K-Drama Tropes: the Old, the New, and the Classic

When you’ve seen enough K-Dramas, you realize there are a few scenarios almost guaranteed to show up in the plot somewhere along the way. These instances are so predictable that the scriptwriters may have very well been bumping elbows over a Wrist Grabs 101 textbook as they drafted up their scripts. However, as Hallyu has spread and evolved, so have some of these K-Drama tropes. Old ones are falling away and new ones taking their place. Don’t worry though – there are plenty of cliches that are here to stay, for good or worse. Those back hugs and chaebol heirs aren’t going anywhere just yet.

So let’s jump into some plot elements that have been cropping up in Korean dramas since time untold: the classic K-Drama tropes.

The Classic

Sleeping on the Bus:

Ah, the beauties of public transportation. This cliche involves the standard maneuver of male and female lead sitting next to each other on the bus, only for one of them to fall asleep on the shoulders of the other. Most often used on a bus ride home from work or a school trip, this move gets hearts all aflutter with the knowledge that one half of the potential lovers-to-be gets to accidentally initiate skinship. To spot this K-Drama trope keep your eyes peeled for a bus and a night setting; the scriptwriters will do the rest. 

Conveniently Inconvenient Amnesia:

You’re absolutely right, Ji Sung. It doesn’t make sense (cr: sunqshiwon)

This trope will never not be annoying. But it’s an easy way to 1.) create a driving conflict of the story or 2.) prolong the plot. Amnesia usually results from some sort of injury or emotional trauma to a main protagonist. As a result, they often forget their loved ones, leaving a one-sided heartache for those who do remember. In the silliest of cases, like Boys Over Flowers, the main lead will only forget a single person who is, predictably, the love interest. Cue the pining and the drama until some big event will have all those memories come rushing back. While the amnesia trope can occasionally be tastefully done, its causes and symptoms often stretch the boundaries of science. And more often, the boundaries of the audience’s patience. 

The Love Square:

Forget love triangles — those are much too juvenile for K-Dramas. Instead, we have the love square. Because Korean dramas usually consist of a male and female main lead, and two second lead characters in each respective gender, it introduces all sorts of opportunities for shipping mayhem. In this K-Drama trope, you know full well that the main leads will end up together. But second lead syndrome will sometimes tug at your heartstrings as you struggle to find the right couple to root for.  Having four people involved in this romantic entanglement adds all sorts opportunities for conflict to the mix. And sometimes it even lets the two second leads find romance in the end, with each other.

The Study Abroad: 

There’s bound to be at least one character that has studied abroad, returns from a study abroad, or is threatened by their parents to study abroad. In the case of the first example, the study away is usually utilized to show off the character’s intelligence and “class” that they gained through this endeavor. It’s like a status symbol. If a character returns from a study abroad, it’s an easy way to introduce them into the plot, especially if their arrival is unexpected. Their sudden arrival will allow the character to make an impact upon their return to South Korea. And the third occasion where the parents attempt to force their child to study abroad introduces tension to the plot, amongst both families and friends. The audience will worry if this character will suddenly disappear, but more often than not, they don’t actually leave. However in the case that they do leave, refer to option two of this K-Drama trope for their return after a time skip.


She’s not his sister, but he thought she was his sister, and she still calls him brother… and this is getting too complicated

This is a bit of an odd one, but it’s been popping up in K-Dramas for time untold in order to add extra complication to a romantic relationship. Fauxcest involves a budding romance between two people that have some sort of believed familial ties to each other. Often times, one side of the party either doesn’t know the other is a sibling (i.e. Hotel King) or doesn’t know the reverse of this: that their sibling is actually not blood-related (i.e. Kill Me, Heal Me). Either way, it adds extra angst for the person who does know all the backstory and must hide their forbidden feelings away. Of course, they’re never actually related. But still, trying to force a love line between the idea of two people who believe they are blood relatives is very much present in K-Dramas to this day, dating all the way back to major hits like Autumn in my Heart.

The Piggyback Ride:

Probably the most foolproof K-Drama trope of all time: the piggyback ride. If the leads are above the legal drinking age, this piggyback ride will almost always be a drunken one where the male lead must carry the female lead home, demonstrating his thoughtfulness to the audience. Since this cliche has become such a mainstay though, I’m less impressed by the action and more underwhelmed by its predictableness. There are rare occasions where the female lead is the one to piggyback the male (i.e. Coffee Prince) and that’s always a breath of fresh air. And if the leads are below the drinking age of Korea, fear not, the piggyback ride can still happen for our high school sweethearts. However, this almost certainly means that the female lead needs to get injured so she can be whisked off her feet and carried to safety.

Destinations to Go:

There are a few locations you’re bound to see in every modern K-Drama: the airport, the hospital, and some sort of coffee shop playing whatever ballad is topping Melon at the moment. In the case of the hospital, it’s not typically the main characters who ends up there. Instead, it’s usually a friend or family member. (Ignore for a moment the existence of medical dramas where the entire cast basically lives in the hospital). Airports are similarly common but are most often used to create a dramatic entrance or exit for a character. Added angst ensues if one person has to rush to the airport before their loved one dashes off. Finally, coffee shop scenes are useful in providing exposition in a setting that is friendly, but not either of lead’s homes. There’s only so much conversation that can take place there, so the writers switch it up a bit and have their characters chat in a coffee shop instead. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this method of storytelling. It’s just, well, predictable.

