’m glad that most kdramas seem to have moved on from that trope. 😅

      And yes, that scene where Dan Yi states that she’ll write her own story, thankyouverymuch, was gold. <3

      Reply
  2. beezrtp

    Did nobody mention the gratuitous shower scene? That’s one trope they need to bring back post haste! They used to include them in every show around episode 2 or 3 (I have no idea why those particular episodes). No rhyme or reason or context to the story. And if our leading man wasn’t ripped, then they’d find somebody in the cast that needed to be clean in episode 2. Case in point – Remember Son’s War. Yoo Seung-Ho was still quite young and not ripped so we even got a shower scene of Park Sung-Woong!
    *siiggggghhhh* those were the days…

    Reply
  3. beezrtp

    Wow! Just WOW! Kfangurl, I don’t know where you find the time to watch, and then write a review of all the dramas you watch but you manage to find time to read too?!!!

    And I love your answer to this question “No, not unless you want to.”

    I personally love my Kdrama tropes because so often they are the things that do get couples together in real life. Or at least I can see them happening in real life. As you say “accidental proximity” is real and happens all the time (I think men are actually more susceptical (sp?) to it with any attractive woman where with women, it’s usually your crush that causes a proximity alert). And I assume the piggyback ride is a real thing when someone’s drank too much in S. Korea. Not so much here because adult people don’t weigh under 120 lbs. lol

    I think the only trope I canNOT stand is the minute a glass or picture frame is dropped THERE WILL BE BLOOD (paper cut sized blood) and subsequent theatrics even if both characters are surgeons and deal with open wounds and bloody body parts as their daily chosen profession.

    Reply
    1. kfangurl

      Lol. I had to read the book for work and so while I was reading it, I put aside almost all of my dramas, in order to focus. I don’t know how to bend time and space (yet?) like Sean does! 😂

      Ha, I had to giggle at your description of the shattering glass-elegant wick of blood on the cheek trope! 😂 That’s so true! It’s in so many dramas. Those glass shards must go through special training, to know how to cut the characters just so, so that they still look elegant from the cut. 😆

      Reply
        1. kfangurl

          OH! HAHA! I guess I’ve seen the sudden wisp of blood on the cheek too many times – it was the first thing I thought of, when you mentioned shattering glass! 😂😂

          Reply
  4. Webfoot

    Oooh interesting. I like the possibility that a trope works because it reaches past our more thoughtful parts to appeal to our more habitual modes of thought. There’s some echo here of Freudian Id vs Ego. Our beastial side is pleasure and panic driven while our brainy side tries to steer us logically. You might also want to look at the Elaboration Likelihood model. It’s been around since the 70’s so I think Kahnemann probably was influenced by that.
    Your thoughtful post made me think too, so, if I may, I want to add one more thought to why tropes work.
    I think that a trope is made up of tension. And that’s why they are so intriguing. Forced cohabitation? I hate you but I need you. Chaebol and candy? I want you but I shouldn’t have you. Accidental kiss? I am in denial but now I am forced to admit feelings.
    Tension, caused by opposing forces, need a resolution. Generally, the longer we can pull out the tension, the more satisfying the resolution. We drama watchers love it when there’s a satisfying close to a tension/trope storyline. The other thing about tension is that it puts things into motion. The story parts move toward or away from the resolution, and that in itself is more interesting than watching people have no purpose or provocation.
    There, my 0.02. :))

    Reply
    1. kfangurl

      Thanks for weighing in, dear Webby! <3 That's a great point about tension. We do love our dramatic tension, even better if the tension is laced with romantic &/or sexual energy. Another great reason that we still lap it up (when well done), or accept it (when not so well done, ha 😆). Thank you for your 0.02 – I do think it's worth much more than 0.02, though! 😉

      Reply
        1. kfangurl

          I do seem to be on fire, a little bit! 😆 Timing is everything: people asking these questions which result in these posts, me finishing dramas and writing reviews, me having more time to spend at home, thanks to COVID-19. 😅

          Reply
            1. kfangurl

              Ah, that’s the newly announced official name of the Coronavirus that’s been in the news.. Some of my work projects have been put off till much later because of it.

              Reply
  5. diti

    Thanks so much for answering kfangurl! I always love your responses to my questions. This one was very well thought out and researched. The system 1 and 2 analysis was very interesting and probably something I’ll think about when I watch another drama trope come up. Thanks again :)))))

    Also adding Hyun Bin’s photos was just a godsend hehe.

    Reply
    1. diti

      adding to that how are you liking crash landing on you so far? I took your advice and began watching only airing dramas and I’ve picked Crash Landing on You and Romantic Dr Teacher Kim 2 so I’m dying as I wait for their next episodes!

