The S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.

Rob

The Investigation Plot

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

Required Characters:

  • An Investigator
  • A virtuous Innocent
  • A Villain

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

 

Development

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

 

Event

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

 

Apex

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

 

Notes

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

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

The Duel Plot

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

Required Characters:

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

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

Development

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

Event

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

Apex

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

Notes:

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

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

The Righteous Avenger Plot

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

Required Characters:

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

Plot Structure

Introduction

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

Development

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

Events

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

Apex

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

Notes:

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

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