The Importance of the Spine of Action- Game of Thrones and Legend of the Galactic Heroes

The importance of a story’s central activity, or Spine of Action should never be underestimated when writing, especially when you’re writing longer works. Two beautiful examples of this are George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Two very different epic stories which mirror each other in one central way- both authors ignored the spines of action of their works and paid the price for it.

<Significant spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire and Legend of the Galactic Heroes incoming! Take evasive action and retreat if you want to remain unspoiled about both of these amazing works!>

If you don’t know what a Spine of Action is, or can’t recall, here’s a short video about the subject.

In case you’re not familiar with them. A Song of Ice and Fire (aka ASOIAF, or A Game of Thrones) and Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LOGH) are both epic stories of conquest, politics, romance, and friendship. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy story about a civil war that breaks out on the subcontinent of Westeros between the ruling families, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a science fiction story about a war between two galactic powers in the far future.

Now, with that in mind, what did each of these stories do wrong?

Both were written as novel series and cover many books, and both start out right from the beginning as war stories. In ASOIAF’s case it starts as a mystery of sorts, and then by the end of the first book turns into full-on civil war as the Lannister family stages a coup and takes over the imperial throne and the other noble families rise up in resistance. In LOGH’s case, the focus of the story is on Reinhard von Lohengramm and his ambitious rise to power with his sights on the imperial throne.

And this is where the writers both make the same mistake.

You see, that actually isn’t what each story is about. ASOIAF isn’t actually about the civil war, per-se, it’s about the rise and fall of dynasties. Similarly, LOGH is also about the rise and fall of a dynasty, not Reinhard’s ascension to the throne. But, both writers hang their plots on each storyline as a way to keep the story focused and under control.

As a result, when at the end of Book 3 of ASOIAF the Lannister’s seize full control of Westeros and win the civil war, and at the end of Book 3 of LOGH Reinhard becomes the new emperor, both book series suddenly come to a screeching halt. The authors no longer have a central act, or spine of action, to build the story around and keep it on track. They have characters, settings, plots, and events, but neither of them have a clear focus for it all.

In ASOIAF’s case, it was so bad that George R.R. Martin made his audience wait six years for Book 4 (a book filled with minor characters and plots), and then six more years for Book 5 to find out where the main storylines were going. He managed to bring it around, but it was nearly a car wreck of a story, and some could argue the story never does quite recover. The TV series dodged this bullet (barely) by being able to see it coming and working around it with a smoother transition from a story about taking power to a story about keeping it and eventually a new war.

With LOGH, there is a similar situation where Book 4 and Book 5 are also a bit of a mess as the story becomes about solidifying power, and it isn’t until the war between the Empire and Galactic Federation begins in earnest that the story gets back on track again. It doesn’t help that Reinhard himself almost becomes an emotional cripple for most of Book 4, pulling his story into a morass that it must struggle to recover from. Luckily for LOGH fans, Tanaka didn’t make them wait six years between each volume to be disappointed! The story also regains much of its footing and grandeur as it regains its focus.

And this, is where the lessons for those wanting to write epic fantasy stories comes in.

If you sell the audience on one kind of story, and the spine of action to go with it, you have to plan pretty carefully if you’re going to change things. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but if the audience signed up for a war story, and you suddenly make it about politics and political scheming, then they have every right to be unhappy. Similarly, you as an author might find that while you were perfectly able to write one type of story, the new type of story you find yourself writing might not be one you’re able to handle quite as well.

Epics are already challenging, since they can easily get out of the writer’s control (especially without a clear central spine to give them direction), but trying to do one without first working out how the major elements of the story are going to fit together is asking for trouble. You can easily end up with a bloated mess of a story that you have no idea how to end or where to go with, and all because you didn’t make sure you had a solid spine right from the start.

Note, if this sounds like I’m being too hard on George and Yoshiki, that’s a fair criticism. Writing these types of stories and doing them well is hard, and also they had an additional problem- some spines of action “Conquering a Land/Galaxy” are pretty big and vague and can be hard to work with. Martin solved this by anchoring everything on the viewpoints of a few key characters and their personal struggles, and Tanaka did something similar. The problem was the characters whose motivations gave the stories the spine of actions weren’t quite big enough to accomplish the goals of the books. But, since Martin planned for it to only be a trilogy (and maybe Tanaka also had no clear ending in mind), this can be perhaps forgiven.

