Back in the days before K-drama addiction struck, I once attended a screenwriting seminar by a famous US TV writer and he made the point that you should end a drama series on a cliffhanger so that you’d get commissioned for Season 2. The purpose of the end of a drama season, in his opinion, was to make sure it never ended. TV series had a Beginning, a Middle and a Season 2. I disliked that approach intensely. As a novelist, I’m forced to write these difficult endings. For me, a satisfying ending is much harder to craft than a gripping opening so why should showrunners get away with never having to end anything? Looking back, it’s probably when my love affair with K-drama started: sixteen episodes and an end!
So why do I care about endings so much? Why do I feel they are so important? Some of that is grounded in the classics. Plays were (and often still are) written in what’s called the Dialectic Approach. Basically, the writer poses a question or provides a dilemma in the opening section of a play, subsequently discusses this throughout the drama and finally shows with the ending which side of the argument they fall on. The ending is important because it’s where the writer puts their cards on the table. Even with modern dramas this often still holds, and I find this a very useful lens to examine endings through.
A drama I enjoyed this year, Do You Like Brahms (Spoiled Yak here), posed the question: if you love something or someone deeply, but it isn’t working out, should you just try harder? In the opening episode, we see two areas in which this is set up. First of all, our heroine loves playing the violin but she is the worst in the class and isn’t allowed to play in a concert. Secondly, two people go to the airport to meet a person they love, who is/was dating their friend. Should they continue to love this person, as Brahms loved Clara Schumann all his life? I won’t spoil it by saying which side of the argument the writer chooses, but, crucially, with this question you could make an argument for either side. Finding out what the writer has decided is what keeps us viewers engaged.
Another example is a little-watched older drama called Heaven’s Garden (2011), which features a woman with two daughters who is left penniless when her husband goes to prison. She has no choice but to move in with her estranged father who is much more willing to accept the biological youngest daughter than the eldest stepdaughter. It poses the question: what makes a family—blood or love? Until the final two episodes, I didn’t know which way the writer was going to go (especially when biological parents show up) and that meant I was gripped right until the end.
This is why romantic dramas so often go wrong. The only question the writer has posed at the start is, will those two people end up together? and we know that the answer is going to be “yes”. There is no suspense, no curiosity. After the meet-cute, there is no plot, the two main characters just run around in circles and we get Noble Idiocy because there’s nothing else the writer can think of. We’ve all watched the rom-com that suddenly became a corporate takeover drama, or the cute drama that introduces a deadly illness. The drama spins off course and viewers are left with a feeling that we are no longer watching the drama we came here for. As a writer myself, I can tell you that this is very easily done. You suddenly realise that your plot (or your question) isn’t enough to fill the pages. For me, that’s the moment to take a deep breath (it’s never a good moment) and start again. For too many dramas the opening episodes will have already aired by this point and there’s nothing to do apart from fill the allotted air-time for whatever viewers are left.
I watched the Chinese drama Next Time, Together Forever (2018) recently about a contract marriage between a guy who’d been divorced twice already and doesn’t want to start a new family but needs to get married for financial reasons, and a woman who is desperate to have a baby but can only get IVF if she’s married. The final question seemed to be: should you give up on something you desperately want, to be with someone you love? In his case his reluctance to have a family, in her case her desire for a baby. Something has to give or these two cannot be together. A dilemma that some of my friends would tell me is real enough. Roll on the ending. After they’d got divorced from the contract marriage, they meet again by chance, he proposes, she says yes, gets a ring and everybody is happy. Apart from me. She didn’t want a ring – she wanted a baby. Clearly someone had given in but who? Had he changed his mind? Had she? The least the writer could have done was have either of the leads mention the baby during the proposal. She could have said, I’ll marry you even if we don’t have a baby, or he could have said, let’s get married and have a baby. Or alternatively, let’s get married and let biology decide the whole baby thing. Maybe that’s what the writer was going for but I couldn’t really tell.
It’s a bad ending where the drama poses a fascinating and difficult dilemma and then doesn’t actually answer it. It might seem obvious by now that I believe that openings and endings should work as bookends. With the ending, the writer should nail their colours to the mast: this is how they see the world. Questions are posed and answered. In the case of Next Time, Together Forever, I was left wondering if there was a cultural (or censorship) reason why they chickened out from making clear how the baby conundrum played out and hoped that cuteness would make viewers forget. (Hint: it didn’t.)
Even though the ending, in an ideal world, should be as important as the beginning, it’s most often the part that suffers from the culture of live-filming and time pressure in the Korean drama industry. All too often endings haven’t been written yet when openings air, or are changed due to K-netizen pressure (still bitter), or the openings seem forgotten about by the time the writer writes the ending two months (sixteen episodes) later.
A good ending leaves us viewers happy and satisfied. Even if you’re not consciously aware of the question that the drama posed, you can sense that something has been answered. If the writer sees the world in a different way from you, this can be eye-opening as you’re asked to understand a different viewpoint from your own. That’s the power of storytelling and I hate bad endings because they squander that.
However, instead of complaining about endings I hated, I want to end on a positive note and mention some excellent 2020 drama endings. Apart from Do You Like Brahms, which I talked about before, this year I loved the final episodes of My Unfamiliar Family, 365: Repeat the Year, and Memorials/Into the Ring. Plus, a special mention for how the Drama Special Hello Dracula finished. These are all dramas that I would recommend to anybody.
And maybe that’s why endings are so important. Have you ever recommended a drama to your friends “because the beginning was just so satisfying”?
Anja is the author of the Lotte Meerman series, writing crime like K-dramas should. Find out more about her on her website at https://anjadejager.com/, buy her books, and don’t miss her outings on the Spoiled Yaks for Do You Like Brahms, My Unfamiliar Family, and Search WWW and Perfume.