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 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!
As a writer, writing teacher, and a lover of Japanese comics, I was excited when I stumbled upon Hirohiko Araki’s Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga on Amazon the other day. Published in English in June of 2017 (it was published in Japanese in 2015) by VIZ Media, it was of immediate interested because Araki is the writer/creator of the manga epic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which has been running in Shonen Jump and Ultra Jump for over 25 years. So, naturally, I snagged the eBook edition of the book for my tablet and started reading.
Having just finished the book, I wanted to share my thoughts, but if you want the short version of my review, here it is: If you want to write Shonen (boys) adventure stories like Naruto, One Piece, and Dragonball, this is a must read. If you’re a new writer looking for a basic book on writing in general, this is a pretty good read. If you’re an experienced writer who has read/written lots, it’s an interesting read, but mostly from a cultural perspective. It’d give it 4/5 stars.
Okay, with that out of the way, lets divide this up into the Pros and Cons of this book.
I’m going to start with the Cons, just to get them out of the way, and because they’re short.
Araki is a oldschool battle manga/pulp adventure writer. So that’s what he’s basically teaching you how to write in this book. If you want to write something else, it can still be useful, but this might not be the book for you. He’s also a bit of a maverick, with his own way of doing things that falls outside of the norm even by boys manga standards. (He didn’t apprentice under the previous generation, is largely self-taught, and his stories are often radically different than most other Shonen stories are.)
This isn’t a book for visual artists, except in the very general sense. He’s got a lot of suggestions and comments about manga art and comic composition, but it won’t teach you serious hardcore artistic theory like Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics will. Heck, even those “How to Draw Manga” books will likely give you more actual how-to than this book does, if that’s your chosen style.
Piggybacking on that, the rest of this book is for writers, but again, it’s really just a collection of tips and basic theory that he’s picked up over 25 years in the business. If you want to get into how to write story in depth, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is the book you want. Also, the story structure he teaches (Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu) is really intended for short stories and chapters of longer serials, and he doesn’t really go into writing and structuring a full serial.
A lot of the advice here is specifically for the Japanese manga market, because this is just a translation of a Japanese book for a Japanese audience, not an edition for foreigners.
He gives a passage from a Hemmingway story and claims that it tells us information that it really doesn’t. I have to wonder if this is a mistranslation of what he was saying the passage was supposed to be giving us.
There are a few times when the translation is a bit unclear, but those are few and far between overall.
Okay, that aside, let’s look at what the book does well.
This is a really good primer on writing in general for new writers, whether you’re a visual artist or a pure writer, or both.
This is a great book for understanding the ways of thinking that lay behind writing boys manga (aka The Golden Road), and how Japanese view creating manga in general. His thoughts on how manga are more emotionally driven than western comics are were interesting to read, and he really takes you through the process of creating his manga and how the Japanese manga artist system works. (If this part interests you, you should also read the manga Bakuman, which covers this in more detail and in more dramatic form.)
Araki’s thoughts on the relationship between Setting, Story and Character and how they’re all tied together by Theme are worth remembering and a good primer for new writers. He also gives a lot of good tips and suggestions about those elements of story and how they work in a Shonen comic.
The Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu story structure he outlines is a good one for short story writers to keep in mind, and simple and flexible while still offering a straightforward way to structure your stories. (One of his two Implementation chapters acts as an example in great detail, which is also nice. Although after you read it, you can look at any Shonen comic and see it in action immediately.)
He goes into great detail about how he creates characters, and even shows you his character template that he uses to think through his characters before he sits down and designs them visually.
He goes into detail about his own experiences moving up through the manga industry. It’s not quite “On Writing” (Stephen King’s book), but it does give you a feeling for his highs and lows in the industry.
You get a behind the scenes look at his Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, and the thoughts, ideas and approaches that went into making it the series it is. (I have to say, as a Jojo’s fan, I really enjoyed all the tidbits about the series he scatters throughout the book.)
It’s a pretty quick and easy read. It took me about 3 hours to read, and I wasn’t trying to power through it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and as I said above, I recommend it to new writers and Shonen manga fans. Araki himself says this book is really intended as a “passing of the torch” book where he shares his secrets with the next generation of manga producers, and that’s what it is. There isn’t likely to be too many mind-blowing ideas here, but there is a lot of things worth thinking about, and I’m very glad I was able to read it. Like I said above, if you enjoyed this, try Bakuman next, which is a dramatized version of this topic. (And an amazing one at that.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to track down his Rohan Kishibe stories, which look amazing.
