Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu- a Japanese way to structure your stories.

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:

  • KiSetup the situation.
  • ShoDevelopment of the situation
  • TenTwist or surprise on the situation that the audience expects.
  • KetsuResolution of the situation.

For example:

  • Ki– Sazae-san is enjoying a riverside view.
  • Sho– An American Soldier appears and asks her to kneel down.
  • Ten– Sazae-san is pleased he wants to take her picture.
  • Ketsu– He’s really taking a picture of the beautiful girl behind her.

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.

  • Ki – In this stage, we get a character and situation, and that character demonstrates a need, usually one based on a derivative of basic human needs.
  • Sho – The character makes a plan, and tries to follow a path they think will fill that need.
  • Ten – The character faces an obstacle to their plan, and must figure out how to overcome it.
  • Ketsu– The character is done facing the current obstacle(s) and now has either fulfilled their need or moved closer towards fulfilling it.

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:

  • Ki– Two people meet.
  • Sho– They fall in love.
  • Ten– The man’s ex-girlfriend gets in the way.
  • Ketsu– They overcome their challenges and marry.

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:

  • Ki– Two people meet.
  • Sho– They fall in love.
  • Ten– The woman’s insecurities get in the way. (problem)
  • Ten– The man’s family hates the man. (bigger problem)
  • Ten– The man must follow the woman to Europe and bring her back. (biggest problem)
  • Ketsu– She agrees and they marry.

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:

  • Part A: Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten
  • Part B: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
  • Part C: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
  • Part D: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu.

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:

  • Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.

Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)

  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
  • Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)

So, for example:

Opening Story Arc Chapter:

  1. Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over a Ancient Ruby.
  2. Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
  3. Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
  4. Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)

Middle Story Arc Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
  • Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
  • Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
  • Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
  • Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
  • Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)

End Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
  • Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
  • Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
  • Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
  • Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
  • Ketsu–  Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)

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.

Rob

Review- Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga

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.

  • Araki is a oldschool battle manga/pulp adventure writer. So that’s what he’s basically teaching you how to write in this book. If you want to write something else, it can still be useful, but this might not be the book for you. He’s also a bit of a maverick, with his own way of doing things that falls outside of the norm even by boys manga standards. (He didn’t apprentice under the previous generation, is largely self-taught, and his stories are often radically different than most other Shonen stories are.)
  • This isn’t a book for visual artists, except in the very general sense. He’s got a lot of suggestions and comments about manga art and comic composition, but it won’t teach you serious hardcore artistic theory like Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics will. Heck, even those “How to Draw Manga” books will likely give you more actual how-to than this book does, if that’s your chosen style.
  • Piggybacking on that, the rest of this book is for writers, but again, it’s really just a collection of tips and basic theory that he’s picked up over 25 years in the business. If you want to get into how to write story in depth, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is the book you want. Also, the story structure he teaches (Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu) is really intended for short stories and chapters of longer serials, and he doesn’t really go into writing and structuring a full serial.
  • A lot of the advice here is specifically for the Japanese manga market, because this is just a translation of a Japanese book for a Japanese audience, not an edition for foreigners.
  • He gives a passage from a Hemmingway story and claims that it tells us information that it really doesn’t. I have to wonder if this is a mistranslation of what he was saying the passage was supposed to be giving us.
  • There are a few times when the translation is a bit unclear, but those are few and far between overall.

Okay, that aside, let’s look at what the book does well.

  • This is a really good primer on writing in general for new writers, whether you’re a visual artist or a pure writer, or both.
  • This is a great book for understanding the ways of thinking that lay behind writing boys manga (aka The Golden Road), and how Japanese view creating manga in general. His thoughts on how manga are more emotionally driven than western comics are were interesting to read, and he really takes you through the process of creating his manga and how the Japanese manga artist system works. (If this part interests you, you should also read the manga Bakuman, which covers this in more detail and in more dramatic form.)
  • Araki’s thoughts on the relationship between Setting, Story and Character and how they’re all tied together by Theme are worth remembering and a good primer for new writers. He also gives a lot of good tips and suggestions about those elements of story and how they work in a Shonen comic.
  • The Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu story structure he outlines is a good one for short story writers to keep in mind, and simple and flexible while still offering a straightforward way to structure your stories. (One of his two Implementation chapters acts as an example in great detail, which is also nice. Although after you read it, you can look at any Shonen comic and see it in action immediately.)
  • He goes into great detail about how he creates characters, and even shows you his character template that he uses to think through his characters before he sits down and designs them visually.
  • He goes into detail about his own experiences moving up through the manga industry. It’s not quite “On Writing” (Stephen King’s book), but it does give you a feeling for his highs and lows in the industry.
  • You get a behind the scenes look at his Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, and the thoughts, ideas and approaches that went into making it the series it is. (I have to say, as a Jojo’s fan, I really enjoyed all the tidbits about the series he scatters throughout the book.)
  • It’s a pretty quick and easy read. It took me about 3 hours to read, and I wasn’t trying to power through it.

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.

