How To Write Manga

Manga is one of the fastest growing and most popular art forms in the world. But what exactly is it, and how do you make it? The best place to start is to think of manga as a style of comic book, one that originated in Japan and has become an international phenomenon. It’s a style that’s been around for decades, but it’s still evolving and growing. If you want to learn how to write manga, here are some tips to help you get started.


Analyze the medium

Unlike other forms of fiction, be it short stories or novels, even non-manga-based anime, the art of manga contains certain elements that you’ll need to follow to keep consistent with the medium. These include establishing shots, reflections of the artist in the development of characters, iconic body language, onomatopoeia, and sound effects. Manga can appear in any genre, from romance to horror to slice-of-life, but are particularly common in science fiction and fantasy. The flexibility of the medium and its style allow you to tell the story in any way you want, but there are a few basic things you should know about how to write manga if you don’t want fans to get confused.

Read manga to get a feel for the style. These can be viewed for free online, and often in digital comic-book form that can be accessed conveniently. If you can, speak to an anime or manga fan to help you out. The more you familiarize yourself with it, the more you’ll be able to focus on elements of how to write manga that elevate the stories and keep readers from becoming frustrated by lack of flow or information. Similar to video games, a major element of manga is its graphics, unsurprisingly, so you should know what you’re working with when it comes to manga supplies, and get comfortable with pen styles, materials, line placement, and sizes.

Study the market

Where a single creator controls the entirety of a tale or world she’s creating, manga is far more collaborative — the task of creating a manga series is shared among many artists and writers, and each author has his or her own particular style, technique, strengths, and more to bring to the table. Your job as the writer is to utilize the strengths of the writing team to bootstrap your project forward. To that end, once you’ve gotten your basic story in order, you’ll want to survey the market to get a sense for what sort of manga is publishing well — both as a whole across the creators you’ve worked with, and individually for each member of the team. Even naturally collaborative people need this sort of common reference point in order to make sure they’re moving in the same direction, so it’s important to make sure your efforts are channelling the interest of fans. Above all else, remember that the first few versions of any creation are never the final publisher-ready versions. Just take it as a learning experience, and make a plan for releasing your finished product in parts, and get revisions and corrections into the hands of your editor.

To dive back into the story world you’ve created, don’t forget to think about the demographics of your audience — if you’re working for a big publishing house with a dedicated marketing team, this won’t be a concern for you, but if you’re writing independently, you’ll need to make sure your work is reaching a wide enough audience. The most lucrative audience for manga is middle-aged men, but plenty of other readers form a large and dedicated fan base as well. Speak to the fans directly, do some cursory market research, and don’t be afraid to ask people how they enjoy their manga. Above all else, remember as you’re writing manga that you’re primarily writing for the entertainment of others. If you find that you’re struggling to make this a reality, get outside of your work and into the world a bit more. Meet people, spend time with loved ones — let yourself get out of your own head, and remember why you put pen to paper in the first place. Make time to visit another country to do research, and to simply step out of your comfort zone. A journey helps clear the head, and shake romance from the heart.

Up your game with concepts

In Japanese manga, stories can be very different from their American publishing counterparts. Within each genre, like fantasy manga or sports manga, there are sub-genres that focus on particular elements of that theme. For example, the sports manga genre covers a variety of games, but the most famous and popular sub-genres are probably, in order of size, sports manga, baseball manga, and soccer manga. Each of these sports manga have a slightly different spin, whether it is the style of the art, the pacing of the training sequences or the focus of the game. It is important that many different types of art styles exist in manga because without options artists are apt to get bored and the quality of the work will fall.

Art is an invaluable skill to develop. Once you can recognize the different drawing types and techniques you have learned a key aspect to developing your creativity and artistic vision. The better you are at drawing the more professional your manga will look. Anyone can draw manga, it’s the person with the best visual styles and techniques that will be the most successful. Before producing your own comic, consider the different types of manga that currently exist. This will give you a good idea about which drawing style will fit your ideas best. Sub-genres and sub-sub-genres will continue to arise as long as manga exist, new genres and subgenres like survival manga or depression-era manga are just as easy to imagine as any other combination.

Consider your theme

After you’ve come up with a basic concept, it’s time to figure out the theme. Defining your audience is crucial to the effectiveness of the theme — if you’re writing for kids or teens, you’ll want to focus on topics that resonate with that age bracket, while stories written for adults should consider their different concerns. Think about the stories that you love — chapter length and image are just as important as plot potential and character development. All of these considerations should help you decide what kind of visual stories you want to create.

The techniques your story is made of are going to depend heavily on your style and genre. If you want to excel at drawing, take into account that your character development is going to play a crucial role throughout both pre-production and the rest of the process. Take some time to explore different manga and one-shot styles, just to get something fresh in your mind. This will keep your drawing inspiration fresh, and it may even help you to find your unique style. If, on the other hand, you’re enamored by the narratives and dialogue of anime and manga, focus your attention here.

Focus and outline your story

Put simply, outlining will save your life. It may be tempting to just let your character’s lives unfold as you go, but without a planned story arc, you’ll be stuck spending time writing scenes you could better spend on the ending. Writing a manga series means you’ll need to delve into your characters lives in multiple settings. As you outline your story, keep in mind that life is messy — especially when it’s fictional. Your outline should be more flexible than the final product, accounting for divergent paths and scenes. Treat your outline like an egg carton, leaving empty lines for possible additions or divots in the structure. Remember that your characters should voice important decisions and concern themselves with real-life and unsolvable problems, rather than following a storyboard that bends to your will.

With stories moving at the pace of a contemporary daytime drama, your manga writing will have to be at its tightest. If you know you’re not a comedy writer, work hard to make scenes as lean and self-contained as possible. On the other hand, if you’re adept with a belly laugh or third-wall breaking, dabble. But whatever your style, focus on developing it, even in rough drafts. Clarity of your scene setting and characterization are essential for all manga genres, with comedic set-pieces requiring special attention. Knowing how to illustrate humor can be challenging, so if you don’t know where to start, look at shows with visual humor you enjoy. More importantly, situational humor must be integral to the plot, so you don’t waste precious pages playing it as a side note.

Produce a script

The key difference between manga and Western comics is the shift in emphasis as you move from script to art. Manga is driven by the manga script, and that script is the first order of business for any aspiring manga writer. Even if you’ve never written graphic novels, you already have experience with basic script writing. You can easily adapt your skills to fit the manga style. Once you’ve completed a rough script, have a friend take a look at it, and ask yourself if that person can understand the story easily and quickly. Ideally, you are able to read it all in one sitting. If the script is too complicated, do revisions until it’s easy to get through.

Your script should include something called an omake, a bonus series of scenes that expands on ideas or gives extra details in the world, or on your characters’ motivations. Omake loosely translates to “bonus” or “extras”, and includes special drawings or gags that don’t affect the overall story. Omake may be more uncommon in American comics, but they’re used quite often in translated manga, because the reader can see extra bits of the author’s working style and process. When you write a manga script, omit panel-by-panel descriptions of action from your script — let the artist focus on true-to-life anatomy and attitude, and leave the rest up to their artistry.

Break down comics into individual page elements

The comic book format contains more creative freedom than any other genre, without its needing to sacrifice any structure. At its foundation, manga is simply a type of comic. It’s not a new genre, and there’s a lot experienced writers can teach us. By breaking down its key elements, you can utilize their strategies to create a readable and consumable style of your own. Your writing doesn’t have to look like a comic, but knowing the format of comic books is beneficial to any aspiring artist. You’ll need to understand paneling and page design, characters with varying body types, shading, and ways of balancing your dialogue between characters.

One of the most common ways comics differ from other genres is with its “wide-screen” aspect of paneling. Most standard formats are approximately nine-by-six. But just like with film, bigger is better. Instead of shrinking down some of your panels, know that manga uses layouts that can contain as many as twenty-two-by-thirty panels. This isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it is a different reading experience, which is all you need to remember as a writer. The last thing to understand before you pick up your pen and begin practicing in earnest is that the main goal of all these elements is to guide your readers. Just like in film and photography, you have a limited amount of space on your page to present information, so consider your perspective as a reader before committing to a layout.

Work roughs

Roughs are concept sketches that are drawn any time an artist is trying to plan a comic book story. Although not required for all manga projects, they’re an important part of the process when creating character designs. Roughs can help you avoid mistakes like ignoring that one female main character has grown four inches since she was introduced in volume 1. Over the course of the story, you’ll have many chances to create roughs, but one good chunk of time to devote to them is while doing character sketches for the story. This can be done while developing the concept for the entire comic series or just individual characters — either way, your rough sketches will probably be different than the final output.

