Kishotenketsu (起承転結, pronounced "kee-show-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, reaches a turning point in the second, and is 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:
- Introduction (ki) establishes the main characters and the setting they live in.
- Development (sho) deepens the reader's understanding of and emotional attachment to the characters.
- Twist (ten) introduces an unexpected and major change to the setting and to the characters' lives.
- 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.
A good indicator of this trope being used in long-format works is a Time Skip occurring roughly in the middle of the story (i.e. right after the Twist), followed by presenting a radically different status quo.
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".
- Attack on Titan:
- Ki: The series begins with a simple premise; man-eating Titans have devoured the entire human race, save for those who managed to take refuge in a walled kingdom.
- Sho: The first parts of the story follow Eren Yeager as he loses his home and mother to the Titans, joins the military, and meets friends with whom he hopes to fight the Titans and reclaim the territory they’ve taken over.
- Ten: The mystery of the series’ premise starts to unravel with a series of reveals, until finally it’s shown that humanity is in fact not extinct beyond the walls, the people inside the walls belong to a race feared by the rest of the world for their ability to turn into Titans, and their internment is an Ancient Conspiracy to isolate them and possibly kill them off. This revelation causes Eren to Jump Off The Slippery Slope, until he eventually becomes the series’ Big Bad, and starts to annihilate the rest of the world with Titans.
- Ketsu: Eren’s former friends (and enemies) team up to stop him from exterminating the rest of the world, returning the series to its initial premise of saving humanity from the Titans.
- 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.
- Claymore: The first volume, the "Darkness in Paradise" arc, and the entire "Teresa of the Faint Smile/Marked for Death" flashback arc make up the Introduction of Clare, Raki, Teresa, and the Organization. The "Slashers" through "Abyss of Purgatory" arcs form the Development, as Clare forms relationships with Miria, Deneve, Helen, Ophelia, Jean, and Galatea. The Twist comes in the Northern Campaign arcs ("Battle of the North", "Assault on Pieta", and "Kindred of Paradise"), which culminate in death or defection of Clare's entire generation, before the story skips seven years into the future. The Conclusion sees Clare, Miria, and other defectors rebel against the Organization after learning of its secret purpose (even though this part alone is 1.5x longer than the first three combined — 90 chapters out of 154 total — and has its own standalone narrative structure).
- Some of Steve Gallacci's works seems to be based on this idea; this is not especially surprising, considering Gallacci has stated he has took some inspiration from Japanese media for some of his work:
- Albedo: Erma Felna EDF follows this in a way, especially during the first arc: The first issues introduces Erma and her setting; during the Ekosiak sub-arc, we know more about Erma's past and her motivations, along with the ones from some of the secondary characters; the twist goes with the fact the entire anthropomorphic civilization was created by humans and the Net, the Master Computer who controls everything, was helping Erma since her young days; and the last two sub-arcs concludes, through not completely ends, the story, when the ILR, the main antagonist force of the comic, obliterates Erma's homeworld and the titular protagonist is exiled from her world.
- Alone, Together follows this to a T: In the first arc, we are introduced with the two main characters, Danni and Jerom, and their motivations and goals; then during the second arc, the two main characters are further developed and we know both Danni and Jerom are more complex than they seem; the twist is when some pirates appears and tried to cause a wedge between both characters, just to be killed by Jerom when he quickly caught their intentions, and that without going with the entire sub-arc about Jerom being captured and tortured by an imperial officer of Danni's own country, and the last part of the final arc deals with the conclusion of the story and what happened with both characters at the end.
- Despite following one side's material closely, Code Prime still manages to be somewhat structured in this way. The introduction begins with the Autobots and Decepticons landing on Earth and engaging with the Black Knights and the Britannian Empire respectively, the tension builds as both sides grow in power, the twist happens once the Decepticons enact a multi-faceted plan to destroy Britannia and then flex further by moping the floor with the Black Knights and Autobots. R2 is the resolution, though it's stretched to an entire season instead of a meager conclusive epilogue, though it is still present in R1 when Lelouch, the Black Knights, and the Autobots regain their resolve to continue the battle against the now-dominant Decepticons.
- The Overstory follows this structure, with the first section introducing each character in their individual short stories, the second section developing them further and in particular the relationships between Nick, Olivia, Mimi, Douglas, and Adam, the twist at the end of the second part with their final mission ending in Olivia's death and the other four going their separate ways, with the final parts resolving the characters' arcs and the thematic questions raised by the story in this new context.
- The Jidaigeki-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 Rōnin 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.
- Nintendo's Koichi Hayashida designs his levels around this structure, e.g. in Super Mario Galaxy 2note 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). This structure was also adapted to the New Super Mario Bros. series from the Wii game onward, despite not having Hayashida's input. See this Game Maker's Toolkit video for more visual examples.
- Final Fantasy VI is effectively split in two halves: the World of Balance half contains the Introduction of the main party roster and the Development of their character arcs, leading up to their battle against the evil Emperor Gestahl. The Twist comes when Gestahl's own right-hand man Kefka turns on him, ascends to godhood, and ends the world. The Conclusion then plays out a year later in the "World of Ruin", with the old heroes initially scattered all over a largely redrawn world map. Even gameplay-wise, the World of Balance's tightly-scripted, largely linear plot gives way to a much more open-ended, free-roaming exploration in the World of Ruin.
- Fire Emblem:
- Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War opens with the Verdane invasion of Grannvale serving as the Introduction of The Hero Sigurd and his key allies (most importantly, his future wife Deirdre). The Development begins after the birth of Sigurd and Deirdre's son Seliph, as Sigurd conquers Agustria, is framed for murder, flees to Silesse, then heads back to Grannvale to clear his name. This culminates in the Twist: Sigurd is betrayed and murdered and most of his allies are slaughtered or exiled by Lord Arvis. Fast-forward 17 years, and the Conclusion sees Seliph lead La Résistance against The Empire that emerged in the aftermath of the Twist.
- The first half of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, known as the "Academy Phase", consists of the Introduction (chapters 1 through 5, progressively introducing both the main characters and the Game Mechanics) and the Development (chapters 6 through 10, where previously introduced conflicts are escalated and the player's grasp of the mechanics is tested). The Twist comes in chapter 11, where the Flame Emperor reveals his true identity and agenda and launches a war that ravages Fodlan for the next five years. The entire second half of the game, known as the "War Phase", then plays out one of four mutually exclusive Conclusions, based on earlier player choices.
- Several The Legend of Zelda games, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, also use this story structure: initial exposition or an easy early victory; a first half of the game full of mounting tension, where something's wrong but you're not entirely sure what; a decisive break where the villain lands a major victory, and we learn what was really going on from the start; and then the rest of the game is a straightforward slog, where it's finally clear what needs to be done but there sure is a lot of it. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also uses this basic structure but with an In Medias Res approach: the Introduction, Development, and Twist already happened a century in the past, and it's up to you to find out the details through exposition, flashbacks, and diaries all while spending the bulk of the game resolving these threads by defeating Ganon.
- NieR: Automata has Route A, starring 2B, as the Introduction to the characters and the world, and 9S's Route B as the Development (even though Route B covers roughly the same events as A, it is much better at explaining them, thanks to 9S's superior intelligence-gathering ability). The Twist comes at the start of Route C/D: specifically, when YoRHa's invasion of Earth ends with almost every YoRHa android succumbing to the Machines' logic virus, the Bunker exploding, and A2 mercy-killing the infected 2B after inheriting her memories and final wishes. The Conclusion (the rest of Route C/D) then deals with 9S and A2 coping with the aftermath of this disaster and the Machine Lifeforms' impending counteroffensive.