When it comes to story structure, I think most of us are familiar with the three act structure and the many rules that go along with it.
A structure based of three acts, beginning, middle and end. One that most stories (especially in recent times) follow to the word.
Personally, I’ve never really liked the three act structure, or at least not in the way that it’s used in modern story telling. I’ve taken filmmaking classes and many writing seminars, and in almost all of them all they do is shove this structure up your ass.
I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad structure if used correctly, however, I can’t help but feel that many great stories ultimately start to feel mechanic or robotic when all they do is follow the same story structure that I’ve seen done countless times. Especially in mainstream blockbusters that feel like all they know how to do is follow this structure. (Especially big budget Disney movies like the Rise of Skywalker and the Lion King remake.)
Which is why I always enjoy experiencing stories that move away from the three act structure and do their own thing. Some completely destroy this structure while others do their own thing while taking a few ideas here and there from the traditional structure. I’m a big fan of the latter.
And my most recent obsession, Hunter x Hunter, is a perfect example of subverting this structure while also telling an extremely engaging story.
Also, keep in mind I will be talking about the story all the way up until the end of the Phantom Troupe arc, so spoilers will be ahead.
When it comes to the three act structure, there are a few key rules that are important to keep in mind.
The first is the idea that the main character has a want or problem that he/she wants to solve. A problem that gets more and more difficult to solve as the story goes on.
The main character also has to learn something along the way. By the end of the story, he/she has to be a different person then how they were at the beginning of the story.
The story will begin giving you an introduction to the problem and the characters. The middle will be used to develop it all. And the conclusion features the climax, the most intense moment in the whole story which is usually where the main character solves his/her goal.
There’s also a few other points like the breaking point, or the art of suspense. But for the purpose of this post, those are the most important points.
I wanna start talking about Hunter x Hunter with the end of the zoldyck family arc and the hunter’s exam arc.
Through these two arcs, Yoshihiro Togashi, sets a few things up for future arcs. Set-ups that seemingly fit perfectly into the three act structure.
While Gon (the main character) was in the hunter’s exam, he was defeated and humiliated by this guy called Hisoka who (at this point in the story) is the main antagonist.
Gon gets so pissed off over this that he swears that he’s gonna find Hisoka again and punch him in the face.
Already, we have a very difficult goal to achieve. Cause Hisoka ain’t no pushover and the chances of Gon being able to accomplish his goal are slim.
Yet on top of that, he has another obstacle. He doesn’t know where Hisoka is at this moment. However, he does know that he’ll be in a place called Yorknew city (yes, that’s actually what it’s called) a little over half a year from then.
A group called the Phantom Troupe is also mentioned at his point, a group who very well seems to be another antagonistic force on top of Hisoka.
So far, a lot of the things set-up align with the three act structure. Gon has a goal that seems impossible to achieve, punch Hisoka in the face. However, he has obstacles to overcome before he gets there, mainly the Phantom Troupe.
So, if Hunter x Hunter were to follow the traditional structure, you would expect something along the lines of the following:
We get a montage of Gon training to defeat Hisoka in anticipation for Yorknew. We time skip to then and get a brief introduction of the Phantom Troupe. Through the middle, Gon works with his friends to gather information and confront the antagonists while preparing for the final battle. The third act starts with a massive battle against each of the Phantom Troupe, a grueling battle that leaves Hisoka at the end as the big bad final boss. The last obstacle Gon has to overcome to accomplish his goal.
But as you can guess, that’s not what happens.
Instead, Gon and Killua go to this place called the Heavens arena to train and get stronger for Yorknew. And it just so happens that Hisoka is also here.
So, instead of going through all the trouble of battling the Phantom Troupe, Gon just challenges Hisoka right here, months before it was set-up that these two were going to fight.
And he even manages to rank up the floors necessary to battle him with relative ease. Never really having to go through any real effort to win many of the fights.
Well okay, he manages to get to fight Hisoka with relative ease, but he should have to go trough some struggle to defeat him. This statement is only half right.
Gon gets absolutely destroyed by him, standing no chance at actually defeating him. However, he does manage to punch him in the face like he said he was gonna do.
Essentially, accomplishing his goal without having to go through long excruciating effort, and without following the previous set-ups with Yorknew.
You’d think getting destroyed by Hisoka would further his drive to defeat him. But no. He’s actually completely okay with it cause he punched him in the face, which was his ultimate goal.
Even the fight against him was pretty anti-climactic, not at all feeling like the conclusion that it should feel like.
So, in conclusion, Gon didn’t have any obstacles to get in the way of his goal. He only half fulfilled it, and the whole thing just feels like he fulfilled his goal but not at the same time.
In any other case scenario, the whole story would just fall apart, having no drive or stakes at hand. Yet even so, Hunter x Hunter manages to create an engaging and entertaining story for almost its whole run. Even though it pretty much destroys the three-act structure in ways I haven’t seen done before.
So how does it do this? How does Hunter x Hunter tell its story and what is the structure that mangaka Yoshihiro Togashi uses?
To be honest, I’ve only just recently gotten into this series and there’s still a lot of questions that I myself have.
However, I still thought that it would be worthwhile to give my thoughts on some of the storytelling elements and techniques used in this shounen that has utterly fascinated me.
Consider the following less of an analysis and more of my impressions and thoughts on the story. I’ll mainly be talking about the Phantom Troupe arc which takes place almost immediately after the arc I just talked about.
The Art of the Question
Before talking about this arc, it’s important to set two things up. Who the main character is and what does he want to achieve.
In this case, even though Gon is the main protagonist for the vast majority of Hunter x Hunter, in the case of the Phantom Troupe arc, the story mainly revolves around the character of Kurapika. So, I’ll be moving forward acting as if he’s the main character.
His goal is pretty simple, kill every member of a group called the Phantom Troupe, a band of what can only be described as terrorist who strive on causing chaos and death to wherever they go. Kurapika specifically wants to kill them for revenge as they murdered every member of his clan.
At first, the story seems to move in the expected way, with Kurapika joining the mafia as a bodyguard to get closer to the Phantom Troupe.
At the same time, we also get familiarized with every member of the group, showing us their traditions and more importantly, how strong they are.
Similar to Hisoka, the Phantom Troupe seem like this group of terrorist that are seemingly impossible to defeat. Which is perfect for this type of story. They quickly make mincemeat of some of the strongest members of the mafia, and for the most part, are seemingly invincible for the whole arc.
And this is where we come across the first major deviation from the traditional structure.
Near the beginning of the arc, Kurapika manages to fight one of the members of the Troupe in a one on one fight. Traditionally, Kurapika should at least face somewhat of a struggle in defeating this opponent. Heck, it would actually serve the story better if he loses the fight, giving him a better strive to defeat the Phantom Troupe.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, Kurapika absolutely destroys this man. A Troupe member that we’ve seen decapitate some of the strongest characters to date with ease.
Yet, he doesn’t stand a chance against the main character, Kurapika doesn’t even face any sort of struggle. It got to the point were I kinda felt bad for the murdering maniac. That’s how bad he got his ass kicked.
In any other case-scenario, this scene would fall right on its face and lose all tension that it could have. Yet even so, it’s extremely engaging, for the whole time I was watching, I just needed to know how this conflict ended.
But how does it do this? How does Hunter x Hunter create tension in this scene with no stakes in hand? Well, there are a few factors involved. Though, it all comes down to something that I call the art of the question.
In a video made by the quotidian writer about writing first lines in a book, Diane Callahan gives what she thinks makes an engaging opening:
“The first line of a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme or style- or any combination of thereof. Most importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.” – Diane Callahan.
I know this is a line referring to literature, but I feel like we can apply some of it to Hunter x Hunter.
Throughout this scene, Kurapika is in clear emotional distress, taking out all of his years of anger on this one Troupe member. The engagement doesn’t come from whether or not he defeats his opponent, but of the questions the audience is asking themselves of Kurapika’s current mental state.
When I’m watching this scene, I’m not on the edge of my seat wondering whether or not Kurapika will fulfill his objective. I’m asking myself if he’s actually gonna kill this man. If he’s gonna continue on this violent rampage. If he’s going to become no better than the people that he hates the most.
They’re questions you might not actually want the answer to. Thinking that it would destroy your conception of this character and maybe show you something you don’t want to see. And it’s because of this that you keep watching. Cause you need to know what his next decision is going to be. And whether it’s what you consider to be the right one.
The end of this scene is pretty shocking, with the audience getting their answer after Kurapika destroys his enemy’s heart and buries him shortly afterwards.
This scene not only engages you for the whole thing, but it also makes you ask questions about future events. What is the Phantom Troupe going to do after they find out one of their members was killed? What’s Kurapika going to do?
After seeing this massacre, we’re no longer wondering whether or not Kurapika can defeat the Phantom Troupe (cause, it looks like he very much can). Instead, we want to know what the reactions from both sides is going to be.
The Deletion of the Main Character
Even though Kurapika is the lead for most of the arc, there’s also this weird focus around the Phantom Troupe itself. Heck, I’d say the whole story is spilt right down the middle between Kurapika’s perspective and the Phantom Troupes side.
It’s almost like the Phantom Troupe is just as much of a main character as Kurapika. So, I thought it would be interesting to apply the structure of a main character to the Phantom Troupe to see if it fits. And it works surprisingly well.
After Kurapika kills one of their members, the Phantom Troupe decides to seek out revenge for their now dead member and seek out Kurapika who they only know as "the chain man."
They also face struggles to actually capture him, mainly because they don’t know his name or what he looks like.
It’s all very bizarre, even though the Phantom Troupe are a bunch of terrorist and clearly the bad guys, there are many moments were a bit of humanity can be seen in them.
Many of them mourn over the death of their teammate and act almost exactly like Kurapika did. Seeking revenge in a violent and destructive manner. None of them really act evil, most of them just act out of self-interest.
