It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Korean drama must be 16 episodes. This is a pattern I picked up quickly when I started watching them. Episodes 1-6 generally feature the outlandish meet cute, 7-11 have the bonding and back-hugging and ppo–ppoing (translation: kissing), and 12-16 have all the stress. It’s a simple formula that a ton of dramas follow with the exception of makjangs, and some saeguks. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but over the years I noticed how this unspoken rule can limit dramas.
Why is it limiting? Because when it comes to books, TV shows, and movies there’s something called “pacing”. What is pacing? It’s how quickly or slowly a story unfolds. Good pacing isn’t necessarily at the forefront of people’s minds, but it’s important and affects the overall quality of a drama. If a drama’s pacing is too fast, it can feel unrealistic and sometimes lessen the emotional impact. That’s because if a story has little to no build up, the important events don’t feel important and it can be hard to get attached to the characters.
However, if the pacing is too slow, a drama is usually called boring. On top of that, the main plot and message is often lost.
The latter is what I was starting to see because of this tradition of K-Dramas being 16 episodes long. There are so many dramas with interesting premises that I’ve started, but dropped because they ran out of plot halfway through. The story didn’t need 16 episodes to be told, so the screenwriters stretch out subplots, conflicts, and misunderstandings. They even start adding a ton of filler scenes that don’t contribute to the main plot, and unnecessary tropes like the evil ex-lover, amnesia, or a sudden illness.
All these extra things would subsequently destroy the pacing of the drama, and ruin the overall quality.
Now, I know someone didn’t just randomly make the decision that Korean dramas need to be 16 episodes. It’s probably a combination of network exces, sponsors, and airing schedules. A lot of dramas also shoot while they are airing, so having a set number probably helps them plan accordingly. I’m sure there are many different reasons, but in the past couple of years I’ve started to notice a shift. More and more K-Dramas are varying in length! Dramas like Extracurricular, Sweet Home, Move to Heaven, Nevertheless, Strangers from Hell, Love Alarm, and more are deviating from the standard 16 episode format, and opting for 8, 10, 12, or 14 episodes. Some even have multiple seasons to better regulate the flow of the story. The growing trend is continuing this month with new dramas like Yumi’s Cells, The Veil, and Squid Game all being under 16 episodes.
I think the reason for this shift is because of streaming apps like Netflix buying the rights to dramas. And production companies starting to toy around with the idea of shooting everything before the show airs (as is the common practice in many Western countries).
Both of these things give drama screen writers the opportunity to consider pacing more, and think about how many episodes are really needed to tell their story. Of course, this doesn’t mean a Korean drama is never going to have bad pacing again. There are still dramas that need to cut their run time even shorter —or extend it! But slowly breaking this unspoken rule of a K-Drama being 16 episodes is certainly a step in the right direction.