Exploratory Manga – Educational Manga That Take You For A Ride

There are a few less common manga genres that probably deserve more attention than they get, and one of these is the Exploratory Manga.

Now, when I say “Exploratory Manga” you might think I’m talking about stories like Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Uncharted, or other adventure stories where the hero is going into strange new worlds. However, while those do have elements of exploration, I would classify those more as a type of adventuring story.

Instead, what I call Exploratory Manga (and anime, and light novels) are stories where the whole purpose of the story is to explore a setting and the characters are basically just guides leading the audience through that setting. They might be knowledgeable guides who know the setting well, or they might be characters who have entered this setting at the start of the story and now explore it along with the audience, but their function is to be a guide for exploring the setting.

So, for example, maybe the main character is exploring the world of food. In that case, they might explore the world of deserts (Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman), or wine tasting (Drops of God), restaurant culture (Oishinbo), or any of a host of other food-related topics. All of which are stories where the focus is mainly on a character working their way through the cultures, sub-cultures and wisdom that surround food culture in Japan and abroad.

In these stories, there is (often) no real overplot or goal for the main character beyond gaining knowledge and understanding of their chosen topic. Maybe they want to improve their skills in their chosen area, or maybe they have someone they want to surpass, but either way, the real star of the show is the setting they’re exploring. The character is just a vehicle for going though that setting like a car in a theme park ride.

These lead characters usually have little to no character arc beyond maybe going from inexperienced in the ways of the setting to experienced, and maybe not even that in some stories. That is because the character is not the point and is only there to be a viewpoint for the audience to come to understand the world around the character.

Because of this, these stories are usually fairly low impact, and often (but not always) have little to no conflict in them. These aren’t Hero’s Journeys, but stories where a character is simply learning and exploring a world the creator finds fascinating and wants to share with the audience. The conflict in the stories (if any) is often speed bumps instead of obstacles, and is there to add a light touch of drama at most.

Heterogeneous Linguistics volume 2

A good example of this is the manga Heterogeneous Linguistics, which also demonstrates that these kinds of stories don’t even have to be set in the real world. In this story, a young graduate student from a human-dominated continent in a fantasy setting travels to a continent dominated by primitive monster races in order to continue his professor’s work of studying their languages. The whole story is about him and his young wolf-girl assistant living among primitive peoples of the continent and figuring out how each communicates. There are no battles, no action, no romance, and little to no conflicts except for the occasional linguistic challenge or miscommunication.

And yet, the story itself is unique, fascinating, and one of my monthly favorites.

Heterogeneous Linguistics also demonstrates one of the two main patterns these stories tend to follow – the learning lead, or the observing lead.

In this case (the learning lead), the main character is encountering and learning from a series of other characters who are part of that world. In these stories (and in Exploratory Manga, it’s often about a series of short stories, not long epics – they’re almost anthologies), each new part of the setting the character explores has a guide character (or characters) for the main character to interact with. The main character learns from each of them, and then moves on more knowledgeable than they were before they met the “guide.”

Other examples of this pattern are Laid Back Camp, Yotsuba&!, Super Cub, and most of these manga.

The other variation is the “observing lead” stories. In these stories, the main character really is just an observer, and the real story is about the other characters they meet and encounter. One example of this is Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina, where the main character is a young witch on a journey to explore the fantasy world they live in. Elaina is just there to meet other characters who represent the different aspects of the setting world and the stories are really their stories, not hers. But, through each of their stories, we learn something about the setting they all live in.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is also the pattern for old American cowboy westerns (and Japanese samurai movies) about the action hero who wanders from town to town meeting new people and finding trouble. However, in this case, there’s usually little to no “trouble” and the focus of the story is more on slice of life and daily life.

To give a comparison, in an action/adventure cowboy western story about a town well, the lead character would wander into a town where the local well has run dry and a local rancher is using the only remaining other water source as an excuse to rule the town with an iron fist. The lead character would get to know the local suffering townsfolk and their problems. And then, when the tyrant tries to kidnap and marry the local saloon owner’s daughter, the lead would jump into action and work his way through the tyrant’s men with his six-shooter until the tyrant was dead and order was restored. (Before riding off into the sunset, to the next town.)

