Book Talk, Tips and Tricks

How to Go from Two Characters Standing in a Room Talking to a Conflict-Driven Scene: The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu

Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever done an analysis on manga instead of a book. Bear with me! ❤(ˆ‿ˆԅ) While this may seem super nerdy (probably because it is), this’ll be an analysis, just like any other book talk – with the added bonus that I get to talk about one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite stories: The Promised Neverland.

I also feel like I should give a warning for spoilers, not just for the manga we’ll be analyzing today, but also for the anime adaptation. If you haven’t already read or seen The Promised Neverland, I highly recommend skipping this post for now and coming back after you finish the story (or, at least until you’ve gotten as far as chapter 14 in the manga and/or episode 5 of the anime).

Go read the manga through chapter 14 or watch the anime through episode 5! This is your final warning before we get to spoilers!

A scene needs conflict, struggle, and resolution. To illustrate this, I like to think of each scene as a miniature act. Now think of that act as a miniature story. In terms of literature, a book needs a setup, a struggle, and a denouement, and so does each chapter and so do most scenes.

While the purpose of a scene varies on what you plan to accomplish with it (expository scenes, for example, have the primary purpose of explaining something to the reader), most scenes do require a sense of movement to keep from feeling extraneous or boring. Let’s break that down.

Why Conflict Is Important to a Scene

Imagine Inception, a dream within a dream, wherein each story’s smaller aspects is a story in and of itself, like a fractal. In simpler terms, much like The Promised Neverland’s entire first arc, each chapter needs shape, and the same goes for each scene. 

Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demisu are masters of scene shaping, and the early chapters of TPN illustrate this especially well. Here’s a basic structure of a scene: One or more characters want something. They work toward getting that something. And by the end of the scene, a struggle has ensued that results either in that character taking one step further toward achieving their goal or one step backward. 

While not every scene needs to have a big step forward or a big step back, there should at least be some movement within a scene. I’ll always be sad that I can never remember which craft book I read this in, but the words, at least, have stuck with me: a scene in which a character wants something and then immediately gets it isn’t much of a scene at all. One way to ensure that some sort of movement happens within the scene to justify its existence is to add a pinch of conflict.

Think of our story fractal: Each story needs conflict to drive it along (otherwise, there isn’t much “story” there). In the same way, each scene needs conflict to gain that sense of movement. Arguably, no scene in The Promised Neverland exemplifies this conflict-driven scene setup better than the confrontation that occurs in chapters 13 and 14. But first, some context. 

The Setup

In the peaceful Grace Field House, orphans Emma, Norman, and Ray spend their time studying, playing, and enjoying their time with their siblings and their caretaker, Mama Isabella. But when their little sister is discovered dead, Emma and her two friends discover a dark secret. The orphanage? Yeah, not an orphanage. It’s actually a farm that harvests human meat, and Mama Isabella is the one running the show.

As if that weren’t dark enough, now Emma, Norman, and Ray need to outwit Mama and escape the farm if they want to have any hope to survive. The first arc of the manga is one huge, tangled web of character motivations, all revolving around a cat-and-mouse game with the lives of Emma’s family on the line.

The Promised Neverland is a psychological thriller manga written by Kaiu Shirai and drawn by Posuka Demizu.

Upon first glance, the story’s main conflict seems to have just two sides: Emma, Norman, and Ray versus Mama Isabella. But each of the three main characters have their own subgoals and motivations as well (in other words, they’re very layered). Emma, the heart of the group and our protagonist, wants to escape the farm with her 30+ siblings and not lose a single one. Norman, the strategist, wants to help Emma achieve her goal of escaping, both to save his own life and to keep Emma happy; after all, he has quite the crush on her. As for Ray, the tactician, he wants to make sure that his two best friends escape at all costs — even if that means leaving the rest of the kids behind.

The two characters I want to focus on today are Norman and Ray. During the course of their mind games against Mama Isabella, the kids realize that she has a traitor – a kid who’s been feeding Mama information. Such a huge betrayal requires a huge reveal, and The Promised Neverland doesn’t disappoint.

Norman sets a trap for the informant and catches more than he bargained for when Ray unwittingly reveals himself as the traitor all along.

The Struggle

We begin in chapter 13 with a face-off between close friends. Norman reveals that Ray has walked right into a trap by trying to frame their brother Don as Mama Isabella’s spy. The setup of the scene would suggest that Norman has the upper hand: by holding all the cards, he’s the one who outsmarted Ray, he has full control over whether or not Ray is outed as a spy to Emma and the other kids, and as soon as Mama realizes that he’s been found out, he has outlived his usefulness to her.

Now that Ray’s betrayal has been revealed, here’s where the two players in the scene stand: Norman wants to escape the farm with Emma and the rest of the kids, and Ray (knowing all the information that we do by this point in the story) wants to escape with just Emma and Norman. Let’s see how this plays out.

Norman confronts Ray. Manga panel from chapter 13 of The Promised Neverland (Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu).

Norman begins with the upper hand and is aggressive with his moves, but he does let his emotions get the best of him early on. Following the accusation, he demands to know if any part of their friendship has been real. Since Ray was in charge of breaking the tracking devices hidden on all the kids, Norman naturally wants to know if he actually can break them after all. Norman is typically more of a strategist than a feelings guy, but the emotion runs a little high here.

When Ray refuses to answer (one of the first push-backs on the back-and-forth of the scene), the power dynamic shifts to Ray for a brief moment. He stays calm and collected despite being found out and laughs off Norman’s subtle threats.

The scene shifts again when Norman lays it all out for Ray in terms he can clearly understand: he’ll keep quiet about the betrayal and allow Ray to escape with the rest of them – for a price.

Ray: What do you want?

Norman: Three things. One, continue to be with us and guarantee our safety. Two, share all the information you have. Three, flip to our side. Become my spy now.

The Promised Neverland, Chapter 13: Traitor, Part 3

Up until now, Ray has been pretty calm about being accused. Following the initial shock, Ray has kept a sly smile on his face right up until Norman gives him the option of joining their side. Now that Norman makes the “mistake” (in Ray’s eyes) of promising trust for a second time (through the influence of the trusting but naïve Emma), Ray actually gets angry. 

To sweeten the deal, Norman reveals that, while Ray may have betrayed them, he isn’t a complete traitor. He’s the one who led Emma and Norman to discover the secret about the orphanage in the first place, meaning he’s still on their side, in his own way.

The fact that he hasn’t told Mama Isabella everything (if he did, they’d be in even more trouble), only a select bit of information, also proves that Ray’s motivations align more with Emma and Norman than with Mama Isabella.

However, Norman may have revealed too much of his hand here. 

I asked for two things. First, to not ship me out, I promised to help her. Second, for rewards if I gave results.

Ray, The Promised Neverland, Chapter 14: Trump Card

Leaving his sly smile behind, he instead goes for crazy eyes (with an expression similar to the classic horror show Higurashi’s trademark “Higurashi face”) as he reveals that, not only has he been playing the long game trying to sabotage Mama Isabella’s plans for the inside, but he also can, in fact, break the trackers. What’s more, he’s gathered far more info about the farm over the years – info that could mean the difference between life or death for the rest of the kids.

Ray scares the crap out of everyone. Manga panel from The Promised Neverland (Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu).

Ray has made himself the most powerful information source and weapon against Mama Isabella. This is the first time that Norman looks truly scared in this scene, as he realizes that he may not be the smartest person in the room, like he thought.

Not to worry, though. Ray agrees to all of Norman’s three conditions; he’ll keep them safe, he’ll feed Mama Isabella false information, and he’ll tell them all he knows. 

You may have noticed that we’ve got a bit of a countdown going. Time is a huge theme in this first arc of the story; the kids don’t have much time before the next kid ships out, and there’s a lot to plan in such a short amount of time. Even the anime itself includes the ticking of a clock in the sound mixing when it adapts this scene.

