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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