I’ve strictly been ignoring the practice of blogging because I survived my LiveJournal phase and part of me shudders and the idea of returning to that era (lots of emo poetry about girls with names starting with the letter J). But, I am a writer — despite what the IRS claims.
This is about a story I wrote recently.
It started with a contest for spooky-themed flash fiction. I’d been a reader and fan of this particular site and my friend had recently gotten published there, making the idea of selling a piece to them all the more shiny. I want my story to be among good company.
So, I flip through a horror prompt book, find one that tickles my spooky bone (my left knee cap) and get to work. After a couple of days, I’ve finished a draft and sent it off to my writer friends for critique. A couple of days later, email notifications start popping up in my inbox. So-and-so has commented on your story.
When I open the first email, the stab of fear and shame that normally pierces my gut when reading feedback wasn’t there. I’d been through this process enough that this time it didn’t gut me. That was huge. But I still was days away from the detachment necessary to read all the comments. I was still too close to the material, too invested. So, I waited.
A couple of days later, I sit down at my desk, tea at the ready, and jump into the weeds.
Here’s the thing about my writing. I usually get feedback that’ll say “this part was funny” or “this scene was so cool,” but when it comes to the actual structure of the story… [TIRE SCREECHING SFX]. That’s my weakness as a writer. My overall handling of story. Not so bad, right?
What salts my wounds, however, is that I’ve worked as a developmental editor. I’m always reading stories and offering feedback, studying some new writing book, attending workshops, classes, even teaching some. When I’m reading someone else’s work, I can see the cracks like CT scan. But when it comes to my own, I’m sitting there with a propeller hat and an oversized lollipop, grinning from ear to ear. Innocent and clueless.
My writing teacher says that’s how it goes, that that’s why we have other people read out work.
So, I do.
But when I get that feedback and I start revising and editing and cutting and connecting, I get discouraged. And that’s what happened with this story. I sat there, combing through comments highlighting my weak characters, my flabby opening, my random middle, my decent ending, and I threw my hands up.
“It’s too broken,” I said to myself. “I’ll just write something else.”
But I didn’t close the Chrome tab with my story. I sat there, staring at my screen. It came to me pretty quickly. I was afraid to try. The idea of scrapping the core of my story, rewriting it based on reader feedback felt like a mountain, and I had to climb with these weak little nerd arms. But what if I just focused on one of the comments? The one about an erroneous scene? What would happen then?
By the time I finished gutting that scene and rewriting it with theme and tone in mind, using a character that would come up later in a reveal instead of a random one, I realized something. I was clinging to the structure of my original story because staying the same was easier than changing. I wasn’t seeing what the story could be.
I worked on it for seven hours that day. Wrapping up by 2 AM, I collapsed into bed where I read A Crown of Swords (shout out to the WoT fans) for another hour before going to sleep. The next morning I had new comment notifications in my inbox. One of my friends had only gotten to reading my story that morning. The new version.
They loved it.
Aside from a few minor details, they gave me the thumbs up for final polish and submission. So, I did.
I’ve heard many authors and books on writing say that the thing that makes a writer a writer is pushing through the doubt to finish the work. Intellectually, I understood. But situations like this remind me how it feels facing down a mountain and climbing it step by step, word by word.
What does a Studio Ghibli classic about a young witch in the big city and an Academy Award-winning film about a sober rock drummer losing his hearing have in common? More than you’d think.
Kiki’s Delivery Service and Sound of Metal both use the Japanese 4-Act structure—also known as Kishōtenketsu—to tell their stories. In this post, I’ll break down this structure and how it’s used by both films.
Thank you to my friend and talented comedian/podcaster Anna Valenzuela for pointing out this connection to me (check her out at @Annavisfun on Twitter).
Grab a broom and turn up your speakers to eleven. We’re going for a Metal AF ride.
But first, what is Kishōtenketsu?
KISHŌTENKETSU: THE FOUR-ACT NARRATIVE (OR, WHERE’S THE BEEF?)
Kishōtenketsu is a four-act narrative structure developed from Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditions, originating in Chinese poetry. Beyond poetry and storytelling, this structure is used in arguments, articles, and music. It’s also known as the plot without conflict.
The word Kishōtenketsu itself comprises the names of the four different acts within the structure. Let’s break it down:
Ki, or Introduction: Like most plot structures, this act introduces the story’s characters and settings.
