“So the Hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.“
– The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin
Conflict, we are told in the West, is the cornerstone of good fiction. If there’s no conflict then there’s no story. Or is there? And what do we mean by conflict? This exploration is personal for me. Having written a few books and with half a lifetime of reading experience under my belt, I am seeking reinvention of myself and my works, uncovering a new way of looking at and creating stories.
Last month I focused on Iyashikei, the Japanese genre of healing stories. This month I’m taking a look at Kishōtenketsu, another Japanese concept that describes a story format that removes the focus on conflict we adhere to in the West.
To clarify, when I’m speaking of conflict, I mean it as defined by Still Eating Oranges:
In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around *conflict*: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures–which permeate Western media–have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
I first came across Kishōtenketsu when I was seeking ways to explain my recent novel “Take On Me.” As a faithful fantasy/sci-fi writer, tackling a work that was intimately personal and set in the modern reality of 2015 meant I had to adjust some of my thinking about what made a good story. The book is a journey, but nothing explodes along the way. The world is not in danger, the kingdom doesn’t need saving. So what did I just write? I knew for a fact I was not the first person to write like this, as the book’s inspirations showed.
I also knew I had seen explorations of different story forms in film and comic books. Seeing the film “Only Lovers Left Alive” showed me that there were ways to blend the personal and quiet moments in with deep characterization, while the plot fell largely by the wayside. Sure, there is a form of central plot that moves the characters from one place to another, but it almost feels like an afterthought, something to hang the story together rather than its driving force.
In searching for answers, I came across the new-to-me term Kishōtenketsu and a lightbulb went off in my mind. I found a new jumping off point for my writing.
At its most basic level, Kishōtenketsu is a simple structure of four acts: introduction, development, twist, conclusion. We have a setup, and go deeper with the world and characters, then there’s a seemingly unrelated event that happens, later in the story in the third act, before the conclusion ties that event into the main story and brings it all together.
While this form doesn’t represent what I had written (my book hums along with smaller events turning the story’s direction like a tugboat nudging a freighter) it does give me a new perspective and style to play with in future work.
Kishōtenketsu also connects very nicely to Ursula K Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which posits that the first tools were not the bow and arrow, but instead the net and sling. We began as gatherers more than hunters and the quieter, seemingly gentler type of story was the tale of the day.
I’ve found myself drawn to write more of this type of tale, meditative and simple where “nothing much happens” but we gain a deep sense of place and people. It has basically given me permission to write from what my heart tells me rather than some perception of what a story structure is “supposed to” look like.
Combining Kishōtenketsu with Iyashikei opens a world of gentle storytelling that can provide true comfort to myself as the writer as well as to any potential readers. I feel a bit like I’ve discovered a new mountain and come home all at the same time. That freedom is powerful and makes me want to write even more, a feeling that is never in great supply.
If you’re curious to learn more about Kishōtenketsu, I have a few examples for you to check out. All of them do have some minor conflicts or perhaps even tense moments or a little violence. Yet, these elements are not core to the story, they are simply things that happen in the course of the telling. They show that breaking down the expected forms of Western storytelling don’t have to make for boring stories, just different pacing and different feelings. In fact, in a lot of ways, these examples feel more like real life than their more traditional counterparts.
Only Lovers Left Alive – a film by Jim Jarmusch about vampires that’s really more about music and time and maybe a little about fungi.
Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers’s next volume in her Wayfinder series that moves along at its own steady pace.
Station Eleven – a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that crosses between two timelines but is more about Shakespeare and art than it is about the apocalypse.
And a few resources for learning more:
Is conflict necessary?: Kishōtenketsu and the conflict-less plot – Words like trees.