Writing Manga: The Three Cycle Plot

Japanese comics, or manga, are written as episodic serials- which means they’re broken down into a series of semi-self contained chapters where each episode represents a piece of a larger story but is also a smaller story on its own. This style developed because they were publishing stories in weekly magazines and never knew if the reader had read the previous chapters or not, so they tried to make each chapter as accessible as possible by making it a mini-story. This isn’t much different from how American episodic television is written as well.

Where the Japanese approach differs from the typical American approach is that instead of a typical 3-act structure (Setup>Action>Conclusion) the Japanese prefer a style they refer to as the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, which is based on rising tension and excitement, and when mapped out looks a little like this…

Each cycle of the story represents a dip into suspense (Will they do it? How?) and a return to possible success, with each cycle increasing in length and intensity. This differs in length from a typical three-act story which is Setup (25%)>Action(50%)>Conclusion(25%), by being roughly Cycle One (25%), Cycle Two (30%), and Cycle Three (45%). In other words, instead of being organized as a beginning, middle, and end, the story is better thought of as being in three waves of increasing power and duration.

The peaks of the waves represents the moments of greatest hope and excitement turning into worry, while the bottom of the troughs represents the moments of greatest worry turning into hope. Using this sine-wave style pattern, the audience’s emotions are taken on a roller-coaster ride, and Japanese comic creators use it to play the audience’s emotions like an instrument alternating between fast and slow, soft and hard, and joy and despair.

Which is the key point- the Three Cycle Plot is built around the audience’s emotions and carrying them on an emotional journey. Things that happen are happening because they will affect the audience, and the characters and situations are a vehicle for making the audience feel. It’s all about creating a building a rhythm of suspense and excitement which alternate to bring out the best in each other.

Here’s how to use the Three Cycles to write a story…

Cycle One: Introduction and Problem (25%)

Introduce the following things as quickly as possible:

  • The main characters, including their motivations, reasons the audience should sympathize with them, and any long-term goals they have (if any).
  • The setting and other necessary details and pieces of information the reader needs to understand the story from start to finish.
  • The short term goal they have for this story.
  • An obstacle to that short-term goal which makes it appear challenging but still do-able. This obstacle should be connected to the major obstacle they’ll be facing in this story, but is not the main one.
  • A potential solution to that challenging obstacle.

Cycle Two: Double Trouble (30%)

  • Another greater obstacle appears, building on the smaller one. This can be something actually going wrong, or just the appearance of a greater threat. The important part is it creates another significant question in the audience’s minds (“How can they overcome this?”) and ups the suspense.
  • Usually the main opponent/challenge of the story will be revealed here, and their appearance may be the greater obstacle.
  • Despite the challenge of the greater obstacle, the main character will still attempt to solve it and make some headway.

Cycle Three: Disaster and Conclusion (45%)

  • Just as the greater obstacle looks to be solved, things take a deep turn for the worse and everything looks lost. The situation should feel hopeless for the audience, or at least they should doubt that the main character can solve their problem, just for a moment.
  • The main character must now do something they don’t want to do in order (or have been avoiding doing) to have even a chance at victory, and so they call on all their resources to take one last try at achieving their goal.
  • They win through their own efforts, and claim their prize.
  • The character is shown benefiting from their efforts in some way that makes the audience feel satisfied.
  • If the story is a continuing one, a new challenge is introduced to be solved in the next story.

Example Story: Baker’s Dozen, Episode 3

Cycle 1: Introduction and Problem

Dolly Madison is the best teen baker you ever saw, but she runs completely on instinct and recipes just confuse her. Thus, no baking school will accept her because she fails the written component of all the entrance tests. Seeing her potential, a master baker named Chef Kim has taken pity on her, and is giving her one chance to win a possible apprenticeship. As the story starts early one morning, she sneaks out because her parents don’t approve of her dream, and then heads to Kim’s Bakery, where she will face her big test.

Arriving at Kim’s Bakery, she finds he’s set up three stations, complete with equipment and ingredients. At each station is a sealed letter, and he tells her that in order to pass the test, she must complete the instructions in each letter before noon when the bakery opens. She can do them in any order, but she must complete each task to his satisfaction or she fails and he won’t give her another chance.

Saying a prayer, she picks a station randomly and reads the first letter- it turns out to be for two dozen chocolate chip cookies. The recipe is there, but she’s made them in the past, and is pretty sure she remembers how to do it on her own. She gets everything put together and gets the cookies in the oven- it’s now 8:30am, and she’s got a few hours.

Cycle 2: Double Trouble

She opens the second letter to find it requires her to make two chocolate layer cakes- something she’s never made before. Again, the recipe is there, and at first she tries to use it but gets really confused and makes a big mess. But then after taking out the cookies, she recalls that she’s seen people make these on her favorite cooking shows and after panicking reconstructs the steps in her head. She manages to get the ingredients together and gets them baking- the clock says 10:15am now.