Rob

 

 

The Task Story – A “New” Genre that’s

One of the more fascinating things about the internet is its ability to highlight so many different facets of human nature. The internet has brought out the best of humanity in things like charity drives and campaigns for positive change around the world, and it’s brought out the worst of humanity as well, in numerous sites filled with anger, hate, deception and depravity where you can find out worst sides on display.

It would be too far to say the internet has made us more human, but it has definitely shown us the true nature of what it is to be human in many ways.

One of those ways is how it’s changing fiction.

While in the past, genre fiction (action, crime, romance, erotica, horror, etc) was something that people considered a guilty pleasure and tended to read in the privacy of their own homes where nobody would judge them for not reading “real” books, now in the Kindle ebook age, genre fiction has exploded beyond anyone’s expectations. In fact, when it comes to ebooks, genre fiction tends to be closer to the rule than the exception, far outselling what it did in print, and leaving “literature” in the dusty bookshelves.

Nowhere is this more true than in the romance genre, which was already the world’s best selling genre of fiction, but thanks to ebooks women have been consuming romance in such large quantities that they have been destroying discount ebook and audiobook sites. Sites like Scribd which have tried to become Netflix for eBooks have found that romance readers have overwhelmed their budgets and killed many one flat fee schemes for digital media.

There’s something about romance fiction that women can’t seem to get enough of, just ask any bookseller who was around when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were at their peak, something which appeals to the most basic parts of the female brain.

Not that this is a surprise to anyone who has looked at neuroscience research, or psychology, or sociology, or…dare I say it…biology. Test after test, study after study come back with one simple truth, the truth we all know but often aren’t supposed to say in our hyper-egalitarian age…

Men and women are different.

Not better, or worse, just different.

And, one of the ways that your average man, and your average woman (notice, I’m not saying all men or all women, just the average one) are different is that while women are oriented towards people, men are oriented towards things. Or, to be more specific for what we’re talking about here- woman are relationship-oriented while men are goal-oriented. This is why women’s communication centres are larger than men’s, and men’s centers for motor and spacial skills are more developed than women’s. Men’s brains are literally optimized for dealing with tasks, while women’s brains are optimized for dealing with other people.

Thus, women are drawn to romance and dramas like bees to pollen, because these stories stimulate their natural desires and inclinations. Similarly, men avoid romance and dramas like the plague, but give them a good goal-oriented quest story or one built around plot and action, and they’re ready to line up just like the ladies.

In both cases, these stories stimulate the subconscious desires that come with being a member of each sex, and appeal to those same needs. Stories give us information we need to survive and navigate in our respective domains, and so men are drawn to stories about physical conflict and challenges, and women are drawn to stories about social conflict and challenges. Our brains are trying to learn more about the world from these stories, and we’re drawn to stories that seem to give us the things we need.

Thus, as a consequence of all this, women are drawn to romance because it appeals to their subconscious need to further understand human interaction and find the optimal partner and father for their children.

But, what of men?

As noted above, men are thing and goal oriented. They are designed to find, seek, hunt, build, fight and create- all things which are connected to the world around them. The most popular male genres like Action, Fantasy, and Westerns are, and always have been built around those broad actions- about a man who reaches out and tames the world around him.

Consequently, many have equated the Action genre (in its many forms dating back to Beowulf, to the pulp fiction of the 20th century, superhero comics, action movies, etc) as being the male version of the romance novel. However, with the rise of ebooks, we’re now seeing a new genre emerge, one which might more literally be called the male equivalent of the romance novel because it goes to the same parts of the male brain the romance novel does in the female brain-

The Task Story.

Simply put, the Task Story is a story which is there to stimulate the unconscious male desire to achieve goals and tasks. It’s targeting the same parts of the male psyche that are the reason why most men have “hobbies” or “projects” that they feel compelled to do or drawn to. They are no-nonsense stories built very simply around the structure of a character with a very clear task to perform, and watching the character attempt to the best of their ability to perform that task. (In the past I have called these Creative Procedurals, but I’m starting to think simply calling them Task Stories might be a better choice.)

A Task Story almost everyone reading this is already familiar with that came out recently a book and movie is The Martian. In that story, an astronaut is stranded on Mars, left behind after an accident, and must figure out how to use the tools and knowledge of science to survive until help can come in the distant future. The structure of the story is very very simple, a man and a task, and that forms the whole backbone of the story, with no need for drama or other interactions except as it relates to the task he’s trying to perform. (Of course, this is just an updated version of Robinson Crusoe, another Task Story of the same line.)

Want more examples?

The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell- a man wakes up from suspended animation and through a series of circumstances ends up in command of a fleet deep in enemy space trying to get home. It’s eleven books or riveting sci-fi action, 90% of which are set on three rooms in the same battlecruiser, and most of that with him in the command seat of the ship. What drama there is basically just padding for the sake of drama (and at times nails-on-a-chalkboard bad), but the heart of the book is just a man trying to complete the “simple” but extremely hard task of getting the ships home.

A final Sci-fi example which has blown up recently is the incredible We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor, which is about a man named Bob Johansen from present day whose memories are used as the template for a future space probe going out into the stars. The probe can build copies of itself with the materials it finds in other star systems, which results in legion of “Bobs” traveling, exploring and fighting to save humanity from extinction. However, through it all, it’s just about the Bobs trying to accomplish the very hard tasks of saving humanity, one step at a time.

Not that Task Stories have to be science fiction, the entire modern-set Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is nothing but Reacher going from one task to the next, each of them with him applying his massive skill set to dealing with the situation involved. This too has spawned countless clones, because there’s something about this simple, solid narrative structure of “a man with a problem to solve” that appeals to the male brain and makes for compelling fiction when done right.

Another place to find this on display which the internet has really highlighted is Webfiction, where you need look no farther than the newest exploding subgenre litRPGs to find a whole genre almost entirely written around Task Stories. In the vast majority of these stories, a character with a greater goal is dumped into a virtual video game world and then proceeds to work their way up the system to achieve that goal. The progenitor of these is Legendary Moonlight Sculptor from South Korea, but most people are more familiar with names like Ready Player One and Sword Art Online.

Not that it’s just litRPGs, Asian webfiction for men is currently dominated by a variety of Task Stories. From the Chinese Xianxia “Cultivator” stories where a young man goes from being a nobody to (literally) a god, to the Japanese Isekai stories where a young man (or occasionally woman, but they’re still mostly written and read by men) gets dumped in a fantasy world and must complete a quest of some kind.

Sites hosting English fan translations of these stories, like Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales are getting tens of millions of hits by readers…a day. And, these English language numbers are tiny compared to the readerships they have in their native lands.

And, almost all of these stories are super-simple in structure- the character has a task and they go through the steps needed to complete that task, meeting challenges along the way. Drama and romance are secondary things at best, because that isn’t the point, the point is a character trying to accomplish a goal and watching they work their way through that procedure. Other characters are only there to help the main character in their goal, either by providing resources or motivating them in some way (which is usually the female love interest’s sole purpose in most of these stories, if there’s one at all).

Compare this with the traditional Hollywood three-act-structure we see most narratives based on, and you’ll see the difference. In those stories, the character goes on a journey of personal change, where they try to accomplish some goal, discover flaws within themselves preventing them from achieving that goal, and then accomplishes the goal having overcome those personal flaws. The focus in those stories, which are designed to achieve a balance between male and female interests, are mostly on the character’s personal inner journey and change, linking it with external events.

However, with the Task Story, there doesn’t need to be an inner conflict or journey of any kind. The point of the story isn’t how the character is changing, but how the character changes the world around them. The character is just there to serve as a viewpoint as they go through the task, and we the audience experience the task progression through their eyes.

So, how does the story maintain interest without the interpersonal drama?

Well, going back to my article on The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story, the story simply focuses on other things from the options of Skills, Perception, Information, Novelty and Emotion. Generally, Task Stories tend to focus on Skills, Information and Novelty. Jack Reacher is a perfect example of this, reading a Jack Reacher novel is an exercise in learning about guns, unarmed combat, infiltration techniques, geography, geology, psychology, and a whole pile of other information. The author is constantly filling each chapter with interesting (and always relevant) bits of information about the world around Reacher, and you can learn a lot from any of his adventures while being surprised.

