Welcome to a Basic Guide to Writing 4-koma, aka How I Wing It. For those who are curious, a 4-koma is a style of Japanese comic that has a simple format: four identical panels arranged vertically. Typically, these are gag strips but they can be used to tell all sorts of stories. Today though, we are going to focus on comedy.
The first step is to conceptualize what you want to tell. Whether it’s a joke, something serious or a slice-of-life moment, it all has to start with a basic idea. For example, I want to tell a story about how Nami from Believe: Yokai Girls is bad at lunch.
This stems from her being a recluse and rarely leaving her room. This is a story that could be for Haru or Mia, but emotionally it feels like a Nami tale. As your characters grow, you will get a feel for the kinds of stories that feel right for them.
Now that I have the concept, I have to visualize it. There are four panels and four panels only to tell the story. This is the part where you have to distill your concept down to its absolute basics. As I’m visualizing, I start with my beginning and my ending. The panels in between will serve as connective tissue from one idea to another.
To put it simply: You need a setup, a conflict, an escalation and then a payoff. My setup is that Nami is hungry and it’s lunchtime. My payoff is that Mia will sense that Nami’s eating poorly. So, how to do the setup? I could set the first panel in Nami’s room, have her grab her stomach to indicate hunger, but that doesn’t convey what I want.
So instead, I’m going to set the scene in her kitchen. Now we get to the actual writing. If you are like me and have absolutely no drawing skills, then you have to figure out how to communicate the pictures in your brain to your collaborator. I try to be concise and clear. For example:
Panel One: The kitchen in Nami’s House. Mid-shot, Nami stares into the open refrigerator.
Nami caption: Lunch is the worst time of day for me. You want room for improvisation and for the artist to add their own ideas. From there, you can write the other panels in a similar format; it helps keep things tidy. Remember that each panel needs to progress the story somehow. No time for wasted space. As you get more comfortable with the format you can play with the panels, including business in the background and the foreground.