With the Mayapple Matsuri in mind, I want to look at how to set up your story in a manga format.
Let’s take a look at the four-act structure of manga and compare it to the western 3-act structure you’re probably used to. Setting up your page format correctly, as previously mentioned, is important, and in turn, so is setting up your story.
Readable, enjoyable manga isn’t a string of rambling sequential images. Frames must be decided with purpose and used as a tool. Flow, pacing, timing page structure must also be considered.
Naturally a story will shift and change as you go, but a meandering stream of consciousness is frustrating and boring in narrative fiction. Even slice of life and “vibe-ing” manga has a structure, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
One of the earliest steps in the manga making process is taking your story idea and parceling it up so it can be brought to life in a somewhat orderly manner.
3 Acts of the West
Being in the west, chances are you are deeply familiar with 3-act story structure. Whether you have studied it on your writing journey or are instinctually familiar through all the movies, novels, cartoons etc. That you have consumed over the years. When we say a story must have a beginning, middle and end, this is usually what is meant; 3 Acts.
Aristotle is generally considered to be responsible for popularizing this story structure as he established it through his plays and dramas.
Greek plays were usually divided into 3 parts: The main part, or a focus on “the thing that happened” bookended by “before and after the thing happened”.
Over time, this has developed into “setup/confrontation/resolution”, relying on conflict and a linear passage of time. Being conceptually action oriented and driven forward, it potentially restricts the kinds of stories that can be told.
The original form of 3-act is closer to the 4-act structure more widely used in Eastern story telling. Known as KiShoTenKetsu in Japanese, it developed to rely on recontextualization and not on solving a problem, creating conflict or even time progressing.
Acts in Manga
“Manga” is often proclaimed as simply the Japanese word for “comics”. While true in some way, it oversimplifies and glosses over what we instinctually know is different about it. It feels different it looks different, most importantly it reads different.
Western made, OEL or “Ameri-manga” are often written in 3act structure and therefore feel fundamentally different from Japanese made works. I find The Last Airbender anime as an interesting example of this; it looks like anime and is indeed animated in South Korea, but somehow feels different. As far as I know, it’s written in the west so most likely has a 3-act structure, giving it a more western feel. While looking for that *something* that makes a work feel “almost” but not quite, I suspect the story structure, among other ingredients, plays a part.
I think, if we are interested in leaning into the idea of making manga, rather than western Indie comics, it makes sense to apply the structure within which it tends to be written. Manga readers are used to reading it and, as I mentioned earlier, it lends itself more easily to a wider range of story types, especially comedy and horror. It’s a win-win!
Four Acts and KISHOTENKETSU
Enough kicking the tires, let’s dive into the four-act structure of manga.
In true Japanese fashion, KiShoTenKetsu (KSTK) is named simple for its parts. This fluid, less linear format relies on a change of perception, and as such, there isn’t necessarily a problem, question or thing happening. Instead of relying on a conflict or struggle, 4-act portrays the situation at hand which can be used to describe a single moment or unfold an epic saga depending on how it’s applied.
It’s important to note, that KSTK has a pattern of its own and is not simply the 3-act structure with an extra bit added on, like sometimes happens in the western style, where the extra act follows on from the conclusive third act in resolving the question posed in acts one and two.
setup (Ki), expand (Sho), recontextualize (Ten), conclude (Ketsu) and bring it all together.
If you have read or tried to make a 4-koma, or Yonkoma, this will look familiar to you. After all, a 4koma gives one panel to each section.
起 Ki (set-out): “Hello”
Introduce the story or sequence, characters, set the scene, walk in the door. This part can be simple or complex but is crucial to preparing us to care about the story we’re stepping into, it can affect the impact of the “Ten” section. In a 4koma or single spread - this would be the first panel.
承Sho (carry): “Discussion”
Now we’re in the scene, we flesh it out and show what’s going on: Greet the host.
Set the foundation for the twist we encounter later. You could say this is our main perspective. It's the section which is often the longest and filled with the most information. Use it to develop the character or situation, pull the reader in and make sure the reader gets emotionally attached.
If this were a single spread, I would consider this “everything after the first panel”, especially everything that guides you to the page turn and makes the reader want to turn that page.
Resist the temptation to include major changes, since this is the setup phase.
転 Ten (turn): “Fresh Perspective”
This is the twist, new view or recontextualization. In a basic way, Ten aims to change the way the reader sees “Ki and Sho” by introducing new and often surprising elements or new bits of information.
The scene is set, we are here, we “met the host” and then - ?!
Maybe a friend/boss/stalker greets them with a drink, the host introduces themselves and that changes the view of them or the party??
This is the most interesting and infuriating section to me; I think I’ve settled on trying not to overthink it and maybe deciding the twist FIRST, then going back and filling in parts one and two. Be careful not to get stuck like I do, because there are so many possibilities.
This shift can be used to great effect in horror and comedy, where brevity is the key, and the convergence of seemingly disparate concepts elicits a response (in this case either shock or laughter). Remember, this technique is non-linear and ithout a dependence on time, everything relies on perspective.
合Ketsu (bind): “All Things Considered”
Unlike 3-Acts, this section is neither the end, result or resolution of a posed question, conflict, etc! It is the sum of all the parts and brings everything together. The difference is subtle but important.
To finish up our party scenario, this would be “being” at the party with the friend, or whatever. Nothing must have happened per-se, things just are.
Side note: The party reference is a memory convention I picked up from my Aikido Dojo to help people remember the bowing sequence for testing. Enter the door (bow to the founder), greet the host (bow to the testing Instructor), greet your friend (bow to your partner). Then again in reverse at the end, say bye to your friend, then the host, then exit.
There may be more of an “all the way down” thing happening in the writing, or it was broken down into 4koma for the anime script, because it’s easy to count 1,2,3,4 as you’re watching each scene unfold. I recommend it if you’re trying to wrap your head around this whole thing.
Once you understand the structure and pay attention, you will notice it in all kinds of Eastern storytelling, from manga to movies, games and poems (it’s not recommended for essays and papers that require clear delivery of information and a question/answer format).
Though, knowing that “Ten” seems to hit at episode 8 of most 1-core shows is a double-edged sword. You’re welcome.
Hopefully seeing this structure in action will help you implement it in your own work, giving it as more “manga” feel, maybe helping jokes and spooks hit right, or giving structure to a meandering moment where nothing really happens.
Have you tried this format? Have you noticed it in things you’ve seen or read?
Leave a comment or come visit the Mayapple Discord and let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts.