While familiarizing myself with storytelling techniques and dramatic structure, I came across the term kishoutenketsu as a form of narrative structure common in East Asia. I had not heard the term before, but I instantly recognized the idea behind it. The word simply means Introduction, Development, Change, Resolution and this structure can be used for pretty much anything from a four line poem, to philosophical arguments, and whole TV shows. It’s used so frequently in Japan that it can often become a source of confusion when talking with Europeans and Americans who have difficulties with grasping what the point of an argument presented in this fashion is supposed to be.
The basic concept of kishoutenketsu is that a story or argument begins by introducing a subject and then continues to elaborate on it. However, about halfway or two thirds through the story, the narrative suddenly switches to a different subject that may only marginally or not at all be connected to what has happened before, or make everything that has come so far seem inconsequential. The beauty of it then comes in the fourth part of the story where it is then revealed how these two seemingly different plot strands are actually very closely connected and that they have really been the same story all along. What I find quite enjoyable about this approach to telling a story or making a point, and which probably why it became so commonly used in East Asia, is that it engages the audience to do their own thinking. It presents a puzzle that is meant to make you curious about how it will all come together in the end, and that curiosity makes you pay attention to the details and anticipate what intention the storyteller might have. And it’s not uncommon that the true meaning of the story will not be clearly explained at the end. It is both rewarding for the audience, as it makes you feel smart when you see the connections and the pattern, and also helps to make the message stick in your head because you actively worked on finding the meaning instead of just being handed a final conclusion that makes sense in someone elses mind.
Some people have claimed that kishoutenketsu structure creates stories without conflict, but I think that’s just completely misinterpretation. What it allows is to have an interesting and captivating story that does not rely on a protagonist and an antagonist fighting over something. Instead the conflict can be made much more abstract and take the form of the question of how the two plotlines or themes could possibly fit together as a whole. It’s not a confrontation or fight, but you still have a situation of disorder that needs to be fixed. But of course you can also have a kishoutenketsu story that does end with a hero and a villain fighting each other to the death at the end. The third segment of the story is often referred to as a twist, and that’s not entirely wrong. European and American stories also have frequent twist, but the difference is that the twist is often near the very end of the story, either just before, during, or after the big final confrontation. In kishoutenketsu structure the twist happens towards the middle of the story and as a result the implications of it are dealt with within the story itself and it greatly affects and changes how the protagonist approach the rest of their adventure.
Probably the best known, and also a really excelent example is the movie The Empire Strikes Back. In the first segment we are reminded that Luke Skywalker is an ace pilot and hero of the Rebellion against the evil and vastly more powerful Empire. Obi-Wan appears to him that he must find Master Yoda to learn the ways of the Jedi and be able to defeat the Emperor. This is the Introduction. In the second segment Luke is trained by Yoda to become a Jedi, but Yoda tells him that he will only be able to complete it after he faces Darth Vader. This is the Development of what has been introduced in the first segment. Then in the third segment Luke learns that Vader is his own father. This is completely new, unexpected, and puts into question everything Luke tried to do in the first and second segment. This is the Change or the twist. The fourth segment actually only happens at the end of the next movie, Return of the Jedi. Luke decides to face Vader again but this time without fighting him. Luke can not defeat the Emperor alone, but because Vader is his father he can get him to help doing it. This is the Resolution. The twist that Vader is Luke’s father first appeared to mean that Luke can no longer go through with his plan to become a Jedi and defeat the Emperor. He would have to kill his own father to do it. But instead the fourth segment shows us that the fact of Vader being his father is what actually enables Luke to defeat the Emperor. If that unexpected turn of events had not happened, Luke would not have been able to complete his original goal at all. What seemed like a disastrous problem was actually the solution.
There is something similar but less clear going on with the other plot branch of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. The twist is that Lando betrayed the heroes to the Empire, but then in the Resolution we learn that he is oppressed by the Empire like everyone else and he actually becomes another ally and not an enemy.
Other works that might be good examples would be Seirei no Moribito and Metal Gear Solid 2, but as those would be pretty big spoilers I’ll put my reasons for that below the end of this article.
Another well known, and also American example that surprised me happens to be the first Halo game. The series has style but has rarely been accused of having meaningful depth. But the first game does follow the kishoutenketsu structure pretty closely. 1. Humans are losing a war against the alien Covenant and try to hide on Halo. 2. The humans learn that Halo is a powerful weapon and want to use it against the Covenant. 3. Suddenly Space Zombies! Space Zombies everywhere! 4. Halo is a weapon created specifically to destroy the Space Zombies. There is not a terrible lot of depth and meaning in it, as far as I can tell, but it’s a great example of how the story seems to change into something completey different near the midpoint but then it does all come together again in the end.
I’ve seen both Rashomon and Inception described as kishoutenketsu stories but I am personally not seeing how that would apply to them.
I like this approach to structuring a story quite a lot and using it in two stories I am currently working on. My favorite thing about it is that it is much less predictable than the standard three act Hollywood plot. You already know what the big confrontation moments will be, when they will happen, and how they will turn out. Instead you know that something surprising will happen near the midpoint, but the mystery will continue until the end. It’s not a dramatic surprise moment but a very extensive period of mystery. It’s also extremely well suited for my personal favorite of stories that deal with finding ways to achieve two conflicting goals. The goal of a kishoutenketsu story is not to beat an opponent, but to bring two dissonant elements into harmony. You don’t have to follow the traditional pattern slavishly, but I think by simply putting the twist in the middle of the story instead of right next to the conclusion is something that every writer should consider doing instead of the tired out third act plot.
Below are details on how Metal Gear Solid 2 and Seirei no Moribito have kishoutenketsu structure. They are major spoiler so I recommend only to read it if you already know the stories or are very sure you never want to play and watch them.
Metal Gear Solid 2
- Raiden is a secret agent send to take care of a terrorist threat.
- Raiden joins forces with “Plisken” and “Mr. X” who are also trying to stop the terrorists.
- “Plisken” and “Mr. X” never were on the same side as Raiden and betray him.
- Raiden had actually been tricked into working for one of the two villains and the betrayal was to stop them without Raiden accidentally revealing their plan.
Seirei no Moribito
- Balsa is given the task to protect Chagum from his father, who think he’s possessed by a terrible demon that will destroy the land.
- Balsa and Chagum are hiding in a village trying to not be discovered by his father’s soldiers.
- Chagum is actually possessed and the whole kingdom might be killed because of it.
- The ancient texts were interpreted wrongly. The spirit is actually good