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Kishotenketsu

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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:

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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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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".


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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.
  • 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).

    Comic Books 
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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 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 

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