2018/07/16

Kishōtenketsu

Kishōtenketsu

Lately I've been getting questions about Kishōtenketsu, the four-part story structure of classical Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature. My Twitter friends sent along a useful post explaining the concept.
Let’s start with the word itself. It’s made up of the names of the four different acts of the structure:
  • Ki : Introduction
  • Shō : Development
  • Ten : Twist (complication)
  • Ketsu : Conclusion (reconciliation)
The first act is self explanatory. It’s where we’re introduced to the story and we get to know the characters taking part and the world they live in.
Similarly, the second act also doesn’t require much explanation. This is where we get to know the characters a little better. We learn about their relation to each other and their place in the world. This is where we develop an emotional connection to the characters.
The third act however, the twist, is where things get a bit complicated. I’ve seen this act referred to as complication, and while I don’t think that’s technically correct, I feel it’s a better name. Calling it a twist brings with it associations to plot-twists as we know them from more traditional western narratives.
This isn’t necessarily the case here. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. However, it’s often something unexpected, and usually unrelated to what’s happened in the first two acts.
Finally, the fourth act is about the impact of the third act on the first two acts. This is why I like the term reconciliation. The third act will affect the situation presented in the first and second act, and in the fourth act the state of the world in first and second act is reconciled with the events of the the third.
You can see how cultural differences between East and West come through in each culture's preferred storytelling methods. Kishōtenketsu emphasizes developing a cast of characters over focusing on an individual protagonist. The Eastern approach is also more concerned with reconciling the story's events to the status quo ante.
I mentioned earlier that Kishōtenketsu is a story structure without conflict. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict in stories told through this kind of story structure, only that it’s not built into the structure by default.
Let’s compare it with the three act structure:
In the first act, a conflict is introduced. In the second act the conflict is escalated, and in the third it is resolved. As we see, the conflict is an integral part of the structure as a whole. That’s not the case in Kishōtenketsu. In none of the four acts is a conflict a requirement.
This holds true even for the third act. The complication doesn’t have be something that the character struggles against – but it can be.
Properties like Star Wars grounded in conflict-driven Western storytelling conventions already face a major handicap in more conformist, social harmony-emphasizing Eastern markets. Disney isn't doing itself any favors by also making its products horrible.

Related: Some reviewers have said that the beginning of my first novel Nethereal uses a structure similar to Kishōtenketsu. It's only 99 cents right now, so give it a read and see for yourself.

4 comments:

  1. Brian,

    Thanks very much for your post. Your explanation of the 3rd act is particularly illuminating. It explains why I have a hard time understanding or appreciating the story's arc.
    So to put it in Westen terms the East prefers Platonic statis to Aristotlean catharsis.
    That's extremely useful to bear in mind.
    xavier

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  2. This explains why anime tv series seem less foreign to a western set of expectations than movies. A shorter runtime will tighten up the first two acts and you mighty not even notice a difference in structure at all.

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    1. A friend and I were just discussing why on the whole, anime movies tend to be less well-received by Western audiences than series. The shorter runtime (almost universally 90 minutes) limit the number of Kishōtenketsu cycles. Since Western storytelling norms are conflict-centered and not every Kishōtenketsu cycle need contain conflict, anime movies' ability to generate enough dramatic tension to keep Western audiences interested is hit-or-miss.

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    2. Brian

      Does the lack of conflict comes across as a perceived meandering non sequiturs in animie movies? That explains for me why such movies don't make sense even though they do.
      xavier

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