K-dramas: What they taught us about writing YA

Earlier this week I mentioned my sudden love affair with Korean dramas. I never expected that they’d be something I’d enjoy, so it caught me by surprise the first time I sat down to watch the pilot episode of one and emerged from Hulu with glazed eyes six hours later. I’m telling you, these things are addictive. Like I said, Corey Wright is my dealer, “Shut Up and Let’s Go” (SULG) was my gateway drug, Lee Hyun Jae is that dream I have when I’ve OD’d, and now I’m a full-fledged k-drama addict.

But what is it about these shows that makes them so appealing? As a writer, I think it’s because I love really good stories where I’m invested in the characters, the plot keeps me guessing, and I’m able to learn and experience new things. And that’s exactly what you’ll find in k-dramas.

Now, I’m not going to say that every k-drama is an amazing example of storytelling — not every American TV show is a winner either. (That’s why I have Corey weed out the bad ones for me.) I’ll admit that there are elements of cheesiness and melodrama and that not everything is going to translate perfectly, but I think this is part of the k-drama charm. And they’ve charmed many writers besides just me.

In the past few weeks I’ve found myself wrapped up in fangirl k-drama tweets that have revealed just how many people out there love these shows. And many of them are YA writers. I talked to two of them, Corey Wright and Heather Marie, to find out why they love k-dramas and what they’ve learned from them about writing a killer story.

Why the k-drama love?

K-dramas build tension with well-told love stories and unexpected twists. The world-building is so much like YA that of course I fell head over heels for k-dramas. Where most shows are lacking, k-dramas have it all. Great dialogue, humor, heartbreak, suspense and action (and by action, I mean amazing fight sequences). -Heather

With each new drama, I have to give myself a few episodes to really get a hold of the plot and invest in the characters, but I love them because they are silly and dramatic and fun. There are scandals, one-sided love, cancer diagnoses, piggybacks and ridiculous amounts of soju, and I love that. It’s also a really interesting and fun way to see a culture. -Corey

Memorable characters

The characters are so animated and quirky, each having a unique personality that sets them apart from the rest. Oddly enough, this is something you don’t find in most American TV. I don’t know why that is. Most characters fall flat and I find myself wishing they’d get axed by the end of the season. K-dramas are quite the opposite. They have a way of making you feel for each character and wanting them all to win. The secondary characters are just as important as the main cast, making it all fit perfectly together overall.

The most important thing I’ve learned from K-dramas is to develop lovable characters that people will miss, despite the characters’ intentions. That’s the most important thing about connecting with a reader –– getting them to connect with your story. You have to create that perfect amount of emotion that’s not too overbearing or annoying, but believable. -Heather

Romantic tension

K-dramas are often chaste, and maybe this is part of its appeal. American TV is highly sexualized, almost to the point where viewers are numb to it. And while I wouldn’t consider myself a prude by any means, it gets old. Part of what I love about k-dramas is this way they harken back to Jane Austen and this idea that even a freaking hand hold can be so. freaking. romantic. There’s so much anticipation in a single kiss, and these dramas and their ability to make me hang on for every second it takes to get that kiss is why I keep watching them. And maybe that’s something YA writers could learn from them.

While I totally acknowledge that sex is a reality for teens today, there are incredible ways to build romantic tension without this constant quest to get laid. K-dramas highlight a lot of those things — the confession, the hand holding, the back hug, the loyalty and others. These relationships lack the sexual component that we might see in Western TV, and yet I buy into the relationships and the intimacy between the characters so much more. -Corey

As a first-time k-drama watcher, I was shocked by how I got swept away in these love stories when I’m not typically a romance reader. But I have never found myself fighting for a couple quite like I fought for one in “Boys Over Flowers.” These shows are proof that building tension and making the reader root for that first kiss is the way to go — especially in YA. You don’t need makeouts, nudity and sex. Trust me on this: K-dramas will have you swooning over a simple brush of the hands. -Laura

Cliches that work

K-dramas are riddled with cliches — the horrible third woman, the scheming evil mother, the fated romance, the orphan, the one-sided love, the Cinderella story, etc. But that’s part of the charm and that’s part of the fun. It’s also a really great way to see how cliches can work well.

Take “SULG,” for example. There were some basic kdrama/YA cliches there — the scandalized father, the puesdo-orphaned child, the love triangle, the self-sacrificing decisions and the rags-to-riches tale. Yet they were executed nicely! They weren’t just things that gave description to a character, but things that shaped the characters and impacted their choices and their relationships. And those relationships? Born of cliches, but shaped by the writers to become something more than a cliche. -Corey


We’re always told to leave the reader wanting more, and while I don’t think you should end every chapter or every scene with a dramatic, life-or-death situation, there should always be a level of conflict there. It’s this conflict — be it an action sequence, unrequited love, a mystery — that compels us to turn the page … or click “next episode” on Netflix.

K-dramas do this perfectly. Every episode leaves me going, But what if they never get together? How is the character going to react? Is someone going to rescue her? And don’t even get me started on episode 2 of SULG. I don’t know anyone who didn’t start episode 3 immediately because they were thinking, “OMG. Did that really just happen?!” -Laura

K-drama crushes: And did we mention the pretty boys?

Heather: “Boys Over Flowers” introduced me to my boy crush, Kim Hyun-Joong. *le sigh* If only he were in more shows. As it is, I started watching “Playful Kiss” just for him.

Corey: Where to start? I don’t think I could pick a single actor. I will say, though, that I love Gong Yoo. He’s currently starring in “BIG” and is doing such a wonderful job. That man makes me weep. He was also in another drama called “Coffee Prince” that was really good. Totally fell for him then. Hook. Line. Sinker. Total Goner.

Laura: Lee Hyun Jae in “SULG.” The long hair. The adorable smile. His SULG character’s desperate longing for a girl who pines for someone else. Plus there’s the fact that he plays drums in a real-life indie band…and models for H&M.

Have we persuaded you to give k-dramas a try?

Here are some of Corey’s expert recommendations:

  • Boys Over Flowers
  • Shut Up and Let’s Go (Shut Up Flower Boy Band)
  • The Moon Embracing the Sun
  • Queen In Hyun’s Man (Queen and I)
  • Coffee Prince
  • Secret Garden
  • Dream High
  • Big
  • City Hunter
  • Rooftop Prince
  • Personal Taste

Thanks so much to Corey and Heather for their help with this post. You ladies rock like Jan Di rocked Jun Pyo’s world!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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16 thoughts on “K-dramas: What they taught us about writing YA

  1. How have I never heard of these shows?? They sound ahmazing! Which one should I start with?

  2. Hey Linda! My go to rec for all is Shut Up Flower Boy Band/Shut Up and Let’s Go. Great characters, fantastic relationships, and excellent ace of storytelling. It’s a nice introduction because it isn’t *as cheesy* as some other kdramas, and by the time you finish you’re so into the idea of kdrama that you’re more willing to open-arms embrace the rest of the kdrama world.

    Plus it’s fun, and it has Do Il/Lee Hyun Jae (though I’m all about Jy-Huyk/Sung Joon myself.)

  3. I’d recommend either “Shut Up and Let’s Go” or “Boys Over Flowers.” I know Corey would suggest SULG. I’m betting Heather would say BOF.

    Happy k-drama viewing!

  4. Good points, Corey! SULG doesn’t have that same cheese factor, which I like. Plus, it has Lee Hyung Jae, which I LOVE. ;)

  5. You mean I’m not the only girl who watches these! Hello kindred spirits! I’m all about some Kim Bum!

  6. Kim Bum! My very first, official kdrama crush! Have you watched Padam, Padam/ Holy smokes! When did he grow up and get (even more) gorgeous! Loved him in that drama. But Jenn, but heart looks only to Gong Yoo. You should check out Big–he’s great in it! He also stared in another kdrama back in 2007 called Coffee Prince. That’s where he stole my heart. Also, he’s the kmovie Finding Mr. Destiny. It just came out, but you can find it online places (I think I watched it on dramacrazy.net). Freaking adorable. He was also in Crucible/Silenced, but that movie is wicked depressing. Still, he’s incredible. And gorgeous.

  7. I assume these have subtitles? Normally I try to avoid those things (I’m uncultured I guess). But you ladies make a good argument do I’ll see what Korean dramas are on Netflix and see how it goes.

  8. I’ll admit I was wary of watching subtitled TV and movies too, but k-dramas have converted me! You won’t find 2012 k-dramas on Netflix, but there are plenty of ones from 2011 and earlier. There are lots of k-dramas on Hulu though — and all the episodes are free! And Corey just told me about http://www.viki.com where new k-drama episodes are up within hours of airing. Happy viewing!

  9. The funny thing about the subtitles is after a few episodes, you completely forget they’re there. I hardly notice them (except when someone says something and there isn’t a sub, at which point I panic and think, “WAIT. I don’t *actually* understand Korean?”)

    Or when they speak English. That always throws me for an awkward loop.

  10. I’ve never watched a K-Drama. Perhaps this is something I need to remedy?

    I love your point about how good character building and tension can have you swooning over a hand touch – totally agree! :-)

  11. Erm…so I’m just now seeing this post, like 3 months later, but it totally made me smile. I’m a lover of K-Drama, as well, and it seems like Corey and I agree on just about everything here, including a love for Gong Yoo! :) I think one of my favorite parts is also the slow-developing romance and how you find yourself getting all excited that a couple held hands.

    Along with the awesome list you provided, I’d add “You’re Beautiful” and “Heartstrings” to the list of dramas to watch. I fell in love with Jung Yong Hwa via “Hearstrings” and watched “You’re Beautiful” just because he was in it…then I went and bought like, all his band’s music on iTunes. ;)

  12. YES! Another k-drama lover! And I need to check out “You’re Beautiful.” A couple of friends (whom I recently got addicted to k-drama) said it was great.

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