I was recently introduced to the narrative structure called Kishotenketsu (thanks to Kevin Abosch).
It’s a narrative structure that doesn’t rely on conflict/tension in the story. Rather, it thrives on creating tension/conflict in the reader.
Many people (especially Western media) is familiar with the classic three act structure and all the variations there-of.
- confrontation, and
A character experiences an external or internal problem and through various struggles overcomes it, ending in some resolution. We see this almost everywhere.
Joseph Campbell has the monomyth (Hero’s Journey).
James Scott Bell’s LOCK plot structure (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout), describes it as characters going through a door of no return. Chuck Wendig describes stories starting from a change in the status quo.
The key is mostly: some characters dealing with limitations and trying to overcome it.
Kishotenketsu on the other hand, primarily deals with themes and uses a unique narrative structure for it.
It’s a 4 act structure, broadly, composed of the following steps:
- A turn/change/twist.
- Reconciliation & Elucidation.
The core part of Kishotenketsu is the ‘turn’ or ‘change’. Some blogs specifies this as a ‘twist’, which isn’t entirely true as we, in Western literature, understand it. A twist as most readers understand is an unexpected direction. eg: Darth Vader being Luke’s Father (spoiler, in case you aren’t alive). The ‘turn’ in Kishotenketsu, however, is a deliberate scene that you won’t understand in context of the introduction (1) and development (2). It is only explained in the Ketsu (the reconciliation, 4), that explains how this ‘Ten’ (3) relates to it.
The classic example by poet Sanyo Rai is:
Introduction (ki): Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
Development (shō): The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen.
Twist (ten): Throughout history, generals (daimyōs) killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
Conclusion (ketsu): The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.
As you can see, the ‘Ten’ has to create an ‘okay? what? where is this going?’ feeling. That’s where tension comes from. Instead of tension existing in the narratives, it creates tension in the reader. It is a narrative that pulls apart reality and then soft-lands it after explaining how the it all fits together. It creates a sense of discovery and exploration. If you know you are reading Kishotenketsu narratives, you know that you will taken for a swindle, an unexpected turn, whereupon it being elucidated brings the whole story into view. That’s why it’s often used more for exploring themes, as the elucidation at the last point creates a sense of continuation, rather than an ending or conclusion in the traditional 3-act structure. In some ways: it’s a bit like finite & infinite games (by James Carse).
“Finite players avoid surprise and try to plan around them, infinite players expect to be surprised and continue their play in pursuit of it.”
“The light of the full moon shines down,
Illuminating the world with its divine light
When my lover sneaks in to visit me,
I wish that the clouds would hide that light just a little.”
It ends by creating a sense of continuation. The light and the curiosity around this relationship.
“What you do get is a clearer idea of what so far has been the implicit intent of the narrative, because this part exists to present the larger theme that has acted as gravitational center, attracting to itself all the blocks that until now have touched the heart of the question.”
The structure of kishotenketsu rejects that notion, and the “conclusion” (ketsu) is actually set to throw the story into a continuum, sometimes even creating the illusion the exposition had no purpose.
The goal of the author who resorts to this narrative structure isn’t to contend, nor is it to persuade the reader, but simply to encourage the reader to contemplate the fraction of the universe in display as an ocean of points of view gravitating around a given topic (Maynard, 1998). Not to establish one point of view above all others, but to show as many points of view as possible surrounding a given topic.”
Of course, I had to give it a go myself. A short piece of Kishotenketsu.
The Dancers by Simon de la Rouviere:
A woman lives in a hut by the beach.
The sun rises & she puts on some music.
Darkness descends as a man works into the night. He lights some candles.
Wax dripping from his life, he was back by the waves. The flames flicker & dance.
Kishotenketsu is also described as being a core part of exposition in horror, whereupon a reveal changes the context of everything that has come before.
A classic version of such exposition is the ‘licked hand’, a classic horror folk tale.