Cycle 3: Disaster and Conclusion

Rushing over to the third station, she finds it’s for two loaves of banana bread- something she again has never made before. As she’s puzzling over how to do it, she smells something burning and discovers that the cakes are burnt! Can’t serve these! She now has an hour and a half to remake the cakes, and she still hasn’t started the banana bread!

After Chef Kim makes it clear there will be no more time, Dolly leaps into action and gets the cakes remade and in the oven. Then, she stares at the recipe, trying to figure it out and decides to just do one step at a time- breaking the process down. She has no time for this, but she’s got to go through it slowly in order to produce something. Working her way through, she manages to get the banana bread in the oven in time to get the cakes out. But the cakes are too hot to ice in time, and so she improvises a special topping that won’t melt on the hot cake. Then, with seconds to go, she pulls out the banana bread and gets them on the cooling racks.

Chef Kim tastes her cookies and finds them a little hard and salty, so he’s not impressed. He’s impressed by her cake however, and her ability to think up a topping at the last second to recover. Then they get to the banana loaf, which he questions will be done under such tight conditions. And, when he checks it, he finds it’s underdone and still uncooked in the middle.

Dolly cries, because she’s failed the test.

However, Chef Kim then informs her that she did pass the test- the test to see if she could follow a recipe under pressure. That was the real test, and in the end she did it, earning her place as his apprentice. Then he informs her it’s time to start serving, so she needs to clean up and get to the front of the bakery to serve customers. Baking is only half the job, and this was only half the test! Get to it!

Examples of Three Cycle Plot Patterns

These are some of the many possible ways you can use the three-cycle pattern to plan out the plot of a story, using some common situations. Each of these is only one way among many to do it.

The Hero Cycle

  • C1: A heroic character is introduced and faces a small challenge which lets the show off what they can do. This challenge leads to them facing a larger threat.
  • C2: The hero faces off against the real threat, and learns that they’re much tougher than they thought. By putting their skills to the test, they manage to hold their own against this dangerous opponent and make things even.
  • C3: The opponent reveals that they’ve been holding back and unleashes their full force against the hero, driving them into a corner. At their darkest hour, the hero manages to find a solution to their problems and rally against their opponent, defeating them.

Bad Situation Cycle

  • C1: The hero meets a villain who is clearly a tough customer. But it seems like they might be able to take them.
  • C2: The hero realizes this situation is worse than expected and pulls put their best move, which seems to do the trick.
  • C3: The villain turns out to be immune to their best move, and…
  • The hero must improvise/find a new way to defeat the enemy and then wins.
  • The hero gets pummeled into the ground and loses, leaving it as a cliffhanger for the next chapter.
  • The hero is rescued by a third party.
  • The hero must develop a new special strength.
  • Some combination of the above.

Young Master Cycle

  • C1: The hero finds a jerk being a jerk and puts them in their place. The young master sends thugs at the hero, who they defeat.
  • C2: The young master’s old master (father/master) comes looking for the hero who has bullied their son/student, and the old master is tougher than the hero. The hero is in serious danger, and at first they almost find a way to avoid conflict, but…
  • C3: The young master eggs the old master on, or something else incites the old master’s anger, and they attack the hero. The hero is in mortal danger and…
  • Must use every trick they have to get out of this one.
  • Finds a new unexpected strength.
  • Is saved by an unexpected ally.
  • Defeats the old master, but now has their entire clan hunting the hero down to try and restore the family’s honor.

The Comedy Cycle

  • C1: There’s a misunderstanding between two characters, but maybe they can work it out.
  • C2: Nope! Thanks to a twist, things get twice as bad, and there’s going to be real consequences. But there is still a chance…
  • C3: The chance for understanding falls apart and the only solution is now the hero coming clean (if it was caused by their own unwillingness to do what needed to be done) or a display of their special strength. The misunderstanding is cleared up and their relationship is healed, usually becoming stronger for the experience.

The Murder Cycle

  • C1: Someone has been killed and a detective uses their skills to find their first clues that lead them to a suspect.
  • C2: The detective finds the mystery is even harder to solve when their first suspect is also killed by the murderer, or the first suspect has a solid alibi. They’re left back at square one.
  • C3: The detective finds a new direction that leads them into a confrontation where they face several suspects and explain how the crime was done. Then they point out the murderer, who confesses under the weight of evidence.
  • Note: The moment things turn around in the Murder Cycle is when the detective has an “ah-ha!” moment that lets them piece the whole thing together and solve the crime.

