K-drama problems: Stirring the emotional pot
Ah, dramas. They sure make us feel things, don’t they? Sometimes they’re good feelings, like belly laughs and swoons. Sometimes they’re the sucker punch of a fantastic twist, or the empathy of sharing heartbreaks and losses with our protagonists. Drama feelings even go outside of the world of the drama, and make us react in strong ways to things like storytelling, plot, plot holes, and anything that might fall into said hole. But, regardless of what we’re reacting to, we are feeling. So the drama is doing its job.
Dramas can conjure up all sorts of emotions in us, and I like to think of it in two ways. The first way is with the emotions intrinsic to the story. Oh My Baby made me feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when Jang Nara is told how small her chances are of having a baby. The early flirtations between Jung Hae-in and Han Ji-min in One Spring Night gave me butterflies. And watching Chae Soo-bin in A Piece of Your Mind grieve for her parents and her fire-torn house put the same horrible lump in my throat.
These emotions are precisely what the drama intends me to feel, and boy, am I feeling them. In fact, I’m feeling them so much that it takes some effort for me to sit back and realize: it’s such a great feat of storytelling to be able to evoke emotions in people universally — to get them to connect with the world of a story so deeply that they feel feelings right along with the protagonists.
Take a drama like A Couple’s World, for instance. It’s the perfect example of a story that created in-world drama that had you following and feeling every single moment of the (vicious) emotional roller coaster ride. It was a master at evoking a strong emotional response in its audience as they got caught up in the story’s world.
But there’s a second way dramas stir the emotional pot. The first was how we’re affected by the world of the story, but the second is how our internal world is affected by the story. That is, what does the drama wake up in us that no one else knows about?
A writer, when tackling a plot, knows the emotions they want to evoke in their reader; they are quantifiable and definable. But what a storyteller can’t prepare for is what a drama might wake up in you. This is a total wild card, because while the drama can’t know your secrets, your fears, or your hopes and dreams, sometimes it can hit on them — and who knows how you’ll respond. Will you cry? Will you be found madly screencapping a beautiful moment? Or will you — gasp — turn off the drama because of the very nerve it hit?
How we react to stories is amazingly automatic. Sometimes we can’t even predict it ourselves. One straight-forward way this happens is when a drama’s story “hits home,” as we like to say. That means the story we’re experiencing vicariously hits on an emotion we’re feeling in our own life, and there’s something so powerful, comforting, and purgative about experiencing emotions alongside of a story — and airing yours out at the same time.
It’s the difference between crying over a heroine losing a loved one because it’s a universally heartbreaking event — and crying over a heroine losing a loved one because you yourself are processing the same emotions in your own life. Feeling emotions based in the world of the drama are one thing, but feeling emotions in real life because of the drama is even stronger.
I’m sure we all have enough dramas under our belts to know what it feels like when a drama wakes up your own set of emotions. Sometimes it’s simple — maybe you’re going through a breakup, so a drama like Oh Hae-young Again rings twice as strong as our heroine deals with hers. Maybe your family is going through a health crisis, and then *boom* the drama you’re watching has anything from an urgent organ transplant need, to someone waiting for a life-altering diagnosis (cue everything from Hospital Playlist to Mystic Pop-up Bar), and it calls up all the emotions you’re feeling in real life.
Sometimes dramas can call up our emotions even when the plot doesn’t echo real life, though. Sometimes witnessing things on screen can magnify our own emotions. I know for me, when my family was going through a tough season, I literally could not watch anything with a pinch of violence or blood. Violence and blood didn’t have a thing to do with what I was going through, but it somehow fed whatever turmoil was going on inside.
There’s a lot to unpack when we’re talking about dramas making us feel feelings, and it goes back to the territory of Greek Tragedy, catharsis, and vying philosophical standpoints (who knows, we just might head there next!), but in the meantime, here’s a question to ponder: does a story that “hits home” make you more or less likely to watch it?
We’ve looked at how dramas and stories can wake up our own emotions and hardships, and often shed some light on where we’re struggling. But interestingly, this equation works in reverse, too. A drama can stir our feelings, but instead of drawing attention to tension and conflict, it can deliver positive and affirming emotions instead. Because, did you ever get exactly what you needed from a drama when you were watching it? It’s like the story knows what you need to hear, and then gives it to you.
It can be simple, and usually is — a string of dialogue that encourages or comforts you, like some of the beautiful moments in Chocolate, perhaps. Or, a drama might give you some insight on something you’re experiencing in real life. For instance, I’m loving the deeper philosophical moments that are getting dropped in Will You Have Dinner With Me, like the line about how, “Happiness has eyes, but unhappiness doesn’t.” But it doesn’t have to be words or philosophies — you can even feel encouraged by simply engaging with the story of a long-suffering of a heroine who’s fighting to get her full-time job, or write her script, or pay off her debt once and for all. Or anything else.
It doesn’t have to make sense on paper. The strange and mysterious power of stories to speak to us is pretty wild. You don’t even have to look for it. It will find you.
Since dramas stir our emotional pots in so many different ways, it makes sense that certain seasons of our lives call for certain stories. Or, that sometimes what we brush off as, “I’m not in the mood,” actually means that the story isn’t right for us at that moment because of the emotions that it will conjure.
But what’s wrong with that? Stories affect us on so many planes — sometimes we don’t give them enough credit for their power. After all, they can do everything from make us blissfully happy, to give us gray hairs. They can make us laugh, make us cry, or even make us laugh so hard that we wind up crying. But, no matter how you’re reacting to the world of the story, there’s always the same constant: stories make us feel.
Thank you @wishfultoki for sharing the idea for this article. I only hope you can still recognize it after I took it and ran off into the night as if loan sharks were chasing me and my life was on the line.
- Will You Have Dinner With Me: Episodes 1-2
- Mystic Pop-up Bar: Episode 1
- A Couple’s World: Episodes 1-2 Open Thread
- Premiere Watch: 365: Repeat the Year, A Piece of Your Mind, Welcome, A Couple’s World, Unique Chef Moon, Rugal
- Jung Hae-in, Chae Soo-bin in new promos for tvN’s A Piece of Your Mind
- Hospital Playlist: Episode 1
- Oh Hae-young Again: Episode 1