Recently we presented a series of articles on three-act structure here on Mythic Scribes. This inspired me to try and write an article about a kind of four act structure known as Kishōtenketsu. It’s used in classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives, and is often mentioned as an example of a story structure without conflict.
Now, I’m not well versed in narrative theory. I find it interesting, but I’m far from an expert, and most of what I know of writing I have figured out myself (though the forums here on Mythic Scribes have been invaluable in doing just that). As such, this article will really only scratch the surface of Kishōtenketsu.
I’ll begin by explaining the word itself and the basic principles behind the story structure. I’ll then show two examples of stories told in this way, and finally I’ll give a few tips I’ve found useful for wrapping my head around this whole concept.
That’s not all though. Like I mentioned, this will be very basic, so I have included a list of links to further reading for those of you who are interested in digging a little deeper into this.
Sounds good? Okay, here we go!
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.
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.
Let’s look at two examples. First one I’ve made up myself just for this article, and then a favorite movie of mine: Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Example 1 – A Made Up Story
This is the story of a fisherman and his family.
- Ki: In act one we see the fisherman in his boat out to sea. He’s sitting around fishing and waiting for a catch. It’s a long day and he hasn’t had much of a catch.
- Shō: In the second act the fisherman decides it’s time for him to return home. It’s late and he longs to be reunited with his wife and children. He loves the sea, but he loves his family more.
- Ten: The third act is about a woman hiding in the forest with two crying children. She’s the fisherman’s wife, and she’s hiding because their village got attacked by brigands.
- Ketsu: The fourth act is about how the fisherman reunites with his family in the ruins of the burned-down village. Then they all set off in his boat to find another village.
The introduction is where we first meet the fisherman. In the second act we get to know him a little better. We learn about his relation to the sea, and to his family, and we learn about his life and struggles. Perhaps it’s been a bad year and food supplies are low.
In the third act, we have no idea what happened with the fisherman. We see his wife hiding, and perhaps we don’t even know it’s his wife at first. We don’t know if she’ll make it, and we don’t know if the fisherman will come home while the brigands are still ransacking the town. What will happen?
This is the complication.
It’s not a conflict though. The woman and her children are hiding. Perhaps the kids are crying and the woman is struggling to keep them quiet, but then again, there may not even be any brigands nearby. The woman and her children may be perfectly safe.
But even then there is still tension, and it comes from the contrast between what we’ve seen in the past (the fisherman on his way home after a day on the sea), and what we’re seeing at the moment (the village being ransacked).
Finally, the first two acts are reconciled with the third one. The fisherman reunites with his family, but as their village is no more they have to find somewhere else to live.
Example 2 – Kiki’s Delivery Service
Kiki’s Delivery Service (IMDb Page) is a Japanese animated movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The synopsis on IMDB reads:
A young witch, on her mandatory year of independent life, finds fitting into a new community difficult while she supports herself by running an air courier service.
Here is the official trailer:
The movie is from 1989, and the plot isn’t built on any major surprise, but don’t worry, I’m going to leave out a lot of details to try and avoid spoilers.
In the first act we’re introduced to Kiki. It shows how she bids her friends and family farewell and sets off into the world on her flying broomstick. Eventually she ends up in a big city where she decides to stay. Among the people she meets is a friendly woman who runs a bakery and who lets Kiki stay in a spare room.
Kiki doesn’t quite feel at home in the big city which is very different from her own little village.
In order to get by and to pay for her accommodation, Kiki starts a delivery service. In this way she ends up meeting a lot of new people, some of them friendly, some of them less pleasant. Among them is the boy Tombo who’s an avid fan of all things aviation, and he falls for Kiki like a pile of bricks.
Kiki is beginning to doubt whether a witch can be accepted in such a big city.
Tombo gets an opportunity to ride on a big dirigible that’s visiting the city. Having dreamt all his life about flying he’s really excited about it and can’t wait to go. When he finally gets there, something happens and poor Tombo ends up hanging from the dirigible in a rope while the dirigible drifts across the town without anyone being able to control it.
Tombo gets into trouble and Kiki saves the day.
Life goes back to normal again. Only now, Kiki is an accepted part of the city. She’s good friends with Tombo. Her delivery service is doing well, and she feels like she’s found her place in life.
Everything works out well in the end.
