Dec 7, 2016

Novel Like Manga—Laying out Your Story

I'll be honest: I know nothing about drawing manga, but I do know a thing or two about writing. As a longstanding manga fan, I feel like I owe it to the industry to understand how it works. And while thinking about it, I discovered a lot of connections between manga and books—some similar, others admirably different.

Image by: Stuart Rankin
Manga is a unique storytelling platform—one that relies on art instead of prose. Like any fictional story, good manga has to have an established setting, a developed plot, and relatable characters. But the added element of "art" changes the playing field. In order to maintain the important concept of "pacing," mangakas (Japanese manga artists) lay out their art through a carefully planned out process: panelling.

Typically read from right to left (up then down), manga forces readers to reconfigure their reading habits. In my case, it helped me learn that the way things are placed changes how they're perceived. The pages of a manga usually include different paneling styles and dialogue breaks—all of which are placed so that the "story flow" can grow naturally. And in good manga, it does.

Manga vs. Novel: 

In writing, the illusion of passing time is done through paragraph breaks. But manga expresses time through panels—the ultimate foundation of its pacing. By using long panels, mangakas are able to "draw out" an instance and give readers a better chance to fully take in the moment. Consequently, shorter and smaller panels make time pass faster in a manga—the eye doesn't linger nearly as long. Because there is no art in (most) novels, novelists do this by carefully crafting short paragraphs and standalone sentences. And while they might be read quickly, these short text breaks create a stronger impression of a defining moment.

Sample Manga Page Image by: Kasuga

Panel layout and design are instrumental to a story's flow, making variety an important concept. I've never realised before looking into it, but different manga genres can even have different panel templates that get used more often in one genre than the other. In a way, manga becomes a lot like film—with frames and shots getting produced by the mangaka's art instead of a director's vision. But the challenge with manga is that you can't feel and hear the dialogue the way you do in a film.

Sure, you have visuals to fill in the context for the actual text, but structure is just as important. So in addition to using longer panels, mangakas strategically transition between panels to include more intricate details. And a well-designed, well-placed dialogue bubble is one of the ways that does this best. There's interaction happening in between the panels—the same way that prose and dialogue interact in between the lines. This level of cohesion reminds me just how important it is that every scene has a purpose and a reason for being.

Mangakas have to visualise the flow of each page to control how readers go through the panels (essentially, the story)—and that's something I believe all novelists can benefit from doing.

Image by: Neitram
There may not be any art to direct, but basic text serves the same purpose. Focus on the scenes of your story and visualise how dialogue connects with prose on a micro level. It's hard work, but the payoff is definitely worth it. Think of the lined pages as panels and see how different your writing becomes. Experiment with dialogue as if it's in a bubble instead of quotes. Envision a blank page as a panel template sheet, and see how you'd fill it up.

Every medium has its different approach to storytelling ... but in the end, it's still telling a story. When getting stuck in a scene, a lot of writers suggest changing approaches by using a different character, a different point of view—a different story element. But what if, instead, you use a different format?

It could all be done in your head, by using the power of imagination if art isn't exactly your forte. The idea is to play with something new, to start "noveling" in an innovative way that might actually help better lay out your story.

Extra sources:

If you want to find out more about manga layout and what actually goes on behind the pages in more detail, then check out this post on Panelling, Pacing, & Layout in Comics & Manga #1 and #2 (written by an actual professional who knows what they're doing).