Ideally, your idea will guide your rough sketches, which will then inform character designs. Characters need to be somehow representative of the kinds of personalities they will have in the final work, so the early drafts of the roughs will be more important until your character styles have already been finalized. As with these roughs, you can use older versions of your characters for extra background characters in your story. To make the most of your roughing session, it’s a good idea to grab all the right pen and paper supplies. Variety is good in art supplies, as you never know what will catch your interest — sometimes you may craft a portrait with a thin marker, and at other times, you may be inspired by a bold color. When you design roughs, it doesn’t hurt to try different styles. To use this method, you just have to be sure that you have a consistent style and implement it correctly in the drawings. When you get started you may not like the results, especially if you’ve had difficulties with drawing. You will be surprised about the outcome regardless, so make sure you take breaks to be able to come back with fresh eyes.

Draw panels based on your script

With manga chapters, each panel feels like a unique screen in a continuous image, and your script needs to follow exactly where the images go. Many manga artists have moving storyboards on their desks as they work — like the concept artists who sketched the scenes of major movies before said scenes became animated. 

Don’t worry too much if this seems unfamiliar — using a storyboard is just one of the three major visual approaches to manga writing. This one works best if your plot is action-based or dramatic, and readers will find optimum enjoyment by using their best Superman powers of visualization. If you’re thinking comics and screenplays, this Bizarro option is for you. Don’t fear that it’s “not the right way” – very few manga artists actually use storyboards, and not using one is just as legitimate a part of the art form.

Color and shade based on emphasis

Think of your comic page as an editable grid. Comics artists typically draw while thinking in terms of a grid. The top, bottom and left side panel of a typical manga page will be composed of three tiers of varying width. The interior area will usually use at least five panels. The vast majority of manga is read from right-to-left. Although not always drawn in the same way, manga pages usually have boxes positioned around certain areas to give the page structure.

Note that there is usually an area for dialogue or word bubbles. This allows you to move that text from panel to panel as part of a thought process. With manga, due to the structure of the page, it is easy to get into a pattern of having dialogue flow across the page. Spend a few hours looking at a bunch of manga. Start jotting down little observation notes about things that work or could be improved upon. Pick up a pencil, and start sketching some ideas in your journal. Notice the elements and how they are arranged on a given page. Draw the individual units and learn how to mimic their styles.

Be versatile

Unless your story involves some Cthulhu-inspired madness time loop that suddenly causes your teenage girl to be reincarnated as a young boy, you should probably choose one canon and stick to it. It may very well be that you want to leave your fans in a trail of tears when they’re forced to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps you’re leaving, like the Bob Ross technique of telling the reader what colors you used but not how you use them. Maybe all of your characters would wind up with criss-crossed internal organs if you included their anatomies on every single drawing, and honestly, making your female characters huge-chested is probably going to have the opposite of its intended effect. These are all artistic choices, and as long as you stick to the same style, you’ll continue to attract like-minded fans. Even if your sequel to American Gothic Ponies takes place in Babylon five years later, it’s probably best to just leave behind the corporate mouse silhouette until the time comes for you to dive back in.

If you aren’t going to draw an internal organ chart to go with your drawings, at least make sure that each panel has a distinct focus and thematic unity, and keep tucking in mini-cliffhangers that will glue your reluctant fans to their seats for many episodes to come — it’s the equivalent of not showing the Mona Lisa’s smile and it both keeps them anxiously salivating and checks their expectations at the door, like a real mousetrap. Maybe your focus will be on the character development, or maybe it’ll be on the scenery, but once you’ve picked a theme, stick to it.

Manga is a great way to tell stories, but it’s also just fun to make. Whether you are drawn to the genre or looking for something new, keep in mind what it is about manga that you love and craft a story that keeps those things in mind. Familiarize yourself with the rules of the genre and use them to your advantage. You might find that you’re writing a story you love more and more and that the pages have long begun to add up. As you move along your way down the exciting path of writing manga, feel free to experiment, have fun, and enjoy the challenges that lie ahead.

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