This desire to learn is stronger than most people realize, and can sustain interest in a story as it goes. Just look at the 7.6 million subscribers to the Primitive Technology YouTube channel, a channel which is just about a single man trying to recreate various pieces of technology from the ground up. It’s a literal example of a non-fiction Task Story in action, and it’s wildly popular.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be personal transformation or things like deep introspection in a Task Story, but it isn’t the point, so those things are often left off the table. In many cases, deep questions about philosophy would get in the way, so they’re just ignored in favor of presenting big challenges for the main character to overcome. These are truly external stories, and internal drama would mostly go against the point.

Whether these types of stories will continue to flourish is anyone’s guess, but considering that they’re also some of the oldest kinds of stories (Jason and the Argonauts anyone?), they’re definitely not going away, and their appeal only seems to be rising with the explosion of litRPG stories and Light Novels. They’re also a type of story that favors younger authors, who may not have a strong grasp of drama, but know how to write a simple story about a man (or woman) on a mission. If they can do it well, they can find an audience, and work their way to the top.

Hey, that sounds like a fun Task!

Have fun!

Rob

Stories Made Simple Ep.2- The 5WH Method

In this episode, Rob discusses the importance of details in stories, what details writers need to include, and how many.

Stories Made Simple- Episode 1: What are Stories?

I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!

Rob

The Investigation Plot

Summary: The Investigation Plot is a basically a typical detective/mystery procedural story but with a Japanese twist to heighten the drama. A standard of Japanese TV and manga storytelling for decades, it harkens back to the to pulp detective stories of the American 1920s and 30s, but can be found everywhere from 1980s Samurai and Ninja episodic period dramas like Yagyu Conspiracy and Kage no Gundan, Anime like Gatchaman and Sailor Moon, and Tokusatsu shows like Sentai (Power Rangers) and Kamen Rider.

Required Characters:

  • An Investigator
  • A virtuous Innocent
  • A Villain

Plot Structure

Introduction

  • The Investigator is introduced along with their motivation for getting involved in investigations. (Usually that they are a detective or law enforcer of some kind, but they can be anyone really.)
  • The Investigator’s talents/abilities are introduced along with their strengths and weaknesses relevant to plot. (They can see ghosts, have superpowers, are a keen Investigator, etc)
  • The Investigator is put in a situation where they become involved in the story, often because of an Innocent who is caught up in some plot outside of their control.

 

Development

  • The Investigator starts to investigate the plot and gets some form of lead to start their investigation.
  • The Investigator discovers the Villain’s plot already in motion, usually through the innocent caught up in it, but at best only has a vague sense that something is going on.

 

Event

  • The Investigator encounters their first obstacle to finding the truth and overcomes it, but is left feeling no further ahead in their investigation, only having gained some small potential clues.
  • The Investigator encounters their second obstacle, which makes the plot seem to have a simple explanation after all.
  • The Investigator is thrown off the scent, sometimes thinking they found the truth they were looking for, sometimes having chosen the wrong suspect, sometimes having been imprisoned/trapped, and sometimes thinking they’ve won and given up.
  • A twist occurs, usually the Innocent discovering that the Investigator was wrong and the true Villain is revealed.

 

Apex

  • The Villain torments the Innocent.
  • The Investigator realizes their mistake and rushes to find the Innocent. (Optional)
  • The Investigator arrives in time to prevent the Villain from finishing off the Innocent.
  • The Investigator defeats the Villain
  • The Investigator is rewarded and the Villain receives punishment.

 

Notes

  • The main difference between this story structure and the one Americans typically use is the revelation of the “true” Villain near the end of the Event phase, there often having been a false or red-herring opponent prior who was just an underling. This is done to heighten the drama by setting up a situation where the hero is “gone,” the Innocent is in jeopardy, and the Villain is triumphant. Which is naturally followed by the Investigator showing up just in time to prevent the Villain from succeeding and save the day.
  • In many ways, this is the Righteous Avenger Plot from the hero’s point of view, whereas that plot follows the Innocent instead.
  • Often, in this plot, it is usually a race for the hero to solve the mystery in time to save the innocent. Can the hero uncover the truth in time to save the Innocent?
  • In superhero stories for younger children, the Innocent will be in danger of something bad happening to them when the hero shows up just in time to save them. In stories for teens and older children, the Innocent has often already been used by the Villain and turned into a monster (which the hero will have to fight) or is seemingly about to die due to injuries unless they receive immediate medical attention.
  • The Investigator’s realization of their mistake is sometimes done as a flashback after they arrive to help, or they explain how they got there as they confront the Villain. This lets the hero’s arrival seem even more uncertain, since the audience thinks the hero is on the wrong track and doesn’t know where they’re needed. In this case, there always needs to be some clue or event that allowed the hero to figure out the truth in time.
  • Sometimes the Investigator pretends to fail at the second obstacle to lure the Villain out.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

The Duel Plot

Summary: The Duel Plot is one of the most common types of Battle Manga plots, as the majority of stories in a Battle Manga are based around it. In its simplest form, it is two characters dueling against each other, usually for some (to them) high stakes prize.

Required Characters:

  • A main character
  • An Opponent
  • Commentators the duel (optional, but useful, see below)

Plot Structure

Introduction

  • The main character(s), the situation (place/time), and their abilities are introduced. Any strengths and weaknesses which are relevant to the story will also be introduced here.
  • The reasons for the main character to be involved in the duel plot are introduced, usually in the form of their story goal and motivations.
  • The main character(s) may (or may not) take an action which triggers the duel while trying to accomplish their goals. (Sometimes they’re just minding their own business when the duel is thrust upon them.)

Development

  • An opponent is introduced for the main character(s) to duel against. (They may also be introduced during the Introduction phase, depending on the story.)
  • The stakes are introduced.
  • The key rules (official or unofficial) that the audience needs to know to understand the competition (and any twists in it) are introduced (or re-introduced if part or a larger series of duels.)
  • The reason the main character doesn’t run away is introduced. (Arena Principal in action.)

Event

  • The duel will play out in a series of “rounds”, which may be official rounds/turns/phases, or it may be simply a series of back and forth plays built into a single duel. Typically, there will be three rounds to any duel, with a maximum of five rounds depending on the story length. (Any more than five rounds will start to bore the audience.)
  • The first round will generally go well for the main character to show that they are capable and to give the audience a sense of hope that they can win.
  • In between rounds, there will often be a “break” in the form of timeouts, dialog, flashbacks, commentary, or other cut-aways from the action to balance out the duel’s intense moments with slower and more emotional material. This both acts to inject tension and emotion into the fight while extending it to meet the author’s pacing needs.
  • The second round will go against the main character, thus putting everything at risk, and making things even again. Usually the opponent will also display overwhelming and unexpected power/ability at this point, making the main character’s victory look highly unlikely.
  • There will often also be an additional twist at this point, which might be an unexpected upping of the stakes, or the main character(s) developing a weakness that will make things even more difficult. (Equipment starts to fail, weapons run low on ammo, the main character’s loved one is revealed to be held hostage, focus/concentration is lost, extra penalties come into play, etc.) This is often the result of something the main character did during the Introduction or Development phase coming back to haunt them, but not always, it can be pure Murphy’s Law or sabotage coming into effect for drama’s sake.

Apex

  • In the final round, the main character will gather all of their cleverness, courage, skill, or strength and find a way to win despite the odds. This will usually be accomplished in the most dramatic way possible, and will normally involve a display of cleverness or a surprise sacrifice on their part to achieve the greater goal. If possible, this ending should be set up or foreshadowed in some subtle way during the Introduction or Development phases.
  • The main character will receive the rewards that come with victory, while the Opponent will pay for any underhanded or treacherous means they used during the competition.

