Plotting with the Kishotenketsu method

In my series on the Three Act Structure, I gave several alternatives to the structure. One of which was the Kishotenketsu, or Japanese Four Act Structure.

I’m excited to delve into this structure because of how unique it is compared to western media. Most of the plotting alternatives I mentioned in the original article lead to the same place. It doesn’t matter whether you use the 15 Beats (Save the Cat) method, 7 Point method, Story Circle, or something else. You usually end up with something like the Three Act Structure of western media.

But Kishotenketsu is different. It starts much the same as the other plotting structures I’ve mentioned. But, owing to its Japanese roots, it ends in a unique way.  I’m eager to learn more about it myself, and I can already see uses for it in projects down the road.

A Tale of Two Cultures

Much of western media are based on principles of Stoicism and Romanticism, which have their roots in European philosophy and thought. 

Stoicism is the worldview that suffering and trouble should be endured without quarrel or complaint. 

Romanticism, in a literary sense, focuses on the primacy of the individual.  The hero of the story is an exceptional individual who rises above his circumstances and molds the world in his own image.

So, western myth and literature are filled with examples of lone heroes who stand against the world, rise above its troubles and mold the world in their own image.  What this has produced are classic stories of heroes who charge the castle, slay the dragon, and get the girl. 

But Japan is different. Japan, as with many Asian nations, has traditionally had what’s known as an “honour/shame” culture. Honour/shame cultures don’t tend to celebrate the heroes in their midst. Instead, they downplay the individual and his accomplishments. The focus is on harmony and not bringing shame to your family and community. You don’t do what you do because it’s right, or even because it works. You do it because it’s what the community’s doing, and you don’t want to bring shame by going against the grain. Western styles of discourse can seem arrogant to a Japanese, or generally Asian, mindset.

Here in the west, we have a saying.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Western proverb

Meaning that the individual who stands out and makes himself known gets the best results. But eastern cultures pioneered a very different saying.

“The protruding nail gets hammered down.”

Japanese proverb

And you can guess what that means.

So, they don’t see the world as a prize to be conquered, as we do in the West. Instead of being something you bend to your will, the world is something that bends you to its will. You don’t have a choice and fighting against it will only bring shame to your community. This tends to stifle not only individual liberties, but social and technological progress as well. Both need individuals to stand out and buck norms to make progress.

This is what we call determinism. When properly understood, it’s the central underpinning of the Kishotenketsu method. Determinism is the view that all events, including human actions, are determined by external forces. As such, characters in a Kishotenketsu story usually don’t go out and affect their world. Rather, they are affected by their world through the story.

The Four Stages

There are four stages or acts, in a Kishotenketsu story. The first two are almost identical to the first two acts in western media, so I’ll only give them a cursory glance here. See my other articles to learn more about the Three Act Structure and its alternatives.

Ki (起)– Introduction

It’s like the first act of a western Three Act or Story Circle structure. In this act, we see the hero experience his ordinary world.

Sho (承)– Development

The second act is like its western media counterpart, but with a few differences. We have the rising action of the story but don’t experience the inciting incident yet. That comes closer to the end of the act or early in the third act. Instead, we use the time for more character development and worldbuilding. Then we reach the midpoint, as in western media. But this is where things get interesting.

Ten (転) – Twist

In western media, the midpoint of the second act culminates with the “Meeting with the Goddess.” It’s a place of comfort where revelations are made, and the character chooses to continue with the journey. But in Kishotenketsu, this is where the story begins.

This is where we get a twist in the story. And it isn’t a small twist, either. It’s like driving 100 mph down the highway, in the dark, with no headlights, and pulling the wheel hard left without hitting the brake. It’s the kind of twist that completely reframes the story and everything that’s happened up to this point.

We could almost think of this as a “Meeting with the Goddess” moment. Certain revelations are also made, but it’s rarely a place of comfort. The characters often find themselves scrambling for their survival afterward. Instead of a “Meeting with the Goddess,” perhaps we should call it a “Meeting with the Devil.”

Ketsu (結)– Conclusion

After an earth-shattering revelation, this is where our characters come to terms with what they’ve learned. They need to reconcile what they’ve learned in the first two acts with deep, shocking revelations they received in the third.

