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Is conflict necessary?: Kishōtenketsu and the conflict-less plot

I’ve long been puzzled by the idea of conflict so ubiquitous in the stories we read and write. Why is it necessary? What, precisely, is it giving us? To what extent is the focus on conflict reflecting our worldview and basic human psychology? Is it possible to write a story without conflict?

If you keep reading, there will be Totoro. That’s all I will say for now.

Examining the question itself: why do I even ask it?

This question arises in part from a conversation I have with my husband almost every time we watch a movie. We are sitting on the sofa, credits rolling, both stunned silent by the emotional gravity of what we have just watched. After we shut the laptop and the darkness of the room swells up, one of us will turn to the other and say something like, “I’m so glad our lives aren’t like that.”

It’s a funny thing to say, because we have both been captured by the emotional resonance of the film (we’re very impressionable), and we care for the characters, and we rejoice in the newfound growth that usually results from the conflict. Yet, the conflicts depicted are often so harrowing, so dramatic, that the idea of life like they live is quite simply exhausting.

It’s not as if our lives don’t contain conflict. Indecision about how to approach a student, my ongoing (although so much better than in the past) experience with anxiety and depression, the struggles of living so far away from friends and family–conflict exists aplenty in real life, yet it is of a much quieter, slower, contemplative kind than page-turning fiction seems to request.

I want to write stories that are true to life, at least to the emotional resonances of life, and so I face this question: if the conflicts of life are so different, sometimes even not present at all, what does that mean for our writing? Is conflict, after all, a necessary ingredient in fiction?

Conflict in Western literature

Western ideas of literature identify conflict as fundamental for readers’ engagement and character development. Core theories like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and three-act narrative structures employ conflict as their central elements.

Conflict is exciting!

The idea, in short, is that a story begins with the introduction of a problem, which readers want to see solved. Readers engage with the story and feel for the characters because they want to see the conflict resolved.

Conflict is central to almost every story I can think of, whether we’re talking Shakespeare (lovers’ pangs, usurped dukedoms, mistaken identities) or Shirley Jackson (isn’t it awful to be murdered by your fellow citizens?).

In creative writing classes (the Minnesotan high schoolers to whom I taught CW for four years are no exception), conflict is central to our lessons on plot development. We teach and learn about several different types: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, society, God, etc. We learn how to start them, mix them, develop and climax them. When we read, we work to identify the conflict(s), and the key thing here is that we assume that there must be one. Conflicts must have high stakes, they must lead to character development, they must follow rising action to a climax and resolution–so much of story structure hinges foundationally upon them.

How could a story without conflict exist? What would it look like? Why would we read it?

Counterpoint: Kishōtenketsu

Kishōtenketsu, a compound word of the four elements that constitute this story structure, prescribes an engaging story without Western ideas of conflict.

Put simply, the structure works like this:

  • Ki: exposition, in which a setting and characters are introduced.
  • Shō: development, in which the writer expands upon the Ki.
  • Ten: turn or twist, in which a new, seemingly unrelated or mysterious element appears. We can think of this as the narrative introducing a kind of chaos into an up-to-now orderly world.
  • Ketsu: reconciliation, in which we see how the Ki, Shō, and Ten all fit together, forming a congruous whole.
Si Quan Ong explains this great diagram of Kishōtenketsu here.

I think this is fascinating. The structure bases reader engagement on their desire to see the two dissonant parts of the story reconciled rather than a person vs. something conflict.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” and, from popular film culture, Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Caveats with these two examples: 1) these writers are both Japanese, operating not necessarily within a broader Eastern literary perspective; 2) perhaps more importantly, both of these writers have gained western popularity (and thus have come to my attention), meaning that they are operating successfully in more than one cultural context. The implications of this I’ll discuss in later sections of this post.

“The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women”: Murakami and Kishōtenketsu

This story is weird. It’s the first story in Murakami’s collection The Elephant Vanishes, and I think it has the potential to both enthrall and alienate readers right away.

This book was my first experience with Murakami. I’ll be teaching it this March, and I’m still trying to get my head around it. I think the Kishōtenketsu structure is helping.

Ki: The story opens with an unnamed male narrator alone at home, cooking spaghetti while his wife works. He receives a strange telephone call from a woman who seems familiar, yet he cannot place her. His wife calls next, asking him to go searching for their lost cat, which he has forgotten. The call with the wife shows a vaguely distant relationship where the two use the other to achieve their divergent goals.