Notes:

  • This plot is more commonly used in the short form version of Battle Manga. Longer form versions will use a proper Battle Manga structure as described in Write! Shonen Manga, but will have similar characteristics.
  • You can do a longer-form version of this plot where there are multiple duels happening simultaneously in different or similar locations and the action jumps between them, thus extending the fight.
  • There is variant of this plot where the main character loses the first round, makes a comeback in the second round, and then the additional twist at the end of the second round ups the stakes as the duel plunges into the final round. In this case, the Opponent will generally have the upper hand for the first part of the third round, and then the main character will pull the fat from the fire at the end to win.
  • There is another variation of this plot where the first third is told from the main character’s point of view, the second third is from the opponent’s point of view, and the last third is told from the main character’s point of view again. (See the manga/light novel Kaguya Wants to be Confessed To – The Geniuses’ War of Love and Brains for a brilliant version of this in action.) This version is useful for creating purely dramatic battles which largely take place internally as opposed to externally.
  • There are often other characters present to serve the role of Commentators- people who are commenting on the duel as it happens. These Commentators can be allies, enemies, or neutral third parties, but they serve three important and useful purposes. First, they act as a dialog based way to convey information about the events unfolding to the audience (extremely useful in visual mediums like comics and film). They can inform the audience about rules, background information, and anything else the writer needs the readers to know. Second, their reactions act as emotional cues for the audience, making the duel feel more exciting and letting the audience know how they should be feeling about what’s occurring. (Hopeful, worried, scared, shocked, etc. The audience will feel what the Commentators tell them to feel in their reactions.) And third, Commentators can help to control pacing, as every time we cut away to the Commentators it slows the action down and makes the audience wait to find out what happens next, building dramatic tension. (Or relieving dramatic tension if things get too intense, with a little comic relief!) See the short YouTube video titled “What if UNO was an Anime” to see an almost perfect use of Commentators in action doing all three roles.
  • The Opponent can also act as a commentator, and so can the main character. This is often done in the form of internal monologues and used to add commentary to a one on one fight with no-one else present.
  • In duels which are heavily rules based, and the rules will be part of the plot, there will often be a judge or referee. They will normally act to make sure the rules are enforced, but can also be acting against the main character in support of their opponent in the case of corrupt judges or biased ones. To maintain the judge’s appearance of neutrality, they will often not be Commentators on the duel unless things get so dramatic even they can’t help it.
  • In order to heighten the tension of a duel plot, the presenter often relies on extreme visuals and reactions from the characters to make the audience more excited as the story goes on. This can easily fall into self-parody levels if they overdo it, but how much the creator can push it will depend on the style and tone of the story and art. (More cartoonish stories allow for more extreme expressions of emotion.)
  • The “God of The Duel Plot” is Hirohiko Araki, the creator of the manga Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and the classic Stardust Crusaders arc of that series is a collection of non-stop variants of the duel plot in action that has yet to be beaten. However, almost all Battle Manga lean heavily on duel plots and you can find them everywhere in manga and anime.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

The Righteous Avenger Plot

Summary: The Righteous Avenger plot is an extremely common plot in manga and anime, and appears from time to time in Western media as well. In short- it’s a story where a powerful hero saves a noble innocent from a true villain.

Required Characters:

  • A powerful Hero (the “righteous avenger”)
  • A virtuous Innocent
  • An irredeemable Villain

Plot Structure

Introduction

  • The powerful Hero and the virtuous Innocent are introduced. The Hero is shown to be strong and capable in some way, or is shown to represent some powerful force like the police or government. The Innocent is introduced as the main character of this story, and as someone who is trying to accomplish a goal the audience will find strongly sympathetic. (Generally helping others selflessly, trying to protect loved ones, or standing up for a noble cause.)
  • The Hero and the Innocent encounter each other, and the Hero may stay around to help the Innocent or may leave, but will be shown to be close by.

Development

  • The Innocent will be shown working to try to accomplish their goal, and we’ll be shown why that goal is so important to them (or at least it will be hinted at).
  • The Villain will be introduced and shown to be working at cross purposes to the Innocent. They will also be shown to be much stronger than the Innocent.

Events

  • If the Hero and Innocent are together, they will become separated early on in the Event phase, usually after a falling out or under some other circumstances which make it unlikely than they will return. If the Hero is not working with the Innocent, the audience will be reminded that they are around, but in a way which doesn’t put them in a position to help the Innocent.
  • Once the Hero is gone, the Villain will close in and begin to prey upon the Innocent like a cat toying with a mouse. They will torment the Innocent and use the most underhanded methods to make their life miserable.
  • As the Villain is torturing the Innocent, the Innocent will be given the opportunity to submit and give up their noble goal. This is the Villain trying to break the Innocent and prove to themselves that the Innocent isn’t special or better than them, or perhaps it’s just for fun because they’re that sadistic. Regardless, the Innocent won’t break, and will refuse to surrender despite their position of weakness.