However, in an exploratory story about a town well in the old west, the lead character would wander into town looking for work and find the local well had run dry. Then he’d meet the local doctor, who thinks he can solve the town’s water problem through finding new underground water sources and end up getting hired to help him. As they work to solve the problem, he would learn about the doctor’s motivations and the doctor would talk about the relationship the townspeople have with water. Finally, after some effort, the doctor would find a way to use their theories to tap the water and return the town to normal. The lead would then go on, having learned about the relationship between life and water in the old west.

As you can see, these are very different stories, despite the same premise. One is about the lead restoring order through action and violence, and the other is about the lead meeting a character who acts as a guide through a piece of the world they live in, before themselves moving on to explore another piece of the setting.

This type of story is largely possible because the Japanese use the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu story structure which doesn’t require conflict to work, but only requires that progressively interesting things happen. Then, following the Japanese approach of watching interesting things interact, the author only needs to bring the main character in contact with the characters or parts of the setting they find interesting, and the story naturally flows from their interactions. There can be conflict, but it isn’t needed, and most often the story is built on learning rather than drama.

Which brings us to the question – what makes these stories work? As I’m sure to some of you this sounds like a dreadfully dull type of story.

Well, as I wrote about some time ago, there are five things readers get from stories, which can be remembered from the mnemonic SPINE – Skills, Perspective, Information, Novelty, and Emotion. And, even without conflict, these stories can offer pretty much all of those things to audiences to keep them hooked.

Skills: In some exploratory manga, they’re literally teaching the audience how to do things, like cooking or camping.

Perspective: Often these stories offer a new perspective to the audience about some aspect of the setting or the real world. For example, why do people love stamps so much? Or why are some people obsessed with fishing? These stories give us a glimpse into parts of our world we don’t normally interact with, or parts of other worlds which can give us new reflections on our own.

Information: Exploratory Manga are all about sharing information. Usually they’re sharing some combination of Information and Perspective as their main driver. The audience is learning as they’re being entertained.

Novelty: Through offering Skills, Perspective, and Information, these stories let the audience explore a new world they haven’t seen before and come to know more about the world they live in. These stories are trying hard to evoke a sense of wonder in the everyday and mundane, and often use their art to bring that wonder to life.

Emotion: Sometimes these stories have drama, especially if they’re about the characters the lead meets as they travel/explore, but most often these stories evoke positive emotions like curiosity, fulfillment, happiness, and humour. They’re about the joy of learning about the world, a joy which many people have often forgotten as they have aged. Or, they might be mono no aware stories where the audience is brought in touch with complex and melancholy emotions connected with the passing of time.

Using these ways, and often paired with appealing art and characters, the creators delve deep into the setting of their stories and teach us about those worlds while expanding our own.

Thoughts on writing these stories:

I have noted that these stories tend to be written by and for older and more mature audiences. This makes sense because you have to have life experience to write one of these stories well, and most younger creators (and audiences) don’t have the time or patience for these stories. They want something with a stronger emotional impact and prefer more visceral works. That’s why many of these stories would be classified as Gekiga (dramatic pictures) not Manga (foolish pictures) and are usually found in publications for older audiences. (See the works of Jiro Taniguchi for examples.)

That isn’t to say that these can’t be appealing to younger audiences, and in fact you could easily make the argument that a number of Miyazaki’s films are actually Exploratory Anime, like Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example. However, it takes a light touch to make them work well for a younger audience, so even there the creators are usually older and more experiences artists.

Instead, for younger audiences, you usually see elements of Exploratory Manga incorporated into other manga genres like Shonen Battle or Romance. Where they take the exploratory elements and use them to help build and flesh out the world of the characters. A good example of this would be Yowamushi Pedal (“Weakling Pedal”) which is primarily a sports manga about cycling, but delves deep into different aspects of the amateur cycling world in Japan. In fact, many Sports Manga make heavy use of Exploratory Manga approaches to teach their audiences about the sport in between the competitions. The main difference being that at the end of the day the sports manga are about the characters, battles, and competitions, while their exploratory manga counterparts are about the setting first and foremost.

The other way these types of stories are often made to appeal to younger audiences is by making them funny or humorous. Everyone likes to laugh, and humour is a natural way to bring out the appeal of the story events and setting. Thus, commonly these are written like slice-of-life stories where the character ends up in some humorous situation by the end of the story, or has a series of amusing (but rarely laugh out loud) events happen to them. This isn’t a sitcom, but a gentle and fun reflection of reality that is often (but not always) bathed in sunshine.

