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".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.