I’ve just released a new revised edition of my How to Write Manga book. If anyone hasn’t had a chance to check it out, it’s a new and updated version of my popular original textbook. And, if you already have an ebook copy of my original, just have it update to the newest version on Kindle and you can have the latest version.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Last summer, I began revising my book Write! Shonen Manga towards a second edition, however the more I wrote the more it turned from being a second edition into not one, but two different books! The first of these was All the Write Moves which was published last fall on Amazon, and the second one is the upcoming How to Write Manga, which will be released this summer.
How to Write Manga will be an almost a totally different book, and at first, I just removed Write! Shonen Manga from publication and was going to let it vanish into obscurity. But, the truth is, I’m leaving so much useful information from Write! Shonen Manga on the editing floor that it seemed a shame to take it completely out of availability.
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%)
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
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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)
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
A virtuous Innocent
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!