      Reply
      1. kfangurl

        I’m enjoying Crashing Landing very well so far! I’ve been rationing episodes out as sparingly as possible, so that I don’t run out of fresh episodes, and so far, I’ve been successful – I’m still behind the live airing schedule, despite the 2 weeks of pre-emption, ha. 😆 I’m very happy to hear that limiting yourself to watching only airing dramas has been working for you. After all, you can’t binge hours away, if there’re no more fresh episodes to be had! Well done, you! 😀

        Reply
    2. kfangurl

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, diti! Especially since it was in response to your question! 😉 I’m very happy that you found the post interesting, and that you like the System 1 and System 2 analysis. Once you’re acquainted with two systems, you can observe them in so many things around you, in yourself as well as other people, because our brains are just wired to work that way. It’s quite fascinating. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Snow Flower

    Why do we fall for kdrama tropes? Why do we read and re-read fairy tales? Why do we need comfort food?

    Reply
  7. seankfletcher

    Ooooh, this is very, very good kfangurl (well, excellent actually) 🤩

    What we are seeing more of in place of some tropes is the Xanatos Gambit (yes, it’s a real thing!) or as Baldric from Blackadder used to say “I have a cunning plan”. In short, it is a plan by a hero or a villain where they succeed even if they have lost to their adversary 😱

    I do enjoy it when the usual tropes are used less and less. However, I know they are a necessary evil to move a story along. That being said, some tropes are so well done, even I fail to see when Tinker Bell has sprinkled her pixie dust across a very enchanting story (Peter Pan is very tropey 😎).

    Do I have a favourite trope? And, when is a trope not a trope? Yes, it’s Scarlett in full flight during WWW, which sadly, as a show, became Paradise Lost for me.

    The other thing I enjoy seeing more and more of is the breaking away from the rigid plot line regarding when something happens. I do take my hat off though to those drama watchers who are really good at commenting on when such and such will happen e.g. a kiss will happen after episode x. They have the formula down pat 😊

    Scarlett lives forever 🤣😂🤣

    Reply
    1. kfangurl

      Thank you Sean! Coming from you, that is a big compliment indeed, since you are so well read. 🤩

      Case in point: Xanatos Gambit! I honestly had to look that up, Sean! And yes, you are very right, I do think we’re seeing more of that nowadays, though I can’t name a specific example off the top of my head. Perhaps what we see in Designated Survivor, where even though there are times the Acting President seems to be on the losing end because of a certain development, he ends up winning, in the end?

      I do agree, that when tropes are well done, you either don’t even notice them, or, you can’t even begrudge their presence, because they’re so well done. I don’t dare to hope for tropes in dramas ceasing to be a thing, but I do hope that drama writers will be make more creative, fresh use of their tropes. 🙂

      Oh my, kdrama formula! It’s a bane to actually know the typical rhythm of a drama, because that makes the story more predictable than it already is. I’ve already figured out that by the halfway point – typically E8 – there will be Significant Movement with regards to the main couple, and then a few eps later, there will be angst to separate them, before things are put in place in E15, for a finale that ties everything together. 😜 So YES. I absolutely appreciate it when dramas move away from that formula.

      Scarlett absolutely lives foreverrr!! 😍😍😍

      Reply
  8. Timescout

    Oh, that was a good one. Loved your insights and I do concure.

    Only I’m ever the “contrarian” as I never really got all that hooked on them tropes and these days several of ’em give me a serious case of “trope allergy”, lol. I think I’m generally less affected because romance just don’t do much for me and the tropes in drama genres I tend to watch are those I don’t mind. Well, most of the time (could someone please remove serial killers from kdramas 😄).

    Reply
    1. kfangurl

      Thanks Timescout, I’m glad you enjoyed this post! 😀 I do think that the System 1 and System 2 analogy would only work on those who liked an executed trope to begin with, like how I fell for contract marriages when I first watched Goong as my gateway drama. Thereafter, I’ve always had a soft spot for contract marriage setups. But, if you were never taken in by a trope to begin with, I wouldn’t think that you would succumb now! 😆 And OMG YES. Someone kill off all the serial killers in Dramaland, pretty please! 😂 We’ve been having a serial killer pandemic!

      Reply
  9. Michele

    That was a really well-thought out and extensive answer to the original letter – thank you!

    And also thank you for the Cha Hyun. We are Cha Hyun and she is us! And she got her actor in the end. 🙂

    Reply
    1. kfangurl

      Aw, thanks Michele! I’m glad you enjoyed this post! <3 And YES. Cha Hyun is our successful fangirl, who won her Oppa's heart in the end. I luff Cha Hyun! 😍😍😍

      Reply

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