designer, writer, indoor enthusiast

The Possibility of Plot Without Conflict


I don’t recall how I first discovered Kishōtenketsu, but I’ve been fascinated by it for years, long before my recent decision to make writing a creative habit.

Kishōtenketsu is a 4-act narrative and rhetorical structure developed in China, Korea, and Japan. In English, it’s commonly described as “plot without conflict,” which is what attracted me to the form. I’m no expert on the subject, but wanted to gather my thoughts and the resources I’ve found, to serve as a reference for myself and anyone else who might be interested.

What is Kishōtenketsu?

In contrast to Western story arcs, the kishōtenketsu story structure does not use conflict to generate interest. Instead, it uses exposition and contrast.

Kishōtenketsu is named for its four acts:

  1. Ki – Introduction: Introduces the basic elements of the story, including characters, setting, themes, etc. 
  2. Shō – Development: Goes deeper into the story elements, we learn more about the characters and setting, and themes are developed in more depth. No major changes or plot twists are introduced.
  3. Ten – Twist or Complication: The story takes an unexpected turn, sort of a structural non-sequitur. 
  4. Ketsu – Conclusion: Resolves or explains the contrast between the first two acts and the surprising third, tying them all together into a coherent whole.

It’s not that conflict doesn’t occur in kishōtenketsu stories, but conflict isn’t built into the main structure of the story — it’s just part of the overall adventure. In place of conflict, people and place take center stage, and reader interest is maintained by the desire to understand how the surprise in the third act relates to the rest of the story. 

Apparently, many Chinese and Japanese novels and films combine multiple kishōtenketsu episodes together into a single story. It seems sort of fractal in that way. 


One of my favorite examples of the form is a compact Japanese poem that’s featured on the Wikipedia entry for kishōtenketsu. Each of the four lines represents the four elements in the narrative form.

Sanyō Rai
Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka. 
The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen. 
Throughout history, daimyōs killed the enemy with bows and arrows. 
The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes. 

This is such a great illustration of the form in practice. The first line introduces the characters and setting, the second gives a bit more info, the third is a total switch to a seemingly unrelated observation, and then —bam— the fourth line creates the analogy and brings the whole poem together.

Disappointingly, I’ve had a hard time finding many English language examples, but here’s what I’ve been able to dig up.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
I’m only a quarter of the way through this book. While I agree it features a narrative structure that does not feature conflict at its core, I’m not sure it strictly follows the kishōtenketsu structure. Still super happy to see an alternative narrative structure in the literary spotlight.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I’m tired of apocalyptic literature, so I haven’t been able to bring myself to read this one yet. I know the apocalypse isn’t the main focus of the story, but still. This one is often cited as a prime example of kishōtenketsu, plus it’s gotten rave reviews, so I will tackle it at some point.


People often cite the Studio Ghibli movies as examples, so I’m listing the ones I’m fairly confident follow the structure.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
I watched the English language version, with Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman. It was great! It’s a wonderful example of how character and world building can take center stage, and how a series of small episodes or adventures can keep the story moving forward.

My Neighbor Totoro
I haven’t seen this one yet, but it’s in my queue. Folks who cite this as a good example of kishōtenketsu point out that, even though there is some tragedy and conflict in the story, it’s not the central focus of the story. 

Video Games

Yup, video games! I’ve seen a few references to the fact that Nintendo game designers deliberately use the kishōtenketsu structure in some of their games. I have thoughts about doing this for a custom Minecraft-based game someday.

Nintendo’s “kishōtenketsu” Mario level design philosophy explained by Tom Philips at Eurogamer

Short Stories

None? I’d like to see an author use the form in short stories, but I haven’t found any compelling attempts yet. I’m bummed about that, because I want to try writing some kishōtenketsu-formatted short stories, and would love to study some well-executed examples.

Why I’m Excited by Kishōtenketsu

For me, Kishōtenketsu represents a hopeful alternative to the nearly ubiquitous conflict-based structures of Western narratives. Domination is built into the very structure of Western storytelling. Whether an external antagonist or an internal obstacle of the protagonist, there is always a foe that must be faced, dominated, and ultimately defeated. What a dark view of the world! When domination is built into the very fabric of every story we tell, it’s no wonder we have an ongoing legacy of colonialism and exploitation.

I’m not condemning all Western literature. Obviously there’s a wealth of amazing stories that have been written in the standard conflict-based mode, and I continue to read and enjoy them. But I was thrilled to discover there are alternative storytelling structures where conflict and domination is not the central focus. As a new writer, I’m excited to explore the kishōtenketsu structure in my own work, to do my tiny little bit to de-center conflict and replace it with surprise and wonder.

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