A brilliant video which changed my thinking about style. All academics should watch it.
A brilliant video which changed my thinking about style. All academics should watch it.
So, I was listening to the Wonder Woman episode of The Story Toolkit podcast, and I have to say it was a major eye opener. The episode itself is about the Wonder Woman movie, and during the show the host Bassim al-Wakil laid out something I had no idea about, but which makes absolute perfect sense.
You see, I found the Wonder Woman movie a mess in terms of storytelling, theme and kind’ve in general, and Bassim not only helped to explain exactly why, but he also taught me something about how Hollywood is now making films I didn’t know. In particular, Bassim outlined that the way they’re making these big tentpole movies has changed, largely due to the heavy levels of effects involved and the limited time they have to make them.
In short, since they only have a year to make these films, what they’re doing is coming up with a rough outline for the film, figuring out what the big setpiece sequences are going to be, and then beginning work on those before the script is actually completed! Why is this important? Well, he used Wonder Woman as a good example.
He pointed out that the big setpiece action sequences have little to no dialog in them, and then none of what is in them refers to anything outside that particular setpiece sequence. In other words, in a scene like Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land, the whole story of that sequence is all within that sequence and doesn’t actually connect to anything else in the film. This is because, for all intents and purposes, it is a little self-contained mini-movie within the larger film, and the same for the other big action sequences. It HAS to be this way, because they didn’t know what the final script it would be put into would look like.
Then, he noted that the scenes in between the big event scenes are all packed to the gills with exposition. Like, solid wall-to-wall characters filling in the story, because that time spent in the effects scenes is basically wasted screen time that is only connected to the main story through characters. They are attempting to tell the story of the movie during the cracks between the big event effects scenes, which makes it awkward and forced.
For those of the video game generation, think of the big effects scenes as the parts would be playing, and the exposition scenes as the pre-rendered cut scenes and you’ll have the right idea. The movie is literally a series of action scenes with the story bits just there to connect them all together.
So what? You might ask. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that in a good and well told story, everything in the movie from the scenes, to the dialog, to the actions, to the costumes and sets and everything else is there for the purpose of telling and enhancing that story. There is a clear theme being developed, and subtext to the story that the audience reacts to, and which helps to build a connection between the characters and audience.
Think of it as the difference between Team A, professional basketball team who train and play together, and Team B, a bunch of professional players from different teams stuck together for the purposes of the game. While Team B might have some amazing players, it will never be as good as Team A because there won’t be any unity the way they play. Team A work as a unit, while Team B will always be individuals playing their own game and not coordinating with each other.
The current crop of big event Superhero movies (and effects movies in general it seems) are all Team B. Uneven collections of individual sequences that may or may not work well together, and which lack focus and coherence.
This really struck home when I thought about the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2– when it came out, I think it was my friend Jack who pointed out that you could literally take the major sequences of the film and stick them up on YouTube as individual videos and they’d work perfectly fine. Yes, there was a big story idea there surrounding them, but they worked fine by themselves, and didn’t have to be watched as part of a greater film for the most part. The end result was a flat and uneven movie that did have enjoyable parts, but which really didn’t work as coherent film built up around setups and payoffs within the story.
This is as opposed to Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1) which has a clear story being told from start to finish that for the most part links together and has a dramatic through-line you can follow. Likely because, unlike it’s sequel (or Wonder Woman) it had sufficient pre-production time to plan things out before it was produced.
This also explains why the earliest set photos and videos from the next Avengers film were all indoor alien sets and green screens with the major cast members there for filming. They were making all the major effects sequences first, and then would do the parts which fill in all the details later. And who knows if they had a script finished at the time they started it or not? Civil War clearly didn’t, looking back at it and how uneven that film is as well. (Spiderman wasn’t even part of the film when Civil War went into production, for example.)
Now, maybe I’m exaggerating how bad this is for film, after all, these are meant to be big bland blockbusters designed to wow audiences with their visuals more than their deep character arcs. However, I don’t consider this a good development because while it might not be why the last few Marvel movies have been so flat and uneven, it certainly isn’t helping matters. And now that I know what to look for, I think my enjoyment of these films is probably going to take another dip.
Thanks Bassim! 😛
So, I’m puzzling over this quote from Araki’s book on writing manga.
In Western comic storyboards, panels are laid out with the most importance placed on good drawing composition, and the sketches focus on the characters’ actions. Japanese mangaka, on the other hand, place emphasis on characters’ internal thoughts and emotional reactions. This focus on the internal is what sets Japanese mangaka apart.
