Friday, February 18, 2011

What I'm Learning from Korean Television

It all started several weeks ago when I mis-read a link on the Hulu homepage: "If you are not Keanan, click here."

I did a double-take, thinking it said, "If you are not Korean."

Realizing my mistake, I laughed aloud, but not having anyone to share the amusement with me, I posted the goof on Facebook, hoping others would get at least a small smile from it.

Then, a few days later, while searching for something interesting to watch, I happened upon a recommendation for a Korean historical fiction series, "The Great Queen SeonDeok". It's a long'un, and I gave up around Episode 50, wearied by the political machinations, fears, false friends, and such that were part of the battle the title character faced on her way to the throne.

Still, despite my loss of interest in continuing to the final episode, I was drawn to the core story and to a small group of characters who seemed, even in their broadest and most caricatured portrayals, to be appealing and real. One of my favorites is portrayed by an actor that is written of in reviews as "wooden" or "a terrible actor", but I don't think those viewers understand the character, who wouldn't be going about showing all his emotions and talking about his feelings. His thoughts are his own, until he deems it necessary to reveal them. For my part, I think he says a lot by a simple look. No words required.

Besides, it keeps the mystery alive.

That's something more writers need to learn, a new take on an old saying: sometimes, characters need to be seen and not heard.

One effective storytelling device used often in the series is one that is anathema to some in publishing (if one pays any attention to the often useless "advice" doled out at writing conferences and seminars): the flashback.

A flashback can consist of a character's memory of an event, told in brief, or it can be an extended scene, chapter, or many chapters, in which the past is revealed to the reader. Some writers "bookend" stories by beginning and ending them in the novels' "present time", but unfolding the bulk of the plot via the stories' past. This can be done through letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, or simply the memories of a character or characters. In "The Great Queen", this device was used to good effect when viewers needed to finally be let in on a secret (aka plot twist).

From that show, I went on to IRIS, which is kinda like "Alias". Again, I stopped short of watching every episode (in this case, the last two of the first season). However, the characters are intriguing, the story is twisty, and this action-y spy show doesn't shy away from letting its characters -- men included -- show emotion, even cry.

I'm still kinda iffy on that. I might put in an emotional scene, but then I'll delete it, or cut it down so much that ends up being matter-of-fact rather than squishy. One emotion that's not difficult for me to write is anger. But love? Grief? That's tough, tough, tough to get right. At least for me. But emotions are a part of life. And cold logic doesn't always play a part in emotional responses. Make characters real by giving them real emotions.

Then I fell into the time-sucking addiction of "Chuno", an excellent historical drama laced with humor and emotion, and packed with action; I'm a few episodes away from the end, and I plan on watching every one. There are minor characters that exist for comedic effect, local color, and connective tissue for the main characters and/or events of the story, but even the minorest of minor characters feels real. The main cast are interesting, not a cardboard cutout in the bunch, and -- love 'em or hate 'em -- they're neither predictable or boring.

Ever read several stories by the same author, and realize that all he or she has done is tell the same story over and over and over?

Dagnabbit! Sometimes I think I write stories with the same basic cast of characters: just change names and ages, put one set in outer space and the other set in medieval Europe, and presto! I move from science fiction to high fantasy. I can't get too comfortable. I can't avoid "meeting" new characters. Even ones I don't like so much.

And, in a totally different vibe, there's the 2010 modern comedy series, "Pasta", in which a somewhat whiny but steel-spined young kitchen assistant becomes a junior chef learning from and falling in love with a loud, strict, talented new chef who grates on just about everyone who meets him.

Again, I think some of the reviewers miss the point. They complain about the junior chef being such a baby, but they overlook her resolve, her persistence, her drive to excel. They ask why she wants the love and approval of a chef who constantly tells her to make a dish over or that she's doing something wrong, but they overlook the fact that she doesn't want flattery, or the emptiness of "nice" words. She sees the chef's demands for what they are: a desire on the chef's part to see her succeed, perhaps a desire even greater than her own.

From my perspective, it's not a case of a girl overlooking the nice guy because the bad boy is more interesting. It's a case of "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what I need to know so I can be better. And not just better, but the best." She respects that more than the nice guy's flattery, as sincere as he may be.

I know that desire: Don't tell me it's a good story. Tell me why it does or doesn't work. Show me the flaws. Help me be better than I am now.

It's a desire I wish more rookie writers had. Editing or critiquing the work of a writer who thinks he's already arrived, who thinks her words are perfect in the first draft -- that's an exercise in futility. Such a writer cannot and will not improve because he or she will not learn.

So, looks like I'll be reading a lot more subtitles in the future, gleaning all I can to hopefully improve my own storytelling skills while admiring--and learning from--the skills of others.

4 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

As a writer who has been watching Asian TV shows and having epiphanies for over a year now, I love this post.

Keep watching and learning!

Phy said...

Great post, Keanan.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Giving and receiving good writing critiques is a difficult skill that we all need to learn and hone, or as you say, we've no hope for improving. I come from the scientific end of things, so have a lot of experience with having my work reviewed coldly and completely. In comparison I find most writing critiques to be positively pleasant. :) There is always something in a critique that can be used to improve the writing.
One Writer's Mind

Keanan Brand said...

Nevets -- I just got off the phone with Bubba and Bubba's Wife (brother and sister-in-law, respectively), after "evangelizing" for some of the shows I've been following. Or, perhaps, you might call it "dealing", since I'm trying to get them hooked on my drugs of choice. :)

Phy -- Thanks!

Bryce -- A critique can be an excellent encouragement, as long as it's coming from a place of goodwill and sincerity, from someone who truly wants to see you succeed. That makes their commentary and suggestions bearable, and can make all your writing flaws and weaknesses seem like mere pebbles in the path rather than mountains to climb.