The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph” Thomas Paine
What is a classic tale? Most of us immediately think of a story in which the hero or protagonist must overcome a great challenge, some sort of conflict against an imposing villain or evil force, right? But what about stories that don’t have that kind of conflict?
- Setup: the characters and the central conflict is introduced
- Confrontation: the conflict escalates and approached the climactic “final battle”
- Resolution: the conflict is resolved and the characters are left forever changed
This format is most common in Western styles of storytelling, and highlight the struggle of a hero or heroes against a diametrically opposed force. This confrontation ultimately concludes with one side prevailing over the other and creates the keystone for the entire story. This is the model that is taught in most Western classrooms and is widely seen as the classic form of a story.
But it isn’t the only way. While conflict is an effective way to inspire growth and engage the audience’s imagination, a story does not have to have a central conflict to be exciting.
If you haven’t heard about it already, allow me to introduce you to Kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu is a four-part structure found in classic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives, with its origins rooted in Chinese poetry. This style of story is often identified by its lack of central conflict, but instead features some sort of contrasting element to create a dynamic plot.
That isn’t to say that Kishōtenketsu never contains conflict, it just isn’t built into the story structure itself. It differs from the Western three-part structure which hinges upon the existence of the conflict.
So how does Kishōtenketsu break down? It’s all in the name:
- Introduction (ki): offers an initial description characters and setting
- Development (shō): further develops the characters, setting, and the interplay between the two
- Twist or Contrast (ten): the story turns toward an unexpected development
- Conclusion or Reconciliation (ketsu): this integrates and concludes the first three parts with a cohesive narrative
The key difference here lies in ten, which introduces something unexpected rather than a clear conflict.
The word “twist” may be a bit misleading, as it isn’t really a plot twist in the sense that most of us think, in which you think the story is following a certain plot line, but in fact, it is something else. Here, ten introduces something unexpected that seemingly has no relation to the events of the first two parts. It isn’t until part four, ketsu, that it is put into context with the ki and shō and the whole story is tied together.
For an example of Kishōkenketsu, take a look at this break-down of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” from mythicscribes.com. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie– don’t worry! There aren’t any spoilers here…but seriously, you should go watch the movie 🙂
In the first act we’re introduced to Kiki. It shows how she bids her friends and family farewell and sets off into the world on her flying broomstick. Eventually, she ends up in a big city where she decides to stay. Among the people, she meets a friendly woman who runs a bakery and who lets Kiki stay in a spare room.
Kiki doesn’t quite feel at home in the big city which is very different from her own little village.
In order to get by and to pay for her accommodation, Kiki starts a delivery service. In this way she ends up meeting a lot of new people, some of them friendly, some of them less pleasant. Among them is the boy Tombo who’s an avid fan of all things aviation, and he falls for Kiki like a pile of bricks.
Kiki is beginning to doubt whether a witch can be accepted in such a big city.
Tombo gets an opportunity to ride on a big dirigible that’s visiting the city. Having dreamt all his life about flying he’s really excited about it and can’t wait to go. When he finally gets there, something happens and poor Tombo ends up hanging from the dirigible in a rope while the dirigible drifts across the town without anyone being able to control it.
Tombo gets into trouble and Kiki saves the day.
Life goes back to normal again. Only now, Kiki is an accepted part of the city. She’s good friends with Tombo. Her delivery service is doing well, and she feels like she’s found her place in life.
Everything works out well in the end.
Tension is built through contrasting events and a sense of the unknown, not through opposing forces (in this case, Tombo hanging from the dirigible). If “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was written as a three-part story, then perhaps it would center around an interpersonal conflict between Kiki and other characters who were already integrated into the community (other witches or the “popular kids” that Tombo hangs out with). It might focus more on a battle of acceptance rather than her finding self-worth and confidence internally.
Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s works use the four-part style, which is part of why I love them so <3
There is no right or wrong way to tell a story, but different styles of story can communicate different things. It’s the idea that form follows function— this is typically a concept used in architectural design but, in this context, it’s when the structure of a plot represents of the theme it is trying to convey. A story such as the conflict-driven three-part structure gives the audience a sense that overcoming the struggle against an opposing side is instrumental to growth, progress, or development. The plot of such a tale can be visualized as a mountain, in which there is a more linear climb to the final battle, before the falling action and resolution.
Conversely, with the four-part Kishōkenketsu structure, we are pulled out of the focus on a singular conflict and can see a story from a wider lens. Conflict is not necessary, but a broader understanding of a situation and its impact is. This plot line is not so much a mountain, but a non-linear, winding path that takes a few side steps before arriving at the resolution. There is still a climax in the story, it just isn’t centered around an opposing conflict.
This difference can be likened to specific and holistic worldviews, in which the three-part story highlights the specific conflict faced by heroes in a singular context, satisfying the more Western tendency of individualism and showcasing some sort of showdown. The four-part structure suggests a holistic worldview (more commonly associated with Eastern cultures), in which conflict may be present, but it is one part of a larger narrative (a more collectivistic structure). It helps to provide the backdrop of a story without driving the core actions or development of the character. It focuses instead on the effect it has on the surrounding world. In classic Kishōkenketsu stories without conflict, the intrigue is created by exposition and the introduction of that unexpected element.
Kishōkenketsu is found in many stories, from literature to poetry, and even in video games!
Can you think of some more examples? Which style of storytelling do you prefer? Let me know in the comments 🙂