Story Structure: Kishotenketsu

I grew up consuming a lot of Western media. Being raised in the States, I suppose this wasn’t too much of a surprise, but then again there was also the imported media from both America and Europe that was prevalent to me growing up. We had the tradition of Saturday morning cartoons, for example, and even some on Sunday. In fact we had the 7pm (or was it 7.30? I don’t remember) cartoons every weekday. Almost all of them were Western, with the exception of one: Usop Sontorian, which was Malaysia’s first animated series, long before Boboiboy, Agen Ali and of course, Upin and Ipin came into the picture.

Photo by Ian Valerio on Unsplash

Still, I always preferred the Western media. Locally produced stuff was, back then, rough. Just take a look at any youtube upload of Usop Sontorian and you’ll see what I mean. I didn’t know this, but this was also in part due to Malaysia’s draconian censorship laws, which meant that certain depictions and actions not deemed shariah compliant were not allowed to be screened. That meant censorship for Western media, too, though despite all that I remember rape made the news all the goddamned time in the 90s. Rape and Incest. Those kinds of news stories predominated the 8pm news cycle, since we still had complete faith in Dr Mahathir and his government, and the biggest concern about the then deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was whether or not he was able to fill Dr M’s shoes. Without saucy political news, the 8pm news buletins all had to fill their airtime with as much sexual deviancy stories as they could, thus defeating the whole purpose of ‘no sex in our stories’ censorship.

But anyway. I did prefer Western made stuff to locally made stuff, and for a time I was right on the money. Local stuff just didn’t have the quality or staying power to warrant a second look. The most Eastern I got was anime, and back then the only ones we watched were Doraemon and Dragon Ball. Not the nice, clean and crisp new versions, this was the old Drag On Ball, where it took fifteen seasons for Goku to power up and for everyone to comment on how ‘this wasn’t possibleeeee’. When we got Mega TV, or Astro, though, we got way more anime, and this was our introduction to the world of Eastern entertainment.

All right, I’ve put it off long enough. Yes, I’m a bit of a weeb. A lot of a weeb, in fact. I still love Western media but in terms of Eastern media, I admit they’re catching up — arguably, have now overtaken the West. This duality in my consumption has led me to some observations of the differences between the two. In all of my observations, I’ve noted some of the most obvious and glaring differences between Western and Eastern media, and of course by Western media I usually mean Hollywood productions (though I might include an example from Netflix or other source) and by Eastern media I usually mean anime. That’s not a large enough base to form a general sense of how the two spheres collide, so my observations might be disproven if we expanded the selection criteria a bit. The things I’ve noticed include art style, tropes employed and story structure.

Today’s post will be dealing with Story Structure. As a self proclaimed writer, I have studied narrative structure, and as both an Anglophile and aspiring writer I have come across Freytag’s Pyramid.

Freytag’s pyramid is the basis of Western three act structure. It is closely related to the Hero’s Journey, a cyclical form of storytelling in which a protagonist goes through trials and tribulations to arrive home changed from their ordeal. Freytag’s pyramid begins with things as normal, which are shaken by an inciting incident. From there the action rises to crisis, to a climax as all the conflict comes to a head, and then there is the falling action and finally denouement as all the loose threads are tied. There may also be talk of thresholds that divide the acts, but in general this is what we mean by Freytag’s Pyramid.

Important to note here is the fact that conflict is baked into the Pyramid; The protagonist’s lives are shaken by an inciting incident, the beginning of the conflict. From there the conflict escalates to a climax, is resolved (as much as the plot allows) and the denouement, the aftermath of the conflict, then occurs. You cannot have a plot without conflict using Freytag’s Pyramid. If you find yourself writing a story without conflict, you don’t have a story — at least, according to Freytag.

Eastern entertainment is not structured that way. It can take a form that is similar, but at its heart is the plot structure Kishotenketsu, a four act structure that is named after all the names of each act. I have to admit to being very new and not entirely an expert in Kishotenketsu, so if an expert source contradicts what I’m saying, trust them instead of me (and point me towards them; I’d love to learn more). In Kishotenketsu, the plot is divided into four parts:

Ki, Act 1: Introduction. This is where you introduce the characters, the setting, the locations, anything that’s important to be introduced at this point.

