Kishōtenketsu: Non-Western Story Structure?

Over at Pub Rants, this: Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

This sounds like an interesting topic! I was immediately very interested!

Unfortunately, I was turned off almost as fast by the first sentence and the whole first paragraph of the post. Here it is:

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

What is this “all too familiar” thing? Are you saying that there’s actually something wrong with the hero’s journey structure? Also, the hero’s journey structure is not the same thing as a three-act structure.

Here’s a generic three-act story structure:

  • Act I – Setup: Exposition, Inciting incident, progress toward the confrontation
  • Act II – Confrontation: Rising action, midpoint, failure or dark night of the soul
  • Act III – Resolution: Overcoming the dark night, climax, denouement

And here is a hero’s journey structure, as best I understand it:

  • Act I: The Departure: the Hero leaves the Ordinary World.
  • Act II: The Initiation: the Hero ventures into the Heroic World meets various trials, overcomes various challenges, and becomes a true Hero.
  • Act III: The Return: the Hero returns to the Ordinary World.

And obviously there are lots of ways to fit a story into the three-act structure that do not result in a hero’s journey plot, even though the latter also has three main acts.

Also, the three-act structure is The Law, and deviating isn’t permitted? Really. Then it’s a puzzle that there’s a classical three-act story structure and also a seven-point plot structure. That “Save the Cat” thing has fourteen beats: here’s a post about that if you’ve never heard of it (I hadn’t). Honestly, even if you declare that the seven-point thing is really a subset of the three-act structure or any other justification for this apparent puzzle, I’m not keen on this idea that you have to say denigrating things about the three-act structure before you can say admiring things about some other structure.

Then, once we get that far, what is this very special non-Western story structure?

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

And my immediate reactions is: That is not a non-Western story structure. That is literally the exact structure of one zillion SFF short stories!

Then, after that, we finally get something that seems more like what I’d actually hoped for from this post:

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

The idea that the twist is the heart of the story doesn’t seem new or different at all. The idea that the twist comes from the protagonist’s self-realization is a lot more interesting than the fact that the twist is the high point. But I’m once again puzzled that this person then says that the conclusion can deescalate tension. That’s not new or different at all! That’s what happens in the denouement of practically every story! Falling tension after the climax or twist or whatever you want to call the high point, that’s practically universal in every kind of novel!

The author of this post is drawing a distinction between Western stories that ramp up tension and this other kind of story, Kishōtenketsu, where tension may not be ramped up. But that’s a false distinction unless you acknowledge that the denouement is a place where tension falls and explain why this is different.

This post declares: But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

THAT is where this post should have focused. That is a LOT more interesting and different than everything else in the post. Yet I at once wonder whether it’s true. For example, suppose that the movement in the novel is toward a moment of self-realization that shifts how the protagonist views events. I think that’s the kind of thing that seems to be indicated by this description of Kishōtenketsu. But then how is there not conflict between the way the protagonist used to view the world and the way she views it now? That’s conflict! Of course it is! It’s just interior conflict!

Look at In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. This is exactly the structure of the story. The whole story is about character growth. There’s conflict … I guess … but not really. I mean, conflict between different people is by no means the heart of the story. The story is about character growth and the tension is intrinsic to the protagonist becoming the person she should be or wants to be, however you’d phrase that.

This overall conclusion of this post:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. … A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story. … That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Seems massively overstated to me, based on a simplistic definition of “conflict” and ignoring a heck of a lot of novels that are not based around a central conflict that is defeated. This post reads to me as though the author of the post is defining “Western fiction” as “space opera” or some other similar subgenre and totally ignoring the existence of the vast number of literary novels that focus on interior movement and growth, as well as a smaller proportion of novels in other genres that also focus on interior growth.

Well, maybe I just have trouble with this particular post. Let me look around for other posts on this topic … and yes:

Here’s a Book Riot post about Kishōtenketsu, with recommendations.

From this post:

Ten, or Twist/Change: The third act, or ten, is where things can get a tad tricky. While “ten” can translate to “twist”, you shouldn’t necessarily picture a big Sixth Sense–style Plot Twist™, which is why I like the translation “change” a little better. As opposed to a big, shocking twist, the ten is more of a change or catalyst in the story that, though often unrelated to the elements from the first two acts, impacts them in some fashion and leads the story to its conclusion … it can also just represent a story’s progression in a direction the reader finds unexpected or odd … without necessarily causing a huge impact on the characters, but that is necessary for the reader to understand the conclusion.

