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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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,
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:
- Mystery, as opposed to conflict, as a the driving force behind reader engagement.
- The tension between exaggerated conflict to dramatize an issue and the detailed exploration of small, more everyday conflicts.
- The most recent post I’ve done on conflict (as of January, 2020), a somewhat meandering rebuttal of the mandate for a primary driving conflict in fiction.
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.
- http://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict – this post is what really got me exploring this story structure. The author gives some great examples and does a great job of contrasting Kishōtenketsu with the three-act story structure common in western writing.
- https://mythicscribes.com/plot/kishotenketsu/ – some great explanation of the concept with an example from another Miyazaki film, Kiki’s Delivery Service. This post also contains helpful advice about how to write a Kishōtenketsu story yourself.
- https://www.katekrake.com/forwriters/kishotenketsu-the-four-act-narrative-or-the-plot-without-conflict/ – this post discusses the catch-22 of how western audiences might fail to engage with Kishōtenketsu stories because of the very conflict-focused culture they read in.