Sho, Act 2: Development. This is where you develop all the concepts introduced in the first act. Deepen their relationships, introduce backstory, reveal secrets.

Ten, Act 3: Climactic Shock. This act introduces something new; something unexpected, given the first two acts. It’s wrong to think of it purely as a climax, similar to the climax in Freytag’s pyramid, as it is usually something completely unexpected and out of left field that enters the story. What’s different could be as simple as a different viewpoint, or as complex as introducing a seemingly new story out of nowhere.

Ketsu, Act 4: Bring it Together. This act serves to reconcile the surprising elements of Act 3 with the story introduced in Acts 1 and 2, reconnecting them into a whole plot.

Being mostly Western in my media consumption and an Anglophile, it took some time to grasp this new form of storytelling. I may still not have fully grasped it to this day. The main difference between Kishotenketsu and Freytag’s Pyramid, what drew my attention to it in the first place, was that with Kishotenketsu, it was possible to write stories without conflict. With Freytag’s Pyramid, conflict was essential; it was hard baked into the structure itself. With Kishotenketsu, you had a way of telling stories without utilising conflict.

This makes sense when you see the kind of anime that have gotten popular in recent years. Genres like Slice of Life, Cute Girls Doing Cute Things and other anime without a central conflict have all been successful, but by their very nature they are absent any form of conflict. In Eastern traditions, they have gotten very adept at writing stories sans conflict. That isn’t to say that nothing happens in these stories; something definitely happens, but that something isn’t what we classically know as conflict. You don’t need to have something to go up against, is what the structure implies. All you need are well developed plot elements and something to surprise the viewer with.

It’s worth noting that with Kishotenketsu, it doesn’t mean that you cannot have any conflict. A lot of Shonen Anime are chock full of conflict, and some still use Kishotenketsu to great effect. What we mean above is that conflict isn’t hard baked into the structure as with Freytag’s Pyramid. With the Pyramid, you just can’t structure a story without conflict, but with Kishotenketsu you can. You can use either to create stories with conflict.

The best way to show each of these in action would be with examples, and the classic one for Kishotenketsu would be the Studio Ghibli story Kiki’s Delivery Service, but I haven’t watched that (gasp!) so I can’t use it as an example. Best I can do is probably come up with an idea myself, and show it here.

Ki : Friedrich Reinhardt is a monster hunter who arrives at a village.

Sho: Friedrich discovers that the monster has been attacking their livestock at night, and Friedrich vows to kill it.

Ten: A young boy dashes across the field, before a silver bolt flies through his back. He collapses, dead on the ground.

Ketsu: The villagers want to try Friedrich for murder, but he protests; he vowed to kill the monster that has been attacking livestock. The fact that it wasn’t a monster but one of the villagers’ children doesn’t matter to him.

Once again:

Ki: We introduce our character and the setting. We introduce Friedrich Reinhardt; he’s a monster hunter, newly arrived at the village.

Sho: We develop stuff further. We learn the village has livestock, and that those livestock are under attack by some kind of monster. We also learn Friedrich is relentless and bloodthirsty; he vows to kill the monster.

Ten : Introduce something unexpected. We switch completely to the POV of the boy as he is shot in the back, and dies. We’re wondering what this is all about. What’s going on? Who is this boy? Why did he die?

Ketsu: We tie back the events to the first two acts. There was no monster; just a boy. But because Friedrich vowed to kill the monster, he killed the boy. The people are, understandably, upset at this.

As you can see, you can tell a story with conflict (Friedrich vs Monster, People vs Friedrich) with Kishotenketsu, just as well as you could have with Freytag’s Pyramid.

I think I’m going to have to make this one a two parter — next time, we’ll see how the above story plays out with Freytag’s Pyramid by comparison, we’ll try a story without conflict, and probably make a million corrections along the way.

2 responses to “Story Structure: Kishotenketsu”

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