Plot and Story Structure

If you search online for how to structure Manga, Anime, a Webtoon comic, or more you will find various discussions on what terminology to use to describe the structure of content. In this post I describe the terminology that I think makes the most sense for web stories, the format I am planning to use for my series. Web stories are a mobile friendly visually oriented format that can be viewed in a web browser where the user taps to progress to the next page.

Exploring Formats

For example, it is common for a US film to have a “beat” of around 5 minutes (some noteworthy event to remember the movie by), with a “sequence” between each beat (the material needed to move the movie from beat to beat). The even pacing helps the viewer keep track of the story.

When talking about Manga (the printed Japanese comics), you talk about chapters (a unit in which the story is released), pages, and panels. A Manga chapter might be 24 to 30 pages long with say 4 panels per page.

The Webtoons format with continual scroll down tends to be shorter than Manga as you don’t have pages to break the content up. If you want to resume an episode, you may have to do quite a bit of scrolling if the episode gets too long.

My goal is to create a web story  that consists of around 20 to 40 pages per episode. Why this length? Similar to Webtoons, if content becomes too long I think it will be too annoying to view by tapping through it. So you don’t want it too long, but you also need it long enough to develop a complex enough plot line to make the story engaging.

Structure

I am planning to use the following terminology for the structure of content:

  • Frame: Web stories frequently include video content, so I am going to retain “frame” to refer to a frame of a video clip. (Sometimes “frame” is also used to refer to the outline of a panel.)
  • Panel: A region of content on a page. With web stories I expect most pages to consist of a single panel, but there may be some occasions where a page is split into multiple panels as is common for a more traditional comic.
  • Page: A single screen full of content in a web story. Tapping on the left and right edges of a page navigates the user forward and back one page at a time. Pages are normally vertically oriented, suitable for display on a mobile device. (Web stories can also be used on desktop with full screen visuals, but that is not relevant to my use case.)
  • Layer: A page frequently consists of at least two layers – the content, and a layer for speech bubbles. This can help with resizing issues. It looks good if content is scaled to fully cover the screen, possibly losing a bit of content at the edge of the screen. However it is not acceptable to lose some of the text, so the scale factor for the text and image may be slightly different to cope with different sized devices.
  • Sequence: Related pages are grouped into sequences.
  • Episode: A collection of one or more sequences that together comprise a single episode. An episode may have opening and closing credits. It is expected a reader will normally complete an episode in a single reading session. Content is also typically released in units of an episode.
  • Arc: A group of related episodes that tell a longer story that cannot fit into a single episode.
  • Season: A series of 12 or 13 episodes are often created in a year and is referred to as a season (quarter of a year). Given this is a hobby, I am probably not going to talk about seasons – getting a first episode completed may be challenge enough! Lol!
  • Series: The complete set of seasons for the title.

Plot

There are different constructs that are often used to describe how to structure content. For example, a plot is frequently structured as follows (referred to as “Freytag’s pyramid”):

  • Beginning/Exposition: ~1/5th the length of the plot. Introduces characters, provides background information, sets the stage for the story.
  • A moment on conflict/an initiating event. An action or idea that sets a series of events into action. Conflict could be with another individual, nature, society, technology, supernatural, internal, etc.
  • Rising action: 2/5ths the length. The protagonist takes action, typically with some resisting force, with each step resulting in success or failure. The character continues to battle on until the conflict is addressed.
  • A moment of crisis: This may occur towards the end of the rising action, shortly before the climax is reached.
  • A moment of climax. The last point of the rising action where the conflict is resolved. A turning point. Typically the emotional peak of the plot line.
  • Falling action: 1/5th the length. The aftereffects and consequences of the climax, whether ultimately successful or not. The reader is led to understand the conclusion of the climax and its effects.
  • Ending/resolution/conclusion/denouement: 1/5th the length (or shorter). The final wrap up and implications of the plot. Re-establishes calm.

The lengths above are only a rough guide. It is not necessary for all content to exactly follow this structure, but it has proven to be useful to help readers understand the story. Frequently an episode has a single plot line, although it is possible to have multiple shorter plots in an episode, or overlapping plots.

There are other concepts, such as at the end of an episode including a hook or foreshadowing of some future conflict that is likely to occur. Something to keep the reader interested and wondering what is coming in a future episode. You could split a plot across multiple episodes, but this is more of a part 1/part 2 concept than the structure for an arc.

Some series has episodes where the character is brought back to the same starting point each episode with little or no follow on. This allows the reader to view the episodes in any order and it will still make sense. I personally prefer there be an underlying mystery that is progressively revealed and built upon, to give the series more depth and a reason for readers to want to come back for more.

