I’m a student of Noble Idiocy. Don’t get me wrong, I utterly hate it, but isn’t the only thing better than learning from your own mistakes, to learn from someone else’s? And, unlike most other drama problems, I put the blame for Noble Idiocy squarely on the writer. To keep my sanity—since I want to throw something at the screen in annoyance at what the characters are made to do—I tell myself that something good will come out of having watched this ruined drama if I pay attention to WHAT NOT TO DO—EVER! And that only works if I pull apart the reasons for why we get Noble Idiocy on the screen.
In a standard three-act structure (which most modern dramas adhere to), at the end of Act Two you will get what Screenwriting guru Blake Snyder in his book Save The Cat (other screenwriting books are available) calls the ‘All Is Lost’ moment. That’s when it looks like the main character has lost whatever they so desperately wanted. Then in Act Three they can regroup and claim victory. In a way, All Is Lost at the end of Act Two is the price we pay for the Happy Ending at the end of Act Three. Snyder says this should come at pages 75-85 of a 115-page script. Roughly episode 12 of a 16-episode drama. Ring a bell?
In a story purely focused on romance, what can All Is Lost be other than the couple breaking up? And fictionally—they should put this in a song—breaking up is so very hard to do.
Play along with me here: think of as many reasons as you can for couples breaking up. Some of us will have personal experience or we’ll have seen it with our friends. So yes, plenty of breakup reasons. But how many of these can be reversed? The writer has just spent twelve episodes (or more) trying to convince us that these people really should be together, so if one of them ends up cheating (just a random example), you very much would not want them to reunite.
What the writer needs to craft is a serious breakup in such a way that the couple can get back together. Yes, All Is Lost, but we want that All to be Found again by the end of the drama or toys will be thrown out of the pram. If we look at dramas that are well-balanced and well-written, the reason for the breakup is often already buried in the way the couple get together. For example, in I’m Not A Robot, Ji-ah lies about being a robot and when—after lots of cuteness—that lie is exposed, it’s the reason for the All Is Lost moment at the end of (yes!) episode 12 of 16.
Why does it feel well-balanced when this happens in episode 12? Well, it gives the writer four episodes to fix the problem they’ve created. There is time for character growth, for working through issues and for the couple to get back together in a healthier version of their previously failed relationship. In my opinion, taking this time to fix what’s broken is crucial. Sure, some writers are just terrible at crafting good breakups but too many dramas seem to get carried away by their own Cute and end up with a breakup close to the end of episode 14, which leaves them with only a little air-time to make it right again.
This is when Noble Idiocy all too often rears its ugly head because we get breakups that necessarily need to be easily reversible. We get stupid misunderstandings (I just won’t talk to you for an episode because as soon as we talk our issues will be solved), idiotic reasons (my sibling also likes you and that’s uncomfortable so I’m dumping you in a really painful way because that will hurt less in the long run), or—everybody’s least favourite—I’m not worthy of you yet (so I’ll go abroad for a couple of years without contacting you** to become a barista/get an MBA and then I’ll come back and we can be together). Other versions of this can involve potentially fatal illnesses and foreign hospitals.
When the All Is Lost breakup moment hasn’t happened yet at the end of episode 12 (or 13 at a stretch), the writer’s part of my brain starts to worry. I think: oh no, you’re going to make the OTP break up and get back together in two episodes? I bet it’s going to be stupid. And yes, it often is.
The flipside of that is when the writer crafts an amazing breakup that takes place too late (for my liking) in the drama. This is what happened in a drama I loved, Mad For Each Other, where the breakup was raw, deep-rooted in the characters’ issues, and heartbreakingly acted by the leads Jung Woo and Oh Yeon-Seo. No breakup had hurt so much to watch in ages. But it was at the end of episode 12 of a 13-episode drama. Uh-oh. As I was waiting for episode 13 to air, I thought that maybe the drama had been extended or that there would at least be a double-length final episode. But no, there were only thirty minutes left to solve a deep-rooted problem and so they had to resort to a time skip as well as foreign travel.
Creating sensible breakup and reconciliation scenes is hard to do. So why not do what recent dramas like Into The Ring and C-drama I Will Find You A Better Home did, and just don’t have the couple split up at all? (Small tiffs don’t count.)
Hold on a second! I hear you say. Didn’t you tell us earlier that there has to be an All Is Lost moment to get a Happy Ending? Right! There has to be. But who says that has to be a relationship breakup?
This is where dramas with more than one storyline come into play. Into the Ring, apart from the romance between the most adorable OTP in ages, has a storyline about political corruption and a deep desire in both our leads to right the wrongs from the past. When the All Is Lost moment happens, it seems that the dark forces have actually won. Detective dramas often use this structure; for example I have written a number of novels in which my detective manages not to break up with her partner.
However, this only works if this other storyline is actually important to the leads. If (shock!) her job is just as crucial to our (often) female lead as Getting The Guy. You know, if people also have a career that they care about deeply. What both Into The Ring and I Will Find You A Better Home do very well is that the OTP work together, and ultimately towards the same goal, and therefore both are deeply hurt by the All Is Lost moment when it falls apart. But they still have each other and that emotional support helps them start the fight again.
I like stories like that, and even more, I like couples like that. Plus, in my opinion, it’s much easier to think of good reasons why people fail (temporarily) at their jobs but come out the ultimate winner, than to do the same with relationships. So, here’s a thought: just give us more dramas like this and it could actually be the end of Noble Idiocy!
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 our podcast for Do You Like Brahms, My Unfamiliar Family, and Search WWW and Perfume. Find other posts by Anja on our blog here.