Remember, this isn’t western media. The heroes don’t typically win the day here. Instead, they only come to terms with what has happened to them. They aren’t driving the story, the story’s driving them. They’ve gone from a place of control and comfort to a place where everything is chaos. Their only purpose now is to make sense of it.

In western media, this is where everything would be wrapped up in a neat, little bow. Leaving the audience without breaking tension first is verboten in western literature. The obvious exception is if you want to build tension for an upcoming sequel. But in a Kishotenketsu, it isn’t uncommon to leave loose ends and characters are often left in a state of tension at the end of the story.

A few notes

A Process, Not a Destination

I’ve found that in modern western media I can almost predict what’s going to happen next by where we are in the Three Act arc of the story. It’s like there are specific beats the writers want to hit, and you can almost set your watch by them. If I’m at the 40-minute mark of a 90-minute movie, I know the midpoint and the Meeting with the Goddess are coming up. If I’m at the start of a 120-minute movie, I know the inciting incident will occur at about the 30-minute mark. But it’s not so simple with Kishotenketsu.

From my experience, the Japanese Four Act Structure seems to be a bit fuzzier and more malleable. Kishotenketsu stories tend to focus more on carrying characters through a process of discovery than hitting points on a map. Writers of this style steer the perceptions of the audience toward the intended goal by the end of the act.

The Movie Poster Moment

In my previous articles on plotting, I said it’s helpful to imagine your story was being made into a movie. If you take a snapshot of the beginning of the second act, that would be the “movie poster moment” of the story. That’s what the story’s all about. I like to focus on the poster for the Fellowship of the Ring as my go-to example, but you should try it with the next movie you see. It’s quite interesting.

Remember, in a Kishotenketsu the inciting incident and call to action aren’t what the story’s all about. The twist is what the story’s all about. So, the “movie poster moment” of a Kishotenketsu is closer to the middle rather than the beginning.

Act length

The length of an act in a Kishotenketsu also differs from Western media. According to the Three Act Structure, the first act is about 25% of the story, the second is about 50% of the story, and the third act is the final 25% of the story. But the Four Act Structure is organized differently. It was hard for me to get exact numbers on this, so my figures may be a little fudgy.

The Ki, introduction, is roughly 12-13% of the story. The Sho, development, is still the longest as we build-up to the reveal and twist in the third act. It’s about 50% of the story. Ten, the twist, is about 25% of the story and the Ketsu, the conclusion, is the final 12-13% or so.

So, for the sake of easy math, let’s say we’re writing a book with 10 chapters. The first chapter is the introduction, where we see the protagonist’s ordinary world. The next five chapters should be the rising action of the second act. The next 2 or 3 chapters should focus on the twist, where you jerk the carpet out from under your characters. The final chapter or so should be where we see the characters coming to terms with what’s happened to them.

And remember, the point here isn’t that they slay the dragon and head home with pockets full of gold. There’s not necessarily any great resolution here. There can be, but it’s not needed. By the deterministic nature of the style, it’s okay to leave the characters in a state of tension and unrest at the end. Loose ends are welcome in Kishotenketsu.

Can you have a story with no conflict?

You can according to Kishotenketsu. Conflict is about overcoming obstacles and Kishotenketsu isn’t about overcoming anything. Classically speaking, it’s about sending a character’s life into a tailspin and watching as they try to cope. An example would be a slice of life anime where the goal is to portray the everyday lives of a person or group of people.

In western media, it’s the protagonists and their allies who drive the story. The story is driven by their goals and their need to mold the world in their image. But, in a Kishotenketsu, the story’s often driven by the antagonists and their goals.

The motivation for the protagonists isn’t that important and doesn’t necessarily matter. They are being acted upon by forces outside themselves and beyond their control. What matters is how they react to these pressures. Do they remain virtuous in the face of an unvirtuous rival or succumb and perish?

Kishotenketsu for secondary characters

An application for Kishotenketsu in western media is to give secondary characters a Kishotenketsu arc. This works when you consider these secondary characters are being acted upon by an outside force. That force is the protagonist.

In his article on Kishotenketsu, Nils Odlund at shares how Han and Chewie’s role in A New Hope could be a type of Kishotenketsu. It’s very interesting and worth a read.

The end, my friend

Perhaps the most important consideration is how to end a story in a Kishotenketsu. 

