javabeans: So, this seems like a pretty self-explanatory list.
girlfriday: Our favorite writers? Yup. They write dramas. They’re our favorite.
javabeans: I suppose the only criteria we had for this list, other than liking the dramas these people wrote, was that we skewed toward writers with a strong overall history of writing great dramas. Rather than, say, just those who wrote our favorite shows, or those with spotty histories.
girlfriday: Yes, because otherwise this would just a list of our top dramas. And there are some writers, like the Hong sisters, that I loved for years and years… and then didn’t so much.
javabeans: That was a sad trajectory, because any other writer who had seven or eight solid hits in a row and a couple of duds would have still been considered great writers. It’s just that their weakest dramas came at the end, and all together, and made us worry that maybe they’re not so good anymore.
girlfriday: Or got tired. Which still makes me sad, but we can’t ignore the recent shows.
javabeans: Of course, there are examples of the reverse, too, where a writer we might not have thought much of over several dramas starts turning it up with great work. Those are happier trajectories.
girlfriday: There is something really gratifying about following your favorite writers and seeing them constantly trying to one-up themselves. As much as we love our favorite actors and actresses, ultimately as fans of dramas, it’s the writers who make or break a show.
javabeans: Yes, as we know from watching great actors work with crappily written material—it just doesn’t work. But as long as there’s a great story and great characters, I’ll follow you there.
girlfriday: For years, apparently. Here’s our list!
1. Lee Woo-jung
girlfriday: Lee Woo-jung has taken more of my tears than any other writer in dramaland; some were tears of paaaaaaaiiin, and some were tears of joy, but mostly they were tears of empathy for the way she portrays growing pains and familial love. That’s probably her greatest strength as a writer, and why her Answer Me series has become such a sensation.
The franchise began with no expectations, since as a variety writer from PD Na Young-seok’s crew on 1 Night 2 Days, she had no drama credits to her name. But with Answer Me 1997 she wrote a loving reflection on youth tinged with the nostalgia of simpler times, and she hit upon something that really spoke to viewers—shared memories of the pop-culture of that time, and the universal pangs of being young and lost. Though subsequent installments Answer Me 1994 and Answer Me 1988 borrow the same formula (a big reason why the first is unbeatable to me), they do stand on their own, and each season has her signature humor, sentiment, and heart. Love triangles may be what people discuss most about her dramas, but what I appreciate is the way she writes moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and friends who treat each other like family. Her characters hide their emotions on the surface the way real people do, but their quiet acts of love speak volumes and move me like no other.
2. Song Jae-jung
javabeans: One common criticism about K-dramas is the frequent recycling of storylines and tropes, and the general reluctance to be too risky, too adventurous, or too different. I love ‘em anyway, because to me a drama’s value isn’t only in its originality factor—I can love shows even when the outward conceit sounds completely familiar—but I certainly wouldn’t mind a more adventurous narrative spirit, either.
That’s where writer Song Jae-jung really shines, in her willingness to take her stories to newer territories, in innovative directions; she isn’t reinventing the wheel, but she’s tinkering with the spokes, fiddling with the structure, and generally open to trying new things. Queen In-hyun’s Man was a breath of fresh air as a time-travel romance that presented the problem of how a man from the past could be with a woman from the present when his vehicle between times was an ever-deteriorating talisman. Nine played with time in an entirely different way, with one person going back to purposely change a history that was resistant to being changed. And in W–Two Worlds, she ambitiously created a whole new world and mythos where two-dimensional cartoon characters could become sentient and travel to the real world—only to have their manhwa worlds evolving in response. Song’s complex worldbuilding wasn’t necessarily airtight, but her willingness to continually expand her world’s boundaries and take our characters on hairpin turns struck me as fearless in a way that dramaland very much needs. I didn’t walk away with all of my questions answered, but I was so impressed with Song’s dexterity in throwing in new twists and complicating her rules that I’m still very much looking forward to all the stories she has yet to tell.
3. Noh Hee-kyung
HeadsNo2: Noh Hee-kyung has built her two-decade-long career on shows with deeply complex relationships and realistic characters that are never as simple as they seem at the start. She excels at getting to the heart of what makes people tick and highlighting the human connection between her characters, and her earlier dramas were characterized by a low-key, relatable appeal (More Beautiful Than a Flower, Goodbye Solo). In more recent years, she’s also tapped into a flair for showmanship with more dramatic, sometimes surrealistic stories, such as the fantastical, heart-wrenching tale of a man given a second chance at life in Padam Padam or the stylized high drama of a blind woman falling for the con man passing himself off as her brother in That Winter, the Wind Blows. It was It’s Okay, It’s Love that put all those elements together—intricate relationships, complex characters, fantasy, romance, and a heightened sense of reality—and gave her her biggest hit to date… until she penned Dear My Friends, a story of a group of friends learning about life and love through the years that found heartbreaking emotion in the everyday, and conveyed depth of feeling in the smallest gestures of love. It’s that ability for bringing us into her characters’ emotions that makes Noh Hee-kyung dramas so resonant and gripping—not because her plots are so dramatic, but because she finds the drama in ordinary life.
4. Park Yeon-seon
HeadsNo2: Park Yeon-seon has built her career around mastering the ensemble show, displaying a distinctly unique ability to bring a disparate group of personalities together in a way that’s resonant and unforgettable. It’s her ability to find tiny human moments and built characters and relationships around them that give her dramas such a rich, slice-of-life feel, which we saw in her early dramas Alone in Love and Mixed-up Investigative Agency. Her characters come to life as fleshed-out, living and breathing individuals; we see them as real people, either people like us or people we know, which all but guarantees our investment in their journeys.
Moreover, Park has shown range in style and genre, whether it’s the nuanced relationship study that was Alone in Love, the rollicking treasure hunt of Mixed-up Investigative Agency, the haunting psychological thriller that was White Christmas, or the heartwarming ode to growing up of Age of Youth. Her dramas don’t tend to be ratings bonanzas, but her work inspires mania followings—the kind that keeps fans talking years after the broadcast has come and gone.
5. Kim Eun-hee
javabeans: Kim Eun-hee has always shown a proclivity for mixing procedural elements with thrills, from her early dramas onward; she co-wrote cable’s comedic mystery series Harvest Villa and forensic-crime drama Sign with her husband, Jang Hang-joon, and then worked solo as she took on cybercrime-themed Ghost and (sorta)-real-time presidential-abduction thriller Three Days. She showed a knack for creating strong premises that were sustained by a steady stream of suspense—and then last year, everything came together in the perfect storm with the massive hit that was Signal. For me, that’s what turned her from a writer I considered strong in a certain niche to a writer capable of greatness, period, because Signal was a masterpiece of tight mystery, crime procedural, complex character development (those eerie, awesomely drawn criminals!), and stirring emotional throughlines that tied the whole show together with deep feeling. I’ve rarely wanted so badly to enter my television screen to rescue characters in peril—and at the same time, feared that idea, because the dangers felt so real and present. I don’t know if she’ll find a way to top Signal with future projects, and truth be told, that’s a mighty high bar to meet, even for someone who set it in place—but that doesn’t keep me from eagerly awaiting what that next project might be.
6. Jung Yoon-jung
girlfriday: Jung Yoon-jung’s credits are an interesting mix, since she doesn’t stick to any one genre. She started out in historical dramas, with two seasons of the mystery sageuk Chosun Police, followed by the quirky supernatural sageuk Arang and the Magistrate, which is still one of the best examples of supernatural world-building that I’ve seen in K-dramas, full of gods and ghosts and a whole social order to the afterlife. While the youth music-centered drama Monstar was a departure from those projects, I remember being impressed at the way she weaved the music into the narrative, making the musical numbers feel like extensions of dialogue and the way characters expressed their true feelings, like a real musical.
Those dramas were modest successes, but then she adapted Misaeng, and took a beloved manhwa and turned it into a critically acclaimed hit that spoke to a generation. Obviously we can’t discount the power of the original work by Yoon Tae-ho, but we’ve also seen enough adaptations of popular webtoons go south to know that there are a lot of ways to do it badly. With Misaeng, she took a slice-of-life story about ordinary workers and turned it into a well-paced drama with narratively satisfying beats of human connection that still give me goosebumps to think about. What she captured wasn’t just the grind of the salaryman’s life; it was the drama of life’s little triumphs in big, emotionally compelling ways, telling us that all of our struggles mattered, and making so many of us feel like this was our story.