Shō, or Development: This act builds upon the characters and settings introduced in the first act. The goal isn’t to drive the plot forward but to flesh out our understanding of the world and the story’s themes.
Ten, or Twist/Change: This ain’t your M. Night Shyamalan money maker. Instead of a shocking twist, the Ten is closer to a change or shift in the story. It’s often unexpected (including POV shifts and time-skips) and is usually unrelated to the elements introduced in the first two acts.
Ketsu, or Conclusion: Get ready to go Fullmetal because this is where we do a little alchemy. Ketsu takes everything in the first three acts and synthesizes them into a conclusion. Note, the goal of this act is to successfully combine the various elements from the different acts of the story into a finale. So it’s not necessarily a resolution, but it is a conclusion.
Here’s a quick example attributed to Japanese poet, Sanyō Rai:
Ki – Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
Shō – The elder daughter is sixteen, and the younger one is fourteen.
Ten – Throughout history, daimyōs killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
Ketsu – The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.
In the Ki, we’re introduced to the Itoya sisters and where they live—Osaka. In the Shō, we learn a little more about them. One’s sixteen and the other’s fourteen. Ten twists or shifts the narrative by delivering a quick history lesson. Daimyōs killed their enemies with bows and arrows. Sick. The Ketsu pulls some alchemy and synthesizes a finale. These sisters kill with their eyes. What does that even mean? Do they shoot arrows from their eyes? Or are they just really good at staring people down with icy glares? I prefer the former.
A young witch, on her mandatory year of independent life, finds fitting into a new community difficult while she supports herself by running an air courier service.
There’s not much more to the story than that. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. On to the breakdown:
Ki – In the first act, we’re introduced to the Kiki-verse. Kiki is from a small village and flies off on her broomstick to a big coastal city for her witch training. She meets a friendly woman who runs a bakery. The woman lets Kiki stay in a spare room.
Kiki feels homesick. She’s definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Shō – To make a living, Kiki starts a delivery service. Through her service, she meets lots of new people. Some of them are chill, some of them not very chill. One of them is flyboy Tombo. He crushes on Kiki as hard as he crushes on all things aviation.
Kiki starts to doubt whether a witch can make it in a big city.
Ten – Tombo gets tickets to ride a giant dirigible that’s visiting their city. He’s essentially the Kiki-verse’s Wright brother (or maybe Da Vinci). He loves flying so much, he’s even building his own bike-powered airplane. Unfortunately, when he finally gets to the event, the dirigible ends up accidentally drifting across town with Tombo dangling underneath for dear life. But help is on the way.
Tombo’s in trouble, and Kiki comes to the rescue.
Ketsu – Kiki has been accepted as a part of the city. She’s good friends with Tombo. Her delivery service is giving Fedex a run for its money, and she’s found a sense of fulfillment in her life.
All is well in the Kiki-verse.
If you’ve seen the movie, you may have noticed that I left something out. At the end of Act II (Shō), Kiki becomes depressed and discovers she has lost her powers (ability to fly). This carries us into Act III (Ten), where Kiki’s arc focuses on her journey of self-discovery with Ursula, the artist. Kiki leaves Ursula with an understanding that her powers will probably return when she finds a reason for them to return. That reason comes in the form of rescuing Tombo.
Okay. Now grab your drum sticks. It’s time to get Metal AF.
Sound of Metal is a 2019 film directed by Darius Marder. The IMDB synopsis reads:
A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, this synopsis encompasses most of the movie’s content. Let’s jump into the breakdown.
Ki – In the first act, we’re introduced to Ruben. He performs in an experimental metal duo with his singer-girlfriend Lou. They live in an RV and tour the United States performing gigs. Suddenly, Ruben begins to lose his hearing. While cochlear implants may help, Ruben can’t afford them.
Ruben feels distraught over his hearing loss but continues to perform.
Shō – To stay sober and learn how to live with his disability, Ruben joins a rural shelter for Deaf recovering addicts run by a sobriety Jedi named Joe. Joe tries to teach Ruben the ways of stillness (serenity). While at the shelter, Ruben meets lots of new people, all of them super chill (seriously, there’s no “villain” in this story). Having settled into his new life, Joe invites Ruben to stay on as an employee of the shelter.
Ruben starts to doubt whether he can get his old life back.
Ten – Lou is living her best life in Paris. She’s got a new hairdo, is playing shows as a solo project, and has even reconnected with her (unconfirmed emotionally abusive but definitely gives emotionally abusive vibes) father. Things seem to look bright for Lou. But here comes Ruben.
Lou’s settling into her new life. Ruben shows up unexpectedly.
Ketsu – Ruben has accepted that his relationship with Lou is over. While Ruben was desperately trying to get back to his past, Lou has moved on to her future. Sitting alone in a park, Ruben removes his cochlear processors and sits in silence. He’s finally found a moment of stillness.
A bittersweet symphony for Ruben.
As with Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s also a part I left out of this breakdown. That being Ruben’s cochlear implant surgery, which comes during Act III (Ten). Thematically, it feels like a reversal of Kiki’s loss of flight. Ruben regains his hearing but is disappointed by the distorted, metallic quality of the sound. Ruben’s surgery leads to his expulsion from the shelter—since it’s founded on the belief that Deafness is not a handicap—and this sets him on his journey to reunite with Lou in Paris.
BROOMS AND DRUMSTICKS
In Western media, plot commonly revolves around conflict. Two characters/ideologies enter the story—only one leaves. Yet, Kishōtenketsu shows us that plot doesn’t necessarily hinge on conflict.
That’s not to say there isn’t conflict in either film. On the contrary, conflict exists at the scene level for both. In Kiki’s case, she faces off against crows, a prickly artist in the woods, and a runaway dirigible. For Ruben, he has to negotiate with buyers for his RV, navigate the world of medical billing, and face off against his girlfriend’s terminally-French father.
But neither of the film’s plots are built around conflict. There’s no wicked witch out to ruin Kiki’s life in the big city. No bitter delivery man set on bringing Kiki down because he’s worried about the competition. There’s no rival band looking to take advantage of Ruben’s sudden hearing loss. The only person stopping Ruben from moving forward in his life is Ruben.
The three-act plot is inherently confrontational. It relies on one thing winning out over another; this isn’t a judgment. Some of the best stories are built on this structure (shoutout to the epic fantasies). But Kishōtenketsu tells different stories. These are stories that focus on understanding as opposed to victory.
That’s why Kiki’s Delivery Service and Sound of Metal are, at their core, trying to tell the same story. Kiki needs to slow down to find her purpose. Ruben needs to embrace the silence to find stillness. And they find it.
I’m willing to bet director Darius Marder is a fan of Miyazaki. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
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Black Clover is an ongoing battle-Shonen manga/anime by Tabata Yuki and chronicles the adventures of a Chibi-Chad named Asta, a young peasant born without any magical power in a world where magic is everything.
Shonen Jump has serialized Black Clover since February 2015, which is around the time I sorely needed a new anime to fill the void that Naruto’s finale and Bleach’s demise left behind. I’d managed to catch up to One Piece in a month-long binge, leaving me desperate for anything about big dreams and the power of friendship.
Initially, my go-to anime vloggers declared the Black Clover anime nearly unwatchable due to Asta’s constant screaming. After watching the first episode, I seriously worried about the vocal health of Asta’s voice actor but continued watching. There was something about the two twin protagonists, Asta and Yuno, competing for the same goal right from the start that felt warmly familiar (reminiscent of Gon and Killua’s dynamic from Hunter x Hunter) and the magic system was fun and flexible. I was in.
As Asta sets off on his adventure to become the Wizard King (Fantasy Hokage), he meets one of his first senpai (junior mentors), the fiery delinquent Magna Swing, a fellow peasant and member of the Black Bulls magic knight squad. He’s set up as a likable but average-strength character whose initial role was that of Asta’s personal Uber (flying on brooms requires magic and Asta has none) and goes on to have a couple of badass moments as the heroes face off against each arc’s big bad. All in all, pretty standard character progression for a battle-Shonen anime.
And then these lunatics show up.
The introduction of the Spade Kingdom and the Dark Triad initiated one of my favorite anime tropes: the time skip. Our beloved squad of delinquents, the Black Bulls, go off to train so they can hope to face off against the Spade Kingdom Arc’s big bads: Vanica, Dante, and Zenon. These are all extremely powerful mages whose strength is on par with devils, the supernatural villains pulling the strings behind the scenes, and they themselves are possessed by three of the highest-ranking devils from the underworld. To power scale this properly, it took a post-time skip Asta and a full power captain Yami, the ultimate Sigma Chad and my personal hero, to take down Dante (pictured above, center).