You also see this type of story in hobbyist and profession-related magazines in Japan, where they often function as basically a serialized “for dummies” guide for people new to the hobby. In this case, they’re usually built around appealingly designed characters having amusing slice-of-life experiences related to pursuing the hobby or profession in some form. This can be as simple as playing collectable card games or model kit building, or full on professional activities like voice acting or being a country veterinarian.

Lastly, I should mention that these stories are largely possible because the Japanese are producing them in comic book form. The comic book form allows images and pictures to make complex or sometimes dull subjects lively and interesting in ways that text struggles to. Yes, there are Exploratory Light Novels that exist, like Kino’s Journey but I would argue they’re possible because the audience is already used to these types of stories from manga. Also, Kino’s Journey is still mostly about the characters the lead meets and their dramatic lives, as opposed to a story about the intricacies of stamp collecting which would be dull as dishwater without visuals to help prop it up.

This isn’t to say that you couldn’t do this type of story as a prose novel or story collection, but it would take a lot of skill to do well. Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town might qualify, and I’m sure there are other master writers who have done versions of this, but it usually takes the form of some type of literary fiction in English which has an older audience and not a lot of mass appeal.

Yokohama Kaidashi kikou | Nyajinsky
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō (Yokohama Shopping Trip) about an android girl exploring a post-human world and reflecting on humanity’s legacy.

Final Notes

When North Americans write about setting, they almost always turn it into a mystery or literary fiction of some kind. Most often, it’s a character trying to uncover the truth about some event, and to do so they must come to understand a new environment or world they (and the audience) weren’t familiar with before. This is a good way to do it because the mystery frames the exploration and gives the writer an conflict-based reason to examine a setting that often doesn’t want to be examined by the lead character.

Exploratory Manga bypass this approach and instead throw open the doors of the world and invite the character and audience in for tea. The reader isn’t an intruder uncovering dark secrets (although that’s not off the table), but instead a welcome guest invited in like a beloved grandchild to experience the hidden corners of their grandparent’s ancient home. The joy of exploratory manga comes from discovery and learning, not from violently ripping back the curtains to expose the truth to sunlight.

Exploratory stories are driven by love, not fear or hate, and a sense of curiosity that often takes the reader back to their youth. They reflect on the human condition, and gently make us consider our own lives in a non-confrontational way or expand our horizons to understand our world a little better.

They are about the joy of interacting with the world around us, and reminding us that we are part of a vast web of connections. Never alone, and always linked to the greater world we live in.

I’m really just scratching the surface of this topic, but I wanted to think about it for a bit, so I wrote this post as a way to organize my thoughts. This is one the aspects of manga I find fascinating because it’s literally a genre that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world except maybe Europe and some online webcomics inspired by the Japanese stuff. However, the Japanese are the kings of it, and through studying it we can learn a lot about both Japanese and Western concepts of storytelling.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you have some favorite Exploratory Manga (or anime, or stories) you love or would like to recommend? Leave a comment below!



As my friend Don pointed out in the comments for this post below, Americans did at one time do stories similar to this in newspaper strips, but they were very short. The ultimate example of this is probably the Sunday color comics where Bil Keane took us on adventures with little Billy.

In this Bil Keane Family Circus, Jeffy wanders the neighborhood in dreams.

These were popular enough that Bil Keane did many of them, and it was a neat way to put a whole day’s worth of youthful explorations and adventure into a single panel. You can read more about them here.

Another example of these, back in Japan, is that there’s an actual long-running TV series that uses this concept in the real world – Somewhere Street. Each episode is basically a walking tour of a city somewhere in the world and it’s environment. Something like a live-action version of Billy’s Adventures. The ones I linked to on YouTube are from NHK World and dubbed in English. Try watching some, it will make you want to start travelling!

The Onion Method: Building Better Stories by Talking to Yourself

Reimena Yee’s Onion Method For Outlining Graphic Novels is one of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen to planning a story in a while. At first I thought it was going to be another take on the Snowflake Method, but I quickly discovered her approach is something very different. Not only that, it’s a more character-centered approach to planning a story than most of what you see online.

In essence, she explains this method as follows:

The Onion Method is a outline method that consists of two major elements (Character-Driven Plot, and Thematic Thesis) riffing off each other. One informs the other, vice versa, creating multiple alternating layers in conversation.