Page from Tagosaku and Mokube’s Big Toyko Adventure
In this episode, Rob and Don journey back into the past of Japanese comic books to explore it from its roots 1300 years ago until the great experimental manga age of the 1970s. They explore the European roots of Manga, how the medium was shaped by the winds of Japan’s history, and the major figures who helped make manga what it is today. All this, and how Go Nagai brought sex and violence to Japanese children’s television, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
(This article is the first rough part of what would later become my book Write! Shonen Manga. I’m leaving it up so that people can see how the book evolved, although a lot of it was later revised for the book.)
The Japanese produce more comics than anyone else on Earth, and they are a comic reading culture through and through. As a result, just like during the Pulp Era of American magazine fiction, a number of formulas have evolved which Japanese writers rely on when producing comics. These range from formulas related to character design (how to draw eyes, bodies, hair, etc) to story formulas which they use when writing and structuring their comic serials.
Each genre (and subgenre) can have its own formula that gets used again and again (because if it ain’t broken don’t fix it!) and Shonen comics are no exception. For those who aren’t familiar with Shonen comics, they’re targeted primarily at boys from 8-18, and dominate the sales of comics and anime in Japan. Most of the names you’ll see in any top-10 anime list (for sales or readership) are Shonen titles like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Dragonball, etc. Shonen Jump, the largest of these comic anthology magazines, sells between three and four million copies a week, and is ready by all genders and age groups.
So yes, they produce a lot of Shonen comics, and these comics tend to follow a standard structure you’ll see again and again if you keep reading them. This structure likely evolved from Chinese Martial Arts fiction and other serial fiction of the early 20th century, but it definitely came into its own in the late 1980’s, after which it became the dominant form of story structure in mainstream Shonen titles.
Now, before we go into detail about the structure, I want to discuss the three major types of stories which tend to use this structure and what makes each different.
Shonen Fight comics– Comics using this structure are inherently focussed on characters dueling with each other. The focus in these comics is going to be fighting, levelling, and lots of it! Generally speaking, these will follow a talented new fighter who joins the world of battles and then fights an ever escalating series of opponents to become the top fighter of his type. This type of story is extremely popular, and was perfected by Dragonball Z, after which all Shonen Fight comics began to follow this formula. The audience gets vicarious thrills as they watch their young hero fight his way through an endless series of ever more bizarre opponents and learn weird martial arts or fighting techniques that let them become king of the fighters. (Note- these fights can be physical, social, psychological, or take any other form. Death Note is also a Shonen Fight comic, but it looks nothing like Dragonball on the surface.)
Sports/Activity Dramas– These comics use the same structure as Shonen Fight comics, but do something different with it. In these comics, the focus is on taking the audience through the journey of someone becoming a master of a sport or other activity. One key difference here is that Activity Dramas are about teaching the audience something useful in the real world. They often replace the more extreme thrills of Shonen Fight comics with actual useful knowledge of some kind, producing a story which is more grounded, but which offers a combination of entertainment and education at the same time. This type of story can also be quite popular, although it usually ranks slightly below Shonen Fight stories, and examples of it range from sports dramas like Slam Dunk and Robot x Laserbeam, to “Kids collect stuff” dramas like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, or creative activities like Bakuman, and many, many other subjects. You can read more about them here.
Pseudo-Activity Dramas– This is a type of hybrid between the above two. It will use the “teaching” structure of an Activity drama about a character learning something, but the things they’re learning will be fictional and of little real use. What’s happening here is that the writer is using the Activity Drama structure to flesh out the setting and show the character going through the learning process of whatever they’re doing. However, as soon as the character has a good grip on the activity, the comic usually turns into a full Shonen Fight comic and jettisons the Activity drama form in favor of focusing on fighting and dramatic twists. The comic Naruto is a perfect example of this, with the main character being a ninja trainee for the first major arcs of his story and getting extensive detailed ninja training, and then completely jettisoning the training/teaching aspect in favor of superpowered duels once the writer had run out of things to “teach”.
(I should note that many Shonen comics inadvertently follow the Pseudo Activity Drama pattern as the writer starts out with a fun and detailed setting and situation they want to explore, and then when they run out of ideas or start to drop in popularity they resort to turning it into a pure Shonen Fight comic as a last resort. Bleach and Naruto are both poster boys for this!)