What’s important to note here is that prior to Dante’s appearance, all of the Black Bulls embarked on some sort of training, including Magna, to face off against these antagonists. Despite being a peasant with low mana, Magna was able to tap into a power that was considered beyond his reach. Was it by breaking through his limits or conveniently powering up to the level of the story’s protagonists?
Magna felt the need to get stronger at all costs in order to keep up with his personal rival, Luck Volta, and to avoid being a burden to the rest of the Black Bulls (classic anime motivation). He was willing to do anything to get stronger, even study. It was revealed to readers in a flashback that Magna began his magical education by begging the Black Bull’s resident leather daddy, Zora, for tutelage during the time skip.
Magna’s first lesson was that that the world wasn’t fair. Monsters existed and he, a peasant, could never hope to overpower these walking demigods with brute force alone. Instead, he’d have to innovate. And innovate he does!
Black Clover writer Tabata Yuki created a fluid, fun, and functional solution for Magna’s problem. Instead of getting a Deus-Ex Powerup, Magna, through the magic of studying and hard work, learned to layer small little magical runes, which only those with low mana would ever think to do, over the course of months, to create a single-use spell designed specifically to counter one of the Dark Triad. What was the spell? Soul Chain Deathmatch aka Magical Socialism. Magna’s spell forced Dante to split his magic evenly with Magna, leveling the playing field for the remainder of the fight. The level of satisfaction that I got from seeing Magna, former magical Uber driver, pound the arc’s big bad, the one that pushed Asta and Yami beyond their limits, a villain that embodies the magical inequality of the Black Clover world was, muah! Chef’s kiss.
In order to understand the gravity of this creative choice, we’re going to need to revisit a classic character from one of the most popular anime in history, Tien Shinhan from Dragon Ball.
Why Tien Sucks
Within the Dragon Ball universe, Tien is a character that spends most of his time training in the mountains. He has his own dojo and was a self-declared rival to Goku. Humble beginnings. What happened?
Tien didn’t always suck. In Dragon Ball, he was pretty dope, actually. Tien and Goku were caught in between their respective masters’ personal squabbles, the Crane school versus the Turtle school. This pitted Tien against Goku as his fated rival. Tien was the first character to introduce flying to the series, just like Magna, and served as a vehicle to establish the scope of the world. He went from cold-hearted assassin to trusted ally and reliable member of Goku’s crew, classic enemies to friends.
But Dragon Ball Z changed everything.
It was clear that, based on Tien’s lack of screen time or powerups, Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama had no further character development planned for Tien Shinhan. It is completely unreasonable to expect Tien to take on any of the Dragon Ball Z arc villains because there was no effort put to make it even possible. Tien learned, in a very real way, that he was not the hero of his story.
The Magical 1%
On an episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast, writer Max Gladstone talks about worldbuilding and how many genre settings seem to revolve around whatever gifted, magical, or otherwise special sort of people heroes and villains happen to be–aka The Magical 1%. Another example is the Jedi order, for instance. Consider, then, the plight of the “regular” people, like Han Solo or Tien Shinhan. It can be scary existing in a world where you’re not one of the seven people in the universe who has a destiny or demigod-level strength. The world suddenly becomes a horror setting where beings of boundless power go around erasing people and blowing up mountains over personal squabbles.
How does a writer work within these tropes in ways that make stories better, that serve their existing characters? The solution is to get creative.
Keeping your plot promises, pushing your magic systems, and including story arcs for your side characters are all ways to strengthen your world-building. Really, you’re treating your world-building as a character, expanding the depth of your world as the story progresses. This steady development allows the space for your side characters to grow enough to even impact the main plot.
Most people consider Samwise the everyman of the Lord of The Rings, the character we could all relate to. He was a gardener with a crush on a local gal who got swept up in some bigtime trouble. What if Samwise, through the course of the story, worked on mastering ancient Elven magic that was fueled by the power of empathy and loyalty? Magic powerful enough to sock Sauron in the fiery face and put him down for good? It could have lead to a moment like this: