Comic Story Structures: How to Make a Four-Panel Comic

Let’s hop right in and look at three story structures that may help you construct a four-panel comic!

THE JOKE

A narrative told to provoke a laugh. It consists of a set-up and punchline.

Setup 

The context. Introduces the character, scene, situation and places the expectation.

Punchline

The reveal. The delivery of the turn or unexpected twist.

Here’s an example by Charles Schulz:

A classic three panel set-up followed by the fourth panel punchline.

Timing

The space between the set-up and punchline can really enhance the humor. A comic’s pacing results in different flavors of a scene.

Does the joke hit the same if we took away the second and third panels?

Keep it to three panels?

It is not as effective. The two middle frames build up the tension through repetition. You need both to push the joke as far as it can before finally releasing the twist.

Play around with your beats and see what rhythm tickles the funny bone further!

A Union of Picture and Words

Pictures and words compliment each other, working together to form a whole. Sometimes separating them is a good exercise in making sure you aren’t repeating the same information.

Can you figure out what is happening without the words? 

Can you figure it out without pictures?

No? Good! That’s usually what you want. Unless of course you are making a wordless comic. Or word-only comic. Or intentionally framing it as part of the joke. It’s really all about intention.

What about picture focused comics? Coming from oral tradition we usually think of jokes as spoken or written dialog but we do it visually too! Physical language like gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, action/reactions are part of the gag.

Here’s an example by Misaki Takamatsu. This is also a fun play on a circular structure! (start from the top right and go clockwise)

Misaki Takamatsu, side comic from Skip and Loafer Volume 2

THE THREE ACT

In the west, we are most familiar with European drama structures from ye old plays. The theatrical work is divided into major acts consisting of a collection of scenes. The most well known is the Three Act: Set-up, Confrontation, Resolution.

Tim Stout breaks it down into four phases:

Context 

The five Ws: where, when, who, what, why.

Goals

The attempt to achieve a goal or the premise.

Conflict

The potential death of the premise.

Resolution

The character is revealed through conflict.

Tim’s example of a Bill Watterson Calvin and Hobbes strip:

Context: a boy playacts superman

Goals: to fly like superman

Conflict: the effects of gravity

Resolution: he improvises and playacts the effects of kryptonite, superman’s weakness

KISHŌTENKETSU

A four step story structure used widely in Japan. Its origins are said to be traced to Chinese poet Meng Haoran’s Spring Dawn and the logical structure of qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé (beginning, continuation, transition, conclusion).*

Screenshot from SMAC’s (Silent Manga Audition Community) Japanese Manga 101 #049 video

Ki – Introduction

Establishing the character, setting, situation.

Shō – Development

Continuation. The exposition builds.

Ten – Turn or Twist

A surprising element is introduced.

Ketsu – Conclusion or Reconciliation

Bring the contrasting points of the first half (Ki,Shō) and the twist (Ten) to a unified end. A reconciliation between the expected and unexpected.

A key difference in the east and west approaches is the concept of change. The “twist” is a reframing, with the purpose of enhancing the story. It may be a jump in logic or a scene, or a shift in mood or genre. For example a seemingly disconnected non sequitur in the third panel can be connected to the previous panels by the reveal of the final panel. This change can be obvious or meander.

“With kishōtenketsu, stories don’t ultimately center on conflict. Many feature conflict, but the bones of the structure are development and change.”

Animation Obsession 

Examples of four panel mangas or yonkoma (4koma):

Take note of the third panel and how it shifts the progression.

(read right to left)

Doomsday with My Dog by Ishihara Yuu

The Ten (twist) is a logical leap. The subject shifted from the dolphin’s intelligence to it being eaten.

Manga Drawing Deluxe by Nao Yazawa

The Ten (twist) is an atmospheric/emotional one. The mood drops to a cold reaction, grayscaling the character and turning the background blue, then shifts to yellow and the character having a hot reaction.

Do Jokes, Acts, and Kishōtenketsu structures apply to longer story formats?

Yes! Each page, chapter, and volume has the same story pattern linking one to another in a series of collected scenes. It’s like a nesting doll of arcs.

Screenshot from SMAC’s How this technique can be applied to a long story: Japanese Manga 101 #051

By learning and practicing basic structures you can take the same concepts and scale them!

“The most important skill in telling long story manga is the skill to tell many short stories.”