First, I think this idea is brilliant. It’s a really interesting take on comic composition.
But, beyond that, because I’m a writer, I have to wonder if there’s a way to apply this to prose writing. Does this just mean putting in emphasis on the characters’ feelings and expressing emotion over describing the action is it happening? Or, would this mean doing something like being more poetic and emotional in your language, or trying to find a balance between the two?
Or, does it mean digging deeper into how your characters are reacting and dealing with the situation?
Still thinking about it.
A while back, I blogged about a Japanese story structure called Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (Kee-Show-Ten-Ketsoo), which is normally presented as an alternative story structure which doesn’t revolve around conflict. I found the whole idea fascinating, especially since our normal “western” story structure is generally entirely based around characters in conflict (with others, their environment, themselves, society, etc). Finding the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (KSTK) format seemed like a great alternative, and that’s especially true since there aren’t a lot of different story structures out there.
For those who aren’t familiar with the structure, it works like this:
This format was originally found in Japanese poetry, but later became “famous” as the structure used in their Yon Koma (4 Panel) gag comic books. (Their equivalent to our newspaper strips.) Some others have come to use it in different ways, but the information out there in English said that it was a structure that relied on dramatic and situational twists to produce a reaction from the audience (usually a humorous one). However, when you’re working with limited sources of information about a subject that isn’t in a language you speak, there’s bound to be some miss-communications here and there.
Having recently been able to read the fascinating book Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki, I have discovered that my understanding of the KSTK form wasn’t quite right.
I had believed it was a form without direct conflict, but now thanks to Araki I understand that instead it is highly flexible form where the conflict is optional because the story structure doesn’t require it. In fact, Araki demonstrates in his book that it is in fact the standard format still used by many manga writer/artists today when planning short stories and chapters of their serials. Not only that, he demonstrates how flexible the structure is.
But first, let’s make sure it’s clear what each step represents.
This structure actually conforms to the basic structure that all stories must follow, and represents a simple and universal way of looking at story.
A sample short Romance story:
Therefore, it’s no surprise that, according to Araki, most manga stories tend to follow this structure closely or loosely. He also mentions that a common variation of it is the structure of Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten-Ten-Ketsu (with the number of Tens (twists) being as few or many as needed). In fact, referring to Ten as “Twist” might be a mistranslation in this case, as it’s often more like “Dramatic Event,” “Unexpected Revelation,” or just plain “Opposition.”
You could have a dozen small Tens or just one big one, and they can take any form you’d like, as long as they keep building the dramatic power of the story.
A longer Romance tale:
Also, as Araki also points out, the Ketsu phase can be moved around and take different forms. For example, in serial stories (or chapters of a book), the Ketsu might be delayed to the start of the next installment, so you end up with a structure like:
In this case, the Ki in part B-D is actually the “new normal”, not a complete reset to zero. The Ketsu is producing a “new normal” or “new state” which the characters are at, and then the next round of buildup (Sho) begins towards a dramatic situation. There is always an upward building of dramatic momentum as the story progresses, so that each cycle tops the one before it. This way, the reader is always wanting to read the next installment/chapter to find out how the situation resolves, and is kept focused on the story until the end.
Specifically in Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:
Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)
So, for example:
Opening Story Arc Chapter:
Middle Story Arc Chapter:
Finally, one last advantage of this story structure is its flexibility of length. You can make a KSTK story as long or short as you want, and obviously have a overall KSTK structure with the chapters within also having mini KSTK structures. The above Romance could be a short story, or it could be the root structure of a whole novel, depending on how you want to let the story unfold. It is especially good for stories where character or setting have a greater focus than plot, because it can allow those elements to play out while still having what the audience will recognise as a story structure underneath.
And, of course, not all the dramatic twists have to be ones based on conflict, and I now know and appreciate. 😊Live and learn!
Have fun experimenting with this structure, and read Araki’s book if you get the chance, it covers a lot more things than just this, many of which you might find useful.
As a writer, writing teacher, and a lover of Japanese comics, I was excited when I stumbled upon Hirohiko Araki’s Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga on Amazon the other day. Published in English in June of 2017 (it was published in Japanese in 2015) by VIZ Media, it was of immediate interested because Araki is the writer/creator of the manga epic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which has been running in Shonen Jump and Ultra Jump for over 25 years. So, naturally, I snagged the eBook edition of the book for my tablet and started reading.
Having just finished the book, I wanted to share my thoughts, but if you want the short version of my review, here it is: If you want to write Shonen (boys) adventure stories like Naruto, One Piece, and Dragonball, this is a must read. If you’re a new writer looking for a basic book on writing in general, this is a pretty good read. If you’re an experienced writer who has read/written lots, it’s an interesting read, but mostly from a cultural perspective. It’d give it 4/5 stars.