“A young girl is home alone for the first time with only her dog for company. Listening to the news, she hears of a killer on the loose in her neighborhood. Terrified, she locks all the doors and windows, but she forgets about the basement window and it is left unlocked. She goes to bed, taking her dog to her room with her and letting it sleep under her bed. She wakes in the night to hear a dripping sound coming from the bathroom. The dripping noise frightens her, but she is too scared to get out of bed and find out what it is. To reassure herself, she reaches a hand toward the floor for the dog and is rewarded by a reassuring lick on her hand. The next morning when she wakes, she goes to the bathroom for a drink of water only to find her dead, mutilated dog hanging in the shower with his blood slowly dripping onto the tiles. On the shower wall, written in the dog’s blood, are the words “HUMANS CAN LICK, TOO.”
A variant describing the Kishotenketsu is written by the blog talking about Japanese horror:
”Intro (起): A young girl is home alone with only her pet dog for comfort.
Development (承): She hears on the news of an escaped convict and becomes frightened. She is too scared to go to sleep without letting the dog lick her hand from beneath her bed.
Twist (転): When she awakes she discovers that her dog is dead and has been the entire night.
Conclusion (結): She finds the words “HUMANS CAN LICK TOO” written in blood.”
However, I don’t entirely feel this is correct, because the ‘Ten’ isn’t supposed to represent a reveal. This is more of a western twist. As the ‘Ten’ DOES relate to introduction and development. The ‘Ketsu’ should be the reveal from the turn/change.
So: I attempted my own variation of the Licking Hand horror story into a Kishotenketsu structure.
Licked Hand (Kishotenketsu Remix) by Simon de la Rouviere.
A prisoner loves ice cream. He loves it so much that sometimes he regularly gets brainfreeze.
One day, he escapes from prison.
A girl goes to sleep with a comforting lick from her dog sleeping under her bed.
She wakes up to fur & blood smeared on her wall: HUMANS LICK TOO.
1+2 is about introduction and development of the dog murdering prisoner.
3 is the new puzzle piece, the ‘wtf? where is this going?’, the ‘turn’. ‘Who is the girl? Her dog licks her to sleep? Okay?’
4, the Ketsu, is elucidation: her dog is dead and she was licked by this prisoner. The act of introducing the ice cream for me is to showcase that this prisoner actually enjoys licking things. He is also a strange fellow, enjoying pain through brainfreezes.
Unlike what others have written, it feels to me that Kishotenketsu doesn’t necessarily exclude conflict IN characters, and that the two forms could be combined. Using kishotenketsu as narrative structure alongside character progression in 3 acts.
The setup, confrontation and resolution can occur in any part of the kishotenketsu. I attempted one.
The Pup by Simon de la Rouviere:
“A puppy lives with his family. He is young and likes to gnaw.
One day, the dog ravishes a corner of a couch and some papers.
A boy is stuck in his room. He is crying.
His father opens the door and apologises for grounding him. The dog left a paper trail and did indeed eat the boy’s homework.”
If told sequentially the story is: a boy gets grounded for not doing homework (setup and confrontation). He is crying because he believes it was unfair. He did do it. The resolution comes from an external change: revealing a literal paper trail from the dog.
In the way I told it through kishotenketsu, it entails that the confrontation and resolution is resolved and elucidated in the Ketsu. In the ‘Ten’, it’s not clear who the boy is, how he is related to the dog and why he is crying.
Thematically, the kishotenketsu theme aims to not entirely have a resolute ending as in 3-act structures because it ends with a continuous elucidation of a theme: forgiveness, innocence & trust. Sometimes the ‘innocent dog’ will cause troubles they aren’t aware of.
Doris open, so I thought I’d drop by!
Conclusion & Elucidation:
The knock knock joke is a “Ten”. Here’s why.
In a way, kishotenketsu is a bit like a joke: it puts new things together that we did not necessarily anticipate and that’s why it is an interesting narrative structure. It thrives on the delight of bringing two seemingly unrelated components to a new whole.
To tell stories is a continuous learning experience. Hope this delights you too.
Some additional references: