What is Kishotenketsu and how does this form of storytelling work?
If you’re a fan of various East Asian Narrative media—from Kung Fu films to Korean horror–thrillers to Japanese animation—you may have noticed something unusual about the way these stories are structured. East Asian stories tend to strike Western audiences as pleasantly unpredictable. They can even leave one feeling a little off balance. Although you may not have been able to identify what exactly it is that creates this giddy, dizzying sensation.
If you’ve experienced this phenomenon and wondered what was at its root—whether out of mere curiosity or because you’d like to leverage the underlying technique in your own writing—stick around. I’m confident I’ve determined the primary narrative feature that makes East Asian stories so delightfully unusual to many Westerners:
Okay, great! But what is Kishotenketsu? Where does it come from? And how does it function within a narrative? Don’t worry—we’ll get to all that soon enough.
History & Development
First, a quick disclaimer.
‘Kishotenketsu’ is the Japanese term for a type of formal poetry that arose in 9th century China called ‘Qiyan Jueju.’ But, because Kishotenketsu is the most common term for this poetic form today, this is the way I will refer to it throughout this article. And I should note that Kishotenketsu might be more properly understood—not as a word—but as an acronym. Each phrase or character refers to a different section of the poem. In the original Chinese, each character is translated like so:
Qi– ‘bringing into being.’
He– ‘drawing together.’
Each term refers to one line of the poem, which runs from five to seven characters long. Here’s an oft-cited example of this poetic structure:
by Wang Wei (699-759)
Qi– After a farewell in the mountains,
Cheng– Dusk falls, and I shut my firewood-made gate.
Zhuan– When the spring is green next year,
He- I wonder if my friend will return.
Notice how each line serves a very specific function. The first line introduces the setting, circumstances, and the characters. The second line advances the scene. Line three functions as a hinge or fulcrum, pivoting us away from the current scene to somewhere new. Here, we move from the present circumstances into the poet’s contemplations about the future. Then, finally, line four ties everything together, ending where we began, with two friends together again in an imagined future—albeit a future imbued with melancholy as this future is uncertain.
This poetic structure grew popular because of its logical, causal progression made more compelling by its surprise twist in the third line, which functions like a volta (or ‘turn’) in a sonnet. And so, Qiyan Jueju spread further East. It was adopted in Korea, and then, eventually, Japan—where it was adapted for all kinds of rhetorical situations, from essays to fiction. Later, it even came to be used in comics and video games.
That’s right—Kishotenketsu is the blueprint for your favorite Mario game! But we’ll say more on that later.
For now, we’ll unpack how Kishotenketsu was adapted to function in a narrative context rather than a poetic one. Then we’ll examine a specific example of this structure. By showing how Kishotenketsu has been used in different contexts, I intend to paint a fuller, more robust picture of the creative possibilities it offers.
Kishotenketsu Moves Further East
In Japan, the Qiyan Jueju structure was adapted for fiction as Kishotenketsu, like so:
Ki– ‘Introduction.’ The author presents the setting, characters, and their current situation.
Sho– ‘Development.’ The author allows the situation to progress and unfold naturally, giving us a peek into these characters’ daily lives.
Ten– ‘Twist.’ Here the author reveals new, startling information that sheds a different light on what happened prior. Or an unforeseen event occurs, which sends the scene in a wildly different direction. The writer may even use both a revelation and an unforeseen event to turn the scene.
Ketsu– ‘Resolution.’ Finally, we get a glimpse of how the characters respond to the revelation or unforeseen event.
This structure applies at the macro, meso, and micro levels of a story: acts, scenes, and beats. Although we’ll focus on act and scene structure.
Here, I’ve used Kishotenketsu to outline a horror story:
Ki– A boy is home alone while the rest of his family is out of town at his sibling’s basketball tournament.
Sho– At first the boy has a blast indulging in all the activities he normally can’t do when his family is present: watching violent films and playing horror video games. The boy wishes he could be on his own like this every night.
Ten– But, as night falls, and the boy settles into bed to read his favorite collection of ghost stories, he hears someone else in the house.
Ketsu: When he investigates, he discovers that his wish has come true: he is stuck in a loop of the same night with only himself—his doppelgänger—prowling about in the shadows of his home.
Let’s home in on how Kishotenketsu differs from the three-act structure we see most often in the West as described by Aristotle in his Poetics.
Aristotle suggested each act serves a specific function in connecting the audience to the character and advancing the narrative.
Act 1: ‘Pity’ The author introduces a sympathetic character who’s actively pursuing a relatable goal.
