Let’s talk about Kishōtenketsu, or how Asian story structure subverts our Western concepts of how stories work.
In Western culture, if you want to write a story you have about a dozen different story structures to choose from. You can use the Three Act Structure, or the Hero’s Journey, which I wrote a thorough guide to here, or maybe the Seven Point Structure. So many choices, but they all have one thing in common.
They all revolve around conflict. The protagonist is introduced, they run face-first into some sort of obstacle, and they spend most of the rest of the story overcoming that obstacle. This is a fine way to write a story, but it’s not your only option.
Kishōtenketsu is a Japanese story structure that doesn’t need conflict to work. It’s the guiding structure behind popular urban legends, jokes, comic strips, and even video game design. And, there’s a reason for the rising popularity of Kishōtenketsu. It’s something that most readers have never seen.
It’s a unique twist on how stories are told. Actually, twists are very important to Kishōtenketsu, but more on that later.
So, if you want to learn a new story structure that will delight your readers, and challenge their thinking then let’s check out Kishōtenketsu together.
What is Kishōtenketsu?
Kishōtenketsu is a story told in four parts. This kind of storytelling is most closely associated with Japan, but it is also used in classic Chinese and Korean narratives. In fact, it was originally used in Chinese four-line poetry.
The plot of a Kishōtenketsu story relies on the third act twist. This is what puts the whole narrative into context. A traditional Western story starts by introducing conflict and builds to a climax. In Kishōtenketsu, the story is mostly set up that builds towards the story’s major twist.
A quick word on the graphic above. A reader pointed out to my that the original image was incorrect, so I have replaced it based on her suggestion. She also pointed out the importance hiring own voices/ lived experiences for articles and diagrams such as this one. I totally agree with her, but I don’t have the budget to hire any outside writers or graphic artists at this time. Instead, I will link to her article, author Kim Yoon Mi, below. I will also embed a video that she suggested. Both of these resources are far more detailed than the article I’ve written here and I encourage you to visit them.
Or check out the video below:
The unique thing about Kishōtenketsu is that they do not have to tell a transformative story. Meaning, your protagonist doesn’t have to suffer trauma and come out better or worse for it. There is a twist, but the twist doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or even a negative event. Twists are often used for humor or just to surprise the reader.
Let’s break down the four parts of a Kishōtenketsu in greater detail.Kishōtenketsu, a story structure that subverts our Western concepts of how stories work by relying on a twist rather than conflict. Click To Tweet
What is the Kishōtenketsu Four-Part Structure?
The set up of the story. Just like the beginning of a three-act story, here you want to introduce characters, settings, and any other information that’s important to the understanding of your story.
Take your setup and expand on it. Tease out the situation, flesh out the characters. You’re giving readers a broader, or deeper view into the story. The important thing to remember about this stage is that it is about expansion, but not change. No major changes occur during this development stage.
This is the most important part of your story. The twist is an unexpected turn or development in your story. The twist in a Kishōtenketsu is like the climax of a Western story. It’s what your entire story is building toward. It will often recontextualize the previous events of the story.
Here you’re just wrapping up the story. It’s important to note that in a Kishōtenketsu your characters don’t have to show growth, and sometimes barely any action has happened. Just show us the aftermath of the twist.
So, there are many ways that this Kishōtenketsu is used in the real world. We’ll talk about some of them at the bottom. But, the stories that use this form, and are most familiar to Westerners, are urban legends. Let’s take a look at an urban legend. Notice how the twist (ten) of this story recontextualizes the first two acts.
A young couple gets married. For their honeymoon, they travel to the Bahamas. They spend two weeks swimming on the beach everyday.
When the couple arrives home the woman starts to feel quesy, and the couple assumes she pregnant.
The woman goes into labor and the couple rushes to the hospital. She gives birth to a beautiful baby… squid. While swimming, on their honeymoon, the woman swallowed eggs and they incubated her stomach.
(don’t worry, I did some research. It’s not actually possible to give birth to a squid. Unless, of course, you are a squid.)
After a doctor explains the situation, the couple return home horrified.
Most urban legends operate with this same model. A normal scenario is laid out, but the twist turns everything the story on its head. Usually, this twist is meant to scare or disgust the reader.
Note that the characters in these stories don’t have goals or a conflict to overcome. Events just happen to them. The twist changes the color of those events as the reader, and the characters, realize that the first two acts were not what they thought.
But, urban legends, and horror stories, are not the only narratives that make use of this technique. More on that below.
Now, let’s talk about an important thing that seems to be missing from these stories.
Where’s the Conflict?
Pretty much anyone who talks about storytelling will tell you that conflict is the most important part of your story. That, without conflict, you don’t have a story. I know I’ve said it somewhere on this blog.
Well, it turns out that’s wrong. Western story structure does depend on conflict, but Kishōtenketsu doesn’t. Sure, Kishōtenketsu can have conflict, but it doesn’t need it. For a refresher, let’s take a look at how the Three Act Structure compares to Kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu vs. The Three Act Structure
The Three Act Structure
Like the introduction and development stages of Kishōtenketsu, the setup establishes characters, settings, and the situation.
This is where you introduce conflict into your story. Usually an inciting event – read more about inciting events here– will disrupt the character’s life in some way. The character will spend the rest of the story trying to overcome that conflict.
In the final act of the story, the character will resolve their conflict. Life will return to normal, and usually, the character will have changed, or grown, in a fundamental way.
While other story models like the Hero’s Journey, or the Seven Point structure are more complex, they work off the same principle. Some form of conflict will disrupt a character’s life and they will work to overcome that conflict. At the heart of all these Western story structures is conflict, and usually, growth.
Ketsu- How to conclude a story with no conflict
So, how do you conclude a story with no conflict? Well, in the Ketsu portion of the four-act story you can return the characters to where they were before. The twist may create an unresolved tension in the place of a resolved conflict. This is what makes the story interesting to the reader.
Go back to our urban legend example. Does the couple strive to accomplish some goal? No, they just have a bizarre thing happen to them. At the end of the story the return home. They’re left to process their confusion and disgust with the event. And, so is the reader. That tension is just left for everyone to deal with in their own way.
Truthfully, we don’t need conflict, or character growth, to make a narrative interesting or worthy. This lack of resolution makes Kishōtenketsu stories appealing in an important way. They are true to life.
We rarely get a clear and neat resolution to the conflicts that emerge in our own lives. Things can happen to us, positive or negative, that are completely out of our control. We just have to deal with them.
Conclusions are inevitable. Everything ends, eventually, but we are not guaranteed any resolutions. That is how Kishōtenketsu, and life, work, and that’s what makes these stories impactful.
Examples of Kishōtenketsu
Super Mario Level Design
Nintendo game designer, Koichi Hayashida, has famously used the Kishōtenketsu structure for Super Mario games over the last decade. Starting with Super Mario Galaxy, on the Wii U, Mario levels conform to the four-part structure.
As a player enters a stage they will be introduced to a mechanic. Usually, a way to use some part of the environment to achieve an objective. They will have a low-risk area to practice the mechanic. As the player moves forward the mechanic will evolve and become more complicated.
At the climax of the level, developers will introduce a twist on the mechanic. Players will have to use it in a way they weren’t expecting. This hard to explain in words so check out this video from Youtube channel, Game Makers Toolkit to learn more.
Yonkoma is four-panel comic strips that have been around since the early 20th century. These comics are very popular throughout Japan, and they are an eloquent example of Kishōtenketsu storytelling.
Here’s an example.
It was pretty difficult to track down the origin of this comic (I admit, I’m not an avid Manga reader), but I believe it comes from a series called, Tomo-chan wa Onnanoko! If I’m wrong please let me know in the comics.
Practice Your Own Kishōtenketsu
Grab a blank sheet of paper and draw four boxes. Then make your own four-panel comic. Don’t worry if you’re not a great artist. That’s what stick figures are for! Just remember that the third panel needs to introduce a twist.
But, don’t overthink it. The twist doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. It can be played for humor like the one above. Or, it can introduce an element of horror. Whatever. Just surprise your reader. Then once you’ve made one comic, make another one!
If there’s one thing to take away from this post it’s that there is more than one way to tell a story. What Kishōtenketsu teaches us is that you don’t have to have a conflict to tell an interesting story. As a writer, don’t be afraid to explore new formats or to stretch your creative mind.
Now, one last time, let’s go over those steps…