Image copyright Reimena Yee.

Now you see where the onion metaphor came from.

These two elements together will create an Onion Story – a character-based story that when cut open, reveals layers upon layers of character motivation and story themes, ideas, topics, messages in conversation with each other.

In actual practice, as she lays out in her long post about this method, this is basically a method where plot/theme stuff happens and then character responds to it. You could almost call it the Call and Response Method or the Socractic Dialogue method, since basically the idea is that the plot and theme become characters who talk to each other. Through this “conversation” the writer figures out the story and how plot/character and theme are going to interact with each other.

As I understand it, it would would work a little like this:

Plot/Character (P/C): A weapons engineer from our world wakes up one morning to find he’s in the body of a prince in a magical fantasy setting.

Theme: Cool idea. Is he going to use his skills to change that world? This story is about taking responsibility for your actions.

P/C: Heck no! He’s going to use them to make himself richer by building and selling modern-ish weapons to the lords of the kingdom.

Theme: Whoa there! That might make him rich, but won’t that destabilize the kingdom? He’s basically setting things up for a civil war.

P/C: Yeah. When they start using those weapons, a lot of people will die. He’s going to feel really scared.

Theme: So he’ll try to clean up the mess he’s made?

P/C: LOL. No, he’ll move to a new kingdom using all the gold he’s made and live a high life as a rich merchant while letting the old kingdom fall apart. He’s not a responsible type of guy.

Theme: But, he needs to take responsibility.

P/C: Well, when the old kingdom falls apart, a warlord rises up and takes over using the weapons the main character made. After that, the warlord sets his sights on the new kingdom the MC is living in.

Theme: So, he’ll have to decide whether to run again or arm the new kingdom to fight the Warlord.

P/C: Exactly, in the new kingdom he found people he really cares about, and they’ll all die if he doesn’t man up and fix his mistakes. They’re willing to run away with him, but he realizes that eventually the warlord will keep coming and destroying his newfound happiness unless he gets serious and takes a stand.

Theme: Sounds like he’s maturing and learning a hard truth.

P/C: Pretty much. But is isn’t so simple. He doesn’t want the new kingdom to suffer the fate of the old one, and he’s afraid that will happen if he just arms the local lords with machine guns.

Theme: So what does he do to avoid problems?

P/C: He creates a special mercenary force just loyal to him and turns them into a special forces commando unit. Introducing big changes is bad, but small surgical changes won’t be as harmful. Then he uses them to attack the weapons factories of the warlords and stop the production of weapons. Then they capture the Warlord and stop the war.

Theme: But what about the old country? Won’t the new one invade it? Isn’t it a mess? That’s his fault too.

P/C: Well, about that… (and the dialogue continues)

The best way to think of this is that the Plot/Character is trying to tell their story, but their “friend” the Theme is constantly asking questions and making comments related to that theme or idea. It’s job is to drag the story back to being about that theme and keep the theme front and center as the story plays out.

If you put the focus on plot, like I did above, it becomes a dance between the plot/character and theme as they negotiate with each other. If you did it with a character and theme, it would come out a little different as the focus would be more about how the character develops related to the theme. You end up with a story about how the character’s flaws are brought into the light by having to confront the elements of the theme.

Character: The MC is a shy 15 year old Canadian girl with no friends.

Theme: But making friends brings out the best in people, she needs to learn to overcome her shyness and make friends.

Character: But she has no social skills and crippling anxiety.

Theme: Then she’s going to need to do something that will require her to overcome that. What could make her face her problems head-on?

Character: She needs to work after her mom gets sick. She has to take on a part-time job to feed the family, and she NEEDS to make this job work.

Theme: What job would make her confront her flaws?

Character: A job in sales. Maybe jobs are hard to get, and that’s the only one available. Her mother’s friend gets it for her.

Theme: Sales as in corner store? Sounds boring. What would be the most extreme sales situation she could face?

Character: A high-end clothing store?

Theme: Sure! She has to work at a high-end clothing store, but she has no social skills, can’t deal with people, and of course no fashion skills. Who is going to help her with that? She needs a mentor to help her overcome her challenges.