Yet even so, they’re still a bunch of murdering maniacs who killed a bunch of people for kicks.
It’s as if the story is trying to show them in an empathetic way while also having that empathy revoked immediately after seeing their actions. Actually, they’re kind of similar to Kurapika.
I know that the old “you and I aren’t so different” cliché is kind of overdone. But it works surprisingly well in here.
And that’s because, for the most part, the story doesn’t focus on one character. But focuses on both sides of the story and shows a non-biased view of the events.
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to see done in stories, the deletion of the main character.
It raises the stakes immensely since now, no characters have plot armor. There’s no longer a set structure that he story must follow.
Instead, literally anything can happen to anyone no matter what point in the story we are. Couple this with a lot of thriller styled cliffhangers and the story never looses any suspense or tension.
For the whole run time, I’m just begging to know how this is going to end. And I’m also begging to have my questions answered. Who is going to win this conflict? How will the Phantom Troupe be damaged? Who else is going to die?
In a traditional structure, all these questions can be answered quite easily by simply thinking about the next point the story must go in. But, by completely breaking the scheme, Hunter x Hunter manages to create one of the most unpredictable and engaging stories I have experienced in a while.
Empathy and Payoffs
This all leads me to the ending of the Phantom Troupe arc. One of the most bizarre yet weirdly satisfying endings in the entirety of Hunter x Hunter.
Going back to each character’s desires, there are two primary ones to follow. Kurapika and his goal to destroy the Phantom Troupe. And the Phantom Troupe’s desire to kill Kurapika.
In a normal story, the hero (in this case, Kurapika) is almost guaranteed to win because he’s the main character. But there are some rare cases where the villain gets what they want.
So, this leaves us with two options, either Kurapika gets what he wants, or the Phantom Troupe gets what he wants. However, in a complete twist of irony, nobody gets what they want.
I mentioned earlier how Kurapika and the Phantom Troupe aren’t so different. And that comes to a head at the ending.
Kurapika manages to capture the leader of the Phantom Troupe. However, this comes at the expense of Gon and Killua being taken hostage.
The interesting part of this conflict is that the Phantom Troupe doesn’t really need their leader to continue functioning. In fact, he really only calls the shots in the group. However, the Troupe still wants to save him because he’s their friend. Once again, the story is showing us that small hint of humanity in them.
Meanwhile, Kurapika wants to rescue Gon and Killua for the same reasons.
So, the two parties decide to do a hostage exchange. One that leaves the leader without his Nen and leaves another without the ability to share her memories with the rest of the Troupe.
And it’s during this hostage exchange that we really see the true colors of both parties.
In the book “Story”, the author Robert McKee writer:
“True character is revealed in the choices that a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer that choice to the character’s essential nature.” – Robert McKee.
In this moment, both parties could easily betray the other right there and then. Fulfilling their goals.
Heck, Kurapika even gets upset with Pakunada for accepting the trade so easily, telling her that she needs to be more suspicious.
Yet even so, she follows his demands and doesn’t backstab Kurapika.
Just like Robert McKee says, this is the moment where we get to see both parties’ true nature. They’re both extremely flawed and are by all means terrible people.
But, in this moment, they both see part of themselves in the other. Part of their humanity in the way they care for their friends. And on that sense, neither one of them can find it in themselves to betray the other.
The result of this? The exchange happens like normal and nothing really happens. The leader is out of commission for some time, not being able to use Nen.
Shortly afterwards, Pakunada shares her memories with the rest of the Troupe, causing her to die. And after the Troupe learns of the way that Kurapika, Gon and Killua treated her, they all loose all resolve to continue pursuing them. Seeing part of themselves in them.
Kurapika falls ill shortly afterwards and stops his pursuit of the Phantom Troupe.
For the whole story, we’ve seen the events from the perspective of both parties. Knowing their philosophies and the way that they act. So, I find it fitting that he story ends with both of them seeing the humanity in the other.
I hope you found my brief deep dive into story structure interesting. Keep in mind these are just early impressions of the story that might very well change after I’ve read the manga or when the story has more time to sit with me.
This probably won’t be the last time I talk about Hunter x Hunter as I want to finish the anime, read the manga, and educate myself on everything that has to do with the series and its creation before diving deeper into this absolutely fascinating shounen.
I only scratched the surface of this arc alone and failed to mention many important elements like the role of the mafia or the role of Gon and Killua. And I might explore these elements more in the future.
If you have any comments or opinions of your own regarding Hunter x Hunter or story structure, I would love to hear them in the comments.
Also, if you’re interested, the cited works can be found here:
Quotidian writer, how to write a good first line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bm9trk8xRpg
Story by Robert McKee: https://www.amazon.com/Story-Substance-Structure-Principles-Screenwriting/dp/0060391685/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2PFY72SNR5F0Y&dchild=1&keywords=story+by+robert+mckee&qid=1611451765&sprefix=story+by+r%2Caps%2C203&sr=8-1