7. Park Kyung-soo
HeadsNo2: Park Kyung-soo is a writer who knows how to get to the deepest parts of a character’s psyche and burrow there for the entirety of a show, giving us some of the most multifaceted and deeply layered characters in dramaland. He creates masterfully complex stories centered around social issues, and manages to get to the heart of those issues in an addictively dramatic way. It was his first series as solo scriptwriter, The Chaser, that burst Park onto the scene as a writer to watch, drawing word of mouth and creating riveting drama out of a father’s desperate fight against the rich and powerful to avenge his beloved daughter’s death. He again proved his ability to create ratings hits out of intense, socially relevant conflicts with Empire of Gold, where he explored the topics of corruption and the class/wealth divide—issues he once again explored in Punch, which he built around a main character whom we shouldn’t like, but couldn’t help but feel for anyway.
The hallmark of his work is his ability to create tension through words and dialogue: We’re frequently trapped in a room with his characters speaking in long turns, but it’s a testament to his skill that watching his characters verbally spar can be just as exciting, if not more so, than a well-choreographed action scene. His dramas have a distinct, cerebral appeal—but don’t let that scare you away. The stories are relevant and accessible, even if they don’t always show the rosy side of life.
8. Song Ji-nah
javabeans: Of the writers on this list, I find Song Ji-nah’s credits list perhaps the most intriguing in its diversity; you can hardly peg her as one kind of writer or another. Her early career was marked with not one but two legitimate masterpieces: 1991-92’s Eyes of Dawn, and then 1995’s seminal Sandglass. Perhaps it seems odd to follow historical epics with a lighter campus drama, but she did so with 1999’s KAIST. Then, 2007’s grand-scale Legend took her into fantasy sageuk territory, while 2009’s sharp, smart Story of a Man gave us capers and bromance. What’s Up took her back to college, while time-traveling Faith was more sageuk, and then Healer gave us action and romance. I find it difficult to describe what kind of writer Song is without listing all the various shows she’s produced, and the only thread of commonality I can find is that her writing, for me, tends to hit that sweet spot of smart (but not overly cerebral), fun (but not too fluffy), fast-paced (but not too slick), and sometimes even important (but not self-important). I don’t always know what to expect in terms of what kind of story, genre, tone, or even millenium she’ll write about, but I do have a very high amount of faith that I’ll be entertained, moved, and satisfied.
9. Park Hye-ryun
girlfriday: Park Hye-ryun writes vibrant characters and emotionally uplifting dramas that always make me care a great deal. Her characters just speak to me and I love her earnest, idealistic sensibility, which makes for some fantastic coming-of-age stories like the music-themed Dream High and Page Turner, and also extends to her supernatural rom-coms I Hear Your Voice and Pinocchio, where adults are searching for their place in the world. She writes sassy, lovable heroines with funny flaws and quick comebacks, loving family relationships, and even her villains have some humanity.
Her dramas feel balanced while juggling comedy, drama, romance, and suspense (I Hear Your Voice is probably the best example of this, with a serial killer driving the plot at an addictive pace AND serving as motivation for romantic hijinks). And they hit those unabashed, heartfelt emotional climaxes the way you want (remember when Kim Soo-hyun started to lose his hearing in Dream High and Suzy saved him mid-song?). Her universe is more of an idealistic hope than a picture of the real world, but it’s one where good people do the right thing, justice wins out, and dreams come true—and more importantly, you find yourself fist-pumping along with every small victory, and believing that this is how things could be. Or at least how they should be.
10. Kim Eun-sook
girlfriday: Kim Eun-sook is one of dramaland’s biggest hitmakers today, whose shows often become pop-culture sensations where catchphrases and memorable scenes get parroted and parodied endlessly; her classic romances like the Lovers series and On Air made her a household name, and I still see Secret Garden parodies on TV to this day. I think that phenomenon speaks to her specific appeal as a writer, more than just high ratings (though obviously, her dramas are mega-monster hits), because she writes dramas that are quotable and recognizably hers.
Kim Eun-sook is a wordsmith through and through—she crafts very particular speech patterns, enjoys poetic cadence, and turns a phrase like nobody’s business. Her writing is highly stylized (her characters don’t speak like normal people in the real world), but it’s a style I enjoy, full of wit and clever reversals. I can’t always say the same of her characterizations, which skew very heavily in favor of men over women, leading to dramas where the heroes are often glorified and heroines haven’t evolved much past Cinderella. But she has noticeably honed her skills with each new project, and I found her recent shows (The Lonely Shining Goblin, Descended From the Sun) most appealing; though their whopping commercial success probably speaks for itself. She knows how to consistently tap into what people like, which is no small feat. And though she may at times be a polarizing writer, it’s pretty certain that love or hate her shows, we’ll all be talking about them.
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