In the West, plot is commonly thought to progress by way of a sequence of conflicting actions, or the actions of natural or supernatural forces that oppose the best interests of the characters. In the ensuing and on-going confrontation, one character or another ultimately dominates or is beaten by another character, or by fate or nature. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have erected conflict at the center of the conventional, dramatic story forms. A “problem” appears at the beginning, which leads to a crisis near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this evolving crisis takes center stage. Conflict is used to create audience 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 most contemporary screenwriters’ workshops and Internet “guides” to screenwriting. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has so influenced mainstream filmmaking that it has crystallised into templates or formulae that every screenwriter worth his or her salt must follow if they are to create a successful screen story. Yet, is there any ultimate merit in this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? Not so long ago, I might’ve answered in the affimative, but to do so is to overlook or even negate the very powerful contribution that mystery, suspense and re-contexualisation contribute to our interest in character actions and motives. To simple-mindedly claim that conflict is essential to a great story tells us more about the West’s prejudices and insularity than it does about the scope and variety of cogent and emotionally compelling narratives.
For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese storytellers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition, contrast, mystery and suspense to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu ( 起承転結 in Japanese, 起承轉合 in Chinese)
Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist (or re-contextualisation) and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting (given circumstances), 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. In the best stories this element is “planted” or in some way foreshadowed in one of the previous acts, though its ultimate significance is not at first recognised. When this element appears (or re-appears) in the third act - which is the core of this type of plot - it manifests 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. In the short-form drama this manifests as an idea that the audience takes away after the film has finished, upsetting the audience’s assumptions and expectations and as a result forcing the audience to reconsider its judgements about the story and what it actually means. As a result, the audience goes away from the experience altered or changed in some way.
Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma (four-panel) manga. In its simplest form it might be illustrated as follows:
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.
NOTE: Sejong Park’s Oscar-nominated short, Birthday Boy, is a case in point.
The Western structure, on the other hand, is a face-off—involving character, theme, setting—in which one element must prevail over another. If one were to re-conceptualise the first comic (above) into the formulistic three-act structure of conventional Western screenstorytelling, it might look like this
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 heroine sans 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…
FOR MORE LIKE THIS VISIT WHERE’S THE DRAMA?
this is utterly fascinating, and is going to take some time for my brain to really get
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