Shō: The mysterious woman telephones again. She is frightening, sexually aggressive, and knows personal details about the narrator, yet he still cannot identify who she is.

Ten: The narrator ventures into a back alleyway in search of the cat. The alleyway is bizarre, otherworldly, seemingly incongruous with the bustling life of the streets outside. The narrator meets a young woman, with whom he spends the afternoon in conversation. They watch a particular house’s backyard together, one where the young woman insists she has seen cats visiting.

Ketsu: Unable to find the cat, the narrator returns home. His wife is upset. At the end of the story, the phone begins to ring. No one answers.

The Kishōtenketsu structure actually helps me make sense of this story in a way I couldn’t before. If we consider that the story is not about conflict but instead about the reconciling of disparate elements, then the last scene at least is not totally incomprehensible. In some ways, maybe the thrill of this story is that the Ketsu itself is not complete: Murakami hints at a reconciliation–the mysterious phone calls and the mysterious alleyway where no cat appeared–yet there is no clearly identifiable reason the two go together; they simply do. Readers are left with this feeling of mystery, with nearly all of our questions left unanswered. For some, that complexity is the mark of a good story. For others, it’s maddening!

My Neighbor Totoro: Miyazaki and Kishōtenketsu

I love this film. It is pure magic, pure heart to me. I’ve long found its narrative structure unusual. Perhaps, through Kishōtenketsu, I can understand it more fully.

Ki: Satski, Mae, and their father arrive at their new beautiful house in the rural area near Tokyo. The sisters enjoy exploring the natural environment and getting to know their new neighbors.

Shō: We learn that the girls’ mother is in the hospital with an unknown chronic condition (some viewers have said that this is a reference to radiation poisoning after the atomic bombs at the end of World War II). Satski and Mae miss their mother but find joy in their new home nevertheless.

Ten: The sisters discover a variety of mysterious spirits who inhabit their home and the nearby forest, including the soot sprites and Totoro. Totoro plays an ocarina, loves the sound of raindrops on an umbrella, flies on a spinning top, and makes the trees grow.

Ketsu: Mae runs away from home, seeking her mother at the hospital. The villagers launch a search but are unable to find the little girl. Satski reaches out to Totoro, who takes her in his cat-shaped bus to find her sister. The family is reunited.

The Kishōtenketsu structure clarifies what long confused me about the film: even as I fell in love with its magic, its structure seemed starkly different from other stories I knew. It seemed to focus so much more on worldbuilding, playfulness, imagery–the crisis of Mae’s disappearance occurs only in the final act of the film, long after an uninterested viewer would have stopped watching.

It’s worth pointing out too that the film does not follow Kishōtenketsu prescriptively. The Ki-Shō and Ten develop side by side throughout. As I was writing this blog entry, I had to consider which element really was the Ten–perhaps, after all, it was the mother’s illness. Like any narrative tool, Kishōtenketsu is a broad element of a text: not a scalpel drawing hard lines.

Is Kishōtenketsu actually conflict-free?

But here’s the sticking point: both Murakami’s and Miyazaki’s stories are rife with conflict. The tenuous marriage, the mysterious women, even the missing cat in “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” and the mother’s illness, Mae’s loneliness, and Satski’s struggles to take on new responsibility in My Neighbor Totoro are the same kinds of conflicts Western stories engage with.

Moreover, is the seeming disconnectedness of elements that drives the reader in a Kishōtenketsu story not a type of conflict? In a way, it’s a conflict created in the act of reading itself: readers see the two incongruous elements, want to synthesize them, and the final Ketsu element fulfills this desire.

Is Kishōtenketsu really a story without conflict? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is simply my own western bias strongarming me yet again. Perhaps we might argue that, while conflict certainly exists in the two above examples, it is not responsible for moving the story along as it does in a three-act story. Also, it’s worth remembering that both of these stories have gained popularity in the West: perhaps that was only possible because they incorporated conflict into their structures as a kind of hybrid story model.

Final thoughts; a call to action

Does a story need conflict to engage readers? Does it need conflict to engage western readers? I’m not sure. I do know, however, that Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, three-act structure, and even Kishōtenketsu are not the end of this puzzle.

I hope we as writers can continue to explore stories. Let us not write the same ones again and again, but experiment, push the boundaries, and see what we discover.