Osamu Tezuka

All this to say-

There is no one right way to structure a story

Now that you know these three structures, test them out, see how you like them, and then go break them!

There is no one right way to structure a story. If you see something that says “this structure is the right way” or that “this structure is the only way” to tell a story, they’re full of it (or their perspective is very limited). I think the only thing that really matters is clarity. Be clear what you want to communicate and know what you want to make the reader feel.

It is not a matter of plugging things into a formula. It’s an intuitive process. Only you know what feels right, so continue seeking your own truths. Give yourself permission to explore and play! 

It can be wordless, made with stick figures, drawn on a napkin, using photos, or collaged. The goal is to make something new. Practice using those storytelling muscles. 💪

Our mantra for the year is quantity over quality. Keep making enough stuff and eventually it will lead to quality. Embrace making bad work. Let’s make comics!


YOUR CHALLENGE:

Make a four panel comic!

🌶 Create a four panel comic during this month of February.
🌶🌶 Participate in Hourly Comic Day on Feb 1st! (THAT’S TODAY, even if it is just one hour)
🌶🌶🌶Create a four panel comic EACH WEEK of February.

Here is a list of prompts to jiggle your brain:

  • Everyday Life: Something that happened to you today
  • Inanimate Object Adventure: Tell a story from the perspective of an inanimate object
  • Bizarre Treasure: What happens when you (or someone else, or one of your characters) discover something special/valuable/unexpected… and bizarre
  • Story Summary: A movie or book explained in four panels
  • Mischievous Critters: Some of your favorite animals (frogs? quokkas? cats?) hatching a scheme with an unexpected aftermath
  • Flashback Funnies: Share a humorous moment from your childhood (or the past of one of your characters).
  • Technology Trouble: Show yourself (or one of your characters) dealing with a malfunctioning piece of technology.
  • Dreamworld: Create a comic about one of your dreams.
  • Unexpected Visitors: Characters from another graphic novel or story unexpectedly visit your world.
  • Coffee Shop Chronicles: Depict a conversation snippet (with a twist?) in a mundane setting like a coffee shop.
  • Family Matters: One memorable moment at a family gathering or event — either from real life, or involving characters from your graphic novel.
  • Travel Tales: What happened on a trip or vacation — from real life, or involving your fictional characters.
  • Unexpected Superpower: Explore a scenario where one of your characters discovers a surprising superpower.
Tom Gauld

Psst. We have interviewed three comic artists and their process in making four-panel comics:

Stan Yan

Young Huer

Elizabeth Jancewicz and Eric Stevenson


Resources

“How to Use 3-Act Story Structure in Comic Strips” by Tim Stout

SMAC’s (Silent Manga Audition Community) Japanese Manga 101 #049 video

What makes Ghibli Storytelling so Different? By Animation Obsession 

Journal Of Second Language Writing, Andy Kirkpatrick

Qichengzhuanhe and the Eight Legged Essay history and origin

Kim Yoonmi’s Worldwide Story Structures

SMAC’s videos:

Going over what Kishotenketsu is and its origins
The FOUR Part construction “Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu” – Japanese Manga 101 #049

Examples of Kishotenketsu and the yonkoma
Can you name Japan’s Most Loved Anime? – “4koma” – “Ki-sho-Ten-ketsu” 2 – Japanese Manga 101 #050

How this technique can be applied to a long story
“Ki-sho-Ten-ketsu” is “KA-ME-HA-ME-HAA!” 4 part construction practicals – Japanese Manga 101 #051

Further reading:

Drawing on the Funny Side of the Brain: How to Come Up With Jokes for Cartoons and Comic Strips by Christopher Hart

Manga Drawing Deluxe by Nao Yazawa

The Significance of Plot without Conflict by still eating oranges

Molly Knox Ostertag’s Graphic novel class 2 – outlining

“Comics Open Up The Idea Of What A Story Can Be”: A Conversation With Tom Gauld

Thank you to Young Huer for introducing the concept of kishotenketsu to me and sharing yonkoma examples!

Kids Comics Unite is reader supported. We may earn affiliate commissions through some links above.

About Jade Vaughan

I am a non-binary storyteller who dreams of one day owning a mango tree. I grew up as a military kid traveling the U.S. and Europe. We never stayed at one place more than three years but between all those moves Studio Ghibli films and magical girl anime were my constants. I love fantasy, magical realism, & slice of life with queer and whimsical characters. I want to work on projects that balance humor, hardships, and heart!

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