Character: Well… (and the dialogue continues)

I think it was manga creator Tetsuo Hara who said that “manga is created in the conversation” (although I might be mis-attributing this to Hara-sensei) and one of the ways to interpret this statement is that manga creation is the result of two creative people (the creator and editor in the Japanese manga system) throwing ideas back and forth. The creator has wild ideas, and the editor keeps them on track and focused.

In a real sense, that’s what’s happening here in the Onion Method. The writer is simulating a conversation between a creator and editor about the story they’re trying to develop, using their own imagination to play both parts. By doing this, a story is produced which has a theme built into it without having to laboriously think through every part of the story from a thematic perspective.

If you struggle with theme sometimes (like I often do), but are good at writing dialog, this could be a good hack to solving that problem.

Also, as Reimena says in her original post, you can then take this dialogue and develop it however you like. Whether it’s just jumping into writing the full story, turning around and breaking it down into your story structure of choice, or digging deeper into different parts of it by having separate conversations about those parts with the same theme.

There’s a lot of potential here for some writers, and it might be worth playing with and exploring the Onion Method to find out if it works for you.

Have fun!


How M.I.C.E. can help writers.

Cute Mouse

A while ago on the Writing Excuses podcast I heard science fiction author Mary Robinette-Kowal discuss one of her personal favorite ways to structure stories, which is called the MICE Quotient. Mary didn’t come up with the idea, author Orson Scott-Card (another hyphenated writer) did, but Mary seems to be its primary evangelist, so I’ll give her credit for making me aware of it.

The MICE Quotient itself has a few parts, but the main part of it works like this – there are basically four different elements (Card calls them Factors) which make up stories, and those four elements can be used alone or in combination with each other. These four story elements are Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event based stories, which line up nicely to form the mnemonic “MICE.”

Milieu – a story about a world or setting, where that setting and how it functions and transforms is the focus of the story. These stories often start when the character enters this world or place, and they finish when the character leaves or comes to be a part of that place. Examples are epic fantasy (Tolkien wrote these kinds of stories), travelogues, dystopian and utopian fiction, and westerns.

Inquiry – a story about learning or acquiring information. These are detective stories, stories of exploration, or stories where new knowledge or skills are gained. They start when a character finds themselves in search of answers to a question (or questions) and they end when the answers are found. (Note, Card calls this one “Idea” and others sometimes call it “Information”, but I prefer Robinette-Kowal’s current use of “Inquiry” because it more elegantly sums up the key focus of these stories – seeking information. (she used to call it ask/answer for a while)

Character – a story where a character changes or transforms. These are stories about inner transformation which happen when some event occurs and then follows the paths that the character takes to reach a new state. The character usually starts unhappy with their current life or situation, and then through a series of experiences finds a new way to be at the end of the story. Romances are character stories, but many stories contain some kind of character transformation element.

Event – a story where an event happens and we follow the effects of that event. These stories are about external events happening around and to the characters. Often these are stories where the world has been made unbalanced, and the characters need to find a way to fix it or adapt to the new situation. It’s a little like someone throwing a rock into a pond, and then watching the ripples result. The story starts with an event and finishes when the effects of that event are done. Most action stories and superhero stories are event stories, as are disaster stories where we watch characters leap about trying to survive.

Each of these elements can be the basis for a whole scene, story, story arc, or novel, and usually most short stories are built around one of them, while most novels are built around many of them combined. (More on that in a bit.) However, their most basic function is to tell us not just what kind of story is being told, but how it begins and ends.

And, once we know where they start and finish, we can then focus on what happens in between. In most cases, this is going to be conflict based, as shown by this chart from Robinette-Kowal’s website:

this info-graphic is taken from here

However, this isn’t always the case. When that chart was created, it’s clear that Robinette-Kowal was thinking in terms of traditional western conflict-based narratives, however it would also work with stories of interaction like the Japanese tell. In these stories, two or more things interact in a way which produces change.

For example, let’s say we’re telling a story about a tree…

In a Milieu story the story could start with the MC’s (main character’s) family moving into a new home with a tree in the yard, and the story would end with the family moving away and a new family moving in. In between, the story could be about the family’s relationship with the tree and how it sheltered them, gave them fruit, made the clean up leaves, gave them a place to play, and more.

In an Inquiry story, the story would start with people noticing that a tree is sprouting purple fruit, and the story would end with the answer to the question why it was sprouting purple fruit. In between, we could learn that there is a meteor buried underneath the tree and the tree is absorbing weird radiation that causes the fruit to turn purple. Oh, and one in ten people who eat the fruit become immortals, while the other nine become horrible monsters that crave human brains.

