Kishotenketsu for beginners

A little bit more story structure nerdism today. Kishōtenketsu (pronounced “kee-shu-ten-ketsu”) is a four-stage (or four-act, or even four-panel or four-line) structural form found in, for example, Chinese poetry and in Japanese manga comic strips. It’s also used in level design in video games. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be applied to other modes of writing either. Here’s how it works:

1)      Introduction

2)      Development

3)      Twist

4)      Conclusion / reconciliation

The contexts: characters, setting and so on, are introduced and expanded upon in the first two sections. These could be the first two scenes of a story, for instance. The third section introduces a fresh, and often challenging, element into the story-scape. The fourth - and final - part then reconciles the established world of parts 1 and 2 with the disequilibrium brought in with the third section.

To some extent, this may be seen as a development of the classic three-part joke format rule. Consider the knock-knock joke, which has both a three-part and a five-part structure:

A)      Knock knock

B)      Who’s there?

C)      Theodore

D)      Theodore who?

E)      Theodore wasn’t open, so I knocked.

Five parts, and also three acts within it. A + B set up the premise of the joke. C + D confirm and reinforce the premise of the joke. E undermines or subverts the premise, and thus generates humour (if the joke’s strong enough) from the switch or reversal that’s been pulled.

In kishōtenketsu, we have a set-up, a confirmation, then a subversion, and then an accommodation.

Following such a format, there’s no requirement necessarily for there to be interpersonal conflict within the story, as this article explains in more detail (with a couple of manga illustrations for good measure).

Also, the short video in this article gives a case study of how kishōtenketsu-informed thinking might contribute to level design (or, maybe, structuring within a chapter or perhaps the constituent elements of a scene).

The point is, we don’t have to think in terms of three or five. Even numbers exist also when there are structural considerations to be taken on board.

As an aside, a contrasting Japanese three-part structural concept is jo-ha-kyū (which means, approximately, beginning, break, rapid). Jo-ha-kyū assets that the most auspicious dramas and musical pieces (and also ceremonies such as the tea ceremony) should follow the format of beginning slowly and deliberately (jo) before gaining speed and tension, then climax (ha) and then to a swift conclusion with all plots resolved, and thus a return to the drama’s original auspiciousness (kyū). 

This online exchange has some useful examples too.  Finally, the full .pdf file, which details the three-act, the dramatic arc (Freytag's Triangle), kishotenketsu, the Hero's Journey/monomyth archetype and a couple of other options, from which the above illustration was adapted.