The recurring talk of conditions goes reinforces the effect of passing time by giving a 3-2-1 countdown: Norman gives three conditions for Ray’s acceptance back into the group, Mama Isabella honors Ray’s two conditions for his services, and Ray gives Norman one condition for turning double spy.

I have one condition…trick Emma. We’ll pretend we’re taking everyone, but at the last moment we’ll ditch them. Even if we’re taking others, it should only be Don and Gilda. Everyone else needs to be left behind…Otherwise, you and Emma can die here at the farm.

Ray, The Promised Neverland, Chapter 14: Trump Card
Ray threatens Norman. Manga panel from The Promised Neverland (Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu).

Nevertheless, Norman agrees to the terms, planning to play along. The decision is short-lived, however, as Ray sees through the ploy right away. He doesn’t even need to finish his threat for Norman to get the picture: things will go awry very quickly if he doesn’t uphold his end of the deal.

This ultimatum challenges Norman’s very nature; he knows it’s the smartest move to take Ray up on his offer, but the one thing he can’t risk is Emma’s happiness.

When we remember our players’ goals/motivations, this isn’t necessarily the worst-case scenario, but this is definitely not how Norman envisioned the conversation playing out. Tricking Emma would compromise his very motivation for wanting to escape in the first place.

This gives us a chance to fight! But give up on everyone…Ray is logical. Emma is reckless. It’s easy to trick Emma. But it’s hard to trick Ray…But I want to be like her. I want to save them if I can.

Norman (internal monologue), The Promised Neverland, Chapter 14: Trump Card

This puts Norman in a moral dilemma and gives Ray the high ground. After the back-and-forth struggle that the scene presents, there has been plenty of movement within the story and in terms of where the characters stand now. 

The Resolution

Norman entered with the goal of turning Ray to his side. Ray entered with the goal of being able to keep spying, even if that means framing someone else. They both walk out of the room having met their goals, but not quite in the way they expected or wanted. Norman is now in hot water over his predicament, and Ray now has to juggle spying on two separate parties, all with secondary goals of his own.

There is a limit to how many lives I can save…I won’t let them ruin the plan I spent six years building.

Ray, The Promised Neverland, Chapter 14: Trump Card

In this scene, there’s conflict on the surface (the confrontation) and the conflict beneath the surface (what each character wants and how they’ll go about getting it). There’s also movement in how the characters adapt to each other’s moves. 

Ray's internal monologue reveals his goals are set in stone. Manga panel from The Promised Neverland (Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu).

Here’s an interesting tidbit to note. While both Norman and Ray’s motivations seem to align on the surface (escape), they differ in execution (escaping with the core three versus escaping with 30+ kids) and motivation. This degree of variation in terms of personalities, even with characters seemingly on the same side of a conflict, is a well of conflict in and of itself.

While writing a conflict-driven scene, it isn’t necessary include as much conflict as The Promised Neverland does, and the tension doesn’t have to be quite this palpable. This is, however, one of the best examples I’ve seen when it comes to tightly-written, conflict- and motivation-driven scenes in which the characters themselves drive the plot and drama. Each person has a goal, the power shifts happen constantly, and the scene ends with the goals either achieved, failed, or with partial success/failure. 

It’s always impressive when a scene is engaging and feels like it’s moving – when in fact the characters are just standing in an empty room talking to each other. Nothing all that dynamic truly happens on the surface, but it’s one of the most riveting scenes of the first arc, a true page-turner.

True, the scene is drawn with dynamic angles helps (and the anime itself utilizes creative “camerawork” to create a sense of physical movement to match the power shifts, such as swinging back and forth between Norman and Ray like the pendulum of a clock). But the characters themselves are what drive the scene, and the conflict between them is like a living thing. A scene that works effectively must have conflict at some level, and this scene has it in droves.

This just one of many impressive character interactions that The Promised Neverland excels at. If you haven’t read the manga or seen the anime past this scene, I highly recommend doing so (at least, up until chapter 159 or the season 1 finale). There are plenty of characters and scenes to analyze!