In a Character story, the story starts with a man choosing to sit beneath a tree while he mourns the death of his wife, and the story ends with him accepting that death is part of the cycle of life, which he has learned watching the tree go through its seasonal routines. In between, he comes to sit beneath the tree each day to first escape his lonely house, and then later to enjoy being out in the world as his grief is slowly overcome. The character has gone from one internal emotional state to another through interaction with the tree.

In an Event story, an old tree is struck by lightning and left damaged but alive at the start, and then at the end the tree is cut down and turned into benches and tables for the local park. In between, the local people reminise about the place the tree has held in their lives as they discuss what to do about it, finally reaching a conclusion. The event has happened and we followed the results of that event until they settled.

So, as you can see, the MICE Quotient acts as a framework which tells us where a story element starts and finishes. This is useful in short stories or scenes because they often only have one dominant MICE element and so the story’s beginning and end is laid out clearly by what MICE element the story is built around. You just need to know what type of MICE element the story is built around, and you roughly know the shape of the story.

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because in longer and larger stories, the MICE elements are used to structure and track storylines within larger works. And, in fact, most longer stories can have anywhere from a few to a few dozen MICE elements running inside them.

For example, let’s say you have a Romance novel.

At the start, in the introduction act, you set up the major threads of the story.

Milieu : The main character has been forced to move to a new apartment building.

Inquiry : The main character notices that the building manager is acting strangely – why?

Character : The main character is single and lonely.

Event : The main character has lost her job.

Thus logically, the end of the book MUST close those elements to feel satisfying to the reader.

/Milieu : The main character moves in with her new boyfriend in another apartment.

/Inquiry : The main character has learned the building manager was going to burn down the building and stopped him.

/Character : The main character has friends she made in the building, and most of all, found a new firefighter boyfriend by becoming an active member of the community.

/Event : The main character has found a new job as the new building manager.

Every story element in the beginning has been wrapped up by the end, making the odds that the story is satisfying more likely. Each element which is introduced has a counterpart ending, which the writer can plan out, and use to figure out where each piece of the story will start and finish. Leaving the writer to only need to worry about the dreaded middle, but even there the writer knows where they’re going and just needs to figure out how to connect those lines.

Also, while the major story elements should run through the long book or novel, there can also be shorter MICE elements inside the bigger story which start and finish in a particular scene, chapter, or story arc inside the larger work. A single scene could easily be a scene where the character navigates a new environment (milieu), tries to get information (Inquiry), must change themselves (Character), or deal with some new circumstances that have popped up (Event). How far you want to take this, is up to you.

If this whole thing still takes a bit of getting use to, fear not! Mary Robinette-Kowal gave a whole lecture on using this recently as part of Brandon Sanderon’s BYU creative writing series at the start of 2020, and you can watch it below. It also goes into more detail and other ways to use the MICE Quotient in your writing, so give it a watch!

So, what do you think? Would the MICE Quotient be a useful writing tool? How could you use it in thinking about the planning of your stories? I like that she links it with computer code and logic puzzles, because in a very real sense stories are exercises in creating strings of logical events that work together to produce a whole emotional experience in the audience.


The S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.


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!

“Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker”

A brilliant video which changed my thinking about style. All academics should watch it.

Emotional Emphasis 

So, I’m puzzling over this quote from Araki’s book on writing manga.

In Western comic storyboards, panels are laid out with the most importance placed on good drawing composition, and the sketches focus on the characters’ actions. Japanese mangaka, on the other hand, place emphasis on characters’ internal thoughts and emotional reactions. This focus on the internal is what sets Japanese mangaka apart.

First, I think this idea is brilliant. It’s a really interesting take on comic composition.

But, beyond that, because I’m a writer, I have to wonder if there’s a way to apply this to prose writing. Does this just mean putting in emphasis on the characters’ feelings and expressing emotion over describing the action is it happening? Or, would this mean doing something like being more poetic and emotional in your language, or trying to find a balance between the two?

Or, does it mean digging deeper into how your characters are reacting and dealing with the situation?

Still thinking about it.


How to Write a Good Story- Human Needs

All stories are ultimately about humans needs- specifically, a human (or human-like being) trying to meet those basic fundamental needs in some way. No matter what the story is about, or how complicated it is, on some level it’s about people trying to meet their needs.

