KiShoTenKetsu in Manga Revisited

Recently I read The Shonen Jump Guide to Making Manga, and while the book itself was underwhelming for what it claimed to be, I did find a few little tidbits of information that made it worth reading. One of these nuggets was tucked into Promised Neverland writer Kaiu Shirai’s final survey entry on page 93 of the print edition:

Q: Is there anything you reference when creating your one-shots?

A: No literature, really. Instead, I read every one-shot and Weekly Shonen Jump first chapter from the greats. I analyzed those stories and discovered that the climax (or turning point) was more effective when it came at the halfway mark, rather than the three-quarter mark, as one might expect. Little discoveries like that have stuck in my brain to this day.

Now, to the casual reader this might not seem like a big deal, but to someone focused on understanding manga story structure like myself, this sent me running off to grab my manga volumes from the shelf and check. Then, I went to the Shonen JUMP app on my iPad and went through the one-shots that started the various series and checked them as well to see if he was right. And lo and behold, he was.

At the midpoint of every manga one-shot (aka series pilot of 35-50 pages) a big dramatic twist occurred.

And my mind reeled, because this solved a puzzle I’d been stewing over for years.

You see, the most common Japanese manga story structure is called the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (KSTK) which evolved out of Chinese poetry and was later adapted for gag comics in the early 20th century, and still later for manga itself. It’s not complicated, and works like this:

  • Ki– Introduction
  • Sho – Story Development
  • Ten – Dramatic Turn/Twist
  • Ketsu – Conclusion

And, in fact if you remove the Ten (Dramatic Turn), it’s just a basic universal three act structure of introduction>plot development>conclusion that almost all stories follow because the pattern is rooted in human psychology. The Japanese just have an extra little piece thrown in there by saying that something unexpected should happen somewhere in the story.

But the thing which has been bothering me for years (literally over a decade) is where to put that dramatic twist in manga.

For while I realized fairly early on that manga had adapted and changed the KSTK form for their needs and that in reality most manga looked like this:

  • Ki– Introduction
  • Sho (1) – Story Development
  • Sho (2) – Story Development
  • Ten – Dramatic Turn/Twist
  • Ketsu – Conclusion

In some manga stories the main dramatic turn seemed to come near the middle, and in some stories it seemed to come near the three-quarter mark as part of the traditional climax. This has puzzled me for a long time, and even in my own book How to Write Manga I suggested that the Ten was more of a phase of action which happened between the halfway and three-quarter mark and usually included a dramatic twist in it as it lead up to the climax.

But now, I realize the answer was so simple I didn’t see it – if there are two Sho development phases, can’t there also be two Ten dramatic turns that go along with them?

And when I went back and checked, sure enough, that’s the case. The real story structure they’re using (at least in one-shots) is…

  • Ki– Introduction
  • Sho (1) – Story Development
  • Ten (1) – Dramatic Turn/Twist
  • Sho (2) – Story Development
  • Ten (2) – Dramatic Turn/Twist
  • Ketsu – Conclusion

The typical manga one-shot has TWO dramatic turns, not one. If you look around the halfway mark, and then at the three-quarter mark you’ll find a dramatic turn waiting at each of them to keep the reader excited and going. What I had mistaken for an “action phase” was actually a second Sho-Ten pattern sitting after the first one and leading into the climax of the story, whatever that might be.

Oh well. Better late than never!

Naturally, this does lead into the question of which dramatic turn should be the “bigger” one.

The answer to this seems to be that it depends on whether it’s a longer work like a one-shot or a monthly manga release (45-52 pages) or whether it’s a weekly chapter in something like JUMP (15-20 pages).

If it’s a longer work, then I think Shirai is correct that the bigger twist is probably the one in the middle of the story. It’s the one which reinvigorates the plot and sends it off in a new and interesting direction which will eventually lead to the conclusion of the story. On the other hand, if it’s a shorter weekly released chapter then what comes in the middle is usually something softer and less dramatic, and the big dramatic turn is saved for near the end of the chapter.

This makes sense, since it’s already hard enough being a manga creator without having to come up with two big dramatic events for your story every week!

Also, I noted that in weekly chapters what comes in the middle is often more like a shift in direction or focus for the story than a big dramatic twist. For example, in many chapters of One Piece (and other manga), there will be a scene change around the midpoint, or if two (or more) characters are talking (or fighting) then there will be a new element introduced to the conversation (or fight) that wasn’t there before. Not usually a huge twist, but a little something extra to keep the middle from sagging and the reader turning pages.

One other note: Shirai’s words above are translated from Japanese, and the translator is trying to avoid having to explain the KSTK story pattern, so they use the phase “climax (or turning point)” to represent the Ten part of the pattern. I don’t fault them for it, but as we’ve discovered here, the Ten isn’t the climax but something that can be part of the climax. Shirai was also wrong when he implies there’s only one “dramatic turn” in a story, but since I’ve read his work on Promised Neverland I know that he does know there’s two dramatic turns, even if he doesn’t express it well here.

Rob