In addition, the philosophy behind Shonen Battle manga should also be considered. According to Hirohiko Araki (author of Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga) Shonen battle manga are built on three key concepts- Friendship, Effort and Victory. They are about people finding friends, struggling together, and achieving victory through their unity and efforts. This a very Japanese (and Asian) way of looking at the world, as their cultures focus on collective effort and achieving through hard work. This also runs opposite to the North American way of thinking, which is about achievement through individual effort and mastering the world around you by being the best. (Oddly enough, this is the most common Villain perspective in Battle Manga, which highlights the different worldviews between the two.)
So, with that in mind, how does the formula run?
The most common version of this formula is built around a slightly slow but talented main character. This serves 4 purposes: 1) the main character’s slowness makes them sympathetic and more relatable to the average reader. 2) the main character being slow means they must be taught the knowledge they need to know by the other characters and have it explained in simple ways. 3) It gives the character a lot of room to grow. 4) And finally, it lets the main character provide some comic relief and make believable mistakes that liven up the story between dramatic parts.
This Main Character (MC) will have a problem that comes in one of two forms- 1) they’re thrust into a life or death struggle by circumstance and must fight to survive, 2) they’re unhappy in their lives and are looking for a goal or focus to make them feel fulfilled. They may or may not have a major flaw (like laziness, being bad tempered, etc) but will be pure of heart and believe in the power of will to change the world. (They are almost always passionate, active characters, who just need a focus to get them going and use their potential.)
To help them on their journey, the MC will have a buddy who is their closest and most trusted friend. This character exists so that the MC has someone to talk to, and talk about their problems aloud to, vocalizing their thoughts and letting us know what’s going on in their heads. This buddy will often know more than the MC about different topics, but is all theory, and lacks the talent that the MC has.
The MC will normally also have a Main Opponent, someone who is actively trying to accomplish the same goal that they are, or has already accomplished that goal and is trying to maintain their position of power. In Shonen Fight dramas, there may be multiple Main Opponents who come and go with each new story arc, whereas in Activity Dramas the Main Opponent is usually there from the beginning and will only leave when the story ends. (They represent the final challenge the MC must defeat to reach their goal.)
Other typical characters to appear are the Love Interest (who is there to inspire the MC to try harder), the Mentor (there to advise the MC), the Sidekicks (usually the MC picks up a bunch of friends as they journey along, forming a mini-community), and regular Opponents who exist to keep the action flowing and the challenges coming.
The setting can be anyplace or anytime, but will most likely be Japan, and the main characters will be Middle School or High School students, or at least teenagers. This isn’t iron-clad, but there is still that belief that teens relate best to teens.
They should pursue an activity that either naturally has a competitive element to it, or one which can be made competitive through personal competition. For example, Heart Surgery is not a competitive art by nature, but if you have heart surgeons competing for skill and prestige then it can become so. (And has, see Team Medical Dragon.) Humans can make almost anything competitive through pride and jealousy, you just have to think about how to do in an interesting way. This competitive situation is going to be your hook to build drama and keep the audience interested.
There will also be a “gimmick” or hook to the story that makes it different than other stories. Perhaps it’s a novel setting, or a weird method of conflict, or maybe there’s a twist to the main character, but something needs to be different to give the book a bit of novelty. The reader wants something from this story they’re not getting elsewhere, so give it to them.
Once all this is in place, the overall story will run through the following stages:
Getting Motivated– the Main Character (MC) is given a reason to explore/pursue the activity. Sometimes the MC starts motivated, in which case they explain the reason they’re already motivated to another character instead. In any case, the audience is presented with the MC’s reasons for pursuing the activity. The MC is usually living an unfulfilled life and comes to believe that the activity might be a possible solution to fill that void.
It’s Easy! – the MC engages in the activity and shows a natural talent or ability for it, allowing them to score their first victory. This gives them the confidence to move forward, and the feeling that this activity will bring them pleasure and give them something they’ve been missing from their lives.
Maybe it’s Not So Easy? – The MC encounters their first real hurdle to becoming part of this activity- usually through an encounter with the Main Opponent. Their early victory was a product of talent, but they quickly learn that talent alone isn’t enough, as those who have skill can trump their talent easily. Now they’re forced to actually start to learn and explore the activity on a basic level.
A Whole New World – The MC is introduced to the subculture which exists surrounding the activity. Through a guide character (or characters) they discover that there is a whole world they were unaware of hiding within the community that engages in the activity. From this discovery, they begin their first steps into joining that community, and are given basic knowledge about that activity.
A New Path – Now combining Talent and Skill, the MC starts on their real journey towards becoming a master of the activity. They have their first true victory, and get their taste of what it’s like to be part of this new community while facing an Opponent (usually the one from Step 3) who has a flawed approach to the activity in some basic way. This opponent will seem strong at first, but they will realize due to their new skills that this opponent is really weak because they haven’t mastered the fundamentals. Using those same fundamentals combined with talent, the MC will defeat them utterly.
The Long Road – Now that they’ve entered this new world built around the activity, the MC will begin their path towards mastery. During this stage, they will meet a successive series of Opponents and challenges, make new friends, and learn more and more about their activity of choice. This stage is extremely flexible, and can take as long as the story needs it to take, or as long as the steps needed to master the activity require. (For more detail, see Story Arcs below.)
Rising Competition – While the MC is rising, they will periodically re-encounter the Main Opponent in different ways, usually ones which result in indirect competition between them. (Teasing their final conflict and building tension.) This indirect competition is usually through other people who do the activity (defeating the people each other have faced or each other’s allies) and sometimes by competing in different aspects of the activity besides the main one. Also, as a result of this ongoing rivalry, the Main Opponent will also begin to become stronger as well, overcoming personal hurdles and staying ahead of the MC even when it seems like the MC is starting to catch up.
Social Advancement – as the MC defeats more and more challenges, they also rise up within the sub-culture surrounding the activity. They will often find themselves drawn into the politics and deeper aspects of the community and must learn to find their place inside the community. Usually they will learn that the community is bigger than they first imagined, and has far greater depths. They will also make enemies in the community who are threatened by their advancement and/or the changes they represent to the community as it exists now. Those enemies will usually become supporters of the Main Opponent, and help to drive the growing conflict between the MC and MO. Some of them may also try to trap or distract the main character through offers of positions of status or profit if they discontinue their journey, but even if tempted, the MC will always refuse in the end.
Eye of the Tiger – The MC has now mastered/learned all they need to know and become a major figure in their activity. They must now face the Main Opponent in a true match to prove their level of ability and take their place as a master of the activity. Often the MC will have a crisis of confidence or suffer from Imposter Syndrome at this point, thinking they aren’t really ready yet, but they’ll still overcome it and defeat the Main Opponent. Usually the Main Opponent is flawed in some way, often in their thinking or outlook about the activity, and the MC’s victory is due to their purity of outlook, thus showing the audience that their way is the true path in the end.
Towards the Future – The MC is now a master of the activity they fell in love with, and is shown to have a whole new life because of it. They are a happy and fully realized person and member of society who confidently knows their place in the world and is happy within it. The activity and subculture around it have benefited and changed because of the MC’s entry into it, and they can look back with nostalgia and look forward with anticipation to watching the activity grow and flourish under them. Often this is represented by them helping to bring new people into the activity and starting the cycle anew.
During The Long Road phase, the MC will go through a series of cycles (aka Story Arcs) which are there to represent them learning and facing new challenges as they build toward their final goals. Generally, each Story Arc will be themed around a specific idea or weakness the character has, or something they have yet to learn. So each Story Arc will be about the character facing that weakness and overcoming it.
Generally, each Story Arc along The Long Road will follow the same pattern:
The MC encounters a new opponent who is strong in an area where the MC is still weak or has knowledge the MC lacks. (This can also be a challenge or task which can’t be defeated with the MC’s current skill set.)
The MC is defeated by this new opponent/challenge. (whose ability over the MC is often coded by being referred to by a special name)
The MC figures out why they were defeated (often by consulting others or through experimentation).
The MC seeks and finds a solution to the problem. (Learning new skills/ideas along the way, and possibly a counter-technique.)
While the MC is improving, the MC’s Sidekicks may try to fight the opponent or opponent’s allies. If they face the Opponent, they will lose but their loss will either gain information or help to inspire the MC to act. If they are facing the Opponent’s allies, they will fight hard battles but eventually win around the same time the MC does.
The MC faces the opponent/challenge again, and wins this time because of their new skills/knowledge.