If you’ve seen the movie you’ll have noticed that I left out a lot. This is to avoid spoilers and to try and make the example as clear as possible. If you haven’t seen the movie, I strongly recommend it. There’s a lot more to it than what I’ve mentioned above.
Tips and Tricks
If you’ve not come across Kishōtenketsu before this may all seem a little bit weird to you. I know it did to me when I first heard about it.
One thing that might help is to think about it, not as a different way of telling a story, but as focusing on different aspects of the story.
Let’s have a look at A New Hope, which was analysed in the article series about Three Act Structure. How would you go about telling that through Kishōtenketsu? Perhaps, you could tell the story from Han Solo’s perspective? Let’s see how that goes:
- Ki: You introduced Han and Chewie – a smuggler and his sidekick. They’re just kicking around in Mos Eisley, not doing very much.
- Sho: Some old guy shows up and wants transport for himself and his friend, and their robots. You introduce the new characters, and Han’s ship, and you show your audience how Han’s a down to earth guy who doesn’t believe in hokey religions. You show that Chewie is a bit of a grumpy fella who doesn’t like losing.
- Ten: This is where things go weird and all of a sudden Han finds himself all dressed up in imperial armor, arguing with some kind of princess while trying not to get squished by a garbage compactor. This was not part of the plan, but eventually he gets through it, gets his pay and takes his leave.
- Ketsu: Everything’s back to normal. Let’s go pay back that old debt and then see if some nice easy way of making some fast bucks show up. Only, something’s not quite right. The recent event has changed Han in some way, and he decides to head back and see what that princess is up to…
Something like that, maybe? How would you have done it?
Another thing you can do when planning out a Kishōtenketsu story is to make a list of what you need each of the four acts to achieve. In that way, you’re dividing up the story into smaller goals that are easier to achieve, and which will eventually combine into a greater whole.
When building these lists I found it helpful to give each act a specific kind of task – similar to the names of the acts. The words I use for these tasks are introduce, establish, reveal, and conclude. Some examples could be:
- Ki: Introduce Han Solo.
- Sho: Establish that Han Solo doesn’t believe in hokey religions.
- Ten: Reveal that the empire blew up the planet Han’s passengers wanted to go to.
- Ketsu: Conclude that Han has his good sides too.
Of course, the list for each act would include a whole lot of other items as well, this is just to illustrate the principle. I hope it helps you come to grips a little better with Kishōtenketsu, especially if you haven’t encountered the concept before at all.
If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section here, or on the forums.
Finally, I would like to direct you to some further reading on this topic. Like I mentioned at the start, I’ve really only scratched the surface of what Kishōtenketsu is, and there’s plenty more to learn.
When researching this article, I found that a lot of the blog posts and texts I read referred back to this post. It contains a good explanation as well as two pictures to explain the difference between Kishōtenketsu and traditional western three act structure.
The second half of the post gets rather philosophical, and to be perfectly honest, it’s a little above my head. Still, it’s a good resource to learning more about Kishōtenketsu and I do recommend having a look.
Of course wikipedia has a post about Kishōtenketsu. Here, you’ll find a little bit more about the name, including the symbols for how it’s originally written.
This article on Eurogamer.net explains how nintendo used the philosophy behind Kishōtenketsu when designing levels for Super Mario. There’s a video at the end which shows the end result of how they employed the ideas to introduce new mechanics into the game.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t storytelling, but I still found it interesting as it illustrates the principles really well.
This is an article about the structure of Japanese horror stories. It’s not exclusively about Kishōtenketsu, but there’s a section specifically about it, and there are some nice examples towards the end to illustrate how four act structure can be used effectively in horror stories.
Kishotenketsu isn’t necessarily just about stories, it’s also a way of thinking, and of handling and presenting information in general. This article discusses how speakers of English and of Japanese argue differently, and why. It also presents four different Asian types of story structure as examples.
You should now have a slightly better idea of what Kishōtenketsu is, but let’s repeat it one last time. There are four acts:
- Ki for introduction.
- Shō for development.
- Ten for complication.
- Ketsu for reconciliation.
In this way, the story structure provides a way to write a story without inherent conflict.
Have you read any stories, or seen any movies/shows, based on this type of story structure? Which ones, and would you recommend them? I found only a few examples listed when researching this article – none of which I was familiar with.
Have you written any stories using this kind of story structure? What was your experience of that?
How would you structure a famous story if you were to retell it using Kishōtenketsu? What about Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones? Can it be done?