The Romance Cycle:

  • C1: The lead is romantically interested in another character but their first attempt at getting closer with the other person fails.
  • C2: The lead gets another try at getting closer with the love interest, often due to circumstances, but this attempt not only fails but makes the love interest seem to dislike them.
  • C3: The lead gives it their all and confesses their feelings to their love interest, usually as part of an apology, and finds that the love interest doesn’t hate them at all. The two of them find a way to start a new relationship with each other, one that’s going in a positive direction.

Final Thoughts

This pattern is designed for writing serials, and will work for any kind of continuing episodic story from Manga to Xianxia Webnovel chapters. However, it can also be used for any other kind of story as well, and will work for organizing stories from a few paragraphs to thousands of pages in length. Just remember that there can be cycles within cycles, and each of those cycles can have other smaller 3-Cycle Plots inside them!

Look at your favorite Japanese stories and you’ll quickly start to see this three cycle pattern everywhere. While there are other patterns as well, most of them are variations on the three-cycle pattern which helps to define how the Japanese put together their stories.

Happy writing!

Rob

Detective Conan Mystery Formula

Image result for detective conan

The following formula, found on Reddit and submitted by user TeraVonen, is a near perfect summary of the typical 2-part story pattern you find in the mystery anime and manga Detective Conan. Conan is the 4th best selling manga series of all time, and the anime has been on the air for over 20 years, and in that time a definitely formula to how the stories play out has developed. There is still a lot of variety within this formula, but it’s the basis of the majority of Conan episodes which aren’t directly linked to the overarching plot.


The typical murder case Detective Conan episode

Part 1 :

  • Conan goes with some of his usual companions somewhere for leisure.
  • Optional: Conan thinks about some plot progression elements he recently discovered. *
  • Conan’s group run into a group of people. One of them is being a douche to everyone else and then goes somewhere away from the others. Conan will listen a bit to the argument then move on with his day.
  • A scream. Conan and any detective he was with (Heiji, Sera, etc) will go running to the scene. It’s a murder. The person being a douche earlier got killed.
  • The police come to the scene.
  • Optional: The scene might appear as an accident/suicide initially, before the detective confirm it’s actually a murder.
  • Conan starts citing strange things to the police. [Things that Conan notes as being strange about the case or situation- Rob]
  • There are three suspects: The ones who argued with the victim earlier.
  • End of the episode.

Part 2 :

  • The suspects are searched and interrogated. At least one of them has a good motive for the crime.
  • The police discovers new elements related to the crime, but still not enough to determine the identity of the murderer.
  • Conan and the other detectives (if present) are close to the truth, then someone in Conan’s group will bring up a subject or say something unrelated that will make Conan or the other detectives realize how the crime was committed.
  • At this moment, the three suspects want to go home and urge the police to let them go, they will explain again their own versions of the events to show how the murderer wasn’t one of them.
  • This is when the case is resolved, either by one of the adult detectives, Sleeping Kogoro, or Conan himself. The method of murder is explained and the culprit identified. They will deny it, claiming no proof, this is when the detectives will use the “We will find your blood/fingerprints/DNA” card.
  • The culprit admits his crime. His motive is either to punish an unpunished crime, getting blackmailed, or to avenge someone else. [Also hatred and jealousy are common ones- Rob]
  • End of the case, Ending starts.
  • Conan and his group move on from the case usually going home after having their leisure time disrupted.
  • Optional: If there is any plot progression deductions from Conan, they will be shown here. *

[ *  = These refer to the overarching story of the manga, not the individual mystery which this is a summary of. -Rob]


The above formula is best understood by watching a few episodes of Detective Conan (aka Case Closed in English) which can be found on Netflix or (better, because they have more episodes) Crunchyroll. Or, of course, you can also read the manga at various places online. It’s a nifty little mystery story structure for short stories that has been proven to work time and again.

If you wanted to use it for another type of detective story that wasn’t broken into two parts, however, you would need to make a few modifications. The audience knows who Conan is, whereas another detective would have to be quickly introduced. Also, in a short story you probably don’t need to have the suspects explain themselves twice, because that’s just for people who missed/forgot the first half to catch up before the reveal.

Anyhow, this was a great summary of the Conan story formula, so I thought it was worth archiving for future writers. Enjoy

Rob

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.

Rob

My Favorite Manga of 2017

This has been an interesting year for me, not the least of because I spent half of it working on my first major nonfiction book, Write! Shonen Manga. Now, I normally read a lot of manga, and am always looking for new series to check out, but because of the research I was doing I really doubled down on trying new series that might not have appealed to me in the past.

As a result, I found quite a few interesting titles, and I thought I’d share some of these gems with you all. The main rule in selecting these titles was that they’re ones I started to read in 2017, although most of them also started in 2017 as well, so it works either way. Therefore, my favorite books like One Piece, One-Punch Man and Duopo Cangqiong aren’t listed because they’re books I’ve enjoyed for some time.