Ketsu, or Conclusion: Finally, we have our ketsu, or conclusion. This is the ending of the story, where the elements from the first two acts and the third act are reconciled in some way. What makes the ketsu different from the endings of traditional western narratives is that it doesn’t have to be a resolution with problems solved and bad guys defeated, but is simply an ending. Whether it is open-ended, whether our characters didn’t go through real development or growth, whether we realize nothing much actually happened at all, it doesn’t matter that much in kishōtenketsuWhat matters is that the various elements from the different acts of the story come together in a finale, as climactic or as muted as it may be.

I think this is a much, much better description of a structure that does in fact sound different and unexpected. This sounds odd to me, which is another way of saying “different and unexpected.” Your protagonist did not go through any particular change or growth? That is indeed quite different from a novel like In This House of Brede. Here we have a structure in which the reader seems to be able to say, with complete justification, that nothing happened. That doesn’t immediately seem all that appealing. But the Book Riot post goes on to suggest that a reasonable number of Western novels do in fact fit this pattern. Let me take a look at this discussion …

Ah, this post is arguing that Urban Legends often follow this pattern. I can see that! All those “And then as we drove past the graveyard, she disappeared!” types of stories. It’s quite true that there’s no conflict, no personal growth, nothing like that, in these sorts of stories.

A good discussion of The Lottery follows, fitting that story into this pattern. I would say that’s pretty persuasive.

This post also picks out two books I’ve read as examples of this kind of structure. One of them I’m sure most of you have read as well. These are

STATION ELEVEN BY EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL

This post-apocalyptic novel follows a traveling troupe of performers who wander throughout the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare and music in an effort to keep art alive in the wake of a pandemic that wiped out much of the global population. During their travels, they encounter a violent prophet who threatens their existence. This melancholic but beautiful book jumps across time, exploring the characters’ lives both before and after the downfall of society and revealing the delicately woven connections they have to each other.

and

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET BY BECKY CHAMBERS

In the first book of Becky Chambers’s acclaimed Wayfarers series, we are introduced to Rosemary Harper and the motley crew she joins, and follow them on their adventures throughout the galaxy. In contrast to the action-packed space adventures many sci-fi readers might be familiar with, this one is a quieter and slower story focused on its characters rather than a big, overarching conflict.

All right, to reprise:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

Now if I re-read one or the other of those, I’ll try to remember this post and keep this concept of story structure in mind. My feeling is that Station Eleven is the one that may more closely fit. That is an exploration of the new world that follows the fall of the old world. Now I’m feeling like maybe world-centered novels may more often fit this kind of pattern, because if exploring the world is the point, there may not be much emphasis on an exciting plot and so on. I can’t remember whether I thought the characters showed substantial growth or change in Station Eleven.

I seem to recall some climactic scenes in The Long Way. These scenes certainly did focus on the characters, but that did not make them any less climactic. Conflict came from internal tension and character relationships, but there was quite a bit of tension and therefore quite a lot of conflict in that regard.

Interesting topic, and I know some of you read plenty of non-Western literature, so maybe you can weigh in on all this in a more informed way. But at the moment, I’m definitely pointing to the Book Riot post rather than the one at Pub Rants for a better presentation of these ideas about Kishōtenketsu qualities and structure.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

9 thoughts on “Kishōtenketsu: Non-Western Story Structure?”

  1. I have to laugh when the author of the OP declares that the three-act, seven-act, or Save the Cat structures are The Law. Yeah, sure they are . . . until someone breaks The Law by creating something out of the norm. Clearly they are conflating ‘Western’ with ‘creative writing workshopped’.
    That being said, yes, Eastern stories in general tend to be more circular, with the protagonist often ending up where they started, except with a better self-understanding or some kind of enlightenment. Oh, wait – that’s basically the Hero’s Journey. You mean some story patterns are nigh-universal? I think someone wrote a book about that . . .
    I’m not saying, by the way, that stories from, say, Japan or China or Indonesia aren’t different, just that good stories from any part of the world tend to have some sort of structure. That the structure is different doesn’t make it unintelligible to someone from a different culture.
    Personally, I enjoy low-conflict stories. That’s why I read silly fantasy slice-of-life manga about cooking and whatnot.
    There’s this delightful ancient Chinese . . . Daoist philosophical tale, I think? – ‘the dream of Zhuang Zhou’, that exemplifies the whole approach very well, in my opinion. And you’re right, the Book Riot post explains the concept of Kishōtenketsu much better. I think it’s the condescending tone of the first post that got to me.

