Kishotenketsu - a plot structure without conflict
Updated: Apr 9
“Without conflict? Bulls**t, every story has conflict!”
Calm down. It is not the story that lacks conflict, but its structure.
The first time I heard of kishotenketsu, the description was “a plot without conflict.” It instantly got my attention, I was curious and asked around to see what people thought of it. When I mentioned it to other writers, they reacted passionately to the statement. Nobody loves conflict more than a writer! Thus, I’ve made a tiny adjustment to it. It is not the plot that does not rely on conflict, but its structure.
Kishotenketsu is a four-act plot structure common in Asian storytelling. The introduction (ki), the development (sho), the twist (ten), and the conclusion (ketsu). Compared to more familiar narratives, the conflict act is missing, which justifies its description.
But, if the narrative does not rely on an inciting incident, what moves the plot? To understand it, let’s expand on each act.
The introduction (kiku, in Chinese) is, as the name suggests, the setting: presentation of the characters, era… you know, the important components of your story.
The development (shoku) is where the narrative advances. The events of your story start to unfold, setting action in motion.
The twist (tenku) is when things get interesting. So far, the narrative was rising steadily. The western audience may expect a climatic event to happen, but instead the twist changes the direction of the plot, and it presents the story in a new light. Can the twist be caused by an inciting incident? Yes. But it is not always the case.
The conclusion (ketsu) is the end of the story. It usually ties the two directions together.
The most often cited examples of a kishotenketsu structure are Japanese and Chinese four-lines poems known as shichigon-zekku in Japanese, or Qyian jueju in Chinese. I got this next example from Wikipedia; it is a poem by a Japanese poet named Sanyo Rai:
Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen.
Throughout history, generals killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.
Each verse exemplifies one part of the kishotenketsu structure. The introduction of the characters, the daughters of Itoya; the development of the narrative, they are young damsels; the change in direction, a.k.a. the twist, there is a bloody, dangerous war; and finally the conclusion, tying together the two perspectives, the damsels are more dangerous than the war.
Let’s analyze another example of a full-blown story written in this structure. I will warn you now tho...
SPOILERS FOR YOUR NAME AHEAD!
Since the first time I’ve watched the movie Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016), it bewildered me. Sure, it has stunning visuals, captivating characters, and incredible details, but what really got my attention was the uniqueness of its narrative structure. Well, unusual for the Western audience, at least.
Let’s examine the four acts of this amazing story.
Did I mention there will be SPOILERS? Just checking.
Ki: the introduction
The movie starts by introducing two characters, Taki Tachibana, a Tokyo teenage boy, and Mitsuha Myamizu, a countryside teen-girl who lives with her grandmother and little sister. It is quickly established that Tachibana and Mitsuha have never met before.
Sho: the development
The two of them inexplicably and occasionally exchange bodies, living the lives of each other in those days. To cope with this situation in secret, they leave notes to instruct the other on their daily life activities. Eventually, they get to understand each other better through their friends, family, and coworkers. The plot revolves around this mystery and it acts to build up their relationship. Until the body swap stops.
Ten: the twist
Realizing he has feelings for Mitsuha, Tachibana starts a journey to find her. He discovers she was a casualty of a tragedy that happened two years prior. A meteorite extinguished her hometown, killing all of its inhabitants. The Mitusha he knew was in the past and she would remain there forever.
ketsu: the conclusion
He fights to gain back that connection to the past, to alert the people from the town and avoid the tragedy. And, of course, not to lose Mitsuha. The conclusion is about trying to keep their special connection after the comet, wrapping up the first two acts with the third.
I won’t spoil this movie any more than this.
To sum it up, this change in the third act is what moves the plot forward. In the beginning, we want to understand the body exchange and deal with their personal problems. We want to know if they will meet and fall in love. After the twist, however, the romance becomes secondary. We root for the safety of the people in town and for Mitsuha to stay alive.
It took me a while to figure out what made me so excited about this story. As I mentioned, it has a gorgeous cinematograph, and the details of the animation are simply amazing. But it was the plot structure that enticed me the most.
I hope I helped you understand this structure better. So tell me, how do you feel about the kishotenketsu structure? Too weird? Interesting?
Personally, I think it is beautiful. I have toyed with this structure in my short-story Unification. You can read it for free if you subscribe to my newsletter here.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.