Story Structure: Kishotenketsu Part 2

Welcome to our second part of our exploration into Story Structure with Kishotenketsu and Freytag’s Pyramid. Those of you who missed part 1 can go here to catch up. So far, we’ve identified that Western stories tend to follow Freytag’s Pyramid while Eastern stories tend to follow Kishotenketsu, and we’ve defined the elements of the latter. We’ve also seen that while conflict is hard baked into Freytag’s Pyramid, that isn’t the case for Kishotenketsu, and thus we would be able to tell stories without conflict using it. Previously, we’d used an example to highlight how one would use Kishotenketsu as story structure, using an example of a Monster Hunter and a deadly misunderstanding.

So, how would Friedrich’s story go when we tell it using Freytag’s Pyramid? Let’s keep most of the story beats the same, or as much the same as we can. Before we move on, though, I have to define the elements of the Pyramid, which I only touched on briefly. Also, why is it called a pyramid? Well, feast your eyes:

As you can see, Freytag’s Pyramid utilises five steps. They are:

1. Exposition and Inciting Incident. This corresponds the most to Ki of Kishotenketsu, where characters, setting and conflict are introduced.

2. Rising Action. In a Looney Tunes cartoon, this is when Wile E Coyote starts using various devices to catch the Road Runner. Everything that happens at this point is in service to the central conflict; our protagonist pushes, gets pushed back, tries again until the logical conclusion is reached in the next step;

3. Climax. All that buildup culminates at this moment. This is the big set piece, the apex of our protagonist’s travails thus far, the Last Boss Fight. If the story is meant to have a Plot Twist, then we twist here and twist hard, make Shyamalan proud. This, however, doesn’t have to mean the End of the Story. Maybe there’s more to the story than just beating the Bad Guy.

4. Falling Action. Good guys have won, but what does that mean? This is where we tie any and all loose ends together. Maybe the protagonist realises that if he can face an undead army and kill a Necromancer, he can ask the Pretty Girl out on a date. Maybe we show the undead army milling about directionless now that the Necromancer is deader than disco, for realsies this time.

5. Resolution and Denouement. Riding off into the sunset time. This is the part where the protagonist cracks a joke, everyone laughs, and freeze frame. Credits roll.

Friedrich’s story might go like this using Freytag’s Pyramid:

1. Exposition and Inciting Incident: The Monster Hunter, Friedrich Reinhardt, arrives at a village. We also are introduced to the village, and the problem they have; their livestock keep dying, most likely due to a monster. The inciting incident could be him seeing a bounty poster for whoever can kill the monster, or him overhearing villagers talk about it. He vows to them to kill the monster.

2. Rising Action. We show Friedrich going about trying to track down the monster. He tries to track its footprints, maybe, or stakes out the farms. He interviews the people who have claimed to have seen it. Maybe he has one or two close encounters, but failing to capture the monster each time. “Slippery son of a bitch,” he spits, after losing it yet again to a foot chase.

3. Climax. Friedrich finally manages to catch the monster, and…it’s a boy. Just one of the villagers’ children, bored out of their skull, trying to prank the rest of the village. Perhaps out of anger, perhaps out of duty (he did vow to kill the monster), but in either case Friedrich shoots the boy and kills him.

4. Falling Action. We show the villagers finding out that it wasn’t a monster at all, just a young boy. They descend upon him, saying he is a murderer for killing a child, while Friedrich tries to defend his actions. In the end, they run him ragged out of the village, telling him he’s not welcome there and that they’re not paying him a single lousy coin.

5. Resolution and Denouement. Friedrich, back on the road, sighs, and enters another village. As luck would have it, this village has a monster problem too. This time he doesn’t swear shit. He promises to investigate further, and worries the villagers when he won’t swear to kill the monster plaguing them.

There isn’t much difference between the stories by design, but the focus of the story has shifted. Earlier, in the Kishotenketsu version, we don’t see Friedrich preparing and hunting down the monster, instead we focus on the fact that he’s so inflexible in his thinking (or bound by his oath) that he would kill a child even when it’s proven that there was no monster. In Freytag’s Pyramid we get the Monster Hunting experience, that gets twisted at the end. With Kishotenketsu, we get dead children as the main focus. Slight differences, but enough to change the kind of story we are telling.

Earlier I’d mentioned that conflict is central to Freytag’s Pyramid but not to Kishotenketsu. The above story was one with conflict (Man Vs Monster), so let’s try an example of a story without conflict; Two friends on a road trip stop for snacks. What’s the conflict? There is none. There’s no monster to defeat, no threat to run from and no bad guys in sight. In fact this is as mundane as can be. You’ve probably done this and not even remembered it. So let’s structure this story with Kishotenketsu. Let’s add some details first; Uhh, Tom and Alex are in a car on a road trip. Tom’s driving and he’s a bit drowsy — he’s been driving for a while. Alex spots a roadside stall and offers to buy a can of coffee. Cool.

Ki : Two men are in a beat up car. The driver says “Uh, Alex, I can’t keep my eyes open man.”

