In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarilyhinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc.—are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma(four-panel) manga; and, with this in mind, our artist has kindly provided a simple comic to illustrate the concept.
Each panel represents one of the four acts. The resulting plot—and it is a plot—contains no conflict. No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism—a chaos, perhaps—that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory. It could be said that the last panel unifies the first three. The Western structure, on the other hand, is a face-off—involving character, theme, setting—in which one element must prevail over another. Our artist refitted the above comic into the three-act structure to show this difference.
The first panel gives the reader a “default position” with which to compare later events; and the second panel depicts a conflict-generating problem with the vending machine. The third panel represents the climax of the story: the dramatic high point in which the heroine’s second attempt ”defeats” the machine and allows the can to drop. The story concludes by depicting the aftermath, wherein we find that something from the first act has changed as a result of the climax. In this case, our heroinesans beverage has become a heroine avec beverage.
What this shows is that the three-act plot, unlike kishōtenketsu, is fundamentally confrontational. It necessarily involves one thing winning out over another, even in a minor case like the one above. This conclusion has wide-ranging implications, since both formats are applied not just to narratives, but to all types of writing. Both may be found under the hood of everything from essays and arguments to paragraphs and single sentences. As an example, the reader might re-examine the first two paragraphs of this article, in which a “default position” is set up and then interrupted by a “problem” (namely, the existence of kishōtenketsu). The following paragraphs deal with the conflict between the two formats. This paragraph, which escalates that conflict by explaining the culture-wide influence of each system, is the beginning of the climax.
As this writer is already making self-referential, meta-textual remarks, it is only appropriate that the article’s climax take us into the realm of post-modern philosophy. It is a worldview obsessed with narrative and, perhaps unconsciously, with the central thesis of the three-act structure. Jacques Derrida, probably the best known post-modern philosopher, infamously declared that all of reality was a text—a series of narratives that could only be understood by appealing to other narratives, ad infinitum. What kinds of narratives, though? Perhaps a benign, kishōtenketsu-esque play between disconnection and reconnection, chaos and order? No; for Derrida, the only narrative was one of violence. As a Nietzschean, he believed that reality consisted, invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another, in a selfish exercise of its will to power. The “worst violence”, he thought, was when something was completely silenced and absorbed by another, its difference erased. Apparently, Derrida was uncontent with the three-act structure’s nearly complete control over Western writing: he had to project it onto the entire world. Eurocentrism has rarely had a more shining moment.
Kishōtenketsu contains no such violence. The events of the first, second and third acts need not harm one another. They can stand separately, with Derrida’s beloved difference intact. Although the fourth act unifies the work, by no means must it do violence to the first three acts; rather, it is free merely to draw a conclusion from their juxtaposition, as Derrida does when he interprets one narrative through the lens of another. A world understood from the kishōtenketsu perspective need never contain the worst violence that Derrida fears, which would make his call for deconstruction—the prevention of silence through the annihiliation of structure—unnecessary. Is it possible that deconstruction could never have been conceived in a world governed by kishōtenketsu, rather than by the three-act plot? Is the three-act structure one of the elements behind the very worldview that calls for its deconstruction? Can the Western narrative of the will to power remain coherent in the face of a rival narrative from the East? This writer would prefer to ask than to answer these questions.
Now, dear readers, comes the aftermath. The dust left over from the climax is settling. Kishōtenketsu has been shown to generate plot without conflict, which reveals as insular nonsense the West’s belief that they are inseparable. The repercussions of this extend to all writing; and, if this writer’s conclusion is to be believed, to philosophy itself. Despite this, it should be noted that many of history’s greatest works have been built on the three- and five-act structures. By no means should they be discarded. Rather, they should be viewed as tools for telling certain types of stories. At the same time, this writer would like to end by calling for a renewed look at kishōtenketsu in the West. It offers writers the opportunity to explore plots with minimal or no conflict. Perhaps it could even change our worldview.