Do You like my Dad’s Money? ( ie. the Chaebol heir):

Ah yes, who doesn’t love a story of the standoffish rich son of a CEO falling for your less than wealthy female lead. In a modern day K-Drama, if our main lead isn’t a chaebol heir or owner of a profitable company, then there is a good chance our antagonist is one. And he’s most likely a crazy, violent one with major father issues that he hides behind the glittering white smile he puts on to the public. This trope is used most often to dazzle the audience and female lead with ritzy houses and extravagant gifts, only to have the heroine reject them to show her lack of superficiality. Ha, that’ll show ’em. Otherwise, the leads are faced with an antagonist with the money and connections to make their life a living hell, but that’s a whole ‘nother shtick.

The Wrist Grab/the Back Hug:

An impressive demonstration of the double-wrist grab maneuver in Who Are You: School 2015

Actions speak louder than words, I guess. In the case of this item on my list of K-Drama tropes, words like “Wait” or “Please stop” are forgone completely in favor of forcefully grabbing a departing figure to stop them from leaving. It’s something I’ve never personally witnessed in real life, but boy is it fun to watch it happen to other people. Not because it gets my heart fluttering or anything, but of sheer hilarity from how textbook it is. My personal favorite is the double wrist grab, as seen in dramas like Who Are You: School 2015 and, more recently, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon. This particular maneuver involves our female lead getting a synchronized wrist grab on either arm from her first and second male leads respectively. She is quite literally being pulled in two different directions, both emotionally and physically. It’s a K-Drama trope on steroids: ridiculously fun to watch and absolutely absurd.

The Sageuk Cross-Dress:

What’s a sageuk without a girl dressing up in that snazzy male hanbok? This K-Drama trope does make sense in a way: females in the Joseon era didn’t have as much power as men and weren’t particularly involved in politics, education, or violence (all key features of a historical drama). So letting the female lead cross-dress does give her more opportunities to be involved in the action of the plot. And, well, actual action. However, this cliche can also used to add romantic complications to the plot as the female lead falls for a man but must continue to hide her gender from him. Note: there is plenty of cross-dressing scenarios that occur in non-historical K-Dramas, but the sageuk genre as a whole seems to include this trope much more than any other. If the female lead isn’t the one cross-dressing, there’s more than likely another girl that’s wearing men’s clothing, if even just as a side character.

The Old

The Evil Mother In Law:

Ah yes. The finicky, or outright antagonistic, mother of one of our main leads who opposes their love, usually because of financial reasons. For whatever reason, it is often the male lead’s mother that becomes the troublemaker so we get a female to female conflict dynamic between the two. I feel like this trope used to be pretty prevalent in K-Dramas of ye olden days but I’m just not seeing it much anymore. And I can’t say that I really miss it because it seemed like such a tired way to try to split the two main lead’s relationship apart. Now that I think about, in the current K-Drama sphere the antagonistic mother-in-law seems to have almost been replaced by the antagonistic grandmother-in-law. Huh.

The Terminal Illness:

Okay, I’ll admit this is one of those K-Drama tropes that still appears in recent dramas. But it’s showing up so much less frequently than in the past, so I think it’s on the way of fizzling out. Or at least it’s reached the point of being considered antiquated, with knets most recently complaining about the use of this cliche in Uncontrollably Fond. When used sparingly and tastefully, a character’s terminal illness can pull at the heart strings and make for an engaging conflict. But more often then not it’s just an easy way to put the plot on a time crunch ticking towards someone’s death. Or provide an angst-ridden ending for the sad souls who have to watch their loved one pass along while the audience has watch it all play out. Again, and again.

The New

The Black Baseball Cap of Crime:

Ji Chang Wook as your friendly neighborhood black-baseball-cap-wearing mercenary

You’d think by now the police of K-Dramas would be pulling out handcuffs as soon as they see this cap after all the times people have committed crimes wearing them. Most often, the people wearing this nondescript black baseball cap are up to no good: murderers, thieves, criminals trying to hide their identity. However, there are also instances when the hero or heroine wears this cap when they themselves are involved in less then legal activities, as in the drama Healer. So while not always an indication of evil, this hat always means trouble. It’s only been prominent in some recent K-Dramas, so perhaps this trope will fade soon, but it’s certainly a staple in them now.

Speaking in English:

Usually used to show intelligence of the main, often male character. In the case of the chaebol heir, he’ll whip out his English as he smoothly talks to foreign diplomats in peacock feather display of culture and education. It’s a little bit tired at this point, especially as a native English speaker myself because I don’t really get the impact of hearing the character speak a foreign language. Which makes sense, given that they are speaking a foreign language to me for almost the entirety of the drama anyways. Hearing them suddenly switch to English makes me roll my eyes a bit, not because of their skill level, but because it’s so obvious what the writers are trying to do. Long story short: there are better ways to show a character’s intelligence than a nice little Shakespeare recitation. Or at least, more creative ways.

Bonus: Subway Sandwiches

Gong Yoo and Kim Go Eun having an incredibly vital to the plot conversation in Subway, about Subway (cr: sseureki)

Okay maybe this is cheating because endorsements in K-Dramas aren’t technically tropes, and have been going on for a long time. But Korean drama’s blatant advertisement of Subway sandwiches has practically become a meme at this point so I’m going to take the liberty to talk about it anyways. It’s just so hilariously incongruous to see characters whip out a Subway sandwich during a meal or end up returning to the same Subway again and again to flesh out less than important plot points. Yes, Goblin I’m looking at you. Either way, Subway must be shelling out some major cash for these dramas. And as a result, we get to watch characters give pointless exposition over a six inch. Huzzah.

That’s it for my picks of the most notable K-Drama tropes – new, classic, and old in nature. Which ones did I miss? Which K-Drama tropes would you be happy to see go, and which ones do you secretly love? Let me know in the comments!

If there's a Baekhyun, there's a way.

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