  2. EC, yes, that tone put my back up right off, and I was immediately in a mood to be highly critical of the post. But I objectively also think the Book Riot post did a much (much!) better job explaining Kishotenketsu.

  3. This reminds me of something the translators of the movie Howl’s Moving Castle had to say about needing to add some wrap up with the prince to the ending because Western audiences would expect it, but the original didn’t have it. It just wrapped up the Sophie/Howl story. Or something like that – if it’s still on the web anywhere I can’t find it.

    Did anyone else read Tor.com’s article a couple weeks back <a href="> Tor.com Story Structure MDZS . I wonder if that story structure is what is being described. I know the story under discussion and don’t think it’s as different as all that – mystery with a bunch of flashbacks – but my eyes are glazing over as I try to read either OP this afternoon.

  4. Reading Campbell made it clear to me that he got his “Hero’s Journey” by a lot of cherry picking.

  5. I keep coming back to this post, trying to understand what’s so different about kishōtenketsu, or at least why some people think it is so different. And then I came across this post elsewhere about plot which defined it like this:

    “Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner.”

    “Ah-ha,” said I. “There is conflation of plot with tension and tension with conflict.”

    I think this is what’s been confusing me, which I didn’t pick up on the first time I read this post. (On a twenty-second look, I see the OP talks about the lack of tension at the beginning, but then conflates it with conflict in the conclusion.)

    It’s striking that mainstream writing advice is so strongly in favor of parallel external and internal conflict, each feeding into the other as the story progresses. Especially since there’re so many (successful) books already out there that don’t do that.

    Anyway, an intriguing topic.

  6. Thanks, Mona! I do think the idea that every plot builds, or ought to build, to devastating fear, is just peculiar. Is that actually anybody’s experience when reading, eg, romance novels, which are guaranteed to have a happily-ever-after or happily-for-now ending? Just how devastating can the fear possibly be that the protagonist may fail?

    Certainly the single factor that makes any book readable for me right now is a lower stress, lower tension feel to it, with very definitely no feeling of devastating fear.

    Anyway, I think you’re right to point to a disparity between writing advice and what (many) successful books actually work in practice.

  7. Thanks for writing about this topic!

    I certainly understand your dissatisfaction with the first post you responded to.

    Nonetheless, I wish you had first taken the time to educate yourself about kishotenketsu before writing a criticism of the idea, based primarily on that first post’s poor description of it.

    Ironically, having criticized the OP for imprecision, you go on to say,

    “That is not a non-Western story structure. That is literally the exact structure of one zillion SFF short stories!”

    This latter statement is, in fact, utterly incorrect. Why? Because you misunderstand kishotenketsu.

    The key difference between kishotenketsu and the dominant Western plot structure (in my only partly-informed mind) is that the third “act” of kishotenketsu does NOT continue the plot, in a Western sense.

    Rather, this key phase of a kishotenketsu plot describes a series of actions that is, apparently, completely outside the plot up to that point. In short, this pivotal part of the kishotenketsu characteristically shows little or no connection to the story so far.

    The pay-off, though, comes in Act IV, when the content of Acts I and II is united with the content of Act III. A brief example is in this four-line classic Chinese poem that, like many such poems, uses the structure of kishotenketsu:

    (1) Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
    (2) The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen.
    (3) Throughout history, daimyōs killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
    (4) The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.

    The power of this structure only surfaces when the apparent incongruity of the third line is connected to the first two lines—via the fourth line.

    This plot may show up in selected scifi stories (almost certainly influenced consciously by a knowledge of kishotenketsu). But, among sci-fi stories (and even more, I imagine, among other genres) it is exceedingly rare to have a third act that makes NO reference to the story so far!

    You didn’t know that, of course, because you didn’t take the time to glean the facts about kishotenketsu before you wrote.

    I write this comment in large part to set the record straight for future readers, whose first exposure to kishotenketsu might be this web page.

  8. If I misunderstood something, or everything, that’s the fault of the post purporting to explain this form, don’t you think?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top