Act 2: ‘Fear’ The stakes are raised, and the character faces increasingly challenging obstacles so that we’re afraid of what might happen should they fail.
Act 3: ‘Catharsis’ The character succeeds or fails, bringing about change within themselves and their circumstances.
So, what’s going on here?
In the West, we expect a story to center on a character who proactively pursues a goal which we can root them on toward achieving. There are a few implicit dramatic questions:
Will character A achieve goal X? If so, how? What will happen if they fail?
To borrow a term from the Eastern philosophical tradition, this is what we might call a ‘Dharmic structure.’ The character is pursuing a specific Dharma, a ‘path’ or ‘way,’ toward a tangible end goal.
However, in Kishotenketsu, we find a character simply going about their lives until they are forced to react to some bizarre, unforeseen circumstance. This is what I call a ‘Karmic structure,’ as the story advances—not by the characters’ pursuit of a goal—but through the law of Karma (cause and effect).
In general, Western stories feature characters who are proactive; in Eastern stories, characters are responsive.
Some literary theorists have suggested this emphasis on responsive characters over goal-oriented characters has to do with the influence of Taoism and Buddhism on Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures. Taoism espouses wu-wei—skillful non-action. This may also be expressed as living in accord with nature and with one’s circumstances. Buddhism encourages practitioners to achieve nirvana: to extinguish cravings for whatever they don’t have, focusing instead on gratitude for what they have already.
Given that East Asian cultures were so steeped in these ideas of non-doing, going with the flow of nature, and extinguishing cravings, it makes sense their stories follow a Karmic, rather than a Dharmic structure—because a person actively seeking something they don’t have doesn’t fit neatly within their moral-philosophical framework. In fact, such bold, fortune-seeking characters who star as the heroes in Western narratives do factor into Kishotenketsu stories, but they’re often featured as villains instead.
Kishotenketsu in Contemporary Narrative Media
Alright, so back to Mario for one final illustration of how Kishotenketsu has been adopted for narrative media:
In Mario games, each level is built around four stages of play:
- The level begins by introducing a gameplay mechanic.
- Throughout the level, the players get many iterations of how to use this mechanic to defeat enemies and navigate various situations—effectively developing their understanding of the gameplay mechanic.
- Then, the level introduces a twist by setting up a situation where all the usual methods of using the mechanic no longer work, forcing the player to discover a new way to apply it.
- Lastly, if they successfully master the novel use of the mechanic, the player can beat the level, leading to a resolution.
The Last Word
Let’s get back to our initial question. Why is Kishotenketsu structure so intriguing to Western audiences? Two reasons come to mind:
First, Westerners simply aren’t exposed to as many stories that use ‘Karmic structure,’ so we lack a solid schema to interpret them, meaning they come across as being alien or other.
Second, by building in a dramatic question, Western ‘Dharmic’ narratives foreshadow their potential endings ahead of time. The audience already knows, generally, where the story is headed. But this is not so in Karmic stories. Because of the prevalence of outside forces acting upon the characters, driving the plot, a Karmic story could end in many ways. There is just no way to forecast how such stories will end; they are inherently unpredictable.
Now that you have a foundational understanding of Kishotenketsu, I would like to present a few exercises to help develop and solidify that understanding so you can apply Kishotenketsu in your own creative projects.
- Next time you’re engaging with East Asian narrative media, see if you can pinpoint each step of the Kishotenketsu structure.
- Re-imagine your favorite classic piece of Western literature using a Karmic structure instead of a Dharmic one. Make the characters responsive rather than proactive. For instance, you could try restructuring the plot of the Odyssey using Kishotenketsu.
- Now flip that last exercise on its head: restructure your favorite story that uses Kishotenketsu structure (maybe a Studio Ghibli film, such as My Neighbor Totoro), as a tightly constructed quest wherein the hero proactively seeks a solution to their problem.
- Finally, try using Karmic structure your next story at every level: Four acts, four scenes per act, four beats per scene—each corresponding to the parts of Kishotenketsu.
That’s all for now! Thanks for reading and have fun writing!
- Japanese Horror Fiction
- Plot Without Conflict
- Using Chines Poetry
- Japanese Arguments
- Four-part Story Structure
by Oliver Fox.
More Posts From Oliver:
- 6 Classic Story Structures
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- On Plot-Driven vs Character-Driven Stories
- Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
- On Ghosts & How To Write About Them
- The 4 Pillars Of Science Fiction
- Writers Talk 6 | Fantasy Sub-Genres
- 10 Classic Fantasy Tropes & How To Enliven Them
- Writers Talk 3 | Star Wars