The MC is rewarded for their efforts by praise of others. (If this praise comes from the Opponent, they often become friends or allies after this.)
Return to Step a)
Someone one said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and these stories are no different. Each “step” in this case is a Chapter of the story, and they will represent the MC working toward their goals in small ways. According to Hirohiko Araki, each of these steps will usually be structured around a Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu pattern. (Which I have written more about here.)
Specifically in Shonen Battle 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 an 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!)
And there you have it! There are other formulas and endless variants of the above, but most Shonen battle comics tend to basically follow the above story structure. It is somewhat similar to the Hero’s Journey, but has a few Asian twists on it that make it a bit different. It doesn’t matter whether kids are collecting monsters to fight and trade, or a man is trying to become a master sushi chef- this formula works almost every time.
P.S. If you want the full, revised and much improved version of the above then click on the image below.
Recently I did a post looking at the ideas of a writing guru called Eric Edson where among other things he made the statement that characters in movies only have four emotional states- Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared. Edson’s view was that these are the most common emotions used in film because they’re the most visual ones and easiest for the audience to understand.
In the discussion that followed in the comments, my friend Don pointed out that there are many other visual emotions that appear on film, and that there is even a whole profession which spends a great deal of time studying human facial expression and body language- animators!
So, this sent me on a little research jaunt to see what I could find, since I have over the years regularly seen animators and comic artists do up sheets of standard expressions and emotional states for characters. What I found was the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge sheet by Nancy Lorenz.
This sheet has been used since its release by multitudes of artists to explore how their characters express emotional states, and prepare their casts before going into production. So clearly, Edson was a little off, there are more emotional states that can appear on camera than just four, although in fairness to Edson a lot of them are variants of the core four he mentions with different levels of intensity involved. It’s also missing some emotional states like “curious”, so the list is hardly complete.
The point here is that writers could also use this approach to not only think about how each of their unique characters express these emotions, but also to think about which emotional state their characters will enter scenes with and which they will leave with, which are usually not the same ones. Each scene should have consequences, and those consequences are usually reflected in the change of emotional states of the characters involved. Controlling the shifting emotional states of the main characters is one of the things which gives stories a sense of flow, and creates an emotional journey for the audience to go on with the characters.
Also, while I was hunting for the emotions expressions sheets, I came across a few others that writers might find useful as well. Animators and Comic Artists spend a lot of time thinking about body language, which is an area where many Writers are often a bit weak since they’re not visual thinkers. You will constantly see writers having their characters only do just the most basic of body language gestures because they really don’t know any more or how to present it to the audience. Many writers get away with this or find ways around it, but like most things in writing the more elements you have control over the better you can express your story’s key ideas.
One of these is the Body Language Meme, which was meant to be an expanded full body version of the Facial Expressions challenge by Deviantart User ReincarnatedParano, which you can see in action below:
Then there is the 25 Smiles Challenge by Zerinity, which gets much more specific about the types of smiles characters use.
So, as you can see, there’s a lot more body language out there than smiles and nods, and having a good repertoire of ways to express your characters emotions besides through dialog can only make you a better writer. They say somewhere between 50% and 80% of human communication is non-verbal, so the better you get at using non-verbal cues in your writing, the better you’ll be able to express your ideas and enthrall your audience.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Shain and Dave from Misterkitty.org to talk about their ongoing Stupid Comics project where they showcase some of the most awful and unique pieces of comic book art visited upon mankind. Along the way, the four talk about the pair’s Mister Kitty’s Lo-Fi Landfill audio project, really really oldschool anime, whether Archie is really comics or not, and the demise of local culture. All this, and how to make friends in high school using Omaha the Cat Dancer, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic artist and animation director and producer Will Meugniot to talk about Will’s long history in the comics and animation industry. In this deep exploration of the animation industry of the 80’s and 90’s, they discuss the DNAgents, Will’s role as showrunner for X-Men the Animated Series and Exo-Squad, and so much more! All this, and how Urusei Yatsura shaped JEM and the Holograms is here for you in the 36th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic book creator and founder of Antarctic Press, Ben Dunn. The three of them sit and chat about Ben’s long career in comics, how Antarctic Press came to be, and the ups and downs of running a comic book company. Along the way, Ben gives great advice about succeeding as an artist both in and outside the comics field and discusses the secrets to AP’s longevity and success. All this and a heaping helping of Ninja High School can be found in this, the 31st episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.