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.
- 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 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 and 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.)
- 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 example 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.
- 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!)
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 thing 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 story will run through the following stages:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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” (aka Story Arc) along The Long Road will follow the same pattern:
- 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.)
- 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)
- The MC figures out why they were defeated (often by consulting others).
- The MC seeks and finds a solution to the problem. (Learning new skills/ideas along the way, and possibly a counter-technique.)
- While the MC is improving, the MC’s Sidekicks will often try to fight the opponent or opponent’s allies, facing hard battles but eventually winning around the same time the MC does.
- The MC faces the opponent/challenge again, and wins this time because of their new skills/knowledge.
- 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.)
- Return to Step a)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
And there you have it! There are other formulas and endless variants of the above, but most Shonen 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.