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!

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

The Shonen Battle Manga Formula

(This article is the first rough part of what would later become my book Write! Shonen Manga. I’m leaving it up so that people can see how the book evolved, although a lot of it was later revised for the book.)

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

How to Write a Good Story – The Essence of Story

Writing

On social media across the Internet, there is a single constant refrain- “How do I write a good story?” It comes from new writers eager to make their eBook fortune on Kindle, young adults who want to join in the fanfiction fray, and even experienced writers who are looking to up their game. It’s lead to a huge boom in How-To writing books, and an even bigger boom for those who offer their services to writers like editors, cover designers and marketers. The editors especially are in demand, because the truth is most writers are flying blind when it comes to writing stories.

Don’t believe me? Go on a social media forum with writers and ask them a simple question like “How do I write a good book?” or even “What is a story?” and you’ll get a thousand different answers thrown at you, because the truth is most of them don’t know the answer to either of those questions.

Oh, they know pieces of it, and the more savvy and experienced ones have pieced together quite a bit of knowledge on the topic. Mostly though, new writers will get advice like “follow the three act structure”, “have a gripping main character”, and various other sage advice about what worked for the writers who respond.

Because most writers learn to write stories by writing them, and they do that by consuming the work of lots of other writers and then copying what seemed to work for those other writers. They basically write by instinct, and then through making mistakes and finding what works, and what doesn’t, they become better writers. This is a time-honored way to learn any art, and some would argue that it’s the best way because it preserves a creative spirit of originality and helps new generations of artists add to the great body of human culture.

When it comes to writing, those people are wrong.

If that was true, why do we keep writing the same stories over and over again? Why do almost all stories follow the same basic structure, no matter the culture or level of literacy? Why do we keep seeing the same stories over and over again, generation after generation?

The answer is pretty simple- because there IS a hardwired, human pattern to storytelling that we follow over and over again- exactly because we’re human.

[Now, the followers of Joseph Campbell are all nodding their heads right now and going “Of course there is, dummy! The Hero’s Journey!” But I’m going to argue that while Campbell was on the right track, he also complicated things up more than they needed to be. So simmer down, Jack!]

One of the nice parts about living in the age we do is that researchers on big questions have been able to use things like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look inside the human brain in real time and look at what people’s brains are doing during certain activities. Unsurprisingly, a few of those researchers decided to find out what happens inside the human brain when people consume stories, and they learned many interesting things.

One thing they learned is that the human brain is optimized for learning from the experiences of not just ourselves, but from the experiences of others. We don’t have enough time to experience everything ourselves, so instead our brains crowdsource information and make a point of learning from how other people did things. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when we were cavemen, and every bit of knowledge about the world we had could be a key to living another day. The ones who didn’t learn fast died faster.

So, what are stories then?

Stories are people sharing their experiences so that others can learn from them. They’re us telling the world what someone did when they were faced with a problem, so they can learn from that person’s experiences and gain knowledge about the world and the human experience.

So therefore, at it’s core, for something to be a story it has two requirements:

  1. A character does something.
  2. The character’s choices produce results.

This is because our brains are trying to learn from that person’s actions, so obviously they must do something, and those actions must also have results, otherwise we haven’t learned from them.

So, there you are, cause and effect- that’s all that you need to tell a story.

And if I put it that way, you do this every day, right? Anytime you, or your mother, or crazy old grandpa are telling a story, you use this structure- “I did these things, and this was the result.”

That is the root seed from which all storytelling comes- a character does something and gets results.

“I kicked the dog, and he bit me.”

Of course, as you obviously already know, there’s a little more to it than that. Saying “I kicked the dog and he bit me” may be a story, but it’s not exactly a gripping one that’s going to hold an audience spellbound for hours or express your artistic vision.

To tell an interesting story, you need details, the more the better! (But only the right ones…)

Also, there is a simple process all humans go through when approaching a problem and the audience for a story likes to know the details of that process whenever possible.

So, we break those two parts into several clear steps.

A character does something can be broken into several steps:

  1. The character has a Need.
  2. The character chooses a Goal based on that need.
  3. The character finds there is Opposition to achieving that goal.
  4. The character comes up with a Plan to overcome the opposition.
  5. The character takes Action based on that plan.

The character’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:

  1. Results:
    1. The action fails> return to Plan.
    2. The action succeeds> go to New State.
  2. The character’s situation has changed because of the results and they’re in a New State.

To make it clearer, let’s give an example.

