As a self-confessed Korean drama fanatic who’s viewed over 40 different titles, I’ve come to realize that at the core of the top-rated, most-crazed-about K-dramas is scriptwriting—brilliant, unique, and sometimes even insanely outrageous scriptwriting.
But what exactly makes K-drama scriptwriters so special? Why are they deemed to be one of the most celebrated and well-respected components of South Korea’s highly competitive entertainment workforce?
On June 30, the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines (KCC), which is commemorating its 10th anniversary, hosted a free online seminar titled, “Rediscover the Korean Creative Industry: A webinar on K-drama Scriptwriting and Marketing.”
One of their guest speakers was renowned scriptwriter Park Ji-hyun, who co-penned the sensational series All About Eve way back in 2000. Luckily, Park disclosed the following first-hand accounts about how the Korean scriptwriting program molded her into becoming the prominent writer that she is today.
Scriptwriting Education Centers
According to Park, aspiring scriptwriters in Korea undergo formal training in so-called education centers to officially begin their career journey. The centers offer a scriptwriting program that runs for a total of two years and is divided into four six-month-long semesters. Each semester covers a particular level of study, ranging from basic to advanced.
However, Park shared, “Most students find it difficult to finish the program without failing in between, hence, it takes them an average of three to four years before graduating.” She then added, “During the program, the students are guided towards discovering a genre that fits their style. What you want to write is not always the same as what you’re good at. I guess if you realize that early on, you can finish the program on time.”
At the final stage of the program is the Creative Class, where usually only 15 out of the 500 students would have remained. At this level, the country’s well-known scriptwriters mentor them almost one-on-one. “Bong Joon-ho [critically acclaimed director of the Oscar-winning film Parasite] studied in an education center operated by a Korean film promotion agency,” Park revealed.
While under the scriptwriting program, students can test their newly acquired skills and determine how much they have improved by joining various competitions that are sponsored by production companies or by broadcasting stations (KBS, MBC, SBS, etc.). Park said that many students from the Creative Class enter the said competitions and win excellence awards.
“Just sharing with you, I previously won an excellence award in one of the contests, and I thought that it will immediately pave way for my debut. However, it took me another three years to do so,” Park recalled, giving the viewers an idea about the competitive nature of Korea’s scriptwriting profession even for someone who did great in their studies. She also said that, at present, it is normal for newbie scriptwriters to persevere for seven to eight years before they get an opportunity to make their official debut in the entertainment industry.
Paid internships and working under top scriptwriters
The winners of scriptwriting competitions have the chance to work as interns at the production or broadcasting company that hosted the events. Once they become interns, they will then be allowed to work while studying and will be given a small amount of salary.
Graduates from the Creative Class can choose between two different paths. One is to work as interns at production or broadcasting companies, and the other is to work as assistants for already established scriptwriters. As examples, Park cited Park Min-sook (Run On) and Kwon Eun-sol (Search: WWW), who both worked under A-list scriptwriter Kim Eun-sook (Descendants of the Sun, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Mr. Sunshine, etc.).
An expert’s tip
To wrap up her segment in the webinar, Park Ji-hyun left a golden piece of advice for all scriptwriters to-be, saying, “Do not binge-watch dramas. Rather, watch them according to their normal release schedules because if you don’t, you will miss the whole point of why the scriptwriter wrote that ending scene for a particular episode. Try to find out the possible reasons behind every episode’s ending, then, predict the next scenarios in the coming episode. Compare your made-up scenes to that of the actual and ponder on the creative differences between you and the writer. That [for me] is the key to becoming a successful scriptwriter.”
After all that we have learned from Park’s generously insightful talk, it has now become clear that behind every top-notch Korean drama is a scriptwriter who was meticulously trained to become the industry’s best by no less than the best. The secret, therefore, lies in the rigorous process that all K-drama scriptwriters have to undergo before they finally get a shot at creating their brilliant, unique, and sometimes insanely outrageous debut piece.
The main image is of featured scriptwriter Park Ji-hyun and some of South Korea’s best drama pen-wielders: Kim Eun-sook, Kim Eun-hee of Signal (2016) and the Kingdom series franchise (2019–2021), and Park Ji-eun of The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016–2017) and Crash Landing on You (2019–2020).