Friday, December 14, 2012


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. 


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Next Big Thing

Thanks LJ Smith for tagging me -- look forward to reading the Last Lullaby!

Okay, my turn.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

My next book will be called 'The Sceptre and the Sword'

and is the sequel to my début novel, 'The Dragon and the Crow'

(Note on titles -- Early on I was going to use one-word titles for my series, but decided on the lengthier 'the-something and the-something' type. Why? Well not only do they seem genre appropriate, but they also hint at the morality tales of Aesop, who amongst others gave us 'The Ass, the Cock, and the Lion' which really would have changed the world of Narnia in interesting and confusing ways.)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

By my late teens I'd become fed up with the cliche 'chosen-one born with great power travels a faux-mediaeval world with a band of interesting friends all the while struggling with growing magical abilities on a quest to rid the world of evil' story line. You know the kind.

What had become clear was how little I could actually relate to the main character. Once upon a time the metaphor that we all have some innate ability/purpose in life just waiting to manifest was no doubt new and important, but I couldn't help but yearn for a different quest -- a different kind of dragon to kill.

I wanted to tell the story of a true outsider, not one with some unique super-human ability, but a normal kid in a world where everyone else was special. I wanted to play with the idea Syndrome has in the Increadibles'..when everyone is super... no one will be.' Specifically, I wanted to find out what you would need to do in such a world to be super again.

So in book one we meet Brin, the boy with no magick, and the sequel continues his quest to understand his place in a world where everyone relies on (and has become complacent with) the magick they use every day. 

In a way the Dragon and the Crow was a book of self discovery, and I hope The Sceptre and the Sword will be about the entire world undergoing a similar revelation.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Erotic fan fiction, of course.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

When I imagine Brin he has always looked like Bastian from the Neverending story. However not only is the actor far too old now to play a 15 year old boy with no magick, he hasn't made a movie since he became a Scientologist, so i'd have to go with someone else. Like the kid from Hugo perhaps.

The heroine of the story, Moropai, who decides that Brin is not the only one who gets to have all the fun, would need an actor like the girl who plays Sally Draper on Madmen. She has the perfect mix of sweetness and manipulative ruthlessness.

My favourite casting call though is for my main antagonist, the Warlock, who is essentially a cross between Westley from the Princess bride, and Loki from the Avengers. Since we can't have Tom Hiddleston play another naughty Wizard, there really is only one logical choice.

Okay this is proving more fun than I thought -- only a few more I swear.

Whilst the Warlock is the main antagonist, I don't define him as the bad guy -- that's reserved for the King who would be played by Ben Kingsley (no pun intended). His sons (the triplet princes) would all be played by Daniel Craig. And lastly, Brin's companion, the illusionist and former fox, Fennek, would be played perfectly by fellow Aussie, Ben Mendelsohn

There are many others of course, but that will do for now....

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Hrrrm, tricky... its a sequel so I don't want to give too much away.... How about this.

Now that Brin has faced the King and embraced his past, he decides to continue  on the Witch's quest and rescue the true child of prophecy. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Dragonfall press, the independent Australian publisher will be looking after the sequel.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This one took the better part of 2012 year to get done. This is a step up from the 5+ years it took for the last one. Next year though, i'm going to go down to part time teaching to try and finish the series. Turns out working full time and being a parent measures out my writing in afternoons and coffee spoons.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The feel I'm going for is definitely Lloyd Alexander's 'Prydain' chronicles, albeit with my aforementioned twist on the standard magic-is-rare medieval world you might expect. No one rides horses, for example. Why would you when you can conjure up a magick carpet or turn an ordinary chair into a speed racer? There is also a lot of Dan Simmons 'Hyperion' Cantos creeping into my book. To say more would be to give too much away.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was first inspired to write this series from my own experiences as a high school teacher, seeing students grow ever more apathetic about the miracles of our age; computers, medicine, the fact that we can store almost the entire sum of human knowledge on a $9 piece of plastic and metal etc. seem to mean little to the current generation of pessimistic teens.

I want to show how a society can -- with just the right catalyst -- undergo a complete change of perspective, and that even though this might seem disruptive, even evil by some, such change is crucial.

But in the end, of course, i'm writing this for my son, both as something he hopefully gets a kick out of, and something that might also act as a warning about all the things that really scare me -- apathy, pessimism, and superstition.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

As much as i'd love to spill the beans and tell you where the story is going, I don't want to ruin the surprise. Instead i'll mention that part of the internal consistency of building a world like Arkadia is the language of its people, especially the one they use to cast magick.

Now I'm no Tolkien, so instead of coming up with my own I stole an existing, albeit forgotten, language called Solresol for the purpose. It has been great fun these last couple of years to be part of a group of people trying to bring this musical language back into the world. I think it adds a lot to my story to have the characters wrestle with their own growing comprehension of the language of magick as we delve deeper into their world.

Oh,  I also like making my own maps.

Thanks for reading.


Now for some other great writers with Big Things happening:
Be sure to check out these authors next week!