Write a Story with No Conflict

Western plots are obsessed with conflict. The inciting incident kicks it off and over a series of obstacles we finally reach the climax, the ultimate struggle between our protagonist and antagonist.

But there is another way to craft a story. The Japanese method of Kishōtenketsu is the current plot system used for writing Manga. The focus is on the character and a twist near the end. You end up with a story with no conflict.

The 4-Act Structure with a Twist

Kishōtenketsu developed from a type of Chinese four-line poetry (qi 起, chéng 承, zhuǎn 转, hé 合). Each of these have four elements:

Ki: The introduction
Shō: The development
Ten: The twist
Ketsu: The conclusion

Although conflict can happen in the development and the twist, it is not necessary to form a full story. Kishōtenketsu focuses on a series of characters who may or may not have goals of their own. It’s the situation that changes (in the twist) that colors the story and surprises the reader. 

This format for a story is most familiar to Westerners in the form of the Urban Legend.

Urban Legends Using Kishōtenketsu

Let’s look at a sample urban legend and see how Kishōtenketsu creates a compelling story. 

The Killer in the Backseat

Ki: The introduction

A woman drives down a deserted highway late at night. (This is the set up. The woman has no character development and only an assumed goal of getting home).

Shō: The development

A massive truck drives right up behind her with its headlights shining through the window. The woman can’t make out who’s driving. The truck follows for several miles until finally flashing its headlights. The woman motions for it to go around, yet the truck continues to tailgate her. Finally, the truck accelerates and rams the woman’s car. (This develops the action and the character realizes she is not safe.)

Ten: The twist

The woman veers into a gas station lot and rushes inside to ask the attendant to call the police. The truck driver also screeches to a halt and charges toward the gas station. He wants to call the police as well. He noticed a murderous figure hiding in the woman’s back seat. (This is the crescendo with a twist the reader didn’t expect)

Ketsu: The conclusion

The police arrive and arrest the man in the backseat, who happens to be an escaped mental patient. (The reader is left with an unsettling feeling of how the situation has resolved itself). 

How to Write with Kishōtenketsu

Manga is published in separate volumes of 20 pages each. If a single volume lets the reader down, then the whole series might collapse. Readers won’t come back to read more. Thus, each “chapter” needs to be a complete story with a satisfying resolution for the reader. 

Using Kishōtenketsu can create a complete unit for both the individual chapter as well as a whole novel or script. Each scene/chapter would employ the 4-act Kishōtenketsu structure. But it would also arc over the entire story.

Ki: This is the point where you want to introduce all the important characters for this particular scene/chapter. Readers feel cheated to have a surprise character pop in at the end. We also expect all the details of the setting to be laid out.

Shō: This is where the action begins. The goal isn’t to solve a problem. The focus is on self-realization for the character. The author can introduce everyday problems as a way to highlight the character’s personality. You can focus on a small personality flaw that the character needs to change throughout the chapter/story.

Ten: This is the turning point or the twist. Often a character will return home to discover they were not acting like themselves. There can be a realization about how they should change their life. At this point, the character is forced to re-examine how they live.

Ketsu: What lessons has your character learned? There can be a revaluation about the past in order to make the twist make sense.

If you are getting stymied by your current attempts at plotting, why not give Kishōtenketsu a go? It might just be the realization you need to finish your story.

Tim Kane

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