Talking Story

writing craft

A good story is one that resonates with its audience.

Period.

This afternoon I had a lot of things I had to do. Writing deadlines dangerously due. Horses, cats, and dogs to care for. House to straighten. Plants to water. Chili to make. Did I mention deadlines?

So, of course, instead of putting my nose to the grindstone, I grabbed a book I’d been meaning to read since my college son came home for Christmas and said, “You need to read this.”

“Manga? I don’t read manga,” I said. “I can’t draw to save my life. When I was directing videos, they hired someone to redo my storyboards, they were so bad.”

“But you create stories. You need to read this.”

I thanked him and said I’d get to it. I knew he wouldn’t recommend it if he didn’t think it worthwhile. I stuck it on the credenza in the living room where it sat, staring at me, until today when I plunked down in front of the fireplace for a couple of hours.

Fireplaces and books are the one good thing about a snowy day.

I wasn’t avoiding writing—not really. Sometimes you do have to push through a tough spot, but I’m facing three tough spots in three different works, and I knew staring at the computer wasn’t going to solve any of them.

But maybe a couple of hours reading a book on craft would shake something loose.

Now I’ve read and studied a hundred or more books on writing and editing. I could start my own specialty bookstore with just what’s lying around my office. I’ve taught courses on story structure, and have edited professionally for decades.

But this book reminded me of a few things I haven’t thought of in years.

Manga in Theory and Practice by Hirohiko Araki is map of how he approaches his work as a mangata, an author and illustrator of Japanese manga. His best known work is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, arguably one of the most successful shonen manga ever created. His primary target audience is boys 12 to 20, although the real audience is much wider.

Araki knows how to deliver what his readers (and editors) want, but his dissection of what makes good manga great seems diametrically opposed to what is generally considered good story structure to Western-trained writers. The action always rises. The hero always wins. The hero must act in a positive accordance with society’s values—even a seemingly bad action must be done for a noble reason.

In his book, Araki discusses his four key elements of manga: character, story, setting, and themes. The most important, he feels, is character. He spends a lot of time creating detailed character sheets before he writes one word or draws one line, and often includes things that strike me as uniquely Japanese, like listing a character’s blood type because that reveals important character traits. His approach is to create a cast of contrasting characters, give them motivations, and then turn them loose in settings. The dialogue and action flows organically—an approach also used by western writers like Stephen King.

Araki uses specific story beats to drive his story: ki-sho-ten-ketsu, introduction (ki), development (sho), twist (ten), and resolution (ketsu). While there can be several ten beats in a story, there is never the classic try-fail cycles we see in western literature. The action always rises and the antagonists increase in power as the hero grows. The best way to describe this is to think of an underdog baseball team who rises from backyard ball games to the world championship without ever losing a game.

It kinda boggled my mind.

But when I remembered his audience and why Araki writes, it all made sense.

Araki’s rules are founded on principles defined by his audience’s strong likes and dislikes. Heroes that fail? Boring. Heroes that make poor choices? Why am I wasting my time and money?

These conventions absolutely work for his audience—and that’s the key, I think.

Shonen manga readers identify with the heroes. They want to be entertained. They want to see themselves succeed. When the hero wins, it gives them hope that they, too, can face hard things and win.

I’m not certain if this structure and approach directly translates to western stories. For young readers, certainly. Others, probably not. But I’m going to think about this as I tackle my three stubborn works-in-progress.

There’s much more in Manga in Theory and Practice than what I’ve covered. I loved his focus on the first panel, that it makes or breaks the story if the reader won’t care enough to turn the page, and how he says write the story that speaks to you, put your ideals on the page, or the work won’t sing.

My son was happy to hear I finally read his book. He says he’s got a long list of friends in line to read it. I ordered my own copy of Manga in Theory and Practice  to put on my bookshelf next to On Writing, Save the Cat, The Story Grid, and The Anatomy of Story.

Not all stories are western stories. It’s good to remember that.

Manga in Theory and Practice by Hirohiko Araki is available from Amazon in hardback and eBook.

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