So, what are the basic human needs?

The concept of human needs was first proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow believed that there are things we fundamentally seek out as human beings, and we need these things to live happy lives. The theory goes that if we don’t have these things, we will naturally try to seek them out and find ways to fill them because they really are fundamental to our lives.

Now, there has been arguments made about the hierarchy Maslow originally placed upon those needs, but that doesn’t really matter to us. The key here is that each of those basic needs you see there are so fundamental that if we’re missing them, and our lives are out of balance, we will naturally try to find some way to make them part of our lives again. (Even if we do it in dysfunctional ways, like staying in bad relationships because they still meet our needs in some way.)

Stories then, are also about characters trying to meet human needs, and you could even say that stories are actually teaching people how needs can be fulfilled through action (or inaction.) This is why characters almost always start stories in an unfulfilled state- one where they are missing one of their fundamental needs – and then the story itself is at it’s core about them trying to fill that missing need in their lives.

Very often, the main characters of stories don’t even know what’s missing in their lives, they are trying to fill those needs in an imperfect way or just limp along with those needs unfulfilled. The story, then, on a personal level becomes about them learning what it really is they need to be happy as a person, and then finding a solution to that need. An interesting point, however, is that often the Active Opponent of the story (the antagonist/villain) actually does know what they need (unlike the main character) and is actively trying to get it. The problem is that usually what the main character and their active opponent want is often the same thing, which naturally brings them into conflict.

Okay, enough theory. Let’s look at how some common genre plots match up with the humans needs that drive them.


Stories built around physiological needs are going to be primal stories. You don’t get any more basic than this, because these are the essential things that we need to be alive as living things. These are often stories where man is acting on the same level as an animal, and often will be about the less pleasant sides of human nature. However, these can be stories about the triumph of human nature too, like Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, where a human being must pull the basic needs from a harsh environment.


Safety covers a lot more ground than you might think. Any story where the main character’s goal is to achieve personal safety for themselves, their family, their community, their nation, or something else they deem important, is a safety-based story. Most action movies and superhero movies are ultimately about safety, because the villain will blow up/harm whatever if the hero doesn’t stop them- so the hero must risk personal safety to fight for the greater good of safety for the community. Westerns are also safety-based, since the cowboy hero is fighting to “keep the peace” or “restore order”, which are also codewords for safety. Even Mystery stories are most commonly about safety, since a murderer/criminal is loose and threatening the safety of society and the balance must be restored for there to be social order. Finally, war movies are also about safety- fighting against an invading army or enemy foe for the sake of the safety of country and loved ones. (Mom and Apple Pie!)


Since humans are social animals, we generally desire companionship of some kind and want to feel we belong to a greater community. This human need is naturally the realm of Romance movies and other love stories, but it can also be the root of many type of Dramas and Comedies, usually ones built around interpersonal relationships. The main characters in these stories are almost always lonely or isolated in some way, and the story will be about them finding and connecting with others in a deep and meaningful way.


This is another one that like Safety, covers a lot more ground than you might think at first. These are stories of achievement and gaining respect (both from others and within yourself), which is why Adventure stories are most often driven by Esteem. Young Adult stories are often Esteem driven too, since both YA and Middle Grade stories are meant for youth who are trying to find their place in the world and are often driven by gaining respect. Pretty much the whole of the Japanese boys comic industry is about Esteem stories as well- the weak and feeble youth who grows in power and stature personally and socially to become a great man.


Self Actualization

This kind of story is a little less common, in no small part because self actualization can be a pretty vague and personal concept. While an audience can easily understand the many variants of the previous four needs, and they can be easily represented on film, self actualization and being your best personal self is a harder thing to capture. You most often see it in novels where the character is trying to figure out their identity and goes on some sort of inward or outward journey to find the missing thing they need to be happy. In movies, you see it in stories like Seven Years in Tibet, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat Pray Love, where a character seems to have everything, but can’t find true happiness. Of course, these stories aren’t limited to introspective drama- Rocky is also a story of self actualization, as are many sports dramas which follow similar molds. (Oddly enough, a lot of Best Picture Oscars seem to go to Self Actualization driven movies.)

Now, when talking about a genre matching up with a human need, that’s based on how those genres generally play out. By shifting the human need the main character is seeking to fill, but using the tropes of another genre, you can create all sorts of combinations and situations. You could do a superhero story where the main character is drive by self actualization (One Punch Man), or a horror story which is about the main character finding the community they need during a zombie apocalypse. However, most commonly, you’ll see these human needs matched up with these genres because they’re good fits to motivate the characters in that genre.

And it’s all about motivation – conscious or unconscious – which is what’s driving the character to do what they do. We need main characters to be active, and nothing makes a character more active than trying to fill their needs.

One note- naturally, real people may be seeking to fill more than one of these needs at the same time, but this is a good time to remember that characters aren’t real people. A character having too many needs will usually muddy the story, and it’s best to focus on just one at a time in most stories. That isn’t to say that the character can’t have another need in a different story, but usually just one need, or maybe two conflicting needs, is enough to make a story interesting to the audience.

Also, if you don’t like Maslow’s list, or perhaps think it’s a bit short or unclear, then there are others who have attempted to quantify human needs in different ways. One of these is Professor Steven Reiss, who classified 16 “Desires” that each human being has. His list is meant for use by marketers (almost all modern marketing techniques are based on connecting human needs with products in the minds of consumers) but it can work for writers as well.

Reiss’ List:

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

The key is to remember that stories are about people acting to accomplish goals, and that action will most likely be driven by a human need. Matching the right need with the right character can really bring a character to life and help to make a story much more interesting and appealing than it might otherwise be. So know what your character’s needs are, and then make them work to fulfill them- because your reader needs a little adventure in their life.




Xiao Gou’s Blog

After reading online how helpful blogging in languages you’re learning can be, I’ve decided to start a separate blog in Chinese so I can practice my limited grammar and vocabulary and maybe learn a bit too. The blog, Xiao Gou’s Blog, will only be in Chinese, and contain my simple random posts each week. I will try to only blog with the vocabulary I actually know (rather that fill it with dictionary Chinese) and will write it in Traditional Characters because those are what I’m studying. I hope to update it a couple times a week.

If those who are better than I see mistakes, please feel free to correct me. -_-



Note- I called it Xiao Gou’s blog, but it has nothing to do with the character of Little Gou. It’s just me blogging, journaling and embarrassing myself. 😉

Review- Dragon Blade (Jackie Chan) (Mild Spoilers)

I just finished watching Dragon Blade, and I have to say I have really mixed feelings about it. It’s a giant pile of awesome ideas and potential wrapped in a badly directed and mismanaged package. The core idea is great- a team of Silk Road mediators in Han Dynasty China lead by Huo An (Jackie Chan) have to keep peace among the 36 different tribes that control parts of the Silk Road which runs between China and Rome. One day, a Roman army shows up on the Chinese border city of Wild Geese led by Commander Lucius (John Cusack) on the run from Rome because they’re fleeing with their lord’s youngest son to keep his elder brother from killing him. The Romans and the Chinese are the two ends of the Silk Road, but this is them meeting for the first time and lots of cultural conflicts and misunderstandings ensue.

Great stuff, and the first half of the movie is actually pretty good with a nice mix of comedy, action, and some cool scenes where each side gets to show off what they can do. It was made for Chinese audiences, but the Romans are played as strong and heroic, and Cusack and Chan are fun to watch together, regardless of how awkward the English dialog is. (And it’s REALLY awkward- this movie needed an English re-write badly, the lines sounding like they used Google Translate on a Chinese script.) I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the Romans as builders and engineers as well as warriors.

However, then the second half of the movie hits and it turns into a nonsensical mess that pretty much squanders everything the first half built up. Things and characters appear and disappear, and stuff happens that makes sense but was never really explained or built up to. You can kind of piece most of it together, but you’re left scratching your head as to what the writer/director was thinking. For example, the version I saw has a bizarre flash-forward to modern day at the end that comes out of nowhere and seems to be part of a whole storyline that was left out except for this final scene. Stuff like that.

I blame a lot of this on the director, Daniel Lee, as you can see in this a movie that in the hands of a good director like Ridley Scott could have been fricken amazing, but was instead reduced to a dog’s breakfast of a film.

I give the first half a B-, but thanks to a D- second half, I can only give the film a C- in the end. Which is sad, because I liked so many things in this film, just not the film itself. See it on Netflix, it’s definitely not worth a theatrical price to see, unfortunately.