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%)
Introduce 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
These are 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.
Fascinating and well-written, but it doesn’t strike me as that different from your typical plot of rising action, there’s just more lulls in between getting to the climax.
You’re more right than you know! If you apply the waveform approach to the typical Hollywood movie structure (as laid out in Save the Cat!) you get the following chart:
Which is a tiny bit different than the above chart, but largely the same pattern. There isn’t even a really big difference between this and the Lester Dent Formula either, which is no surprise because they’re both workmanlike approaches to writing conflict-based stories that resonate with audiences. They have a simple goal- take the audience on a ride and keep them on it until the end, and they work.
There seems to be something semi-universal about the three-wave structure, although you can do it in two or four as well. Three is the magic number for storytelling.
>Three is the magic number for storytelling.
I forget the technical term, but the human brain groups things into threes, fives and sevens. That’s why you see those numbers come up so often; they “feel” right ‘cos we’re programmed to see them.