Western media tends to end on a tight resolution.  If not done right, western audiences can feel cheated if everything isn’t wrapped up in a bow and not having a tight ending can make publishers nervous.  But this is completely acceptable in Kishotenketsu.

Kishotenketsu stories tend to end on an event or emphasis.  They can end on a plot point, but they don’t need to.  Sometimes it’s fine for them to just end.  The point of the fourth act is to answer questions posed by the twist in a way that reframes the plot up to this point.

When I say it ends on an event or emphasis, I mean it ends with an emphasis on the virtues displayed in the story.  You could compare it to Aesops Fables or one of the parables of Christ, in that regard.  The point is that it ends with an event that emphasizes the beliefs or morals of the story. 

This can frustrate western audiences and publishers since we’re now adding new information to the story.  You typically don’t do that in a Three-Act structure and, instead, endeavor to wrap everything up in a neat little bow by this point.  But the growing popularity of anime and manga in the west is proof that it can work here, too, if done well.

The Four Act Structure in Action

Much of Kishotenketsu is based on folklore and urban legends. These themes are so pervasive they appear in urban legends from all over the world, not just Asia. If you want a quick read before my deep dive example, I suggest you Google an urban legend called “The Licked Hand.” This little urban legend is only a few paragraphs long and follows Kishotenketsu to a “T.”

The most prolific source of Kishotenketsu that most people have access to in the west is anime and manga. Since most of it’s from Japan or Korea, it’s the purest form of the style we have, and you can get it anywhere. Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, streaming services like Crunchyroll or Funimation. I think even Disney has a few titles to check out. So, you could pick any show and check the style yourself if you like.

Be sure to get authentic anime or manga ported from releases in Japan or Korea. Anime has become hugely popular in the west and there are a lot of copycats out there. Avatar: The Last Airbender or Totally Spies are good examples of western shows that are influenced by anime and manga. They look similar, but they’re based on western storytelling techniques and not Kishotenketsu.

The show I’m going to look at is a show you can find on Netflix called “The Promised Neverland.” I’ll take my example from episode one of the series. In case you hadn’t guessed, spoilers abound.

The story follows a group of children at the Grace Field Orphanage.

KI (起)

This act is about 12-13% of the show, and that’s not a lot of time.  In a 22 minute anime, that’s only about 2-2 ½ minutes.  But they make good use of their time.

We open with two of the main characters, Emma, Ray, and another unnamed boy.  They’re standing at an ominous-looking gate discussing what it could be.  We learn some very important things:

  1. They’re orphans
  2. They grew up in the orphanage and may have been born there
  3. They’ve never been to the outside world
  4. They’re never to go near the gate or go to the outside world because it’s “dangerous”
  5. They’re being cared for by someone named “Mother,” who can’t be their real mother since they are all orphans
  6. Ray’s character’s skeptical about what he’s been told
  7. Emma’s character’s curious and optimistic about this discovery
  8. The unnamed boy’s wary and thinks there’s more to it than they’re being told

That’s all within the first minute. The first act isn’t even over yet, and we’ve covered a lot of ground with character and world-building. We learn a great deal about the characters, the world, and hint at the greater antagonism.

There’s also an important lesson about tension here. Whenever possible, you need to pose questions in your reader’s mind. The human mind loves a secret, and your audience will fixate on any mystery you give it to solve. This question comes from the unnamed boy when he looks down the corridor and says,

“This gate. You know, I wonder what it’s really keeping us protected from.”

The Unnamed Boy

The first act is a minute gone and all that’s left is the intro, but that doesn’t mean we’re done with our world-building. We still squeeze a lot of information into the intro, as well. We learn:

  1. Who the three main characters are
  2. They’re being held down by some form of “darkness”
  3. We see the orphanage
  4. We see Ravens flying in the distance, symbols of death
  5. We learn more about the personalities of the main characters
    1. Emma’s emotional, cheerful, and energetic
    1. Norman’s intelligent and calculating
    1. Ray’s tough as nails and aloof
  6. Images of the other children in the orphanage show they seem to be happy and well adjusted
  7. Barcodes on their neck evoke images of concentration camps
  8. We see images of bubbly, cheerful Emma seeming sullen, for some reason
  9. We see Mother Isabella and Sister Krone, who seem to genuinely care for the children
  10. The image of a barred window shows that the children may be more captive than they know
  11. We have what looks like our three main characters forming a secret alliance for some purpose
  12. A burning fuse indicates that there’s a time limit until some important event happens
  13. A scene of our heroes running through the forest indicates a flight from something
  14. A shot through a chain-link fence evokes even more prison imagery
  15. We have another shot of our heroes dressed all in white, a sign of purity and innocence
  16. Our final shot is of the heroes breaking through a wall.  It rains puzzle pieces around them, indicating a mystery to be solved
  17. Frequent butterfly imagery throughout the intro expresses a desire for freedom

And that’s just the first act.

In intellectual circles, this is what’s known as a metric mega buttload of exposition. There’s more information in the intro, which takes up half the first act, than in the dialogue at the start. They pulled this off beautifully, with very little time, and the audience now has a firm foundation for the rest of the story.

Sho (承)

As with Western media, the second act takes about 50% of the running time. In a 22 minute anime, that will pull us in at about 10-11 minutes.

The sun rises over the orphanage and the morning bell wakes everyone for breakfast. Emma shows her character by helping the younger children get ready for the day. On the calendar we see several days crossed off with the current date circled. The name “Conny” is written underneath the current date.

We have more establishing shots of Emma helping the children get ready. She also has cheerful conversations with the older children. Overall, the environment is lively and loving. The children act as brothers and sisters instead of wards in an orphanage.

We meet Mother Isabella, and she seems to genuinely love Emma and the other children as well. Emma calls her “Mom” and views her as her real mother. I’ve never been to an orphanage. But, if you’re going to live in one, this is the one to be in since the children seem to be very well-loved.

More prison imagery is evoked when we see close-up shots of the numbers tattooed on the neck of each child. This is in stark contrast to the idyllic life the children seem to lead.

Another establishing shot shows the children in their schooling. Despite the clear rustic nature of the orphanage, their schooling is quite advanced. They learn through advanced computer-guided curriculums designed to maximize their critical thinking.

The kid’s characters develop more when another student challenges Norman to tag. He accepts and the entire class participates, except for Ray who sits the challenge out to read a book. Norman picks everyone else off with ease, except for Emma. We see that Emma and Norman are almost matched for intellect, but that Norman has the advantage. Emma, while not as intellectual, has the physical edge.

We also learn that Mother is also intelligent since none of the other children can beat her at chess.

The second act closes with another scene that repeats the dialogue of the first act. We also learn that Ray doesn’t trust Mother, even though all the other children do.

In the same scene, we learn that the children are adopted out of the orphanage by the age of 12. The children talk about how strange it is they’ve never received any letters from anyone who’s been adopted. The children speculate on the reasons this could be.

They imagine how great the outside world will be and dream of what they want to do once they get there. We also learn what the circled date on the calendar at the start of the episode means. One of the youngest children, Conny, is being adopted out today. She vows to never forget them and write often.

We end the act with a close-up of Conny as a foreboding wind blows her hair across her face.

It’s important to note that there hasn’t been a call to action yet. The first act was laying the foundation for the rest of the story and the second act was all character development and exposition. It helps to remember that this structure isn’t like ticking plot points off a checklist. It’s more like a process of discovery as we meet the characters and discover their world with them.

Ten (転)

Now we start the third act. In a 22-minute anime, the third act is about 5.5 minutes long. 25% of the runtime of the show. This is where the big twist happens and what the story’s all about. If you’re going to make a movie poster of one moment in your Kishotenketsu story, this is it. And remember, it should be a hard twist. Don’t waste your big reveal.

We’re guiding our characters through a process of discovery, not following a map to buried treasure. The twist doesn’t need to happen right at the 13-minute mark. We’ve laid the foundation in act one, established the world and lore in act two, and now we build toward the payoff. The actual reveal won’t happen until about halfway or so through the act.

We start with Mother Isabella removing a crude drawing Conny made for her from a corkboard. She holds the drawing to her chest and smiles warmly. Conny says goodbye to the other children and Mother leads her to the forbidden gate by lamplight. All seems well and Mother hums happily all the way.