  • Bob is Thirsty. (Need)
  • Bob decides to get a glass of water. (Goal)
  • Bob finds there are no clean cups. (Opposition)
  • Bob decides to do dishes. (Plan)
  • Bob does the dishes. (Action)
  • Bob now has a clean glass. (Results)
  • Bob drinks a glass of water and feels satisfied. (New State)

Note that this is still extremely simple, but that’s because it’s also infinitely flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bob getting water or War and Peace, all human stories are using a variation of this structure at their very core and when reduced to the simplest level. If a story doesn’t meet (almost) all of these steps, it isn’t a story to the human brain.

There has to be a character who has a Need and a resulting Goal, who faces Opposition, finds a Plan to overcome it, takes Action and gets Results that will put them in a New State. All of these steps are crucial because otherwise there’s nothing to learn, and the human brain isn’t interested. If I show you a video of Bob walking across the room getting water from the fridge and sitting down to drink it, you’ll get bored because there’s no challenge there (which is where drama comes from) and nothing to learn from.

Let’s go into each of the steps in more detail:

Need:

The character needs a reason to take action, and this reason can be active (they choose to take action), or reactive (someone else forces them to take action), but there must always be a cause for what they do in the story.  Active characters are almost always better, since the audience can learn more from a character who is trying to actively accomplish a goal, and they’re easier to write.

In either case, the character will have a Need, something which is driving them to attain their goal. At its core, this need will usually be based on one of the Basic Human Needs that all humans have- Food, Safety, Sex, Sleep, Companionship, Self-Actualization, and so on. The character tries to fulfill that need through taking action, whether they consciously understand that need exists or not.

This can be as simple as being thirsty and needing a glass of water, or as complex as defending their galactic empire from an alien invasion, but it will always be rooted in a basic human need when it comes down to it. (We don’t tend to things that don’t try to meet a human need in some way.)

Goal:

Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:

  1. Attain
  2. Maintain
  3. Lose

The character either wants something new (attain), they want to avoid losing something that already exists (maintain), or they no longer wish to have something and try to get rid of it (lose). All characters will have one of these three goals, with the details varying by the story. This will be based on solving the problem created by their Need.

Goals will often be based on solving obstacles that prevent the character from achieving a human need rather than directly trying to achieve a human need. (ie Losing weight in order to get sex. Losing weight is the goal, but it is still rooted in the human need of sex.) Directly solving more complex needs can often be hard and painful, so characters will often choose goals that are smaller steps towards that greater need.

Opposition:

If a need can be met without opposition, it usually isn’t worth telling a story about. In fact, often the heart of a story isn’t the need or action being taken to meet that need, it’s the challenges that come with meeting that need. If there’s no opposition to the character’s actions, then the story moves to the New State phase and ends there. (Along with the audience’s interest.)

Opposition can come in any form that prevents the character from achieving their Goals, however these too tend to fall into one of several categories:

  • Active opposition.
  • Passive Opposition.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Lack of ability.

Active Opposition– an opponent who is actively trying to prevent the character from achieving their goal. Usually they have the same (or similar) goal as the main character, and this common goal brings them into direct opposition with each other. Often they also have a superior position to the main character in some way, at least in terms of knowledge, resources, power or ability. (After all, if they weren’t able to give the main character a challenge, they’re not much of an opponent, are they?) Usually, they are also made specifically to exploit the weakness of the main character, thus making them exactly the right person to make the main character’s life difficult.

Passive Opposition– an opponent who stands in the way of the character achieving their goals, but who isn’t pursuing the same goal as the main character. They are pursuing their own goals, but because of their existence/presence it prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Think of this like a sleeping guard dog that prevents a character from sneaking into the house, the parent who says the main character must clean their room before they can go out, or a clerk at a tax office who says the main character must follow procedure before they can have what they want as time is running out.

Lack of Resources– the character has a goal, but lacks the physical resources (time, money, friends, contacts, clothes, equipment, etc) to achieve that goal. This will usually require the character to pursue other smaller goals first (like getting a job to earn money) to achieve this goal.

Lack of Ability– the character has a goal, but lacks the personal skills, requirements, or knowledge needed to reach that goal. This can most often be fixed through training and personal improvement, or occasionally by finding someone else who has the abilities needed and getting them to do it.

Note that a single story can have more than one obstacle to a single goal. Just as there can be big goals and little goals, there can be big obstacles and little obstacles as well, and often the character needs to accomplish several little goals first to be able to accomplish the big final goal.

