In this episode, Don and Rob head East with Justus R. Stone, YouTube Light Novel Reviewer, to discuss the ins and outs of the Japanese and American Light Novel markets. Along the way, Justus takes the pair on a tour of the origins of Light Novels, why they’re growing in popularity in English, and how Light Novels have become linked with web-fiction. All this, and the answer to the question Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, is waiting for you in this episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.
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!
Thanks for reading!
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.
- An Investigator
- A virtuous Innocent
- A Villain
- 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!
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.
- A main character
- An Opponent
- Commentators the duel (optional, but useful, see below)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
- A powerful Hero (the “righteous avenger”)
- A virtuous Innocent
- An irredeemable Villain
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
It’s finally here! Six months ago, I started a “small” project to write a short book on writing Shonen Manga style stories. Now, 310 pages and 90,000 words later it’s finished and available on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and most other retailers. It’s even available in print!
If you’ve ever wanted to know how the Japanese put together their amazing comics like Naruto, One Piece, and others, this book unpacks it all for you, and gives you the techniques you need to write your own manga and manga-like stories. Whether you’re a beginner or master wordsmith, this book will help you understand the power of the IDEA story structure and use it to make your stories shine.
Normally the book is $7.99, but until December 7th, the ebook’s only 99 cents! Get it now, and discover how to unleash your inner manga creator!
A brilliant video which changed my thinking about style. All academics should watch it.
So, I was listening to the Wonder Woman episode of The Story Toolkit podcast, and I have to say it was a major eye opener. The episode itself is about the Wonder Woman movie, and during the show the host Bassim al-Wakil laid out something I had no idea about, but which makes absolute perfect sense.
You see, I found the Wonder Woman movie a mess in terms of storytelling, theme and kind’ve in general, and Bassim not only helped to explain exactly why, but he also taught me something about how Hollywood is now making films I didn’t know. In particular, Bassim outlined that the way they’re making these big tentpole movies has changed, largely due to the heavy levels of effects involved and the limited time they have to make them.
In short, since they only have a year to make these films, what they’re doing is coming up with a rough outline for the film, figuring out what the big setpiece sequences are going to be, and then beginning work on those before the script is actually completed! Why is this important? Well, he used Wonder Woman as a good example.
He pointed out that the big setpiece action sequences have little to no dialog in them, and then none of what is in them refers to anything outside that particular setpiece sequence. In other words, in a scene like Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land, the whole story of that sequence is all within that sequence and doesn’t actually connect to anything else in the film. This is because, for all intents and purposes, it is a little self-contained mini-movie within the larger film, and the same for the other big action sequences. It HAS to be this way, because they didn’t know what the final script it would be put into would look like.
Then, he noted that the scenes in between the big event scenes are all packed to the gills with exposition. Like, solid wall-to-wall characters filling in the story, because that time spent in the effects scenes is basically wasted screen time that is only connected to the main story through characters. They are attempting to tell the story of the movie during the cracks between the big event effects scenes, which makes it awkward and forced.
For those of the video game generation, think of the big effects scenes as the parts would be playing, and the exposition scenes as the pre-rendered cut scenes and you’ll have the right idea. The movie is literally a series of action scenes with the story bits just there to connect them all together.
So what? You might ask. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that in a good and well told story, everything in the movie from the scenes, to the dialog, to the actions, to the costumes and sets and everything else is there for the purpose of telling and enhancing that story. There is a clear theme being developed, and subtext to the story that the audience reacts to, and which helps to build a connection between the characters and audience.
Think of it as the difference between Team A, professional basketball team who train and play together, and Team B, a bunch of professional players from different teams stuck together for the purposes of the game. While Team B might have some amazing players, it will never be as good as Team A because there won’t be any unity the way they play. Team A work as a unit, while Team B will always be individuals playing their own game and not coordinating with each other.
The current crop of big event Superhero movies (and effects movies in general it seems) are all Team B. Uneven collections of individual sequences that may or may not work well together, and which lack focus and coherence.
This really struck home when I thought about the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2– when it came out, I think it was my friend Jack who pointed out that you could literally take the major sequences of the film and stick them up on YouTube as individual videos and they’d work perfectly fine. Yes, there was a big story idea there surrounding them, but they worked fine by themselves, and didn’t have to be watched as part of a greater film for the most part. The end result was a flat and uneven movie that did have enjoyable parts, but which really didn’t work as coherent film built up around setups and payoffs within the story.
This is as opposed to Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1) which has a clear story being told from start to finish that for the most part links together and has a dramatic through-line you can follow. Likely because, unlike it’s sequel (or Wonder Woman) it had sufficient pre-production time to plan things out before it was produced.
This also explains why the earliest set photos and videos from the next Avengers film were all indoor alien sets and green screens with the major cast members there for filming. They were making all the major effects sequences first, and then would do the parts which fill in all the details later. And who knows if they had a script finished at the time they started it or not? Civil War clearly didn’t, looking back at it and how uneven that film is as well. (Spiderman wasn’t even part of the film when Civil War went into production, for example.)
Now, maybe I’m exaggerating how bad this is for film, after all, these are meant to be big bland blockbusters designed to wow audiences with their visuals more than their deep character arcs. However, I don’t consider this a good development because while it might not be why the last few Marvel movies have been so flat and uneven, it certainly isn’t helping matters. And now that I know what to look for, I think my enjoyment of these films is probably going to take another dip.
Thanks Bassim! 😛
So, I’m puzzling over this quote from Araki’s book on writing manga.
In Western comic storyboards, panels are laid out with the most importance placed on good drawing composition, and the sketches focus on the characters’ actions. Japanese mangaka, on the other hand, place emphasis on characters’ internal thoughts and emotional reactions. This focus on the internal is what sets Japanese mangaka apart.
First, I think this idea is brilliant. It’s a really interesting take on comic composition.
But, beyond that, because I’m a writer, I have to wonder if there’s a way to apply this to prose writing. Does this just mean putting in emphasis on the characters’ feelings and expressing emotion over describing the action is it happening? Or, would this mean doing something like being more poetic and emotional in your language, or trying to find a balance between the two?
Or, does it mean digging deeper into how your characters are reacting and dealing with the situation?
Still thinking about it.
A while back, I blogged about a Japanese story structure called Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (Kee-Show-Ten-Ketsoo), which is normally presented as an alternative story structure which doesn’t revolve around conflict. I found the whole idea fascinating, especially since our normal “western” story structure is generally entirely based around characters in conflict (with others, their environment, themselves, society, etc). Finding the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (KSTK) format seemed like a great alternative, and that’s especially true since there aren’t a lot of different story structures out there.
For those who aren’t familiar with the structure, it works like this:
- Ki– Setup the situation.
- Sho– Development of the situation
- Ten– Twist or surprise on the situation that the audience expects.
- Ketsu– Resolution of the situation.
- Ki– Sazae-san is enjoying a riverside view.
- Sho– An American Soldier appears and asks her to kneel down.
- Ten– Sazae-san is pleased he wants to take her picture.
- Ketsu– He’s really taking a picture of the beautiful girl behind her.
This format was originally found in Japanese poetry, but later became “famous” as the structure used in their Yon Koma (4 Panel) gag comic books. (Their equivalent to our newspaper strips.) Some others have come to use it in different ways, but the information out there in English said that it was a structure that relied on dramatic and situational twists to produce a reaction from the audience (usually a humorous one). However, when you’re working with limited sources of information about a subject that isn’t in a language you speak, there’s bound to be some miss-communications here and there.
Having recently been able to read the fascinating book Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki, I have discovered that my understanding of the KSTK form wasn’t quite right.
I had believed it was a form without direct conflict, but now thanks to Araki I understand that instead it is highly flexible form where the conflict is optional because the story structure doesn’t require it. In fact, Araki demonstrates in his book that it is in fact the standard format still used by many manga writer/artists today when planning short stories and chapters of their serials. Not only that, he demonstrates how flexible the structure is.
But first, let’s make sure it’s clear what each step represents.
- Ki – In this stage, we get a character and situation, and that character demonstrates a need, usually one based on a derivative of basic human needs.
- Sho – The character makes a plan, and tries to follow a path they think will fill that need.
- Ten – The character faces an obstacle to their plan, and must figure out how to overcome it.
- Ketsu– The character is done facing the current obstacle(s) and now has either fulfilled their need or moved closer towards fulfilling it.
This structure actually conforms to the basic structure that all stories must follow, and represents a simple and universal way of looking at story.
A sample short Romance story:
- Ki– Two people meet.
- Sho– They fall in love.
- Ten– The man’s ex-girlfriend gets in the way.
- Ketsu– They overcome their challenges and marry.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that, according to Araki, most manga stories tend to follow this structure closely or loosely. He also mentions that a common variation of it is the structure of Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten-Ten-Ketsu (with the number of Tens (twists) being as few or many as needed). In fact, referring to Ten as “Twist” might be a mistranslation in this case, as it’s often more like “Dramatic Event,” “Unexpected Revelation,” or just plain “Opposition.”
You could have a dozen small Tens or just one big one, and they can take any form you’d like, as long as they keep building the dramatic power of the story.
A longer Romance tale:
- Ki– Two people meet.
- Sho– They fall in love.
- Ten– The woman’s insecurities get in the way. (problem)
- Ten– The man’s family hates the man. (bigger problem)
- Ten– The man must follow the woman to Europe and bring her back. (biggest problem)
- Ketsu– She agrees and they marry.
Also, as Araki also points out, the Ketsu phase can be moved around and take different forms. For example, in serial stories (or chapters of a book), the Ketsu might be delayed to the start of the next installment, so you end up with a structure like:
- Part A: Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten
- Part B: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
- Part C: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
- Part D: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu.
In this case, the Ki in part B-D is actually the “new normal”, not a complete reset to zero. The Ketsu is producing a “new normal” or “new state” which the characters are at, and then the next round of buildup (Sho) begins towards a dramatic situation. There is always an upward building of dramatic momentum as the story progresses, so that each cycle tops the one before it. This way, the reader is always wanting to read the next installment/chapter to find out how the situation resolves, and is kept focused on the story until the end.
Specifically in Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:
- Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
- Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
- Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
- Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.
Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)
- Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
- Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
- Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
- Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)
So, for example:
Opening Story Arc Chapter:
- Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over a Ancient Ruby.
- Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
- Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
- Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)
Middle Story Arc Chapter:
- Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
- Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
- Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
- Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
- Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
- Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)
- Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
- Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
- Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
- Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
- Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
- Ketsu– Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)
Finally, one last advantage of this story structure is its flexibility of length. You can make a KSTK story as long or short as you want, and obviously have a overall KSTK structure with the chapters within also having mini KSTK structures. The above Romance could be a short story, or it could be the root structure of a whole novel, depending on how you want to let the story unfold. It is especially good for stories where character or setting have a greater focus than plot, because it can allow those elements to play out while still having what the audience will recognise as a story structure underneath.
And, of course, not all the dramatic twists have to be ones based on conflict, and I now know and appreciate. 😊Live and learn!
Have fun experimenting with this structure, and read Araki’s book if you get the chance, it covers a lot more things than just this, many of which you might find useful.