Okay, with that out of the way, lets divide this up into the Pros and Cons of this book.
I’m going to start with the Cons, just to get them out of the way, and because they’re short.
Okay, that aside, let’s look at what the book does well.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and as I said above, I recommend it to new writers and Shonen manga fans. Araki himself says this book is really intended as a “passing of the torch” book where he shares his secrets with the next generation of manga producers, and that’s what it is. There isn’t likely to be too many mind-blowing ideas here, but there is a lot of things worth thinking about, and I’m very glad I was able to read it. Like I said above, if you enjoyed this, try Bakuman next, which is a dramatized version of this topic. (And an amazing one at that.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to track down his Rohan Kishibe stories, which look amazing.
In this episode, Rob and Don journey back into the past of Japanese comic books to explore it from its roots 1300 years ago until the great experimental manga age of the 1970s. They explore the European roots of Manga, how the medium was shaped by the winds of Japan’s history, and the major figures who helped make manga what it is today. All this, and how Go Nagai brought sex and violence to Japanese children’s television, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
The Japanese produce more comics than anyone else on Earth, and they are a comic reading culture through and through. As a result, just like during the Pulp Era of American magazine fiction, a number of formulas have evolved which Japanese writers rely on when producing comics. These range from formulas related to character design (how to draw eyes, bodies, hair, etc) to story formulas which they use when writing and structuring their comic serials.
Each genre (and subgenre) can have its own formula that gets used again and again (because if it ain’t broken don’t fix it!) and Shonen comics are no exception. For those who aren’t familiar with Shonen comics, they’re targeted primarily at boys from 8-18, and dominate the sales of comics and anime in Japan. Most of the names you’ll see in any top-10 anime list (for sales or readership) are Shonen titles like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Dragonball, etc. Shonen Jump, the largest of these comic anthology magazines, sells between three and four million copies a week, and is ready by all genders and age groups.
So yes, they produce a lot of Shonen comics, and these comics tend to follow a standard structure you’ll see again and again if you keep reading them. This structure likely evolved from Chinese Martial Arts fiction and other serial fiction of the early 20th century, but it definitely came into its own in the late 1980’s, after which it became the dominant form of story structure in mainstream Shonen titles.
Now, before we go into detail about the structure, I want to discuss the three major types of stories which tend to use this structure and what makes each different.
(I should note that many Shonen comics inadvertently follow the Pseudo Activity Drama pattern as the writer starts out with a fun and detailed setting and situation they want to explore, and then when they run out of ideas or start to drop in popularity they resort to turning it into a pure Shonen Fight comic as a last resort. Bleach and Naruto are both poster boys for this!)
In addition, the philosophy behind Shonen Battle manga should also be considered. According to Hirohiko Araki (author of Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga) Shonen battle manga are built on three key concepts- Friendship, Effort and Victory. They are about people finding friends, struggling together, and achieving victory through their unity and efforts. This a very Japanese (and Asian) way of looking at the world, as their cultures focus on collective effort and achieving through hard work. This also runs opposite to the North American way of thinking, which is about achievement through individual effort and mastering the world around you by being the best. (Oddly enough, this is the most common Villain perspective in Battle Manga, which highlights the different worldviews between the two.)
So, with that in mind, how does the formula run?
The most common version of this formula is built around a slightly slow but talented main character. This serves 4 purposes: 1) the main character’s slowness makes them sympathetic and more relatable to the average reader. 2) the main character being slow means they must be taught the knowledge they need to know by the other characters and have it explained in simple ways. 3) It gives the character a lot of room to grow. 4) And finally, it lets the main character provide some comic relief and make believable mistakes that liven up the story between dramatic parts.
This Main Character (MC) will have a problem that comes in one of two forms- 1) they’re thrust into a life or death struggle by circumstance and must fight to survive, 2) they’re unhappy in their lives and are looking for a goal or focus to make them feel fulfilled. They may or may not have a major flaw (like laziness, being bad tempered, etc) but will be pure of heart and believe in the power of will to change the world. (They are almost always passionate, active characters, who just need a focus to get them going and use their potential.)
To help them on their journey, the MC will have a buddy who is their closest and most trusted friend. This character exists so that the MC has someone to talk to, and talk about their problems aloud to, vocalizing their thoughts and letting us know what’s going on in their heads. This buddy will often know more than the MC about different topics, but is all theory, and lacks the talent that the MC has.
The MC will normally also have a Main Opponent, someone who is actively trying to accomplish the same goal that they are, or has already accomplished that goal and is trying to maintain their position of power. In Shonen Fight dramas, there may be multiple Main Opponents who come and go with each new story arc, whereas in Activity Dramas the Main Opponent is usually there from the beginning and will only leave when the story ends. (They represent the final challenge the MC must defeat to reach their goal.)
Other typical characters to appear are the Love Interest (who is there to inspire the MC to try harder), the Mentor (there to advise the MC), the Sidekicks (usually the MC picks up a bunch of friends as they journey along, forming a mini-community), and regular Opponents who exist to keep the action flowing and the challenges coming.
The setting can be anyplace or anytime, but will most likely be Japan, and the main characters will be Middle School or High School students, or at least teenagers. This isn’t iron-clad, but there is still that belief that teens relate best to teens.
They should pursue an activity that either naturally has a competitive element to it, or one which can be made competitive through personal competition. For example, Heart Surgery is not a competitive art by nature, but if you have heart surgeons competing for skill and prestige then it can become so. (And has, see Team Medical Dragon.) Humans can make almost anything competitive through pride and jealousy, you just have to think about how to do in an interesting way. This competitive situation is going to be your hook to build drama and keep the audience interested.
There will also be a “gimmick” or hook to the story that makes it different than other stories. Perhaps it’s a novel setting, or a weird method of conflict, or maybe there’s a twist to the main character, but something needs to be different to give the book a bit of novelty. The reader wants something from this story they’re not getting elsewhere, so give it to them.
Once all this is in place, the overall story will run through the following stages:
During The Long Road phase, the MC will go through a series of cycles (aka Story Arcs) which are there to represent them learning and facing new challenges as they build toward their final goals. Generally, each Story Arc will be themed around a specific idea or weakness the character has, or something they have yet to learn. So each Story Arc will be about the character facing that weakness and overcoming it.
Generally, each Story Arc along The Long Road will follow the same pattern:
Someone one said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and these stories are no different. Each “step” in this case is a Chapter of the story, and they will represent the MC working toward their goals in small ways. According to Hirohiko Araki, each of these steps will usually be structured around a Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu pattern. (Which I have written more about here.)
Specifically in Shonen Battle Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:
Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)
So, for example:
Opening Story Arc Chapter:
Middle Story Arc Chapter:
And there you have it! There are other formulas and endless variants of the above, but most Shonen battle comics tend to basically follow the above story structure. It is somewhat similar to the Hero’s Journey, but has a few Asian twists on it that make it a bit different. It doesn’t matter whether kids are collecting monsters to fight and trade, or a man is trying to become a master sushi chef- this formula works almost every time.
If you’ve ever read more than a few manga, or watched a half-dozen anime, then this storyline will sound familiar- a reluctant youth becomes part of a sport, hobby, or other activity, learning the joys of participating in it, making new friends and allies, overcoming enemies and challenges, and progressing from talented newbie to master of that activity. The activity in question can be anything from sports (Slam Dunk, Prince of Tennis), to boardgames (Hikaru no Go, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Akagi), to drawing comics (Bakuman), to wine tasting (Drops of God), to fishing (Grander Musashi), to business (Salaryman Kintaro), to sex (Futari Echi), to… Well, you get the idea.
I don’t know which was the first manga to use this storyline (maybe Aim for the Ace!), or how it evolved, but regardless, it’s a staple story structure of everything from manga for young children (Pokemon) to manga for adults (Sanctuary), and can literally be used for almost anything. It provides a strong story structure upon which to build a compelling serialized story which can explore almost any kind of activity and help the audience explore new hobbies and activities vicariously.
And that’s the key with these dramas, really. An Activity Drama (as I call them), at it’s heart, is actually a teaching story where the audience is learning about something and having fun doing it at the same time. You might think of them as dramatized textbooks, or tutorials, or just promotional materials for an Activity, but however you look at them, the two key elements of this kind of drama are as follows:
On the surface, if the drama meets these two requirements, then it’s an activity drama.
Of course, some of you are probably thinking that there are English books that meet those requirements too- Dan Brown’s novels for example or Michael Crichton’s. Heck, even Harry Potter seems to meet most of the criteria above, including the whole formula I outlined above. So, would that mean that Harry Potter is an Activity Drama?
Yes and No.
