Kishōtenketsu - alternative four-act narrative structure

Continuing the discussion from The Hero’s Journey:

Learning about Kishōtenketsu this in James Yu’s excellent newsletter (see here) and wanted to continue the discussion around the classic “hero’s journey” narrative structure as this offers a very interesting alternative!

Basic idea here:

Kishōtenketsu (起承転結) describes the structure and development of classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives. It was originally used in Chinese poetry as a four-line composition, such as Qijue, and is also referred to as kishōtengō (起承転合). The first Chinese character refers to the introduction or kiku (起句), the next: development, shōku (承句), the third: twist, tenku (転句), and the last character indicates conclusion or kekku (結句). 句 is the phrase (句, ku ), and (合) means “meeting point of introduction 起 and twist 転” for conclusion. It is called giseungjeongyeol (Hangul: 기승전결; Hanja: 起承轉結) in Korean.

From James’ newsletter:

Instead of direct conflict at the center, it’s all about a twist, and a conclusion that doesn’t have to follow a straight line.


Structures like this intrigues me because it breaks us out of a (possibly) stale mode of thinking. The Hero’s Journey goes beyond fiction and seeps into all parts of life: from startup pitches to how we sum up a hard day to our spouse. Could a different fictional structure change the power structures of the real world?

In this vein, I’ve been enjoying reading the manga The Walking Man, which is, as you guessed, all about a man that walks across Japan. It’s a salve for conflict driven narratives. The man walks. He finds objects. Pets a dog. There are complications. But he doesn’t wind himself into knots trying to fix them. Sometimes they fix themselves. Sometimes they don’t. Unexpected things happen.

So — less arc; more twist! Complication, rather than explicit conflict.

Apparently a form commonly found in Chinese poetry, Japanese manga, and video game level design.

See also:

This is a fun thing to think about! I got my parents to teach me a few 4 line Chinese poems and I can attest the structure is very effective.

I do feel like we have this structure in the English speaking world too. A good example is a comic strip–oftentimes 4 panels that follow exactly this same structure. I’m reading How to Read Nancy right now, which breaks down a single strip of Nancy in excruciating detail and they talk about this. The strip they analyze actually has only 3 panels: Panels 1&2 introduce and develop the story, and there’s a twist in Panel 3. But they also take care to note that there’s an implied panel 4 which the reader fills in, in their mind, which completes the story. (Anyone else read this book?? It’s super fun.)

The “twist” also reminds me of some forms of poetry, like the last couplet of a sonnet or even the 3rd+4th lines of a limerick.

So maybe the Kishotenketsu structure is more universal and in English it’s just more prevalent in briefer forms of storytelling?

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