Kishōtenketsu: The Four Act Narrative (or Plot Without Conflict)

Think about narrative structures…

We’ve got Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

We’ve got Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale

We’ve got the Hollywood Formula

We’ve got the Three Act Structure

We’ve got the Seven Point Plot Structure

We’ve got dozens of other narrative structures that help us guide out plots and characters and give us frameworks on which to build rich and satisfying stories.

These studies in narratology all have one thing in common.

Conflict, resolution and subsequent transformation is at the centre of each of them.

Is it possible to create a plot without conflict?

Standard writing advice says no.

Standard writing advice is wrong.

We’ve also got Kishōtenketsu, also known as the four act structure or plot without conflict.

Kishōtenketsu - four act narrative structure plot without conflict

What is Kishōtenketsu?

Kishōtenketsu is a four act narrative structure developed out of Korean, Chinese and Japanese traditions, originating in Chinese poetry.

Kishōtenketsu is a narrative structure that is not based on conflict and resolution.

The four acts of Kishōtenketsu break down like this:

Ki – Introduction

The character, setting, situation and other basic elements are established.

Shō – Development

An expansion of the first act introduction. No major changes occur.

Ten – Twist

The story takes a turn into a contrasting, seemingly separate situation.

Ketsu – Conclusion

The story resolves, connecting all acts.

The Ten (Third Act Twist) is the Key to Kishōtenketsu

The Ten- the third act—is a contrasting, even seemingly nonsensical, departure from the character and situation set up in the first and second acts.

In the fourth act, that third act dislocation is brought together to resolve a complete narrative connection with the first part of the story.

Can you have plot without conflict? Yes! It's called Kishōtenketsu, a four act structure.Click To Tweet

Is There Really Plot Without Conflict?

The third act of a Kishōtenketsu story is a complication, but it is not a conflict.

The contrasting dislocation might provide the reader with a sense of chaos as this third, seemingly random situation is explored, but this is not a conflict.

It might be argued that the third act of Kishōtenketsu might be able to be a conflict, but conflict certainly isn’t integral to the plot resolution or narrative development as it is in Western narrative structures.

A further difference is that the character does not need to engage with the complication of the third act. The twist might simply be a shift in setting or focus, that will bear some relevance to the establishing acts in the fourth act.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

A lot of Japanese manga is based on the Kishōtenketsu form. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a famous example.

Some video games are also structured on Kishōtenketsu. Check out this interview that discusses how the makers of the Mario Brothers games use the format.

Will Western Audiences Understand a Kishōtenketsu Story?

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four act, no conflict structure, may risk not engaging with western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular, it creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

A Call to Arms – Let’s Write Kishōtenketsu

All narrative traditions need to be recognised as valid story forms.

I’ve experimented writing Kishōtenketsu in a short story for my urban fantasy series, Guessing Tales‘The Vigil of Death’ is based on the four act structure as discussed here. It’s the third story in my Guessing Tales ‘Death Watch’ series. You can read it (and other tales in the series) here for free.

I’d love for more people to join me and try to write a four act structure that does not contain a conflict. Who’s going to come along for the Kishōtenketsu ride?

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Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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