5 Writing Lessons from Manga

As a child, I couldn’t understand the appeal of manga. To me, they were simply a different kind of comic book, and comics held little appeal to me. Then, in my teens, English-translated anime took off in Singapore. Almost all of them were adaptations of Japanese manga. I pursued the source material, and found Ghost in the Shell.

That experience led to an explosion of stories: Rurouni Kenshin, Rave Master, Appleseed, Full Metal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio, Twin Star Exorcists, Claymore and more. These days I read at least as much manga as I do prose works. Part of that is enjoyment — another part is to study them and apply the lessons learned to my own writing.

On first glance there seems to be little transferability between prose and manga. The former is a written medium, the latter is visual. The former is carried entirely on the strength of its words; the latter combines images, dialogue and exposition into a coherent whole. But both are storytelling media, and in my explorations of manga I have found five lessons that are universal to both.

Concise and Engaging Narration

Dialogue in manga is limited. Being a visual medium, there is only enough room for a handful of lines in every page. Narration must be concise, advance the story and engage the reader.Dialogue has the additional burden of reflecting the speaker’s character. Not everyone can pull a Masamune Shirow and get away with filling entire pages with philosophical exposition without boring the reader.

Similarly, in fiction, narration must also keep readers invested. There is no room for rambling that does not serve the story, and large chunks of exposition without context will just turn readers off. Excellent manga demonstrate economy of words–the same concision writers should aspire to.

Showing, not Telling

Manga is primarily a visual medium. Stories are literally shown to the reader. Mangaka will draw as much as possible–people, settings, actions–using as few words as possible. In excellent manga, exposition is limited to the barest minimum for world-building. Some mangaka will disguise such exposition as dialogue, or simply portray events and have the reader figure out how the world works. In Rave Master, as in many shounen manga, characters tell each other what their weapons or skills can do in the place of creator exposition. BLAME! takes the other approach: almost nobody says anything about the world, forcing the reader to figure things out.

Likewise, instead of simply telling the reader how grand a place is or what someone did, writers should strive to draw a picture with their words. Create an image of a magnificent estate and enormous riches by talking about the marble floor, solid gold sculptures, rare artworks and army of maids, cooks and gardeners. Go in-depth into an action scene, delving into emotions, everybody’s actions and reactions, injuries, and more.

Aesthetics and Worldbuilding

In manga, the setting is a silent character. It sets the tone of the story and gives context to everybody’s actions. Manga achieve this through aesthetics, the accurate and/or authentic portrayals of the story’s setting.

Ghost in the Shell emphasised its cyberpunk nature through juxtaposing gritty streets and sleek skyscrapers, and the use of high technology everywhere. In Twin Star Exorcist, the mundane story occurs in modern-day Japan, but the desperate, magic-fuelled action-packed battles are set in Magano, a parallel world filled with ruins and evil spirits. This dichotomy, especially in the early issues, reinforces the mood of the scene, be it peaceful or adrenaline-packed. Shoukoku no Altair has Mahmut running all over alternate-world Europe and the Middle East, and each country he visits has its own unique architecture and visual design, reinforcing the sense of place.

Aesthetics is the visual manifestation of the world the mangaka is building. It is how the reader grasps the nature of the story world. Similarly, in written fiction, extensive background and setting descriptions gives the reader a sense of place, placing the characters’ actions in context while differentiating the story from other stories.

Character Differentiation

Mangaka need readers to quickly and reliably tell characters apart, especially in busy scenes where many people are acting or talking all at once. Mangaka employ many tricks to do this: unique hairstyles and colour schemes, archetypical behaviours (think the infamous tsundere), signature clothes and weapons, and accents and dialogue quirks. All of these tricks have become tropes and character stereotypes — but that’s because these tricks work.

In prose, writers do not (usually) get the benefit of visually illustrating their characters to give the reader a reference point. Writers must therefore find ways and means to keep each character unique in the reader’s minds. They can use many of the same tricks mangaka employ. Jim Butcher, for instance, inserts physical descriptions into the text of his stories every so often, such as Harry Dresden’s famous coat, to remind readers of what his characters look like.

Discipline

On average, a weekly manga runs between 15 to 25 pages per issue. Monthly manga usually has 30 to 60. There are exceptions (usually shorter), but bestsellers tend to run between these lengths. To put things in perspective, Western comics are issued monthly, but have similar page counts to weekly manga.

Mangaka must produce an average of 2 to 5 complete pages every day. More if they are working on  multiple series at once. This does not even include storyboarding, editorial input and other corrections.

Unlike Western comics, most manga are in black and white, with the exception of the occasional special full-colour issue. This saves time on inking and colouration. Also, many mangaka have assistants to help with background art and research. Nevertheless, mangaka must consistently produce high-quality work over dozens, even hundreds, of issues–or they will be dropped, and may need to find a new line of work.

Maintaining such a pace requires discipline. Discipline to uphold standards, discipline to do the work, discipline to keep learning and getting better. This is the same discipline writers require: without the discipline to produce regular content, you’re not going to produce good stories.

Manga is as legitimate a storytelling medium as prose, and despite the differences between them, there are many lessons to be learned. The key is to read not as a consumer, but as a creator. Pick apart the stories and characters, discern the thought processes that go into design and worldbuilding and dialogue, understand the creation process, and see what lessons you can apply to your own work.

5 Writing Lessons from Manga
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