It’s an Activity Drama, but not the way the Japanese use it. You see, there are some very Asian elements lurking under the surface of a Japanese-Style Activity Drama that make them different from their English language counterparts. And, this is something I want to explore with this article- what is the underlying philosophy that lets the Japanese turn a story about something as boring as golf (Robot x Laserbeam) into a compelling drama that you just can’t stop reading until you find out what happens next?
However, before we dive into that, there’s few things I want to discuss.
First, one concept that we need to be clear on is the Asian cultural view that all people are part of a greater system, not individuals. Confucian influenced cultures see every member of society as contributing to a greater whole, and tend to see human behavior in terms of being beneficial or detrimental to society. This can produce interesting conflicts with more European views, as some behaviors that Europeans and Americans would look down on as wastes of time or money are viewed as worthwhile because they are still contributing to greater society in their own way. Scholars, for example, hold much higher places of esteem in Asian culture than they do in Western culture exactly because of their great contributions to society’s knowledge base.
Add to that, that in Asian cultures (and especially Japan) mastery of a skill or activity is considered a worthwhile goal in and of itself. While a Western point of view would question whether a skill or activity is worth knowing based on its ability to make money or bring value to society, in Asian culture mastery of something is consider its own reward. A lot of this comes from a line of Zen/Taoist philosophy which lurks underneath the surface in Japanese culture. This line of thinking states that one way to achieve Enlightenment (a state of pure spiritual advancement) is through absolute dedication to a task/role to the best of your ability. This translates to the idea that all human activity has value for the people who do it, and even if it only benefits the people who do it, that still means it has worth.
So, in other words, if brewing the best soy sauce, becoming the best Uno player in the world, or travelling to every country on Earth gives people’s lives meaning and makes them happy- that’s a good thing. As long as the people doing it are getting benefit from it, and not doing harm to themselves or others, their mastery of that thing will only benefit themselves and society as a whole by adding to the pool of human knowledge.
With that in mind, the other major concept you should understand is that if you delve into the nature of what stories are, you’ll find that one of the major roles that stories serve in human culture is to teach. We are born, live, and die only really knowing our own perspectives on life and how the world works, and the way we learn about other ways of seeing the world is through the stories of others. In a way, you can think of stories as crowdsourced learning- where we put our own ideas and perspectives of the world out there and share them with others so that we can learn from each other.
On top of that, there is also a perspective of writing advocated by writing teachers like John Truby which believes that all stories are actually arguments supporting worldviews and moral values. In other words, we don’t just put our ideas out there when we write stories, we’re also telling the audience what we think is important and not important in the world. We’re sharing not just ideas, but also values, and what we think is the best way to live.
So, when we write a story, we don’t just write about interesting characters doing interesting things, we’re both giving the audience something they want, and we’re also making a claim that certain things are important and certain things aren’t important. (For example, when you write a story about a girl raising a dog, you’re not just telling about a character’s experiences raising a dog, but also teaching the audience about raising dogs, and arguing that raising a dog is a worthwhile activity (assuming it has a positive ending/message).)
This is what your high school English teacher was talking about when they went on and on about “theme” or “the point of the story”, or what Truby means when he discusses “Moral Arguments” in his book The Anatomy of Story. In other words- the thing(s) that the storyteller is trying to get the reader to believe when the story is over and done.
So then, what are Japanese Activity Dramas trying to get the audience to believe? What is the Moral Argument which hides underneath all activity dramas no matter what the topic or theme?
Through hard work and effort towards <your goal of choice>, you can achieve self-actualization and find esteem (in yourself and from others).
That’s it. If you work hard, and be the best you can be at your passion, you will find personal happiness, social respect, and become the best you that you can be.
And some of the ways this argument is supported in Activity Dramas are:
Of course, this isn’t enough. There are also supporting arguments in any Activity Drama which will help to keep the story on track. Here are a few of them:
(Sometimes people mistake the above arguments for the main Moral Argument of the story, but if you think about it, you’ll see that they only serve to help the real argument of trying to achieve your potential through mastery of an activity.)
And like any process, there is a clear pattern to how these stories progress, and Activity Dramas tend to go through the following stages:
With all of this in mind, one of the first things that may come to mind of more manga savvy readers is what the difference is between an Activity Drama and a Shonen Fight drama. They’re both following versions of the above structure and about heroes starting from nothing and working hard at an activity to become a master of it. For example, I mentioned Naruto as an activity drama, but is Dragonball Z also one? And, for that matter, are Chinese XianXia stories, which are also about a newbie hero rising up through the ranks and achieving fame and enlightenment?
To answer the question- no, I wouldn’t classify those as activity dramas.