Rob

DNA Podcast 47 – The History of Manga Part 1

Page from Tagosaku and Mokube's Big Toyko Adventure

Page from Tagosaku and Mokube’s Big Toyko Adventure

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 Shonen Battle Manga Formula

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.

  1. Shonen Fight comics– Comics using this structure are inherently focussed on characters dueling with each other. The focus in these comics is going to be fighting, levelling, and lots of it! Generally speaking, these will follow a talented new fighter who joins the world of battles and then fights an ever escalating series of opponents to become the top fighter of his type. This type of story is extremely popular, and was perfected by Dragonball Z, after which all Shonen Fight comics began to follow this formula. The audience gets vicarious thrills as they watch their young hero fight his way through an endless series of ever more bizarre opponents and learn weird martial arts or fighting techniques that let them become king of the fighters. (Note- these fights can be physical, social, psychological, or take any other form. Death Note is also a Shonen Fight comic, but it looks nothing like Dragonball on the surface.)
  2. Sports/Activity Dramas– These comics use the same structure as Shonen Fight comics, but do something different with it. In these comics, the focus is on taking the audience through the journey of someone becoming a master of a sport or other activity. One key difference here is that Activity Dramas are about teaching the audience something useful in the real world. They often replace the more extreme thrills of Shonen Fight comics with actual useful knowledge of some kind, producing a story which is more grounded, but which offers a combination of entertainment and education at the same time. This type of story can also be quite popular, although it usually ranks slightly below Shonen Fight stories, and examples of it range from sports dramas like Slam Dunk and Robot x Laserbeam, to “Kids collect stuff” dramas like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, or creative activities like Bakuman, and many, many other subjects. You can read more about them here.
  3. Pseudo-Activity Dramas– This is a type of hybrid between the above two. It will use the “teaching” structure of an Activity drama about a character learning something, but the things they’re learning will be fictional and of little real use. What’s happening here is that the writer is using the Activity Drama structure to flesh out the setting and show the character going through the learning process of whatever they’re doing. However, as soon as the character has a good grip on the activity, the comic usually turns into a full Shonen Fight comic and jettisons the Activity drama form in favor of focusing on fighting and dramatic twists. The comic Naruto is a perfect example of this, with the main character being a ninja trainee for the first major arcs of his story and getting extensive detailed ninja training, and then completely jettisoning the training/teaching aspect in favor of superpowered duels once the writer had run out of things to “teach”.

(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:

  1. Getting Motivated– the Main Character (MC) is given a reason to explore/pursue the activity. Sometimes the MC starts motivated, in which case they explain the reason they’re already motivated to another character instead. In any case, the audience is presented with the MC’s reasons for pursuing the activity. The MC is usually living an unfulfilled life and comes to believe that the activity might be a possible solution to fill that void.
  2. It’s Easy! – the MC engages in the activity and shows a natural talent or ability for it, allowing them to score their first victory. This gives them the confidence to move forward, and the feeling that this activity will bring them pleasure and give them something they’ve been missing from their lives.
  3. Maybe it’s Not So Easy? – The MC encounters their first real hurdle to becoming part of this activity- usually through an encounter with the Main Opponent. Their early victory was a product of talent, but they quickly learn that talent alone isn’t enough, as those who have skill can trump their talent easily. Now they’re forced to actually start to learn and explore the activity on a basic level.
  4. A Whole New World – The MC is introduced to the subculture which exists surrounding the activity. Through a guide character (or characters) they discover that there is a whole world they were unaware of hiding within the community that engages in the activity. From this discovery, they begin their first steps into joining that community, and are given basic knowledge about that activity.
  5. A New Path – Now combining Talent and Skill, the MC starts on their real journey towards becoming a master of the activity. They have their first true victory, and get their taste of what it’s like to be part of this new community while facing an Opponent (usually the one from Step 3) who has a flawed approach to the activity in some basic way. This opponent will seem strong at first, but they will realize due to their new skills that this opponent is really weak because they haven’t mastered the fundamentals. Using those same fundamentals combined with talent, the MC will defeat them utterly.
  6. The Long Road – Now that they’ve entered this new world built around the activity, the MC will begin their path towards mastery. During this stage, they will meet a successive series of Opponents and challenges, make new friends, and learn more and more about their activity of choice. This stage is extremely flexible, and can take as long as the story needs it to take, or as long as the steps needed to master the activity require. (For more detail, see Story Arcs below.)
  7. Rising Competition – While the MC is rising, they will periodically re-encounter the Main Opponent in different ways, usually ones which result in indirect competition between them. (Teasing their final conflict and building tension.) This indirect competition is usually through other people who do the activity (defeating the people each other have faced or each other’s allies) and sometimes by competing in different aspects of the activity besides the main one. Also, as a result of this ongoing rivalry, the Main Opponent will also begin to become stronger as well, overcoming personal hurdles and staying ahead of the MC even when it seems like the MC is starting to catch up.
  8. Social Advancement – as the MC defeats more and more challenges, they also rise up within the sub-culture surrounding the activity. They will often find themselves drawn into the politics and deeper aspects of the community and must learn to find their place inside the community. Usually they will learn that the community is bigger than they first imagined, and has far greater depths. They will also make enemies in the community who are threatened by their advancement and/or the changes they represent to the community as it exists now. Those enemies will usually become supporters of the Main Opponent, and help to drive the growing conflict between the MC and MO. Some of them may also try to trap or distract the main character through offers of positions of status or profit if they discontinue their journey, but even if tempted, the MC will always refuse in the end.
  9. Eye of the Tiger – The MC has now mastered/learned all they need to know and become a major figure in their activity. They must now face the Main Opponent in a true match to prove their level of ability and take their place as a master of the activity. Often the MC will have a crisis of confidence or suffer from Imposter Syndrome at this point, thinking they aren’t really ready yet, but they’ll still overcome it and defeat the Main Opponent. Usually the Main Opponent is flawed in some way, often in their thinking or outlook about the activity, and the MC’s victory is due to their purity of outlook, thus showing the audience that their way is the true path in the end.
  10. Towards the Future – The MC is now a master of the activity they fell in love with, and is shown to have a whole new life because of it. They are a happy and fully realized person and member of society who confidently knows their place in the world and is happy within it. The activity and subculture around it have benefited and changed because of the MC’s entry into it, and they can look back with nostalgia and look forward with anticipation to watching the activity grow and flourish under them. Often this is represented by them helping to bring new people into the activity and starting the cycle anew.

Story Arcs

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:

  1. The MC encounters a new opponent who is strong in an area where the MC is still weak or has knowledge the MC lacks. (This can also be a challenge or task which can’t be defeated with the MC’s current skill set.)
  2. The MC is defeated by this new opponent/challenge. (whose ability over the MC is often coded by being referred to by a special name)
  3. The MC figures out why they were defeated (often by consulting others or through experimentation).
  4. The MC seeks and finds a solution to the problem. (Learning new skills/ideas along the way, and possibly a counter-technique.)
  5. While the MC is improving, the MC’s Sidekicks may try to fight the opponent or opponent’s allies. If they face the Opponent, they will lose but their loss will either gain information or help to inspire the MC to act. If they are facing the Opponent’s allies, they will fight hard battles but eventually win around the same time the MC does.
  6. The MC faces the opponent/challenge again, and wins this time because of their new skills/knowledge.
  7. The MC is rewarded for their efforts by praise of others. (If this praise comes from the Opponent, they often become friends or allies after this.)
  8. Return to Step a)

Chapters

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:

  • Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.

Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)

  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
  • Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)

So, for example:

Opening Story Arc Chapter:

  1. Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over an ancient Ruby.
  2. Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
  3. Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
  4. Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)

Middle Story Arc Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
  • Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
  • Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
  • Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
  • Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
  • Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)

End Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
  • Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
  • Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
  • Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
  • Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
  • Ketsu–  Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)

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.

Rob

Writing Sports Dramas and other Japanese-Style Activity Dramas

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:

  • The audience must be entertained.
  • The audience must learn something about an Activity and/or Subculture.

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:

  • Those who stand in opposition to our Main Character (MC) are always people who have a flawed approach to the Activity, take the goal half-assed, or are trying to do it through shortcuts (like wealth, cheating, crutches, tricks, etc)
  • There are always people who are trying to master the goal, but failing in some way because they’re missing something. (Not “pure” or flawed in their thinking or approach to it.)
  • There are always people who consider the goal the path to “godhood”, which in this case means self-actualization (being all you can be).
  • In the stories, the ones who win are always the ones who work the hardest at it and don’t quit.
  • They find a supportive community through pursuit of their goal of choice. (reward, public esteem)
  • Opponents almost always come to see the MC’s way as the “true” way, and those who come to understand this become allies or at least “reform”.
  • The love interest (if there is one, as sometimes there isn’t in this genre) comes to respect and support the main character because of their hard work, acting both as inspiration and reward. (They won’t get with the hero until the MC has accomplished their goal.) And, occasionally also being inspired by the main character to pursue their own goal, often one related to the main goal of the story. (Taking up the MC’s sport or game of choice, for example. Or becoming a better artist or businessperson.)

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:

  • Activity X is awesome! (ie Golf is Awesome,  Baking is Awesome, Skydiving is Awesome, etc)
  • Reaching your goal is easier (and more fun), with a community.
  • Quitters never win.
  • There is value in hard work for the sake of hard work.
  • No matter what your Activity of choice is, there is a community which will embrace you if you give it your all.
  • People respect those who work hard.
  • We are all part of a system and a community, whether we like it or not.
  • Every Activity has hidden depths if you only look deep enough.
  • If you don’t take an Activity seriously, you will never really be good at it.
  • Hard work trumps talent.
  • Talent is needed, but it is only a foundation upon which hard work can build.
  • Focusing on just one aspect of the Activity is not enough, you must be well rounded and (Usually demonstrated by the MC facing an opponent who is massive in one aspect of the Activity, but not in the other aspects, making them challenging but ultimately still losers.)

(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:

  1. Getting Motivated– the Main Character (MC) is given a reason to explore/pursue the activity. Sometimes the MC starts motivated, in which case they explain the reason they’re already motivated to another character instead. In any case, the audience is presented with the MC’s reasons for pursuing the activity. The MC is usually living an unfulfilled life and comes to believe that the activity might be a possible solution to fill that void.
  2. It’s Easy! – the MC engages in the activity and shows a natural talent or ability for it, allowing them to score their first victory. This gives them the confidence to move forward, and the feeling that this activity will bring them pleasure and give them something they’ve been missing from their lives.
  3. Maybe it’s Not So Easy? – The MC encounters their first real hurdle to becoming part of this activity- usually through an encounter with the Main Opponent. Their early victory was a product of talent, but they quickly learn that talent alone isn’t enough, as those who have skill can trump their talent easily. Now they’re forced to actually start to learn and explore the activity on a basic level.
  4. A Whole New World – The MC is introduced to the subculture which exists surrounding the activity. Through a guide character (or characters) they discover that there is a whole world they were unaware of hiding within the community that engages in the activity. From this discovery, they begin their first steps into joining that community, and are given basic knowledge about that activity.
  5. A New Path – Now combining Talent and Skill, the MC starts on their real journey towards becoming a master of the activity. They have their first true victory, and get their taste of what it’s like to be part of this new community while facing an Opponent (usually the one from Step 3) who has a flawed approach to the activity in some basic way. This opponent will seem strong at first, but they will realize due to their new skills that this opponent is really weak because they haven’t mastered the fundamentals. Using those same fundamentals combined with talent, the MC will defeat them utterly.
  6. The Long Road – Now that they’ve entered this new world built around the activity, the MC will begin their path towards mastery. During this stage, they will meet a successive series of Opponents and challenges, make new friends, and learn more and more about their activity of choice. This stage is extremely flexible, and can take as long as the story needs it to take, or as long as the steps needed to master the activity require. Generally, each “step” along The Long Road will follow the same pattern:
    1. The MC encounters a new opponent who is strong in an area where the MC is still weak or has knowledge the MC lacks. (This can also be a challenge or task which can’t be defeated with the MC’s current skill set.)
    2. The MC is defeated by this new opponent/challenge. (whose ability over the MC is often coded by being referred to by a special name)
    3. The MC figures out why they were defeated (often by consulting others).
    4. The MC seeks and finds a solution to the problem. (Learning new skills/ideas along the way, and possibly a counter-technique.)
    5. The MC faces the opponent/challenge again, and wins this time because of their new skills/knowledge.
    6. The MC is rewarded for their efforts by praise of others. (If this praise comes from the Opponent, they often become friends or allies after this.)
    7. Return to Step a)
  7. Rising Competition – While the MC is rising, they will periodically re-encounter the Main Opponent in different ways, usually ones which result in indirect competition between them. (Teasing their final conflict and building tension.) This indirect competition is usually through other people who do the activity (defeating the people each other have faced or each other’s allies) and sometimes by competing in different aspects of the activity besides the main one. Also, as a result of this ongoing rivalry, the Main Opponent will also begin to become stronger as well, overcoming personal hurdles and staying ahead of the MC even when it seems like the MC is starting to catch up.
  8. Social Advancement – as the MC defeats more and more challenges, they also rise up within the sub-culture surrounding the activity. They will often find themselves drawn into the politics and deeper aspects of the community and must learn to find their place inside the community. Usually they will learn that the community is bigger than they first imagined, and has far greater depths. They will also make enemies in the community who are threatened by their advancement and/or the changes they represent to the community as it exists now. Those enemies will usually become supporters of the Main Opponent, and help to drive the growing conflict between the MC and MO. Some of them may also try to trap or distract the main character through offers of positions of status or profit if they discontinue their journey, but even if tempted, the MC will always refuse in the end.
  9. Eye of the Tiger – The MC has now mastered/learned all they need to know and become a major figure in their activity. They must now face the Main Opponent in a true match to prove their level of ability and take their place as a master of the activity. Often the MC will have a crisis of confidence or suffer from Imposter Syndrome at this point, thinking they aren’t really ready yet, but they’ll overcome it and defeat the Main Opponent. Usually the Main Opponent is flawed in some way, often in their thinking or outlook about the activity, and the MC’s victory is due to their purity of outlook, thus showing the audience that their way is the true path to victory in the end.
  10. Towards the Future – The MC is now a master of the activity they fell in love with, and is shown to have a whole new life because of it. They are a happy and fully realized person and member of society who confidently knows their place in the world and is happy within it. The activity and subculture around it have benefitted and changed because of the MC’s entry into it, and they can look back with nostalgia and look forward with anticipation to watching the activity grow and flourish under them. Often this is represented by them helping to bring new people into the activity and starting the cycle anew.

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?

Sort-of.

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.

  • The Main Character will usually have no interest in the Activity at the beginning of the story, but will be lured in by the possible rewards of participating in it. (Often as represented by the Main Opponent (MO), who is normally famous for their ability in this Activity.)
  • The MC will be a bit dense, both as a comic aspect, and because it forces the others teaching the MC the Activity to explain things clearly and slowly in different ways.
  • There will almost always be “buddies” who are lesser talents at the sport and are inspired by the MC. Usually they will have more knowledge about the sport at the start than the MC, but they’re all theory and no practice, which is why the MC will quickly surpass them.
  • The people around the MC will teach the MC the Activity’s rules/aspects a little bit at a time, so as not to overwhelm the reader with detailed infodumps and keep the drama moving.
  • The MC will always have a hidden talent for this Activity, which gives them an edge over other newbies, but needs to be developed and refined through hard work.
  • The MC’s outlook on the Activity will always be flawed in some way, and overcoming this flaw will usually be the final hurdle that lets them overcome the Main Opponent. (Often, it will be linked with some personal flaw or need they have, but not always.)
  • There will always be a Main Opponent (MO) who acts as the “final boss” for our hero to defeat and who is aiming for the same top spot our MC wants to occupy. He or she may or may not be evil, and may even have a good relationship with the hero, but they’re still the one the MC needs to beat to achieve mastery of their activity of choice.
  • The MO will be far ahead of the MC at the start (and renowned for their genius at the activity), but their approach is flawed and their development usually plateaued, which lets the MC catch up. (Although, interacting with the hero in some way will normally let the MO start to move forward again once the MC starts to catch up.) Although they still don’t overcome some central flaw, which is why they lose in the end.
  • There will be special techniques or moves which are named and represent advanced ability or styles of doing the activity. This is a holdover from Martial Arts dramas, from which Activity Dramas most likely evolved. These are there to add to the drama and build suspense when used by opponents (who invariably each have at least one of these in their back pockets) or show the MCs advancement in skill and make them look cool.
  • The MC will have to face a series of escalating lesser opponents as they try to make their way to the Main Opponent. Each of these will represent a flawed approach to the Activity which makes them seem to be winners/powerful, but will be exposed to be weak. (Physically flawed, morally flawed, theoretically flawed, flawed in technique, flawed in outlook, flawed in decorum, flawed in procedure, etc)
  • There will be a community of like-minded people who are also passionate about the Activity, and they will represent other positive aspects and viewpoints of that Activity. (In a Writing Drama, there will be characters representing different outlooks on writing (Plotting, Pantsing, Outlining, etc) and different characters who represent different Genres (Horror, Romance, Westerns, etc) which will be there to show how those tasks can be done differently (but still equally validly) than the main character might be doing them.) This serves to remind the audience that there is no one right path to Enlightenment, while also bringing in different skills and approaches for the audience to consider about the Activity which aren’t ones the MC’s story is exploring.
  • The MC must make sacrifices to achieve their goal, usually physical and social ones. (Health, relationships, other opportunities, etc)
  • The MC always gives 110% to their Activity, which is what sets them apart from others who do the Activity.
  • There will be mentor characters who recognize the MC’s talent and help to guide them on their way, but usually this respect must be earned before they’ll help the MC. Sometimes they’ll even be against the MC when they first encounter them.
  • The MC and the MO ultimately always have the same goal, but one has chosen the “wrong” way to reach for it.
  • There is some hidden philosophical aspect to the Activity the MC must learn, sometimes several of them.
  • Through mastering the activity, the MC becomes “pure” and enlightened about the world.

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.

Rob

 

DNA Podcast 46 – Interview with Larry Houston

XMen05

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.

How to Write a Good Story- Human Needs

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.

Physiological

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

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!)

Love/Belonging

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.

Esteem

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.

 

Self Actualization

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.

Reiss’ List:

  1. Acceptance – the need to be appreciated
  2. Curiosity – the need to gain knowledge
  3. Eating – the need for food
  4. Family – the need to take care of one’s offspring
  5. Honor – the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan
  6. Idealism – the need for social justice
  7. Independence – the need to be distinct and self-reliant
  8. Order – the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
  9. Physical activity – the need for work out of the body
  10. Power – the need for control of will
  11. Romance – the need for mating or sex
  12. Saving – the need to accumulate something
  13. Social contact – the need for relationship with others
  14. Social status – the need for social significance
  15. Tranquility – the need to be secure and protected
  16. Vengeance – the need to strike back against another person

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.

 

 

 

How to Write a Good Story – Throughlines

The human brain is a pattern-seeking and pattern-making machine. In other words, we naturally look for patterns in the world around us, and will even make patterns out of things that may or may not have an actual pattern to them. In his book Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud uses the North American design of a power socket as an example of this phenomena.

Looking at this image, you couldn’t be blamed for seeing two eyes and a mouth- a human face. We’re built to look for human faces in everything around us, and anything that even vaguely looks like a face will become one in human eyes. We look for faces, and even make them in places where they don’t actually exist. (Although you could argue that since a human designed this electrical socket, it was unconsciously designed to look like a face from the start. This isn’t the only design for a power socket you’ll find around the world, after all. Here’s a French one.)

And when human brains find a pattern, we don’t just link that pattern together randomly, we use patterns we already know to “fill in the gaps”. This is why a power socket can become a human face, or why if you’re shown half a picture of something you’ll naturally assume that the other half of that thing mirrors the half you were shown.

Even though that may or may not be true!

This effect is very useful in the arts, and especially film. In fact, it’s the very basis of film storytelling!  Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov proved in early 20th century that if you showed an audience two images or pieces of film side by side, the audience would naturally assume and create a connection between those things, even if in reality they had nothing to do with one another.  A phenomena which became known at the Kulashov Effect.

So, what does all of this have to do with storytelling?

A lot. In fact, it may be how all storytelling works.

In a story, we don’t tell every single thing that happens. Instead we select a series of events and string them together to form what we call a story. But, how does the audience know the connection between those events? Like the pieces of Kulashov’s film, it’s because we’ve given the audience pieces of information, and structured them in such a way that the audience interprets connections between those pieces of information.

If we’ve structure them well, then the audience will piece it together as we want them so- and ta-dah! We have a story!

If we don’t structure them well, then the pieces won’t fit together properly in the audience’s heads, and instead of a story we’ll end up with a jumbled mess that leaves the audience confused, or even worse- bored!

So, storytelling is all about creating connections between what happens in such a way that the brains of the audience will see it as a single clear narrative and get what the writer wants them to get from the story. And the skill of storytelling is the ability to lead your audience through those events in a way which gives them meaning and makes them appear like there’s only one natural way to see the story.

Think of being a storyteller as being like a Wilderness Guide. A forest is a big piece of land with many trees, rocks, streams and other features and you could go through it in many ways, but a wilderness guide takes visitors to the forest through it in a way which makes them think they’ve seen everything important while only having seen a small fraction of what’s actually there. And, in the same way as telling a story, different wilderness guides can give visitors different perspectives of what is otherwise still the same forest by taking them on different routes and paths over the same ground.

By controlling what the audience sees, and the way it sees it, a storyteller shapes and creates what we call a story. This is why it’s so important that a writer have a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish in their story before they tell it, and why it’s important to know the different ways a writer can stitch together a story from events.

The main way a writer does this is through creating what is called a Throughline, which is something that links all the elements of the story together in a way which makes the audience of that story see or feel the connections. To continue our Wilderness Guide metaphor, a throughline is a path (or paths, since most stories have multiple throughlines) which the writer has made through the story elements for the audience to follow.

Let’s look at some of the different kinds of throughlines which Storytellers use to link together events into a larger narrative. While all throughlines can be used to shape and link events, some provide stronger connections than others, so I’ve categorized them in terms of Strong Throughlines (those which easy shape a story) and Weak Throughlines (those which connect ideas, but don’t necessarily form a narrative on their own).

Strong Throughlines

Event Throughline

Since stories are all about cause and effect, it just makes sense that the easiest way to create a Throughline is by basing it around naturally linked or interconnected events. These should be a series of events which the audience is familiar with in some way, and which give the story structure by their “natural” patterns. By seeing the pattern in the events, it creates a connection between those events that turns a bunch of separate events into a narrative.

A simple example of this is a Romance story- humans have romantic relationships, and those relationships have different stages they go through. The audience knows those stages because they’ve lived them (or seen them happen with others) and so the Event Throughline of a Romance story gives it a natural structure. (Girl meets boy > they get to know each other > they fall in love > they become a couple > etc > etc)

If a writer has a male and female character meet, then they have them start to get to know each other, and continue to follow the Romance pattern in each scene (or series of story events) then the audience both knows what will happen and sees this throughline of the story clearly.

And this doesn’t just apply to natural human behavior, but any commonly linked series of events which occurs in our lives or media.  For example, Procedures like baking a cake, or forming a club, or solving a murder can all be used to give a series of events a clear throughline which the audience will see as a story.

These Event Throughlines form the basis for most Genre Fiction, and the audience knows and loves watching or reading about them again and again because of their familiarity. Of course, this is also the danger of an Event Throughline- because the audience DOES know the events and how they run, the storyteller needs to find other ways to bring something to entertain the audience to the story while the events are playing out in their usual (or semi-usual) order.

Moral Throughline

A Moral Throughline is sometimes called a story’s Moral Argument, and is a set of ideas that the storyteller is trying to get the audience of the story to believe. In a Moral Throughline, everything in the story represents part of an argument supporting a particular way of seeing the world or acting in the world as a human being. The truth is, the vast majority of stories contain a Moral Argument just by the way the characters act and the events unfold- if good triumphs over evil, for example, that’s a Moral Argument against evil.

This kind of Throughline goes back to Morality Plays, but can also be found in everything from legends and folk tales to modern movies. In fact, some writing teachers like John Truby would claim that ALL stories are a form of moral argument playing out in front of the audience in everything from the characters, to the setting, to the events, to the symbolism which fills the story. This may or may not be correct (argue away!), but what is true is that Moral Throughlines can be a strong way to take a series of events and turn them into a clear and strong narrative.

Like Event Throughlines, Moral Throughlines also have the advantage of being able to follow a clearly defined structure that the audience already knows- the argument structure. The argument structure is one where you make a claim (state something is true), support it with evidence, and then use that evidence to make the audience believe your answer is the correct one. In the case of most stories, this is almost all done by example, not by the character actually saying the moral argument or pointing out the different steps.

In a simple Morality Play, for instance, the Hero (main character) will do good things, and the Villain (Active Opponent) will do bad things. The Villain will then meet a bad end because of their bad actions, while the Hero will be rewarded for their own good acts. The Moral Argument of the story then, is that you should be a “good” person because if you don’t, then bad things will happen to you.

However, don’t think that Moral Throughlines are limited to just simple Good vs. Evil stories, they can be arguments for or against any type of human behavior or ways to look at the world. This can be sociopolitical views of things like Capitalism (The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand) and Communism (Animal Farm by George Orwell), attitudes towards success like David Copperfield and Harry Potter, or just plain views of the nature of human existence like in Moby Dick or The Heart of Darkness.

One note- there are two kinds of arguments- Open Arguments and Closed Arguments. In a Closed Argument the arguer is aiming for a specific target when making the argument (Don’t do drugs.  Slavery is bad. Hard work pays off.) and wants the audience to believe that specific point is true by the end of the argument. Whereas, in an Open Argument the arguer has a general point they’re arguing (No man is an island. With great power comes great responsibility. Life is about helping others. etc), and then everything that follows is evidence to support that general point. There may or may not be a specific conclusion in an Open Argument because it was never really heading for one, and just trying to convince the reader of a larger truth or way of seeing the world.

I mention this because Closed Arguments create stronger Throughlines and are much easier to structure a clear story around. They have a natural starting and ending point built into them, and that’s why they get used for most films and modern media stories. The main character will start as someone who either believes or is neutral to the argument’s point, and then through a series of events ends up believing in whatever the point of the writer is (or being an example of the point). This is a Closed Argument structure, as opposed to an Open Argument where the audience is generally left to take their own lesson from the story, and which doesn’t sit as well with most audiences. (We like to see the good guys win, and the lesson clearly laid out so we have a sense that all is right with the world.)

Character Throughline

In a Character Throughline, the story is usually structured around a character’s change from one point to another point.  Usually, this is rooted in the character having a human need which they need filled, or something that needs to change in their life, and the Throughline becomes the events from the beginning of that change until the end of that time of change for the character. So, for example, a character going from being shy and nervous to outgoing and confident could be a Character Throughline because we’re watching the events unfold in a way which shows the progression of the character from being like A to being like B.

Of course, this Throughline doesn’t have to be emotional, or even positive. We could be watching a person age, grow old, and die, or go through the cycle of cancer treatments. The Throughline here is that the character is present during the events and changing in some way, and as long as there’s those two elements, then it creates a Throughline for the audience to follow and gives the story unity.

Another type of Character Throughline would be a Relationship Throughline, where the key parts are two (or more) characters being present, and their relationship with each other is changing as the events play out, thus connecting the scenes in some way by the changes which happen in their relationship(s) as things progress.

Question Throughline

One of the reasons people keep reading stories is because they want to know the answer to questions like “What happens next?” and “Where does this all go?” Questions like these can also form a Throughline to a Story, because the events which are playing out are giving clues or answers to questions the reader has. As long as the events continue to unfold answers to questions (and maybe create news ones) then it creates a Question Throughline.

Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as the story’s “Dramatic Questions”, which are the questions which drive the reader to stay involved in the story, and good Question Throughlines can give a story a lot of power and focus. A few other common Question Throughlines are:

  • How will they solve the problem?
  • Will X survive until the end?
  • Will X and Y get together in the end?
  • Who is the real villain?
  • Why is all this happening?
  • Will X make their deadline?
  • Why is X doing this?
  • Who is Y really?
  • When will X figure out what’s really going on?
  • And so on…

Most storytellers set up a Question Throughline at the beginning of the story, and then spend the rest of the story answering them, with the story ending when the main Question Throughlines have been answered. One key here is having more than one Question Throughline, and then slowly answering them as the story unfolds in a way which keeps the reader satisfied that they’re getting closer to the answers while still not getting the main question answered until the end. It takes skill, but can make the story much more engaging.

 

Weak Throughlines

Thematic Throughline

Sometimes stories are created by having events be linked together by a clear Theme or Idea. In a story with a Thematic Throughline, that theme or idea will be present in most of the scenes and events of the story and will give the story events their connection. Thematic Throughlines are similar to Open Arguments, except that there may or may not be a conclusion that the writer wants the audience to reach through the story events. For example, everything that the characters are doing or experiencing might be connected to the theme of Racism in different ways. In a story purely about the theme of racism, we might see how racism affects different lives in different ways, while in one which is an argument about racism we’d see how each person’s life is negatively effected by racism. (Because the writer is making an argument about racism being bad as opposed to just exploring the topic in a general way.)

Symbolic Throughline

In this kind of Throughline, there are certain symbols which repeat in the different scenes and events, and through their repeating they link the different events of the story to each other. This can be visually, like in the use of certain colours, shapes or images, textually, like in the use of certain words or phrases, or even character traits or behaviors which pop up again and again.