What do you think? How does conflict figure in your writing? What about in the stories you read? Is it important? Is it necessary? Is Kishōtenketsu really a conflict-less structure? Is conflict even the right word for what’s happening?

I’m going to try using Kishōtenketsu in an upcoming short story. I’m not sure yet how it will go. I’ll let you know. Thanks for being here. Thanks for reading. Love to you,


See you next time! I post every Sunday.


In the months since originally writing this post (I wrote it at the end of January, 2019), I’ve continued to develop some of its germinating ideas. To follow the train of thought onward, take a look at these posts:

These are the core articles I used to help me develop my discussion above. They go in some marvelous different directions and are worth your read.


19 thoughts on “Is conflict necessary?: Kishōtenketsu and the conflict-less plot

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  1. Interesting concept and that certainly applies to a lot of micro fiction.

    Personally, I enjoy a lot of Japanese dramas/anime in which the stakes are low. Slice-of-life animes for example or mysteries where nobody dies. I wouldn’t say they lacked conflict, but the overall effect isn’t as exhausting.


    1. Thanks for sharing! I hadn’t thought of microfiction, but I think that makes total sense, kind of like a joke-punchline structure. I think it’s interesting to think about how those slice-of-life pieces hook us, and maybe this is part of it.


  2. Mr Kindree I read your post as a beginner reads a page from a pro, but in this case I disagree with your words.
    As I see it, Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu is not conflict-less, the fact is that there are many types of possible conflicts. I don’t have the presumption of making a list here, a plenty of books and sites explain it better. I’m a great Myiazaki fan so I’ll stick to the two stories that are used as a sample: Totoro and Kiki. All the master’s movies have a “rites of passage” structure: the two Sisters in Totoro are living a relocation that brought a though change in their lifes, hardened by their mother illness; Kiki has to go through her initiation, passing from witch-childhood to adulthood and fitting in a social context. The first case is a Person vs Fate conflict, in which the fate finally turns against the Kusakabe family when the mother’s illness getsabruptly worse, and in the following confusion the smaller sister Mei gets lost in the countryside. The second case is even a double conflict: the initial Person vs Society in which Kiki is engaged to find her place in the life of the big city provokes a Person vs Self conflict, that causes Kiki to loose her power. And magic saves the day in both occasions when we tought that all was lost: The moder was ill, the villagers couldn’t find Mei and Tombo seemed to be destined ti fall from the airship… Satsuki calls for Totoro and Kiki finds inside herself force to save Tombo. Even if the protagoinsts struggle duting the “all is lost” moment, both solutions are not of the dramatic type, it’s more of a magic ride towards the light. Both solutions mean the beginning of the end of the conflicts, and the final sequences of both the movies show the “happily ever after”, that is the reconciliation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve studied Kishotenketsu for a while now and have a couple stories of my own that I believe fit the bill.

      I would argue that you’re conflating two particular stories with the entirety of this structure. As is explained in the article above, Kishotenketsu CAN have conflict, but it isn’t the point. And the reason the examples listed are popular in the West is likely because they do contain enough conflict for our (if I’m being honest) brainwashed minds.

      However, if you put either of those (or, more recently, Parasite) up to the Western 3 act structure, you’d be trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. If you sand it down enough, I’m sure you could do it, but again, these are likely popular in the West for a reason.

      I would say it’s fairly easy to determine an “inciting incident” in any of these stories — the moment in the 3 act structure when we understand what these characters are facing. But the next vital 3 act plot point is the turn to act one, which is when the character must embrace the conflict and choose to go forward, all while still clinging to their past reality, thinking it will save them.

      That doesn’t exist here. The characters simply do whatever they’re doing, and we learn more about them, because the conflict — which should always be directly tied to an internal character trait that NEEDS to be changed — is secondary to the world, the characters, the magic, etc.

      You will also note the key difference between especially Kiki and Totoro vs Western stories: There is no character arc. The children are the same in the end as they were in the beginning, they just now have their mother back. Kiki is the same in the end as the beginning, but she’s now accepted by the town. All the changes were purely external, and always a result of combining what happened in the first two acts with what happened in the third, so they readjust into the fourth. But a readjustment isn’t a character arc.

      That’s the key. That’s the magic. You can add all kinds of things from Western culture into it, if that’s so important to you, but my question to you would be — why?


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