I've been thinking a lot about Bleach lately, which (as some of you may know) can be a pretty painful experience. Once upon a time, it was one of my favorite stories in serialization, with a large cast of compelling heroes and villains. Ever since the story started pulling Deus Ex Machina out of its ass like it's going out of style, reading from week to week has become an exhausting, disorienting slog. But after discussing the most recent story arc with a friend, I started to wonder if the reason I find Bleach so incomprehensibly bad these days was partially my fault. Maybe I wasn't reading it the right way.
Fortunately, for the few of you who haven't experienced Bleach in some capacity (must be cozy under that rock!), the story details are almost irrelevant to the situation. Instead, the problem comes down to writing fundamentals and understanding the kind of story you're consuming.
Bleach, like pretty much any manga I've ever read or heard of, is serialized. Instead of having access to the entire story — like with a traditional book — the reader gets chunks of it, bit by bit. But because being forced to wait a week for the next chapter is far different than being able to read as much as you want, mangaka should be handling their writing differently.
What makes a good manga chapter?
Instead of thinking of a manga series as one story that's broken up into chapters, think of it as hundreds of little stories that create a larger one when added together. The difference is semantic, but it's more important than you'd think.
When mangaka write in the above manner, you get a story that's thrilling to read, week-to-week, almost without fail. When mangaka don't tell self contained stories each chapter, you get open-ended, poorly paced messes with too much information for people to remember on a weekly basis.
A fantastic example of great serialized storytelling is Tsugumi Ohba's Death Note. Each week, the deadly dance between Light Yagami and L took another step forward. The story always progressed a fair amount and, if you like psychological thrillers, it was never dull. What's more, Death Note's cliffhanger endings were always handled well — stringing readers along instead of leaving us baffled.
On the other hand, look at the last year or so of Bleach. Ever since the the Thousand Year Blood War arc started, dozens of characters have been introduced on both sides of the fight between good and evil. Each has their own unique power and (supposed) personality — plus they've been fighting back-to-back with no time for readers to catch their breath.
What that's lead to is a blurred story where it's almost impossible to remember specifics about what's happening because nothing has any time to develop. On top of that, there's simply too much going on to latch onto those moments where these new characters do get a chance to shine. It's rather indicative of what happens when a mangaka doesn't write as if each chapter is its own story.
How to salvage a poorly paced manga
There is a way to make miss-handled manga such as Bleach enjoyable again, though — and it's a simple skill I'm sure everyone here has already developed thanks to the blessed media overlord that is Netflix. Ready for it?
Seriously, it's as simple as that. If a mangaka doesn't want to tell a whole story each week, don't read it each week. Instead, read it by the volume, or at least until the story starts to stick. When you can keep reading until important things actually happen, it's easier to follow what's going on. I've been re-reading the latest chapters of Bleach in bulk, and it's made them a lot more palatable. It hasn't made up for all the poorly justified story choices (everyone always has another trick up their sleeve), but at least I'm not walking away dissatisfied that I just spent 10 minutes reading 15 pages of nothing actually happening.
So, if you've been frustrated by the weekly release of a manga series, maybe you should walk away for a bit and let the story build up for a bit. That way, reading it isn't this painful, grueling process. And conversely, if a manga that's currently in serialization is written in a way that's compelling every week, don't miss out. The wait can be just as torturous, but in a way that's impossible to recapture once the story is complete.
Then again, maybe the quality of a story can't really changed based on how it's read. Perhaps a bad story will be bad no matter what. That's not really for me to decide — it's what the comments are for. Let's figure it out together!