While they share many of the same features as Activity Dramas (character tropes, similar story structure, progression), there is a key difference between them- they’re not teaching the audience anything. Yes, the audience is learning about the setting and the systems the character’s Activity is built around, but at heart those stories aren’t really teaching anything. The main character’s leveling is happening terms of numbers (“It’s over 9000!”) or some other ranking system, but we’re not actually learning knowledge and skills alongside the main character as we go.
I guess, one of the key questions to ask in whether what you’re looking at is an Activity Drama or not is whether at the end of the story the audience has gained actual useful knowledge through going on this journey with the characters. This is one of the things that differentiates an Activity story from one like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, where the audience is learning a huge amount of information about a Fantasy setting. In a typical Fantasy or Sci-Fi novel, the information about the setting is there to add flavor and bring the journey of the character to life, but in an Activity Drama story, the information the audience is learning IS the point of the story.
So then, that leads to another question- can you do an Activity Drama about a fictional subject or activity?
Naruto is a good example. Naruto (and not it’s continuation, Naruto Shippuden) is a story about a young man learning how to become a Ninja in a Japanese Fantasy setting. He starts as a trainee, and then he (and the reader) learn the skills he needs to become a full ninja within his setting. In theory, if we lived in his setting and read this story, we’d be capable of performing many of the tasks he does if we learned those lessons. This is why I classify early Naruto as an Activity Drama, but not Dragonball Z which is just about characters learning to yell louder and change their hair colour. This is also why Naruto Shippuden (and the later parts of Naruto as well) aren’t really Activity Dramas because at that point the ninja abilities are just superpowers and we’re not learning anything useful anymore except about character stories and tactics for using said ninja superpowers. (In other words, it’s become Dragonball Z.)
In this sense, Naruto is a Pseudo-Activity Drama- one which follows all the rules and tropes, but which covers a fictional activity and isn’t really teaching the audience anything useful. It’s a story which is borrowing the tropes of Activity Dramas as a way to keep reader interest and explore a setting, but isn’t actually there to educate the reader.
So then, is it possible to do a real Activity Drama about a fictional activity that is still applicable in the real world? In other words, an Activity Drama which is based around a fictional subject but still teaches the audience actual skills and knowledge?
That answer is definitely yes.
There are three ways I could see this working.
One way would be to incorporate real-world knowledge into a fictional activity. For example, say you had a character learning to be an Alchemist in a Fantasy setting, but the rules of alchemy in that setting are based on real-world chemistry principals. So, while the activity of being a magical alchemist might be fictional, and they do can things real-world chemists can’t, the underlying fundamentals of chemistry are still there being learned by the audience as part of the story. This is no different than learning air combat tactics from dragon riders, or learning a “magical language” which happens to be a real-world language as well. (As the character learns the “magical language of the ancients” to become a Wizard, which just happens to be identical to Egyptian, the reader is also learning Egyptian in the process.)
The second way to make an Activity Drama about an unreal subject would be if the content wasn’t important, but the process or something else related to it was. So, for example, your character might be running a Space Station in the 43nd century and everything they deal with involves issues related to that era (selling Vanuthian Cat-Monkeys and dealing with Space Pirates), but we’re still watching the main character learn the basic principals of organizational management. Similarly, a chef in a Fantasy setting might be cooking Dragonfish Eggs and making Slimeskin Wraps, but the reader could still be learning about the fundamental skills and techniques of cooking and food preparation. (see Dungeon Meishi) Similarly, the basics of magic spell creation might just happen to be the same principals behind computer coding, with the same techniques, skills, and tricks working in both skillsets.
Finally, there is the Pokemon approach. In this approach, the Activity Drama’s subject is fictional, but that fictional subject is also MADE useful in the real world. Pokemon the TV show serves as an Activity Drama teaching the audience how to play a game which exists in the real world alongside the audience in the real world. In other words, the fictional activity accompanies a new real world application which exists in some form alongside the fictional activity. The Activity in the show might still fictional and fantastical (difficult to catch imaginary creatures), but the knowledge connected with it allows the audience to play computer and card games that simulate that for the audience.
The possibilities really are endless. The key is that at the end of the story, the audience members should now be knowledgeable about somewhat useful things they weren’t before. After all, this is a learning story, and if the audience isn’t learning something, then it’s not a real Activity Drama!
Another thing I wanted to discuss is the presence or lack of Love Interests in Activity Dramas. While typical Heroic Journeys tend to have a love interest character who represents the hero settling down and becoming part of society at the end of their journey, Activity Dramas commonly have no such character. However, if you think about it, this makes perfect sense.