On that note, let’s begin… (in no particular order)

Yurucamp

Summary: Rin, a girl camping by herself at the base of Mt. Fuji. Nadeshiko, a girl who came to see Mt. Fuji on her bicycle. The scenery the two witness over a supper of cup ramen… marks the start of a new friendship and many adventures to come, camping in the great outdoors!

This comic about off-season camping in Japan fascinated me to no end. It breaks almost every western rule of storytelling, yet is charming and compelling and I can’t help smiling whenever a new chapter of this monthly series drops. It’s a perfect example of what I call an Activity Manga, which is designed to teach the audience about a subject in an interesting way. It actually makes me want to try camping for the first time in my life!

 

Saotome-Senshu, Hitakakusu

Summary: High-Schooler Tsukishima Satoru gets confessed to by local female High-School boxing-talent Saotome Yae. He rejects her initially because he does not want to impede her boxing career (and prevent getting beaten up by her fans). Her female coach, Shioya, hears about this and decides to install him as Saotome’s trainer so that they can secretly date each other. This situation is also aided by his extensive boxing knowledge.

This looks like a sports manga, but in reality it’s a romantic slice of life story about a nerdy high-schooler and the school’s female boxing champion. While it comes across initially as a gender-swapped high school romance, it actually becomes quite charming and touching as it goes on. The tone is optimistic and the characters are likeable enough to carry this very plot-light story.

 

Dr. STONE

Summary: Two friends find themselves in a post-apocalyptic world: most humans have been turned into stone.They will have to manage to survive and get a cure for this phenomenon!

This was one of my surprise favorites of the year, and thanks to a slow start I almost gave up on it, but boy am I glad I didn’t! Artist Boichi has been a longtime favorite of mine, and with this tale of rebuilding civilization he’s finally found a true venue to show off his talent. Super lively and interesting, once it hits it’s second major story arc, this book never fails to entertain. Senku is the coolest scientist hero I’ve seen in a very long time, and when I think about it, when was the last time you saw a real scientist as a hero in a post apocalyptic actioner? If you can’t think of one, read this book now!

 

Grashros

Summary: Set 30,000 years ago, a tribe of cro-magnon people face the challenges of life in the stone age.

This one squeaked in, as I only started to read it last week, but it immediately became a favorite. I’ve never been fond of caveman stories, but this one is so well told that even I can’t help but wish there were more chapters available right now! The Japanese never cease to amaze me with their ability to take stories that should be boring and give them an interesting twist. The gorgeous art doesn’t hurt either!

 

Summary: He met a girl. A young girl branded with the mark of a demon. That was the beginning of everything. “Crap, my girl’s so cute” This is the story of the two who became an overly protective guardian and an adopted child, changing relationships, and watching how that relationship evolves.

Despite the grand sounding title, this is actually a slice of life book about the warrior mage Dale and his adorable adopted daughter Latina. Latina is a member of the demon race, but Dale takes him into his home and she steals his heart and the hearts of everyone around her with her charm, including the readers. It’s based on a light novel series, and I enjoy it so much I’ve been tempted to start reading the novel as well.

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Robot X Laserbeam

Summary: Roboto Hatohara (Roboto is the Japanese phonetic rendering of both Robert (his actual name) and the word robot in Japanese) is an autistic half-Japanese high schooler who discovers an incredible talent for golf that opens up a whole new world for the quiet youth.

This one makes the honorable mentions list because while it wasn’t one of my favorites, I do enjoy it, and it is largely responsible for kickstarting my writing of my book on Shonen Manga. To be honest, I thought golf was super boring, but once I started reading this book I couldn’t stop, and it was that strange dissonance between loving a comic about a subject that I didn’t like that triggered my exploration into the secrets of manga writing. The characters are okay, but it’s told with enough style and kinetic energy that you get swept along on Roboto’s journey whether you want to or not. The power of a well told tale indeed!

 

And, that’s it for 2017! There were a few others I almost put on the list, like Honzuki no Gekokujo, but in the end I decided to just stick with the ones which I enjoyed the most. They’re a varied bunch, and I heartily recommend checking out each of them. But be careful of doing it before bed, you might just see the sun rise before you stop reading!

Happy New Year! And here’s to the manga and adventures of 2018!

Thanks for reading!

Rob

The Investigation Plot

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

Required Characters:

  • An Investigator
  • A virtuous Innocent
  • A Villain

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

 

Development

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

 

Event

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

 

Apex

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

 

Notes

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

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

The Duel Plot

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

Required Characters:

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

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

Development

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

Event

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

Apex

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

Notes:

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

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

The Righteous Avenger Plot

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

Required Characters:

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

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

Development

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

Events

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

Apex

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

Notes:

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

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