We learn so much by sharing our stories. What if we could learn to be conflict free?
When I was an undergrad at New York University, I took a course called “Japanese Literature in Translation.” We read book after book by celebrated Japanese authors that had one thing in common: each story went and went and then just stopped. It was frustrating to us young Western readers– especially those of us like me, who were film and journalism students expecting the five Ws and the three acts to be fully revealed– to reach the end of a book and be left wondering, When is it was going to happen? When would the conflict climax and be resolved?
We would all turn to venerable teacher and say, “And?” He’d bobble his head, shrug and say, “And what? I don’t know. You’re supposed to tell me!” As if it were a philosophical exercise to achieve our enlightenment. It was maddening, and unsatisfying, and yet…. After the class ended, I was surprised to find that the stories stayed with me, an intriguing knot I wanted to untie. But I couldn’t find a single resource on the subject. Only the internet and a nagging years’ long curiosity would help me do that.
In 2017, I embarked on writing my newest novel, The Blossom and the Firefly. It’s an historical young adult novel set in World War II Japan that tells the twinned stories of a seventeen-year-old musician turned tōkko, or kamikaze, pilot, and a fifteen-year-old girl whose job it is to serve him his final meals and wave goodbye as he embarks on his mission. I knew I wanted to pay homage to those stories that had lingered in the back of my mind for so long, particularly Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain.
I pulled out my old copies and read them until the covers literally fell off of one of them. (It was old and had lived a good life.) I bought a new copy, and as I had done back in the day, I once again searched for books on Japanese story structure to help unlock that age old mystery for me. And found nothing. (If that’s changed, and you can recommend a book, I’d be glad to read it!) So then I Goggled it. I know what you’re thinking. It sounds so easy now, like slicing through the Gordian knot, but Google had not been an option once upon a time.
Lucky for me, I hit pay dirt in the form of the good folks at Still Eating Oranges, who had puzzled over the structure question, too. As their website says, ” Our viral article “The significance of plot without conflict” (2012) helped to popularize the concept of kishōtenketsu in the West, and has since been translated into Spanish, taught in a high-school class, cited in two books and shared by Brian Michael Bendis, Leah Libresco, Kelly Sue DeConnick and many more.” I am part of the many more.
The answer was something called kishōtenketsu. And it unlocked everything.
Japanese story structure is conflict free. In a Japanese novel like Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, you get to know these characters– a frustrated man reaching his old age, his expectations of family, the discovery of betrayal— beautifully portrayed with a slow build up to… something. But also, nothing. I kept waiting for a confrontation, for a blow up, and the ensuing denouement, or resolution. Instead, the story rather quietly unfolds and then rests. The end. It’s compelling, and potentially baffling (kind of like life).
The same sense of waiting hangs over his pre-WWII novel, Snow Mountain in which, while there is a climax-seeming scene, it doesn’t resolve so much as end. You get on a train, and you leave. That’s how several Japanese novels seemed to end in my college days. If only my teacher had ever mentioned kishōtenketsu!
The name is actually the structure, which is broken into four parts, or act:
- Ki – the introduction
- Shō – Development
- Ten – Twist
- Ketsu – Conclusion
Drawn, it looks like a mountain. Ki is the introduction to your characters and their world—the old man and his family, in The Sound of the Mountain. Shō is a deeper understanding of Ki—like getting to know the man’s situation better. Ten is a twist or complication. One example I read, of a poem in this form, depicted Ten as a non sequitur, the way the last line of haiku is meant to be a revelation. But in this format, Ketsu is the revelation. It’s a look at Ki and Shō in light of the twist. This is where the revelation lands, the “ah” moment. Not “ah ha!” as in an explicit “now we’re getting somewhere!” but more of a meditative resolution. A denouement without a climax.
Since working with this structure, I’ve seen it used beautifully in four panel comics for children, as a way of playing in a world with characters you like, without the need for combat or villains. And of course, Kawabata was a master at it. He was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel for Literature, “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” As it turns out, kishōtenketsu is a mindset. There are classes for Japanese business men to un-teach them the circumspection kishōtenketsu when dealing with Westerners, who tend to be more direct. (Or more in need of conflict and climax?)
Duly armed, I decide to apply this to my new book. We meet my protagonists. We get a deeper understanding of their lives. There is a twist. And then we see their lives through the lens of this twist.
It seemed to work. I felt pretty clever. And then I imagined a bunch of young American readers picking up the book and screaming– And? What happens next?!!! Now, I’m not afraid to let my readers fill in some of the blanks for themselves. I don’t always believe in a tying up everything neatly. Life is uncertain. Let the imagination run a little further than the page. But I remembered my own frustration with kishōtenketsu. I decided I needed to meet the reader halfway.
I also realized my twist was too small and meaningful enough, and there was an abruptness that just didn’t work. So I revisited my outline, adjusted some things, heightened the tension between two characters, and worked toward a resolution of that tension. Tension instead of conflict. A subtle difference, that unfolds into one of my favorite moments in the book.
I also had an eleventh-hour epiphany that rewrote my twist into a juicy burst of “more,” a new set of chapters that go beyond non-sequitur to a deeper resonance, like a note hanging in the air at the end of a musical movement. And then it lands in a place that feels right. To me, at least.
I started with a goal of writing a story of Japan in a way that honors Japanese storytelling, then worked to make that structure satisfying to Western readers. So far, the reviews have been kind. But it’s the reader who makes the ultimate judgment. I hope it inspires them to read the books that affected me so many years ago, and for the writers to try different story traditions to illuminate their own work. We learn so much by sharing our stories. What if we could learn to be conflict free?
The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
Translucent Tree by Nobuto Takagai
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
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