The Curious Ahjumma: The Romance Formula

Critics often say romance is boring, cliché, and too formulaic. They scoffed at the genre as if it’s the lone TV genre out there that uses tried-and-tested formula. Breaking news: EVERY STORY USES A FORMULA. So whether you like crime-thrillers, a slice-of-life, or melodramas, expect that the writer for that follows a certain formula or at least the basic rules in crafting a story in that genre. Each genre’s formula defines the foundation of the story and it’s already up to the writer how a story would feel new, unique, and refreshing.

In romance, the formula looks like this:

Main Character + Love Interest = Happy Ending or Main Character 1 + Main Character 2 = Happy Ending.

The labels for the two addends would vary because not all OTPs are created equal. The narrative would always lean or favor one character over the other. You can read more about OTPs in my other TCA here but to look at more recent examples, The King’s Affection has the main character and a love interest in its formula. Its story mostly revolves around Yi Hwi/Dam-i more than Jung Ji-un. Although they also gave Ji-un a good backstory, its main plot is really tied to everything that Dam-i does. Meanwhile, Our Beloved Summer is a good example of the second OTP combination that has two almost-equally created main characters. The series delves into both of Choi Ung and Kook Yeon-su’s stories and the progress with each individual arc gave a boost to the main plot. The addends could be either of the two combinations but the sum should always be a Happy Ending, a Happy For Now, a Happily-Ever-After (HEA), or anything that resembles an ending where these two addends chose each other in the end.

I’m already hearing some of you raising the long-standing question, “Is a happy ending a requirement in romance?” If you asked book readers and literature majors, there would be a resounding yes. For K-drama watchers though, this is an ongoing debate. That’s because most of the time K-dramas would be a mishmash of genres and romance would just be a subplot or accompanying plot. And I understand if some would argue that a HEA is an option, not a requirement. But at least, for the majority of the romance K-series I’ve watched, they do actually stick to this rule. And that isn’t exactly a bad thing.

Following this so-called romance formula doesn’t make the story boring. Because the formula is in its most basic form, romance writers can play with it all they want, bringing in variables or conflicts that make the story a great watch. There’s also a menu of already tried-and-tested romantic tropes to choose from. A romance writer could pick one or use a combination of two or more. For instance, enemies-to-lovers is usually used with the forced proximity trope. Writers would sometimes choose to subvert, invert, or deconstruct these tropes and offer us a seemingly new story with the same comforting feel of a well-written romance.

Labels, formulas, and rules aren’t there to constraint the creative freedom of a scriptwriter to craft a good K-drama romance. It’s there to guide them with the basics. After all, these romance stories’ aim is to tell a beautiful story of how two people met, faced and overcome hurdles, and end up together – a form of fictional escape rather than a realistic cautionary tale. 

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