Since the Love Interest is there to represent the hero rejoining society after his or her quest, but the main character in an Activity Drama has already been on journey from being an individual to becoming part of a community, the role serves no real purpose in Activity Dramas. A Heroic Journey is based on the old mythic structure of a character leaving society to become an adult and then returning, but the Activity Drama lead never left society to begin with, so why do they need to a symbol of reuniting with society at the end of their journey?
That’s not to say that Love Interests can’t be important in Activity Dramas, they can, but they usually serve other functions. They can still be a reward for the character completing their mastery of the activity, or an incentive for going on that journey. They can also be supporting the character as they grow and develop (“Adrian!!!!”) or provide alternate points of view (perhaps how the other sex sees things) about the activity or the culture related to it. Human relationships are a part of any story where we become part of a community, and love is a natural aspect of that as well, but the point is that you can build a perfectly good Activity Drama without the need for a romantic subplot.
Of course, the Love interest issues are hardly the only genre trope Activity Dramas have. Here is a list of many of the standard tropes you’ll find in almost any Activity Drama story to one degree or another, which shouldn’t be viewed as clichés so much as what’s been proven to work by legions of writers producing these types of stories.
You can find other common tropes related to this genre here on TV Tropes’ Sports Story Tropes page, since one of the most popular form of the Activity Drama is of course Sports Dramas. However, some of those are specifically Sports related tropes, as opposed to more general tropes that pop up in almost any Activity Drama story.
Thus, you can probably start to see the difference between a story of this genre and one like say, Harry Potter, or Hunger Games. In most Young Adult Activity stories of the Western variety, the focus will be on the character growing, becoming an adult, and overcoming an authority figure as they go through rites of passage. (In other words, clawing their way to the top through talent and individual effort.) Whereas, in the Japanese version of the story, the focus is on the value of the activity itself, and how working hard at that activity makes you a better member of society.
So, while in Harry Potter it was the story of how he grew up, ended the curse and became a hero by killing Voldemort, if Harry Potter was done Japanese style the focus would be about how Harry Potter became part of the wizarding community and through it achieved his ultimate potential as a wizard and leader in that community.
Individualism versus Collectivism. The mastery of an Activity as a means to a goal (kill the bad guy, overcome personal flaws), versus master of an activity for the sake of mastery and personal development (add to society, achieve your personal potential). Being given a place in society versus earning a place in society. Talent versus Hard Work. All of these, and the views of them, are what separate Japanese Activity Stories from Western ones.
It’s this difference, and difference in thinking, that makes Japanese-style Activity Dramas so interesting and compelling. It builds on people’s natural desires to learn while being entertained, and provides a package of novelty, drama, and knowledge which is hard to beat. Whether the story is short or long, novelized or serialized, animated or acted, it’s still a story about a human learning and sharing their experience with others as they grow and become part of society.
Just like we all do.
In this episode, Don and Rob sit down with Larry Houston, storyboard artist and animation producer, to talk about his history in animation and work on X-men: The Animated Series. The trio discuss how Larry broke into the animation industry back in the 1980’s, what it was like to work with Stan Lee, and his techniques for sneaking things past the TV censors. All this, and how Larry ended up creating the coolest openings in TV animation history, and waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
All stories are ultimately about humans needs- specifically, a human (or human-like being) trying to meet those basic fundamental needs in some way. No matter what the story is about, or how complicated it is, on some level it’s about people trying to meet their needs.
So, what are the basic human needs?
The concept of human needs was first proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow believed that there are things we fundamentally seek out as human beings, and we need these things to live happy lives. The theory goes that if we don’t have these things, we will naturally try to seek them out and find ways to fill them because they really are fundamental to our lives.
Now, there has been arguments made about the hierarchy Maslow originally placed upon those needs, but that doesn’t really matter to us. The key here is that each of those basic needs you see there are so fundamental that if we’re missing them, and our lives are out of balance, we will naturally try to find some way to make them part of our lives again. (Even if we do it in dysfunctional ways, like staying in bad relationships because they still meet our needs in some way.)
Stories then, are also about characters trying to meet human needs, and you could even say that stories are actually teaching people how needs can be fulfilled through action (or inaction.) This is why characters almost always start stories in an unfulfilled state- one where they are missing one of their fundamental needs – and then the story itself is at it’s core about them trying to fill that missing need in their lives.
