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.
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.
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
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!
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with comedian Kevin Doak to discuss comedy and the nerdly arts. The trio debate which superhero you want to have over for dinner, why the Walking Dead needs more laughs, and the depressed turnout of Batman v. Superman. All this, and why Shawn of the Dead is the most realistic zombie movie ever, is waiting for you in this, the 25th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Edd Vick, founder and publisher of MU Press and Comics F/X magazine, to discuss Edd’s history in comics and the independent comics scene of the 80s and 90s. Former guest Jeff Wood, one of Edd’s friends and contributors also stops by, and the four of them discuss comics culture, convention culture, and what they see as the future of comic books. All of this, and the real story of why the comics industry collapsed in the 90s are coming to you in this, the 18th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with former Comics F/X magazine founder and editor Jeff Wood to talk about the West Coast independent comics scene of the 1980’s. The three discuss the origins of Comics F/X magazine, MU Press, the small press black and white comics explosion, and how “three adjectives and a noun” comics and anthropomorphic smut crashed the industry. All this and the story behind Jeff’s own legendary comic Snowbuni are waiting for you in this, the 14th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
One of the great things about the Internet is that many things which aren’t considered considered commercially viable are distributed online by people who have a passion for them. This can be people sharing recipes, fansubbing their favorite TV shows from other countries, or fan-translations of Manga.
There are a couple Manga that I really enjoy which don’t have a strong enough English fanbase to actually publish for profit, but which fans have translated for fun. All of these titles can be around on sites like Mangafox or Manga Reader.
Black Joke- An action manga about the enforcers who work for a Casino in the future, and the dirty jobs they have to do. I wasn’t sure about this one at first, since it’s a bit odd and gory, but the more I read it the more attached to it I became. Now it’s one of my favorites, although it is definitely not for everyone! (Rated Hard R)
One-Punch Man– A superhero-action-comedy about a Superman-level superhero who can literally defeat any opponent in one punch, and how incredibly boring this makes his life. It’s a Japanese take on American superheroes, kind’ve like The Tick, but with more gore and nice art. (The whole thing seems to be an art experiment by the creator.) It’s gaining quite a following in American fan circles.
Gamble Fish– Tomu Shirasagi is a young gambler who travels to the ShishiDo Academy (Japan’s most elite prep school) with the stated goal of making $100 million through gambling and betting with the school’s students. But the school and Tomu both have dark secrets, and these spiral out of control in a series of ever-escalating “games” based around a combination of wits, bravery and deception. It starts serious, gets more than a little over-the-top and silly, but is always fun an interesting.
Killer Stall– In this action Korean Manhua, Choo is an elite killer for an organized crime outfit who decides to start a new life because he falls in love. You can probably guess how well that works out. A well told tale of gangsters and assassins.
Liar Game-A young woman is drawn into a game of deception called the Liar Game. Similar to the manga Death Note, but based around psychological warfare and deception. It was on a break for a while, but new ones have come out recently. Not a breezy read, but worth the effort to follow.
Robot Keiji– Oldschool (like 1970’s oldschool) manga about an old police detective who is assigned a new partner- a robot. Surprisingly serious and dark, it has an edge to it that newer manga tend to lack. The characters are a little cartoony, but the story and presentation really draw you in. I didn’t think I’d like it and read it on a whim, now I really want to read more!
Heroes of the Spring and Autumn– In this Chinese Manhua (comic), a Chinese prince is attacked by a group of mysterious martial artists and receives a head injury that leaves him with amnesia. However, that’s just the core story of an epic conspiracy surrounding the end of the Qin dynasty. Not a great comic, but nice art and a very different approach to storytelling.