Apex

  • The Villain will see that they aren’t going to win, or perhaps the Innocent finally succumbs to the torture and passes out, in any case, they decide to deliver a blow that will physically, mentally or emotionally destroy the Innocent…
  • The Hero appears, having been brought there just in time by some reasonable explanation, and stops the final blow from being delivered. They then proceed to deliver righteous vengeance upon the evil doer. It might be a long battle, or a single act like arresting them, but will be done in a fashion which makes it clear the Villain suffers for everything they’ve put the Innocent through.
  • The Villain defeated, the Innocent is rewarded for their unyielding efforts to achieve their noble goal, and the Hero helps them enjoy their new situation, the Innocent having gone through a trial by fire and succeeded.

Notes:

  • Almost all Anime and Manga series do a version of this plot sooner or later because it’s so powerful when properly executed and creates great drama. Watching a powerful avenging figure save the innocent and crush evil speaks to the human psyche on a primal level and creates a mix of hope and bloodlust in the audience.
  • This is a great plot to use with very powerful Unchanging heroes, because it takes the focus off the hero and just makes them into an agent of justice. This is especially useful for heroes who can’t be challenged otherwise because they’re too powerful, or because the writer is keeping them a little mysterious.
  • The key is that the main character is actually the Innocent, not the Hero, who is just there to provide support and save the day. The Innocent is the one going through the trial by fire and having to decide whether to stand by their beliefs or give in to weakness.
  • Often the story starts with the Hero introduced first and acting as an initial viewpoint character, but then shifts quickly to the Innocent who becomes the main viewpoint for the rest of the story.
  • This plot works well for short stories and story arcs/single novels, but not so well for whole series. A common version of it used in story arcs/single novels will involve the main Hero taken out of action early in the story and their allies left to fight the powerful villains without them for a large part of the story until the hero returns at a key moment to unleash justice.
  • There is a very common version of this plot used in romance stories which could be called the “White Knight” plot, and the “Avenger” in this case is the love interest who swoops in to save the main character at the end. In versions where the Villain needs to die, this allows the main character’s hands to stay clean, and at the same time proves the love interest to be a capable alpha male who is willing to do anything for his love. (And thus is forgiven the sin of killing another because it was justified.)
  • Sometimes the Hero and Innocent never meet until the end, when their separate plotlines intersect at the crucial moment. For example, a woman being stalked by a killer and a police officer who is simultaneously hunting that killer. This creates a situation where the audience doesn’t know when, or if, the Hero will arrive in time.
  • In darker versions of this plot, the Villain often kills the Innocent (or delivers permanent damage to them) and the Hero is truly Avenging them as opposed to rescuing them. In these stories, the Hero will almost always kill the Villain or give them a horrible fate to balance the scales of justice.
  • Also in darker versions of this plot, the “Hero” might be anything but heroic, and even be another villainous character, just so long as they deliver a form of justice on the Villain, they qualify as a “hero” in this story.
  • The trick with these plots is to time the length of the “torture” so that it doesn’t go on so long the audience gets bored or uncomfortable, but goes on just long enough that they really hate the Villain and are screaming inside for justice to be delivered.
  • Examples of this plot in action are abundant, but Onepunch-man, Overlord, and One Piece often use versions of it.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

Write! Shonen Manga!

It’s finally here! Six months ago, I started a “small” project to write a short book on writing Shonen Manga style stories. Now, 310 pages and 90,000 words later it’s finished and available on AmazonKobo, iBooks, and most other retailers. It’s even available in print!

If you’ve ever wanted to know how the Japanese put together their amazing comics like Naruto, One Piece, and others, this book unpacks it all for you, and gives you the techniques you need to write your own manga and manga-like stories. Whether you’re a beginner or master wordsmith, this book will help you understand the power of the IDEA story structure and use it to make your stories shine.