Plan:

A character with a goal faced by obstacles will need to make a plan, which is the route the character decides to take to achieve their goal. This can be the result of self-reflection, previous results, or gut instinct, and plans can take seconds to make, or hours, or years in the context of the story. This step is actually semi-optional, as sometimes the “Plan” step is skipped over because it’s obvious, or for dramatic effect. (Jumping from Goal to seeing the character in Action to make the audience want to see how the character’s actions will achieve that goal.)

Action:

Action is simply the character trying to follow their plan and seeing what the result is. Again, this can be a simple single movement, or a long and complex project that takes years to finish. The writer may choose to detail every step of the plan, or just a few key steps, or even jump from the beginning to the end of the Action step. However, the character must make a choice and do something, even if their choice is just to sit there and cry.

Results:

Of course, there are really only three possible results:

  • They succeed and achieve their goal.
  • They fail and must either try again or give up.
  • They only partly fail or partly succeed and must either try again or give up.

If the character tries again, they go back to the Planning stage, and if they succeed and have met their Need they move on to the New State. If they give up, they have also moved into a New State- but it’s one where they failed to achieve their goal and are dealing with the consequences of that failure.

New State:

If the character achieved their goal, then the story is finished, or (if part of a larger story) then this portion of the story is finished. They have their goal, and are now either satisfied or not satisfied with the result based on the Need they were trying to fulfill.

Often, the character cannot reach a New State without first overcoming some personal flaw, in which case the New State is actually one where the character has changed part of themselves in order to achieve their true (often unconscious) goal.

 

So, there you have it, the fundamental structure humans use when telling stories.

You will see many variations of this formula kicking around online. Whether it’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, Chris Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey, or Michael Hague’s Six Story Steps, but ultimately, they’re just this very basic formula with extra steps added (or removed) for effect. One expanded version of this formula is John Truby’s Twenty-Two Step Story Structure, which takes a formula like this one (which was partly based on Truby’s 7 Essential Steps) and shows how typical modern novels and films tend to expand on this structure and what they add to it. (His book is highly recommended!)

However, just because something follows the above steps that doesn’t mean it’s a good story, it just means that it meets the basic requirements to be called a story. It only shows a character doing something and getting results, or in other words, showing how an action might play out.

To have a good story, one which is meaningful and the audience actually gets something from, that requires not just a story, but a Moral Argument as well.

 

What Writers can learn from Animators and Comic Artists

Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where   among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.

In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!

So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.

25_essential_expressions_by_red

This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.

The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.

Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.

One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:

body_language_meme___envy__by_endling-d4zaey1

 

Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.

expressionslucasflat_by_blackdahlia-daidqtt

 

So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.

By the way, if you’re not sure how to employ the above, you might find these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language by Amanda Patterson (no relation) to be useful. 🙂

Rob

P.S. Click on the sheet creator’s names to go to the blank original sheets, and the sample images to go to the pages of the sample artists.

 

Eric Edson’s Screenwriting Tips

One of my favorite YouTube channels is one called Film Courage, which is a channel basically dedicated to interviewing screenwriters and screenwriting teachers. There are some fantastic interviews on there if you’re interested in writing in general, but especially screenwriting.

Case in point this interview with writing teacher Eric Edson 12 Useful Tools To Help Beginning Screenwriters Write A Better Screenplay.

Now, the title is total click bait, in that Edson really doesn’t offer anything resembling tools in this video except in the broadest sense. He opens with a semi-controversial statement that plot and story are the same thing and calls anyone who disagrees idiots (which some like John Truby and Martin Scorsese would argue with, but it comes down to definitions) and then goes on to offer some random screenwriting tips. Among these are some pithy observations that I think are worth talking about.

The first one is that main characters in film should always have one of four broad goals:

  • Win
  • Stop
  • Escape
  • Retrieve

His reasoning for those categories is that main characters in film need an easily identifiable goal that includes a physical endpoint that the audience can visually see. Are there more possible goals? Yes. But these are all things that can happen up on the screen in front of the audience’s eyes, which Edson argues makes them the perfect goals for visual storytelling.

Let’s look at each.

Win– Technically, all movies have a character trying to “win” if the character has a goal, but in this case I think Edson is referring to a situation where there is a clear contest of some kind involved. This could be a naval engagement, making a relationship work, finding a killer, or trying to pass fifth grade, but there is a clear identifiable endpoint of victory involved. In a lot of ways, this is the catch-all category of the four.

