Sine Language- the Japanese art of writing combat.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of the Naruto manga recently.

Like it (which I do) or hate it, Naruto really is one of the most popular comics and anime on the planet, and it’s struck a chord with young people everywhere. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the manga both for enjoyment (it’s easier when I justify buying them as “research” ^_-) and to deconstruct the storytelling methods he’s using to find out how and why they work like they do.

I’ve long believed that manga are the key to pushing audio drama production to the next step, as they have a lot of innovative storytelling techniques that I believe can be adapted to the audio form to make it stronger and more vibrant. Comics are stories told in words and pictures, whereas audio dramas are stories told in words and sound effects- very similar in so many ways. I keep meaning to sit down and do a full analysis of their similarities, and maybe someday I will, but for now I’m focussed on just learning what I can from one medium to improve another.

The aspect I want to talk about today is combat, which is important to me because I’m writing action-adventure stories that involve a lot of fighting and conflicts between characters. The Japanese long ago mastered the art of writing combat scenes in their mangas, techniques that Naruto is using to the fullest, and which I wanted to see if I could apply to audio drama. Of course, to do this I first had to figure out what they were doing! Something I’m still figuring out, but I have reached at least one conclusion that I’m ready to share.

I told one of my closest friends (who’s in the entertainment industry and also studies the Japanese storytelling methods) about my thoughts on the subject over the phone last week, and he immediately replied: “Oh, you mean the Sine Wave“.

“What?” I replied. “What do you mean?”

He then went on to explain that combat in Japanese comics and anime tends to work like a sine wave- combat alternating with periods of downtime to allow things to cool before the next round of combat. This allows the writer to both build tension and add extra information into the fight while keeping the fight going until reaching a climax. It works a little like this:

(two Samurai, A and B, are fighting each other)

Round One: A and B rush in and attack each other, neither has the upper hand and they back off.

Pause One: A has a flashback to how B was his rival for the woman they both loved when they were young, it makes him angry and drives him to attack again!

Round Two: A launches a furious attack that pins B against a wall, it looks like B is going to lose when B suddenly spits in A’s eye and then counterattacks in the moment of shock. B gains the upper hand and goes for the kill, and as A falls back he remembers…

Pause Two: Another flashback, this time to his master training him and telling him how much he regretted training B. But, now that B has run away with the girl, A should forget her and devote his full attention to the studies at hand. A swears he will never give up, and always keep fighting!

Round Three: Returning to the present, A remembers his promise and whips around to avoid B’s deadly blow, then manages to fight his way back into a neutral position. With both of them panting, B suddenly starts telling him about what happened to their mutual love…

Pause Three: B tells a tale of how he and the love escaped together, but over time she came to realize she loved A instead, and wanted to return. The girl tried to return to A, but B in a drunken rage killed her by accident and then found himself a wanted man on the run from the police. He regrets what happened, but he also blames A for her death, if only A hadn’t been in the way, B and the girl could have been happy!

Round Four: Both men dash at each other again, they fight and this time B is wounded by A’s sword when he suddenly fails to block an attack. A steps back, shocked.

Pause Four: B thanks A, and explains he wanted to die today, but not before knowing which of them was the better swordsman. Now that B knows it’s A, he can rest in peace, and will be the first one to see the dead love in heaven. He got what he wanted, and dies.

See how it goes? Back and forth, back and forth.

Now, it’s not always talking or flashbacks. That’s part of the beauty of the system- the pauses can be filled with all sorts of things like other characters commenting on the fight, other events occuring elsewhere at the same time, inner monologues and witty banter. All that matters is that it’s relevant somehow to the action which is occuring and gives the reader a chance to rest between rounds of combat so it can build up to the next level.

You might wonder, do Americans do this? The answer seems to be “not so much anymore”. American fights now tend to be fast non-stop affairs with occasional pauses to reload, and those pauses seem to be becoming fewer and farther inbetween as each generation of hollywood action filmmaker tries to make their films even more boring…err…I mean intense! Perhaps as the Japanese influence continues, it will start to shift to this method (which isn’t perfect, but is pretty good!), but right now there is definitely a difference in approaches and styles.

So how can this be applied to audio drama?  Well, the most obvious part is that audio drama’s greatest weakness is in it’s presentation of combat. Because combat is generally a very visual thing, just hearing sound effects doesn’t usually carry it well, and combat in audio drama without some form of narration tends to be very short because of this. Even with narration, it’s hard to make combat last very long and keep it interesting because the audience can’t see the elements that make combat cool and interesting in a movie or TV show.

To a degree, I believe this Sine Wave approach can help to overcome that by turning the shortness of the combat itself into less of a liability and more of a building point. By jumping back and forth between the combat and downtime the fight can be made to last longer, and become more intense by virtue of being given the chance to build towards a more dramatic climax. Some of the techniques the Japanese use are too visual, and would be hard to do (jumping to events occuring elsewhere might be tricky unless handled well…) but generally I think this is a viable technique and I look forward to testing it out in my future works to see how far I can take it.

Rob