Today’s trope is a Hong Sisters’ staple. I think it’s one of the things that makes them so magical as writers and brings me back despite their notorious failures.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Hong Sisters they’re a writing team who are, in fact, sisters. Like me, they love to play with stories that have already been told and twist them a bit. They also bring new magic to old tropes and they’re known for being very clever with words.
Some of their best work is My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, Master’s Sun, Greatest Love, and You’re Beautiful. They take risks, so they have a couple failures, too. Their retellings range from folklore (Hong Gil Dong, Gumiho, and Delightful Girl Choon Hyang) to Hollywood movies (Big, and Couple Or Trouble a remake of Overboard.) They’re amazing at writing characters with chemistry, but they’re not as strong on the love triangle.
So, they’re my main inspiration for this writing trick of the inside joke. I call it an inside joke because that’s usually how it starts, a thing said offhandedly, a mistake that’s made fun of, or something the two characters can laugh over, that evolves into a symbol for their relationship. Let me walk you through it!
Typically the set up happens early, within the first 1/4 of the story. After the characters have been established, but before the relationship is concrete.
In Master’s Sun, the main story revolves around the MC who can see ghosts and the Love Interest that makes the ghosts disappear whenever the MC touches him. He also happens to be an important CEO and she’s very not. Through various plot wranglings he gives her permission to touch him, and says he’ll charge her for inappropriate touching. He calls himself expensive and valuable. He starts calculating the charges of the value of their relationship.
In You’re Beautiful, the MC is cross-dressing as her twin brother to keep his place in a boy band. The Love Interest is the leader of the boy band and the only one she knows for certain knows she’s actually a girl. This is an inconvenience, but something that drives them together because it would be bad for him if it got out that they’re all living with a girl. (It’s embodied in a “piggy-bunny” that he makes by sewing two stuffed animals together and is utterly adorable.)
As you can tell, they don’t start off particularly funny. And more often than not, they’re plot driven mechanics that drive the characters closer together.
The Extended Metaphor
As the story progresses, the metaphor of the joke evolves. They create special terminology that others around them either don’t understand or misinterpret. They use that play on words with each other to bring them closer together.
Again with Master’s Sun, she talks about him being her protection. When their relationship starts getting awkward, she uses the charges as an excuse. When he wants to be closer together he starts valuing her and her time much higher.
In Greatest Love the thing is a potato, the Love Interest puts a lot of energy into evaluating the quality of their relationship based on the health of a potato that the MC left behind one time. He evaluates their chances based on the fact that potatoes don’t have beautiful flowers.
In this way the through line becomes better embodied by this THING whatever that thing is. A secret, a keepsake, a drinking problem in one case. It weaves its way through most of the story, but provides a touchstone for the audience to relate to the central relationship even when the plot goes in different directions.
The Darkest Hour
We’ve laughed at the metaphor, we’ve been disappointed by the metaphor, but only towards the end are we utterly undone by it. This odd, awkward thing that weaves through the story pushing and pulling the characters becomes a thing that, quite often drives them apart entirely.
Master’s Sun leaves our MC and Love Interest driven apart by the perceived value. Money becomes central to who they think they need to be for each other. Gumiho Girlfriend has the MC giving up her magical orb to keep striving to become a human even though it’s killing her.
We are left heartbroken by our metaphor, there’s no more laughter, no more amusement in the absurdity, only an understanding of the distance yet to travel between the two characters.
In the end it comes back around, that one thing that drove them apart does as it did initially and brings them back together. Maybe not directly, but symbolically. Greatest Love the MC discovers her strength as a performer and a potato field in full bloom as the Love Interest declares his love for her on live TV. Master’s Sun, the MC finds a way to turn this debilitating problem into a strength and returns not as someone in need of his protection but an equal in love who can pay what she owes him.
It’s even more poignant because we have metaphor to show us the complicated emotions, and often a physical example to indicate precisely when the internal changes occur between two people.
So there you have it, what I like to call the Inside Joke, that, while often played for laughs is actually not usually very funny at all.