Very often, the main characters of stories don’t even know what’s missing in their lives, they are trying to fill those needs in an imperfect way or just limp along with those needs unfulfilled. The story, then, on a personal level becomes about them learning what it really is they need to be happy as a person, and then finding a solution to that need. An interesting point, however, is that often the Active Opponent of the story (the antagonist/villain) actually does know what they need (unlike the main character) and is actively trying to get it. The problem is that usually what the main character and their active opponent want is often the same thing, which naturally brings them into conflict.
Okay, enough theory. Let’s look at how some common genre plots match up with the humans needs that drive them.
Stories built around physiological needs are going to be primal stories. You don’t get any more basic than this, because these are the essential things that we need to be alive as living things. These are often stories where man is acting on the same level as an animal, and often will be about the less pleasant sides of human nature. However, these can be stories about the triumph of human nature too, like Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, where a human being must pull the basic needs from a harsh environment.
Safety covers a lot more ground than you might think. Any story where the main character’s goal is to achieve personal safety for themselves, their family, their community, their nation, or something else they deem important, is a safety-based story. Most action movies and superhero movies are ultimately about safety, because the villain will blow up/harm whatever if the hero doesn’t stop them- so the hero must risk personal safety to fight for the greater good of safety for the community. Westerns are also safety-based, since the cowboy hero is fighting to “keep the peace” or “restore order”, which are also codewords for safety. Even Mystery stories are most commonly about safety, since a murderer/criminal is loose and threatening the safety of society and the balance must be restored for there to be social order. Finally, war movies are also about safety- fighting against an invading army or enemy foe for the sake of the safety of country and loved ones. (Mom and Apple Pie!)
Since humans are social animals, we generally desire companionship of some kind and want to feel we belong to a greater community. This human need is naturally the realm of Romance movies and other love stories, but it can also be the root of many type of Dramas and Comedies, usually ones built around interpersonal relationships. The main characters in these stories are almost always lonely or isolated in some way, and the story will be about them finding and connecting with others in a deep and meaningful way.
This is another one that like Safety, covers a lot more ground than you might think at first. These are stories of achievement and gaining respect (both from others and within yourself), which is why Adventure stories are most often driven by Esteem. Young Adult stories are often Esteem driven too, since both YA and Middle Grade stories are meant for youth who are trying to find their place in the world and are often driven by gaining respect. Pretty much the whole of the Japanese boys comic industry is about Esteem stories as well- the weak and feeble youth who grows in power and stature personally and socially to become a great man.
This kind of story is a little less common, in no small part because self actualization can be a pretty vague and personal concept. While an audience can easily understand the many variants of the previous four needs, and they can be easily represented on film, self actualization and being your best personal self is a harder thing to capture. You most often see it in novels where the character is trying to figure out their identity and goes on some sort of inward or outward journey to find the missing thing they need to be happy. In movies, you see it in stories like Seven Years in Tibet, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat Pray Love, where a character seems to have everything, but can’t find true happiness. Of course, these stories aren’t limited to introspective drama- Rocky is also a story of self actualization, as are many sports dramas which follow similar molds. (Oddly enough, a lot of Best Picture Oscars seem to go to Self Actualization driven movies.)
Now, when talking about a genre matching up with a human need, that’s based on how those genres generally play out. By shifting the human need the main character is seeking to fill, but using the tropes of another genre, you can create all sorts of combinations and situations. You could do a superhero story where the main character is drive by self actualization (One Punch Man), or a horror story which is about the main character finding the community they need during a zombie apocalypse. However, most commonly, you’ll see these human needs matched up with these genres because they’re good fits to motivate the characters in that genre.
And it’s all about motivation – conscious or unconscious – which is what’s driving the character to do what they do. We need main characters to be active, and nothing makes a character more active than trying to fill their needs.
One note- naturally, real people may be seeking to fill more than one of these needs at the same time, but this is a good time to remember that characters aren’t real people. A character having too many needs will usually muddy the story, and it’s best to focus on just one at a time in most stories. That isn’t to say that the character can’t have another need in a different story, but usually just one need, or maybe two conflicting needs, is enough to make a story interesting to the audience.
Also, if you don’t like Maslow’s list, or perhaps think it’s a bit short or unclear, then there are others who have attempted to quantify human needs in different ways. One of these is Professor Steven Reiss, who classified 16 “Desires” that each human being has. His list is meant for use by marketers (almost all modern marketing techniques are based on connecting human needs with products in the minds of consumers) but it can work for writers as well.
The key is to remember that stories are about people acting to accomplish goals, and that action will most likely be driven by a human need. Matching the right need with the right character can really bring a character to life and help to make a story much more interesting and appealing than it might otherwise be. So know what your character’s needs are, and then make them work to fulfill them- because your reader needs a little adventure in their life.