Alex laughs. “This road trip was your idea, Tom!”

We’ve introduced the characters and the situation. Now to develop:

Sho : Alex sees a roadside stall up ahead. “Hey Tom, look, a shop. We can buy some snacks and some coffee.”

Tom pulls over. “Please remember to grab the coffee Alex.”

Alex looks hurt. “Whaddya mean please remember? I won’t forget.”

Tom counters, “Oh, like you didn’t forget our road trip was today and took like an hour to pack?”

Alex scoffs. “You’re always like this, man, you worry too much.”

So we’ve established that they’re on a road trip, and now we’ve developed that Alex is a carefree, forgetful type. You’re probably imagining him in beach shorts and a t-shirt. Yeah, I am too. Tom, meanwhile, is the more responsible of the pair, constantly having to remind Alex about stuff. He even had to remind Alex about the trip, and he even forgot to pack. So it’s a bit concerning that Alex is the one in charge of making sure Tom doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

Ten : Inside the shop, Alex is stunned by the amount of choice the shop has. They have seventeen flavours of Lay’s chips! We see Alex lose control and go on a shopping spree.

So what’s the ‘surprise’ here? Nothing too shocking. We change POV from being inside the car with our two protagonists to being inside the shop. That’s it. That’s all that can justify a ‘surprise’ for our ‘Ten’ step. So now to bring it back to the first two acts…

Ketsu : Tom and Alex are back on the road. “Ooh,” Alex goes, opening a bag of chips. “Orange and vinegar? Sounds disgusting. Let’s try it.”

Tom glances over at the huge bag of snacks in the back seat. “Alex? Where’s my coffee?”

Alex stops mid chew. “Oh. Uhhhhh…”

“YOU FORGOT MY COFFEE ALEX?”

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash. Tom sure could use some right now I reckon.

So yes, Alex reverts to type and forgets Tom’s coffee. Cue sad trombone noises. Was that exciting? Probably not. Nothing too exciting about watching a couple of idiots on a snack run. Was that interesting? It could have been. Depending on how well the writer, well, writes the scenes, it could be extremely interesting. I know some of you knew where the story was heading by ‘Ten’ — Oof, you were thinking, Alex is going to forget Tom’s coffee, isn’t he? Yes, yes he was, and yes, yes he did.

We can’t even begin to try to tell this exact same story with Freytag’s Pyramid. What’s the conflict? Man vs Man? They’re working together, not against each other. Man Vs Forgetfulness? We don’t see Alex struggling to remember. Man Vs…shit, I don’t even know at this point. Snacks? The snacks are props. They’re inert. They don’t do anything. There’s no rising action. There’s no climax. There’s no falling action, either. But with Kishotenketsu, we could structure this in a way that sounds interesting to a reader, and we don’t strictly need a conflict to structure our stories.

In a way (and this is all my own opinion), this structure feels more natural. More like the stories we tell in our everyday lives around the dinner table, or around the water cooler, or just randomly at 3am. So you can have stories that are more organic, that are closer to the reader’s experiences. It’s also a structure that allows more than just a few kinds of stories to be told.

The example above was humorous. Let’s go and talk to Comedy’s cousin, Horror. How would a scary story be told using Kishotenketsu? Let’s see.

Ki: I was working outstation last week, and booked a motel room to sleep before driving home.

Sho : The motel was filthy, and dark, but it was cheap, something I could afford on my pittance of a salary. I was tired, so I went into the bathroom to shower and get some sleep.

Ten: As I was showering, I heard a sound. It…sounded like someone crying. I turned the shower off and went back into the main room, to see a white robed figure of a woman crying on the bed. She lifted her face…and there was no face!

Ketsu: I ran out of the room with just the towel on to the front desk. The receptionist followed me back to the room but the woman with no face was gone! I demanded a different room, and they gave it to me. As I was leaving, I heard the receptionist sigh and mutter under her breath, “Gotta find a priest soon…”

Photo by Alex Begin on Unsplash. I tried to find a spookier looking motel, and failed.

Normally, when telling our friends spooky stories, we don’t insert conflict into it. None of us are brave enough to ‘face’ the spooky ghost. We run, that’s what we do. So horror stories using Kishotenketsu can be more organic, in the sense that it sounds plausible enough to be true since the characters aren’t heroic ghost hunters but random Joes who have the supernatural infringe upon their sense of order. We also take the focus away from the main character who you’ll realise I didn’t even bother assigning a gender to, but on the spook — we let the horror stand alone, by itself, and try to scare our reader.

I’d love to come up with more examples but this post has run longer than I’d planned. What do you think of the differences between Kishotenketsu and Freytag’s Pyramid? Did I get something wrong? Do you have better examples of each? Drop me a line and let’s discuss this. Maybe we’ll get a surprising part 3 out of this, and then we’ll need a part 4 to bring it all together. Who knows. What I do know is how I hope this has been enlightening, and more than a bit entertaining. See you next week!


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