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Kishotenketsu

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Kishotenketsu (起承転結, pronounced "kee-shu-ten-ketsu") is a traditional plot structure in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature and poetry, derived from the classical Chinese four-line poems. Unlike the traditional Western Three-Act Structure, which is driven by a Conflict that is set up in the first act and resolved in the third, kishotenketsu derives its narrative tension from the contrast between the baseline established by the first two acts and a twist applied to it in the third. The four acts are:

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  1. Introduction (ki) establishes the main characters and the setting they live in.
  2. Development (sho) deepens the reader's understanding of and emotional attachment to the characters.
  3. Twist (ten) introduces an unexpected and major change to the setting and to the characters' lives.
  4. Conclusion (ketsu) brings together and reconciles the first two acts with the changes of the third.

While often touted as a story format "without conflict", it is more accurate to say that kishotenketsu doesn't have a driving conflict — that is, a confrontation that the entire story revolves around. The third act twist is the centerpoint of the story, but while it may introduce a conflict, characters don't actually have to engage with it (on-screen) in order for the story to conclude. The twist is more often a Non Sequitur, e.g. a sudden Perspective Flip that recontextualizes the story without changing its overall direction, than an outright Plot Twist.

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In East Asian cultures, kishotenketsu goes beyond just story structure, and is often found in poetry, scientific papers, rhetoric arguments, and even sentence composition. In the media, it underlies the Yonkoma format, much of the Slice of Life genre, as well as the level design philosophy in several popular Nintendo games. For a more in-depth explanation, see "The significance of plot without conflict".


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Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Kiki's Delivery Service is one of most famous examples: in its first act, Kiki, Tombo, and the city of Koriko are introduced; in the second, we learn more about Kiki's hard-working nature and Tombo's aeronautical aspirations; the twist is the sudden loss of Kiki's powers and Tombo's flying machine accident; and the conclusion sees Kiki regain her flying powers and rescue Tombo.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Jidai Geki-themed indie RPG The Mountain Witch by Timothy Kleinert implicitly references kishotenketsu with the Four Acts that structure its campaign. In the Introduction (ki), the company of Ronin introduce themselves to each other; in Building Tension (sho), they form bonds and rivalries as they fight alongside each other; in Fates Revealed (ten), the ronin reveal their true motives for embarking on the mission, twisting the previously established relationships; and in the Conclusion (ketsu), their Fates are resolved as they confront each other and the title antagonist.

    Video Games 
  • Nintendo's Koichi Hayashida designs his levels around this structure, e.g. in Super Mario Galaxy and, particularly, Super Mario 3D World. This allows him to introduce a new mechanic in a safe environment (ki), raise the stakes for the player (sho), put an unexpected complication on it (ten), and finally bring all previous ideas together for the home run to the finish pole (ketsu). See this Game Maker's Toolkit video for more visual examples.

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