Stop– The character wants to stop someone else from doing something or something from happening. This would be Armageddon, Independence Day, and even Star Wars: A New Hope could be considered a “stop” movie (since the goal is to stop the Death Star from wreaking havoc.)

Escape– The main character wants to escape from a bad situation. While there is a lot of bleed over with Stop, I guess the key here is that the main character isn’t trying to stop the opponent from achieving their goals, they’re just trying to get away from a situation. So this would include Titanic, Jurassic Park and Towering Inferno type disaster movies, but also include films about characters trying to get out of small town life, or kick a drug addiction. Their life sucks and they want out, however they can manage it.

Retrieve– The main character wants to get something (or someone) and bring it back. This could be personal (Apocalypse Now), physical (Raiders of the Lost Ark), emotional (rekindling a relationship), mental (finding lost knowledge), or even social (restoring a way of life). The key here is that the goal is simply to find something and then use it.

 

This ties in with Blake Snyder’s advice that a movie’s main character’s goal(s) should be primal in nature- something that human beings can all relate to because its part of our experience as people. Also, it’s very easy to visualize most of these goals, and they’re finite in nature, which gives structure to the story through the goal itself. (Once you win, stop, escape, or retrieve, the story is now over.)

On the flipside, this can lead to very simple stories where the main characters don’t have complex goals, but instead are acting like animals in a way. Yes, that lets us relate to them, but it also doesn’t go very far in plumbing the depths of the human experience. I mean, yes, you need to keep things simple in a two hour (or less) film, but this may be too simple at times.

 

Edson also argues that there are four emotions that characters display on screen:

  • Mad
  • Glad
  • Sad
  • Scared

These again being universal and easily identifiable emotions that audiences can react to and understand easily no matter who they are.  They are also strong emotions, so they’re more likely to resonate with the audience and make the scene more interesting while being easier for the actor to display. He says that each main character should enter a scene feeling one of these emotions and then leave it feeling another to show that change has happened in the scene.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with this list, and plan to think about it more and watch to see if that’s what’s happening in the films/tv I watch. What I can say is that there should be a fifth one on that list – Neutral – a state where a character is feeling no particular emotion at all. Sometimes character’s emotions aren’t strong, or are hidden from the audience, and this could be at the start of a scene or at the end of one. Of course, if your characters are always in neutral, it might be hard to get a reaction out of the audience, unless you have other supporting characters making up for it.

 

This is basically all I think is worth taking from this video. Edson follows this by trying to briefly discuss some Hero’s Journey archetypes, but slightly flubs them and if you want to know more about that go read Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (The Shapeshifter is not the Opponent, for example, they can be, but are often not the main opponent but a secondary one.)

Not one of Film Courage’s best videos (it mostly seems like a disguised pitch for Edson’s book), but it did have some interesting points I thought were worth noting. I’ll probably annotate some of their other videos in the future as well.

Rob

 

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Evolved

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.

In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.

So basically in simplest form it looks like this:

1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)

Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…

1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?

I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.

Rob

DNA Podcast 034 -What are litRPGs?

the-legendary-moonlight-sculptor-5507219

In this episode Don and Rob are joined by the awesome Ramon Meija of the litRPG podcast to talk about the biggest new genre you’ve probably never heard of- litRPGs. The three discuss the origins of this fascinating genre, what makes a litRPG, what books your should be reading, and how the litRPG genre reflects the world we live in today. All that, and how to write litRPGs in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!

DNA Podcast 024 – Interview with Scifi Author Gary Gibson

marauder-by-gary-gibson

In this episode, Rob and Don interview Scottish science fiction writer Gary Gibson about his career, writing Space Opera, and why Science Fiction has become boring. All this, and why Zardoz is a classic film, in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

 

DNA Podcast 023 – Why you shouldn’t be a writer

Houghton_Typ_805.94.8320_-_Pride_and_Prejudice,_1894,_Hugh_Thomson_-_Protested

In this episode, Rob and Don discuss the cons of becoming a professional writer (or artist). While the internet is filled with people telling you that you’re one Kindle book away from quitting your day job (mostly by people selling writing how-to advice and services) Rob and Don look at some of the cold, hard costs and challenges that come with trying to write for a living. Along the way, they discuss ways to overcome those challenges and make yourself a better writer if you’re determined to follow the hard road. All this, and a heaping helping of Dinosaur Porn are waiting for you in the 23rd episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs!

Closing Music: Ode to Joy performed by Oliver Eckelt