Normally the book is $7.99, but until December 7th, the ebook’s only 99 cents! Get it now, and discover how to unleash your inner manga creator!

Wonder Woman has opened my eyes.

So, I was listening to the Wonder Woman episode of The Story Toolkit podcast, and I have to say it was a major eye opener. The episode itself is about the Wonder Woman movie, and during the show the host Bassim al-Wakil laid out something I had no idea about, but which makes absolute perfect sense.

You see, I found the Wonder Woman movie a mess in terms of storytelling, theme and kind’ve in general, and Bassim not only helped to explain exactly why, but he also taught me something about how Hollywood is now making films I didn’t know. In particular, Bassim outlined that the way they’re making these big tentpole movies has changed, largely due to the heavy levels of effects involved and the limited time they have to make them.

In short, since they only have a year to make these films, what they’re doing is coming up with a rough outline for the film, figuring out what the big setpiece sequences are going to be, and then beginning work on those before the script is actually completed! Why is this important? Well, he used Wonder Woman as a good example.

He pointed out that the big setpiece action sequences have little to no dialog in them, and then none of what is in them refers to anything outside that particular setpiece sequence. In other words, in a scene like Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land, the whole story of that sequence is all within that sequence and doesn’t actually connect to anything else in the film. This is because, for all intents and purposes, it is a little self-contained mini-movie within the larger film, and the same for the other big action sequences. It HAS to be this way, because they didn’t know what the final script it would be put into would look like.

Then, he noted that the scenes in between the big event scenes are all packed to the gills with exposition. Like, solid wall-to-wall characters filling in the story, because that time spent in the effects scenes is basically wasted screen time that is only connected to the main story through characters. They are attempting to tell the story of the movie during the cracks between the big event effects scenes, which makes it awkward and forced.

For those of the video game generation, think of the big effects scenes as the parts would be playing, and the exposition scenes as the pre-rendered cut scenes and you’ll have the right idea. The movie is literally a series of action scenes with the story bits just there to connect them all together.

So what? You might ask. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that in a good and well told story, everything in the movie from the scenes, to the dialog, to the actions, to the costumes and sets and everything else is there for the purpose of telling and enhancing that story. There is a clear theme being developed, and subtext to the story that the audience reacts to, and which helps to build a connection between the characters and audience.

Think of it as the difference between Team A, professional basketball team who train and play together, and Team B, a bunch of professional players from different teams stuck together for the purposes of the game. While Team B might have some amazing players, it will never be as good as Team A because there won’t be any unity the way they play. Team A work as a unit, while Team B will always be individuals playing their own game and not coordinating with each other.

The current crop of big event Superhero movies (and effects movies in general it seems) are all Team B. Uneven collections of individual sequences that may or may not work well together, and which lack focus and coherence.

This really struck home when I thought about the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2– when it came out, I think it was my friend Jack who pointed out that you could literally take the major sequences of the film and stick them up on YouTube as individual videos and they’d work perfectly fine. Yes, there was a big story idea there surrounding them, but they worked fine by themselves, and didn’t have to be watched as part of a greater film for the most part. The end result was a flat and uneven movie that did have enjoyable parts, but which really didn’t work as coherent film built up around setups and payoffs within the story.

This is as opposed to Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1) which has a clear story being told from start to finish that for the most part links together and has a dramatic through-line you can follow. Likely because, unlike it’s sequel (or Wonder Woman) it had sufficient pre-production time to plan things out before it was produced.

This also explains why the earliest set photos and videos from the next Avengers film were all indoor alien sets and green screens with the major cast members there for filming. They were making all the major effects sequences first, and then would do the parts which fill in all the details later. And who knows if they had a script finished at the time they started it or not? Civil War clearly didn’t, looking back at it and how uneven that film is as well. (Spiderman wasn’t even part of the film when Civil War went into production, for example.)

Now, maybe I’m exaggerating how bad this is for film, after all, these are meant to be big bland blockbusters designed to wow audiences with their visuals more than their deep character arcs. However, I don’t consider this a good development because while it might not be why the last few Marvel movies have been so flat and uneven, it certainly isn’t helping matters. And now that I know what to look for, I think my enjoyment of these films is probably going to take another dip.

Thanks Bassim! 😛

Rob

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.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

Rob