What Cheesy Low-Budget Dramas can teach us about Engaging Learning Design
Updated: Jun 16
I love sci-fi/fantasy, and I love foreign films and tv. Probably about half my Netflix/internet watch history is a mishmash of Japanese, Korean, Scandinavian, French, German, Brazilian, and Oceanian fantasy and sci-fi shows.
Recently I watched a terrible (subjective) Korean romantic dramedy very loosely based on the legends of the Monkey King (there is a huge number of modern and period retellings of this story and several are available on Netflix right now). It's adorable in the fact that while it is extremely grandiose (over-the-top), impactful (distracting), engrossing (engaging) in the story - revolving around the supernatural relationships between demons, demigods, and humans - it is portrayed with very few special effects or bells & whistles.
What's interesting about this particular drama, although it's by no means the first to accomplish this, is that the few special effects it does have, are really the bare minimum necessary to suspend your belief that these human-looking characters are actually powerful, potentially immortal beings with magical powers. The special effects aren't even very convincing - but they don't need to be. The story creates the magic and the special effects just support their perpetuation of the belief suspension. The story is so grandiose, the dialogue and interactions between the characters so comical and dramatic, that one can ignore the fact that the Bull Demon King looks like a schmoozy marketing exec or that the lead female character, a rich CEO of her own company at the ripe age of 24-ish, is also a psychic. What the characters look like, don't matter so much, because the 80s-quality special effects demonstration of their powers give us just enough permission to believe; while the majority of the show, story, and drama plays on with little fanfare.
My point of all this, is that with an engaging story, characters in whom the audience can invest, and only a few bells and whistles, you can create meaningful and powerful learning interactions, too. It takes work though, and for engaging training at least, it isn't necessarily as easy as the next flashy interpretation of a common fable.
Here are 5 tactics to help guide you in creating engaging stories for learning with only a little supporting fanfare and flash (i.e lower budget or time constraints)
1.) Call on your SMEs - Ask them for real stories. You might not be able to use the verbatim version but the real deal truth might be able to help inform a larger narrative.
2.) Research. What can you find out online about peoples' experiences? Real-life can be just as crazy as fantasy at times. Look on Reddit, Glassdoor, Google reviews, etc., for real-life stories (be prepared and steel yourself against rabbit-holes and garbage posts.) A few larger hospitality clients I've worked with had their own Reddit subs (often to their extreme chagrin) that had a wealth of information from management-level employees that helped inform difficult scenarios for manager-to-employee and employee-to-customer conversations.
3.) Dialogue is key to creating the character, and you need to define your character to know what they'd say. Create your character profile - how they speak, mannerisms, what they like/dislike; believe in/don't; what they look like, how they live, their backstory. Defining all this ahead of time, even for shorter scenarios, will give you something to check against when you're writing their dialogue - is this how they would say it? Or would they use more or less slang? More or less assertiveness? More or less self-deprecating humor? More or less self-assuredness? More or less hesitance due to a bad past experience?
4.) Take a cue from game development and consider how you can use cut scenes in your scenarios. Whether video or animation, you can go quick and minimal with a Vyond or Animaker video (which can also provide a good prototype for higher budget options), or all out with custom video production and actors. Consider how you can use cut scenes to set the stage or up the emotional engagement in your interactions and branching scenarios.
5.) Consider how visually realistic your characters really need to be, Even if one of your characters is actually a dragon, do they need to look like a dragon? With a little imagination, some supporting graphics and story, and the right poses, even Articulate's all-time favorite, all-business stock character Atsumi can become mystical.
While I hope all this provides some good food for thought, I don't recommend that you watch A Korean Odyssey just to learn how to apply story tactics to learning (unless you just really enjoy terribly cheesy subtitled dramedies. Yes, I finished it. Don't judge me.) If you're already sucked into the style, another fun drama is a New Zealand show called The Almighty Johnsons.