As you might notice, Symbolic Throughlines are most often running through the presentation of the story, not the story itself. Character actions, choices, or behaviors can be symbols, but a symbol is something that represents something else in the minds of the audience, so we most often see these kinds of Throughlines used in the way the story is told as opposed to events. For example, the characters might all be named after makers of handguns, or the seven heavenly virtues. This is a layer of ideas which are outside the story, but which the audience still understands and they make the audience think in certain ways.

Emotional Throughline

As I’ve already said several times, there are patterns in the way human beings act and think, and that includes the way we feel. An Emotional Throughline is one where the focus is a character (or characters) goes a sequence or pattern of emotions and the events are linked by that emotional pattern. One example would be the stages of grief, which is a natural emotional pattern/process that people go through after suffering the loss of someone or something important to them. A story could be structured around those stages, with each of the stages playing out in the way the characters act and behave during the events we see.

Another take on an Emotional throughline could be a single emotion (love, hate, jealousy, joy, etc) which a character or characters are experiencing in the different scenes and events of the story, and watching how that emotion’s presence or absence changes and affects those characters. For example, if a series of characters are made to feel joy, each could react to it in a different way, depending on the nature of the person and circumstances.

Chronological Throughline

Someone once said that we’re all time travellers, but we can only go one way at the same speed. In a Chronological Throughline the events of the story are linked by time. What separates it from an Event Throughline (which is also linked by time) however, is that this type of throughline doesn’t need to play out in a particular order or being about cause and effect events. One of the most famous examples of a Chronological Throughline is found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where we see the events of a single time period from multiple perspectives and points of view. All the stories are linked by covering the same period of time, but offer different perspectives on what happened during that time.

Another Chronological Throughline happens when you weave stories into historical events and create Period Pieces. The historical events are giving shape and form to the events of the story, and they lend it the structure and form it needs to form a single narrative. You can find examples of this in the movies Titanic and Apollo 13, or in TV shows like Downton Abbey or North and South.

A third, and very common, Chronological Throughline is structuring the events around a ceremony, ritual, or custom which follows as a particular structure. So, for example, the events during a graduation ceremony, an exam, or even a whole school year (ala Harry Potter) can give shape to a story by giving it a framework upon which to build a narrative.

Action Throughline

Stories are about people acting, and certain actions, when repeated, can create throughlines as well. With an Action Throughline, you could show different results of the same action taking place at multiple times and places, or even how one character keeps trying the same action and getting the same or different results. The presence of the actions create the throughline, and link what’s happening in the audience’s minds.

This can be as simple as baking a cake, or as complex as writing a symphony or climbing a mountain, the key here is that we’re viewing how different people are involved in doing the same action and that links the ideas presented in the scenes.

Geographic Throughline

Someone once said that the land shapes people, and it can definitely shape stories. In a Geographic Throughline, everything is connected by place. A simple Geographic Throughline would be everything happening at a single location, but it can be more than that. The different aspects of a place can be used to connect the events of a story in different ways. Different rooms of a house could represent different steps in a larger story, and journeying through a place from A to B will also create a natural throughline as the audience knows where the story starts and begins physically and narratively.

Object Throughline

An Object Throughline uses an object of some kind and its presence (or lack of presence) to connect the events or scenes of the story. This can be a weak connection like the anthology series Dead Man’s Gun, where the presence of the same gun in each story connects them all, or it can be a strong connection like the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, an object which everyone desires and around which the whole plot spins. On the other hand, the need or desire for an object like a key could shape a story as well, with that object’s absence causing plot events to occur or linking the actions which play out.

One variant of the Object Throughline is the Food Throughline, where the characteristics, customs and culture surrounding a particular food item shape the story events. The Japanese anthology series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is an example of this kind of throughline, where the different aspects of a dish shape the story in many ways. Of course, similar throughlines can be constructed around other types of objects besides food, but since food is so deeply rooted in our culture and has so many meanings, it allows for stronger connections than many other types of objects.

 

As you can see, Strong Throughlines are most often used to structure the story itself, while Weak Throughlines tend to be subplots or ideas that the writer wants to use to say certain things throughout the story. Weak Throughlines are also often used in Anthologies or collections of stories to link the stories in some way to create a greater story out of many smaller ones. For example, using a Geographic Throughline in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town allows Stephen Leacock to turn a series of stories about life in the small town of Mariposa into a multifaceted view of life in rural Canada, or a TV series like Chicago Hope to give a multifaceted (if overly dramatic) view of working in a hospital.

On the other hand, mastering Event Throughlines is perhaps the most basic skill of writing a story, since cause and effect events are the simplest and strongest way to create what human beings call a story. By then layering other types of throughlines on top of the events playing out (Usually Moral and Character throughlines) we get a story with multiple levels that the audience can follow in different ways and get more satisfaction from. In fact, what is often referred to as a “deep” story is nothing more than a story with many throughlines running inside it which can be followed and enjoyed by the audience in different ways and generate different responses.