You might have seen this word, Kishōtenketsu, popping up a bit in writing circles. I came upon it a few months ago, and it has been running around my head ever since.

Basically, it means a narrative structure where conflict is not driving the plot. You can read more here, and here, and here, but I don't so much want to talk about its definition, as I do the ramifications of Kishōtenketsu in both my writing, and the importance of narratives in society.

Warning: this may be a long post. I'll try to put in some pics to keep you interested.

So if you read any of those links, then you have gotten the basic idea that Kishōtenketsu is a way to structure a narrative very differently to the three acts we are all familiar with. So familiar, that I had not even considered there was another way. Comic blog, AtomicRobo explains it like this:

The trick is to realize: it’s three acts all the way down.
Each story has three acts. Each chapter of that story has three acts. Each scene of each chapter has three acts. Each conversation of each scene of each chapter has three acts. In a sense, though at this magnification our definitions begin to blur, each line of dialogue has three acts.All you need is a set up, a conflict that follows from the set up, and a resolution that follows from the conflict.

This is what we all know to be the central nervous system of a story, and it works very well. So well in fact, that it has not only become ubiquitous but the unquestioned gospel of western narrative.

So what's the problem?
Well, there is an underlying philosophical world-view that this type of structure reinforces. No matter what the characters do in your story, no matter what the motivations the bad guys have, or the actions the heroes undertake to win the day, there is an unspoken acceptance in all such narratives that conflict is reality. If all the narratives you have ever read are like this, then everything you do will be framed as a battle, a struggle of you against adversary. Is this really what life is like? Is the point of existence to defeat all foes and reign as king?

In my day job I teach media studies to high school kids, and one of the units I love teaching is Media Effect Theory. Sounds boring, but I take my students from propaganda in the world wars, right through to product placement in summer block busters, and we look at the research that tries to show a clear link between what we watch and how we behave. I challenge my students that it is not as simple as either agreeing or disagreeing with the idea that media has an  effects, either as individuals or as a society. That is a given. What I try to get them to be is critical about HOW and WHY the media influence us. It is easy to find statistics that prove
watching violent films do not make people violent, but that does not mean that some other effect is not taking place. This is where I show them the documentary on the Mean World Syndrome.

In the late 60s George Gerbner conducted a Cultural Indicators Research Project, that led to his findings that whilst violent media did not directly make people violent, it still had a cumulative negative effect on people that he called 'The Mean World Syndrome' Basically, he found that if we watch enough images of violence on the TV, then we start to think -- despite all the statistical evidence that says the opposite -- that the world we live in is out to get us. The truth of course, is that we have never lived in a safer age, yet people have never felt so scared and threatened by dangers they perceive to be waiting around every corner.

This, I explain to my students, shows the true power of narrative. When we see the same stories of conflict night after night, in films and even in video games, then we start to believe that this is how the world truly is.

Normally this is as far as I get on the subject, but this year I read two things that made me think a little more. The first was the post about Kishōtenketsu, the second was the brilliant book of optimism, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Steven Kotler. I don't have time to go into everything the book talks about, but early on Kotler talks about the changing nature of our economy. Specifically, that we are moving from a zero sum game of a resource based economy, into the exponential positive sum game of a knowledge based one.

On page 46 he explains it like this:

How does all this tie together? Well perhaps the narrative of our culture comes from the way we have lived and evolved for the last few thousand years: with scarce resources that lead to conflict, to the victor, the spoils. Even positive narratives of hope -- say Star Wars for example, still show that we must first kill the evil empire before we can have peace. Obi-Wan can say all he wants about anger leading to the dark-side, but in the end Luke blows up the death star.

But explosions are cool! I hear you complain... and after all, the empire was Evil, right?

Lets go back to Kishōtenketsu for a moment. There are 4 acts in this narrative form; Ki: where Description of characters and setting take place; Shō where events unfold leading to a twist; Ten where an unforeseen and unheralded event occurs; and Ketsu where the twist has shed new light on the original information consolidates the narrative. 

Obviously in the world of star wars, the death star had to go, but interestingly, when it came to the second and third film, the true climax was not the destruction of evil, but its conversion. Lucas showed his love for Kurasowa and gave us a very Kishōtenketsu  twist (Luke I am your father) which led to the ultimate redemption of Vader. This is still only one part of a plot dictated by conflict, yet it is interesting that people find Empire by far the best film, despite the lack of any major explosions.  

One of the reasons I wrote this post is that I actually agree with the writer on AtomicRobo that a good narrative structure should work 'All the way down.' It is like a fractal pattern, dictating the macro, and the micro. Consider this blog post: I set up an idea in the first few paragraphs, then followed on with more information leading up to the part where I suddenly threw in an example from media studies and the Mean World Syndrome. I then added to this unexpected twist  with another example about nonzero economies and star wars. Confusing? -- well lets move on with act 4 which, of course, has already begun. 

If narratives affect the way we perceive reality, and if we are truly entering a new age where exchange of information leads to a world with no 'winners and looser' just an ever increasing spiral of mutual benefit, then perhaps it is time to move on from the three act structure. I am not trying to do away with conflict -- that very idea is contradictory -- nor is there an absence of violence or conflict within Kishōtenketsu, it merely uses it as one more ingredient in the story. I want to suggest the same about the three act structure. It is not that we must abandon it, but I think we should at least consider the ramifications of what adhering to it will do to the story you want to tell. The effect of conflict centred plots is to paint the world black and white, with winners and losers victorious heroes and defeated villains, but maybe it is better to redeem the villain, not kill him. A peaceful coup on the Death star, after all, would have saved the lives of thousands of galactic engineers

I think an answer lies in Kishōtenketsu which by default paints a different picture of reality. It says the world is sometimes surprising, and that in those complex moments, what you thought you knew has changed. It builds narrative interest not on showing you the bad guy that has to be killed, nor the hero who you hope will win, but by revealing that true resolution is not in conquering, but in enlightenment. 



  1. I love this idea. It seems that redemption is often a theme in these kinds of stories. I watched Sailor Moon while in university, and I remember being struck by how often she would turn the "villain" to her side rather than defeat him/her in battle.

    1. Thanks Esther. So much Anime/manga seems to have this trait, and I love it. Strange that we Westerners seem to have rejected the idea of redemption. Isn't that at the core of judeo-christian philosophy?

  2. Thank you for an amazing post on the matter! I just learned about kishoutenketsu, so glad there are alternatives to the traditional goal-oriented storytelling. Also thank you for introducing the Mean World Syndrome into my life. XD (I would've LOVED to take that media effect theory class.)

    You gave voice to a great frustration that I haven't been able to articulate until now. The last paragraph sums it all up beautifully.


    1. Hey, no worries Olga -- glad you got something from this. You may be interested in my follow up post:

  3. Love this article. It makes me think a lot. Thanks.


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