Writing Dissonance: kishōtenketsu, or, plot without conflict

The West holds very strongly to the idea that you can’t have plot without conflict. Every writing book, writing blog, writing article I’ve read about plot emphasizes this point strongly. And I was despairing, as I often do, about the validity of my writing, because I have a very difficult time generating a plot in this sense.

Some time back I ran across this article: The Significance of Plot Without Conflict. I didn’t think much of it after that. After all, I could still learn to plot the right way.

So I was talking with a friend of mine about how I can’t write a plot. I write things like I’d Rather Be in Love and 15-and-4, which people have liked in the past but have always asked me to expand into stories, or else that they can’t link to the writing pieces because “they aren’t stories” and so on.

This morning I decided to find that article again and read it, on a whim. And I thought more about it this time around, since I have finally admitted to myself that traditional plot is difficult for me.

Then I realized: I write kishōtenketsu: a conflict-less plotting style. What provides interest in this kind of plot is contrast. In a way, it’s a four-panel manga strip:

1. Introduce the status quo.
2. Develop the status quo’s world.
3. Introduce a surprising element.
4. Bring about conclusion of element’s change on the status quo.

That doesn’t sound boring. It sounds different. Not the West’s cup of tea, so to speak, but at the same time… I find that I do like stories written like it, and that, just as with Western plotting, there are badly written kishōtenketsu, and well-written ones, and even kishōtenketsu that can almost fool you into believing they have a conflict.

Actually, it’s amusing to do this exercise: you know how there are some writers who, on analysis of plot, will try to shove every story into a three-act structure? Even plays that are 5-act, like Shakespeare’s? What if we tried to cram every plot into a kishōtenketsu structure? Granted, this is more of a petty vengeance on my part, as I am annoyed by the number of times stories have been pressganged into further interpretations of The Hero’s Journey.

Let’s play with this idea, though!

Lord of the Rings a la kishōtenketsu:

1. Hobbits live in a wonderful quaint world.

2. We explore this world, and then the wider world of Middle Earth as the Ring is taken on a quest.

3. Surprising element: due in large part to the betrayal by Sean Bean Boromir, Frodo and Sam have to take the Ring to Mordor by themselves.

4. They do this, and their relationship is strained by and grows through this hardship.

From this point of view, it almost doesn’t matter that at the end eagles swoop in and save everybody.

Let’s look at something else in more detail; that is, chaining kishōtenketsu. Here’s part of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a la chained kishōtenketsu (with each kishōtenketsu labeled by letters):

A1. The wizarding world is introduced briefly.

A2. Harry Potter’s mundane world is introduced in contrast.

A3. The letters from no one arrive.

A4/B1. The Dursleys grab Harry and flee to an isolate lighthouse.

B2. Harry Potter’s birthday arrives.

B3. Hagrid arrives. We find out that Harry is a wizard.

B4/C1. Hagrid takes Harry away to Diagon Alley after a confrontation with the Dursleys.

C1. We are introduced again to the wizarding world. Quirrel is involved.

C2. We are introduced more deeply into the wizarding world with Diagon Alley, this time contrasting with the mundane world.

C3. The surprising element is introduced gradually: Voldemort.

etc.

How about many murder mysteries?

1. The world is explored. People’s motivations in particular.

2. Murder occurs, changing the world, and spurs the detective into action.

3. The aha! moment of the detective.

4. Explanation and comeuppance of the murderer.

This actually also doesn’t quite fit, but then again, others have tried shoving murder mysteries into the Hero’s Journey, which fits about as well: wrinkly and ill-tailored.

So when I look back on the work that made me happiest to write it (which is perhaps not a good measure of what a writer should write), I see much more strongly the kishōtenketsu structure than a three-act structure (or a five-act structure, or what have you). It fits me and my writing like a glove.

Now, how to reconcile this with the fact that I live in the West and, frankly, the West does not like conflictless plots?

Well. I guess I either have to accept that I’m never going to write crowd-pleasers, or else I’m going to need to learn to plot with conflict.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Dissonance: kishōtenketsu, or, plot without conflict

  1. I am finding this fascinating, for what it’s worth. It gives me something to think about for how I put plots together, and what I want out of them. (And I have been waving the link at other people to consider it as well. It is a useful analysis of the structure!)

  2. Sell to Japan – it is ready for your kind of stories. We’ll catch up.

    The important part is to write the stories you want to read, and that you can’t find. Writers are never unique – they are just the verbal ones in their ‘tribe,’ the ones who write for the others.

  3. One could think of contrast as “conflict” between the status quo and the surprising element. If one wanted to shoehorn things.

    Kishōtenketsu sounds like the things readers don’t quite notice in books that make them good—I really felt like I knew the characters! The world was so real!—the things that happen in the course of the characters’ (well, anyone’s) lives in between the Important Elements of the Plot. Like making the in-between things into the whole story.

    Random thoughts from a random blog reader. I like thinking about these aspects of writing.

  4. I have to say that I rather enjoy your writing quite a lot. I have just now (yesterday evening) discovered your writing on tor.com where I was looking up some of the reviews of books that I have just finished.
    I have been reading quite a bit that you have written, over the last six hours. You know, read a bit, and while it is digesting do some programming then read some more. Then as I work on some photo’s that I shot recently for a photo shoot in Adobe Lightroom I got to thinking about how to reply to your conflict about people feeling that there has to be conflict in order for a plot to be any good (pun intended). Sorry! I am mostly asleep now at the moment and I am so not enjoying my decision to get off coffee and tea.
    As a former writer of non-fiction (health articles for magazines mostly) I have to say forget about people claiming there has to be conflict for a plot to be any good. If everyone wrote exactly the same way what a bloody boring world we would live in.
    I for one, am enjoying reading your blog and other writings very much especially the part about you having PTSD and being Bipolar. Now that hits home quite a bit since I have several close friends who have one or the other of those conditions.
    Tomorrow when I read what I have sent you tonight I am certainly going to be kicking myself for not writing when I was a tad bit more awake and together. I wonder where I put my thesauraus so I can look up synonyms for the word bit. Come to think of it I wonder how many times I can use that word (you notice that I refrained from using it again) before I get kicked off your website or my *puter melts.
    Way past time for me to head home. Way, way past time …

    MG

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