Lessons from the Soaps

Heaven's Fate, South Korean soap opera

Lately, I’ve been following a Korean soap opera called “Heaven’s Fate” or (in Korean) 왕꽃 선녀님.  It’s melodramatic, borderline absurd, and highly entertaining.

Interestingly enough, I’ve managed to see some writing tactics in action–aspects in storytelling that apply both to written fiction and TV drama.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Conflict, conflict, conflict!  If it’s easy for the main character to get from Point A to Point B, then where’s the story?  Cho-won, the MC of Heaven’s Fate, is possessed by spirits and can see ghosts.  If it this was easy to cure or she figured out how to beat the possession right away, then the series would only last a handful of episodes.  Instead, the creators put a thousand different hiccups in her way and manage to drag it out for 150 episodes!
  • Cookie-cutter characters made real. In a soap opera (or acting role), it’s up to the actor to make his/her character come to life.  Rather than the stereotypical characters (e.g. a controlling mother or her weak-willed son), we have people with those characteristics.  This is the same for writing: it’s up to the writer to turn the character they’ve created into a person that the reader cares about it.  Here’s a good blog post on this topic.
  • Character connections.  In literature, you want to have as few characters as you can.  If there are too many people, the reader is overwhelmed.  Also, if there are too many small characters, each character contributes less to the story than if there were fewer people involved.  Often times, it’s best to try to make one character serve multiple purposes or to make each character somehow connected. For example: Cho-won was left on the doorstep of her adoptive parents when she was a baby.  The mother of Cho-won’s fiancé found this out, and as a result, dissolved the arranged marriage.  Well, the fiancé (named Jeung-su) has meanwhile met a girl (Mi-yeung) and fallen in love.  This girl is the son of a rich man, so mama is happy with this new arrangement.  However, it turns out that Mi-yeung is adopted too and that Cho-won’s real birthfater is Mi-yeung’s adoptive father!  So now, the mama wants to break up Mi-yeung and Jeung-su and get Cho-won back.  Phew–complicated.  But, do you see what I mean about character connections?  There’s more of an impact on the viewer and the plot!
  • Cliffhangers.  Every episode of Heaven’s Fate ends on a revelation of new information or the beginning of a negative encounter.  As such, I’m left frustrated after each episode.  I want to know what’s going to happen, so will I tune in tomorrow?  You betcha!  This is how chapters (and even the smaller units of scenes) should operate.  Something happens at the end that makes us want to turn the page.  It could be a disaster, a revelation, a funny line, or a surprise, but whatever it is, it sucks the reader in.
  • Subplots.  Subplots keep the story from sagging.  At the beginning of the tale, we have the problem (Cho-won is possessed), and at the end, we have the solution (Cho-won is cured).  In between, we have various conflicts that Cho-won must solve or deal with in order to progress further.  However, oftentimes the main conflict is not enough to sustain an entire series (or novel), and the solution to that is subplots.  By introducing side stories that the MC and secondary characters must deal with, we keep the tension high and mimic real-life more–no one has just one problem at a time!  Often the subplots will include a romance (will Cho-won end up with Mu-bin or Jeong-su?), family tension (what does Cho-won’s adoptive family do now that she’s possessed?), or any other number of things that can be intertwined with the main plot.  Think about your favorite novel; what was the main plot and what were the subplots?
  • Pacing and useless scenes.  One thing that soap-operas lack is a fast pace.  A writer cannot get away with this.  Certainly the writer can have sections of slow progress (perhaps scenes with lots of exposition or narrative), but most novels need to keep moving.  If the scene doesn’t contribute to the overall story, cut it.  I don’t care how entertaining the scene is; if it ain’t a part of the story, you don’t need it.  In soap operas, though, they can get away with useless scenes or unnecessary dialogue, but I have to say, it annoys me.  Whenever grandma and auntie start talking about cooking, I get bored–I mean, really, it’s not essential!  And although I’ll keep watching the TV show, I won’t be as forgiving with a book.  If the author puts in useless scenes very often, then I haven’t the patience or the time to keep reading.  Fortunately, most books don’t get through the publishing gatekeepers if they have poor pacing.

Well, that’s all I can come up with for the moment.  If you’re fortunate enough to have the South Korean channel Arirang, then tune in for Heaven’s Fate.

Have a nice weekend, everyone!  And good luck to Romina who defends on Monday!


This is Mighty Mouth with the song “Love Class.”