This is where we have the inciting incident of the story. Conny has a stuffed bunny that she takes with her everywhere. But, while she was cleaning, Emma notices that she forgot her bunny on a table in their dining hall. Mortified, Emma determines to return the doll and Norman comes to help.

It’s also worthy of note that the inciting incident and the call to action can occur at the same time in the story. They don’t need to, but they can, and this is one place where they do. I’ve noticed this holds across many plotting methods.

Norman and Emma rush, with the bunny in hand, to the gate which now stands ajar. They call for Conny and step cautiously inside. The corridor is empty but for a covered delivery truck. Emma steps to the back of the truck, peers inside, and stumbles back in abject horror. Norman looks as well and we see his shock as he stares down on Conny, lying lifeless in the back of the truck.

The kids hear voices from behind one of the doors and hide under the truck. A couple of individuals step into the dimly lit passage claiming to have heard voices. They step into the light, and we can see they aren’t people, but a trio of horrifying demons. They pluck Conny out of the truck and place her in a sealed container. The kids listen as the demons talk about the quality of “merchandise” this “farm” produces.

Emma tries to call out for Mother Isabella, but Norman stifles her. From around a corner comes Mother Isabella. She delivered Conny to the arms of the demon, and now her motherly warmth and demeanour are gone. She glares at the audience and her face has become cold and malevolent.

That’s the twist. The children now understand where they are and what they are. They’re not in an orphanage, they’re on a farm. And they’re not being adopted, they’re being sold as pigs for slaughter.

I said the twist is the movie poster moment for a Kishotenketsu. Let’s look at a couple of posters for The Promised Neverland and see what’s there.

In the first poster, we see our three main characters. Emma, Ray, and Norman are illuminated by a lamp in the foreground. The lamp in Norman’s hand represents the truth they’ve discovered which has reframed the story. They’re standing on a dinner plate, calling out the fact that the children are being raised for slaughter. The plate has clock numbering on its face and the fork and knife on the plate resemble the hands of a clock. This indicates the time constraint they’re all under. The children are all “adopted” out by the age of 12 and Emma’s already 11. The children are under what appears to be a cloche, a domed covering used to display meals in restaurants. In the silvery face of the cloche, we can see the gate reflected in its surface. The other children stand on plates of their own with their backs to the heroes. This indicates that they’re oblivious of the danger they’re in.

Let’s look at the second poster. At first glance, it seems like a lovely little slice of life. We see the orphans in a sunlit clearing with the orphanage in the background. But our perception changes when we look at the fringes of the poster. Up top, we see a graying dystopia of old buildings looming overhead. The remains of the outside world? Below, we see a staircase spiralling down through some kind of underworld. It appears to be a library full of books that represent knowledge and secrets kept from the children.

Ketsu (結)

We’re into the third act, revealed the twist and now it’s time for the characters to react to what they’ve seen. The characters must remain in character for the scenes that follow. Emotional characters should remain emotional. Logical characters should remain logical. Aloof characters should remain aloof. Their actions should flow from their established character traits.

This act is another 10-12% of the story and takes another 2-2 ½ minutes of run time.

After barely escaping the demons, the next scene shows them desperately fleeing back to the orphanage. Norman stops and doubles back when Emma falls to the ground weeping. She’s hysterical over what she’s seen and tries to convince herself that it was all a mistake, it didn’t happen. Conny’s been happily adopted, and Mother Isabella’s a loving mother.

Norman is visibly shaken to his core. But being a constant intellectual and strategist, chokes back his tears and puts on a strong face. He assures Emma that it did happen. Conny has been taken away as food and Mother was complicit. Emma realizes the depth of their situation, collapses again and wails into the tall grass.

Back at the orphanage, they’re greeted by Ray, who’s finished his cleaning. They don’t tell him what happened and head straight to the dorm. They resolve to escape the farm and take as many of their brothers and sisters as they can.

Kishotenketsu often ends with unresolved tension, and this anime is no exception. We end with several questions unanswered. How will the kids get out? Will they get out? How many of the other children will they be able to save from being “adopted?” Emma’s 11 years old and approaching 12. Will she get out in time?


Believe it or not, that’s the Kishotenketsu structure in a nutshell. There’s much more to discover on the topic.  I think western media can be enriched by carefully incorporating some elements of the style. I, for one, look forward to incorporating it into my repertoire.

Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!