Cyclical Plot Structure (or The Heroic Journey)

In the cyclical plot (also known as “The Heroic Journey”) construct, the protagonist goes through a number of stages. They set out, face a number of challenges, meet friends and foes along the way, and finally return home. I think of this structure more common for an arc that spans multiple episodes. The stages are as follows:

  • (The character starts out in a known, ordered, environment.)
  • Adventure calls: The character set off.
  • Uncertainty: There is a time of hesitancy – “do I really want to go on this journey?”
  • Mentor/friend: A mentor or friend may come alongside to help on the journey before really entering the unknown.
  • (A transition is made around this time from the known to the chaotic unknown for the protagonist.)
  • A bad feeling: Uncertainty sets deeper in. Is this the right decision?
  • Trouble: The character prepares for trouble.
  • Climax: The climax is reached in the middle of the unknown.
  • Triumph: A reward is received for achieving the climax (can be a bad reward if the goals was not achieved).
  • Homeward: The journey home commences, taking the character back from chaos into territory the character is familiar with.
  • Final test: There may be a second climax with a final test, possibly unexpectedly. You can think of this like applying the experience learnt in the unknown environment back in their known environment, showing the character has grown.
  • Homecoming: The final homecoming or denouement. The character is back to a reliable place.
  • (And we have completed the cycle, ready for the next journey.)

I think of Fairy Tale when I think of this structure. Particularly early on in the series, the group of characters over a few episodes head off, face a challenge, come back home, and then there is an episode back in the guild before they head off on their next quest.

A Possible First Arc (Example)

My series is in the “slice of life” category. No sci-fi, no big fight scenes, … okay, so we will see how it really goes! But it means moments of conflict are more emotional in nature. (This is why I particularly care about facial expressions – I want depth to the expressions to keep the series interesting.)

The goal of the first arc is to establish the relationship between Sam and Hank. The following is a possible arc outline (I have not finalized it yet).

  • Beginning: Hank has just moved into town.
  • Adventure calls: Hank sets off to join his new school.
  • Uncertainty: Hank notices strange things about the school – a high wall around it with security cameras.
  • Mentor/friend: Sam and Hank meet.
  • A bad feeling: Meets with teacher, asks about wall and security system, gets a strange response about it being set up probably due to a mistake, unexpected to the staff as well.
  • Trouble: Hank is irritated by Sam’s smothering over friendliness. (I need a school challenge for Hank as well.)
  • Climax: Hank struggles at a project. He is supposed to be superior! He came from the best private school! How can he fail?
  • Triumph: Hank gives in and asks for help from Sam.
  • Homeward: The challenge is overcome, they head home after school, Hank is uncomfortable and thanks Sam. The split paths and head their own ways home, separately.
  • Final test: (I still need to think up a test of friendship. It makes Hank uncomfortable depending on someone else, but he has to do it.)
  • Homecoming: A surprise for Hank is it turns out they live next door to each other, to Hank’s chagrin.
  • Hook: Deb suspicious about kid in same class as Sam moving in next door. Why suspicious? Why is she going to investigate Hank? Why is Sam angry about it, but accepts/resigns to the necessity?

Note that the journey above could be based on a physical journey to school and back home, but that is not my plan. It is going to be spread out over multiple days. The journey into the unknown is attending a new school where the situation is different. Is he going to do well? The returning home is to a state when he feels confident about attending school and doing well again.

A Possible First Episode (Example)

Currently for my first episode I am planning to

  • Beginning: Introduce a number of characters, using longer than normal to do so since it is the first time they appear. The sequences will set a first tone for each character.
  • Initiating event: Focus then on Hank setting off from home for his first day at a new school.
  • Rising action: On the way to school Hank crushes a can on the road. He starts stomping on it once, but he loses control stomping on it over and over again in frustration. (There is no deep explanation of the cause of frustration. That is revealed over time during the series.)
  • Climax: The climax is reached, the can is crushed.
  • Falling action: He stops his actions, panting recovering composure, looking around to see if anyone noticed.
  • Resolution: He continues working to school as he started, but the reader knows he has an unresolved internal conflict, a point of interest. All the other children are at school, going to class etc.
  • The hook: The end of the episode shows a partial character looking at security monitors, watching the children in the school. The mysterious person smiles suspiciously. A dark undertone is introduced in contrast with the seeming simplicity of daily school life. (The mysterious undertone is a part of the conflict between (extra) ordinary and extraordinary.)

Possible Remaining Episodes for Arc 1 (Example)

To flesh out the first arc, the following episodes may be:

  • Episode 2 is Sam’s smothering friendliness and Hank’s reaction.
  • Episode 3 gets into the assignment that Hank is overcome by (the unknown) and how he reaches out to Sam.
  • Episode 4 Sam is learning too, he has to be a friend instead of being friendly. This episode establishes the beginnings of friendship between Sam and Hank. It includes a hint that Sam understands loneliness too.

Conclusion

I am not an expert script writer – I am learning as I go. But it is interesting to read up on techniques that are in common use and then try to apply them to content. A part of this post was on the basic terminology of series, arcs, episodes, sequences, pages, and panels. Then second part was then applying common thematic structural approaches (such as plot lines and heroic journeys) and aligning it with the structure of episodes and sequences.

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