Kishotenketsu, Story Structure, and the Nonviolent Imagination 


What is Kishotenketsu? It’s a four-act story structure characterized by a twist in the middle. 

As you can guess by the name, it’s Asian, originating in Chinese poetry and developing in many forms of Japanese poetry and storytelling.  It’s the story structure Studio Ghibli often uses in its films. 

But why should we care? Because unlike western story structures, Kishotenketsu is not rooted in conflict, and doesn’t rely on conflict to maintain interest. 

That isn’t to say that it excludes conflict, but that it doesn’t require it like the typical western storytelling. 

I’m not alone in my belief that we in the western world are primed (through a “mean world” viewpoint) to support war and nationalism by the stories we hear  from early childhood on. 

Western storytelling’s three-act structure is pure conflict: 1) introduce conflict 2) escalate conflict, 3) resolve conflict. And when conflict is resolved, at least somebody is going to lose, to suffer some kind of harm, be it physical or emotional or social.

Traditional three-act storytelling comes down to winners and losers, and I think we can do better. 

Kishotenketsu is a tool to help me do better, as a writer, yes, but also as a person in general. My nonviolent imagination needs nourishing,  just like everyone else’s. 

Kishotenketsu helps me imagine story structures that aren’t just boring navel gazing,  stories where things happen, even action things, but where the very heart of the story isn’t a struggle or conflict.

It’s also helps me imagine win-win situations, situations where conflict can be averted by reconciliation of opposites.

And it’s helped me learn to write short stories, which is something that completely escaped my understanding before 2017.

I think that’s enough for now: I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Rekindling the Creative Spark: An Experiment Upon Myself, Part 2: Proposed Treatment


Yesterday,  I detailed a problem not only with my writing, but with my imagination overall: 

I’ve allowed the pump to run dry,  so even if the well has water,  and even if I go up the hill to fetch a pail, I’ll have to do some serious priming to get anything drinkable. 

And if I’m not careful, I might fall down and break my crown 🙂

So what am I going to do? Metaphor aside, an imagination isn’t like a water pump or car engine. 

Well, I  have a few ideas: 

Listen to music that fired my imagination the past, musicians whose lyrics were poetic,  with imagery,  metaphor,  and complexity. 

  • Sarah McLachlan
  • Bob Dylan
  • Peter, Paul, and Mary 
  • Wyclef Jean 
  • Sting
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Rosanne Cash
  • Maria McKee
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Sarah Brightman
  • 10000 Maniacs
  • Beth Patterson
  • Rich Mullins
  • Jennifer Knapp
  • U2
  • And many others 

Seek out more music by musicians who’ve caught my attemtion once or a few times in the past:

  • Amanda Abizaid 
  • Amanda Ghost
  • Martin Page 
  • Nina Gordon
  • Charlotte Sometimes
  • The Pogues
  • Shakira
  • Sara Evans
  • Annie Lennox, both solo and in that band my auto-correct won’t let me write. 
  • even Guns N Roses

(It occurs to me how white this list is,  with the exception of Wyclef and Shakira. Maybe I should look in some new directions as I seek out new material)

    Seek out new music that may have the same qualities.  This is harder,  because it involves spring through a bushel and a half of disposable pablum. The old stuff comes pre-sorted.

    But this is not just about music. I need to read actual poetry. I also need to constantly read fiction, fiction with imagery, fiction that plays with language. 

    Perhaps most importantly, I need to take better care of myself. I need to get enough sleep. I need to get more exercise,  and I need to eat less refined sugar. 

    I need to clear space my mind. This isn’t about excusing myself from doing the things that need to be done. 

    It’s about clearing out the clutter, watching less tv, wasting less time on Facebook, Slate, etc. 

    It’s about doing one thing at a time. Multitasking isn’t just inefficient; it’s frustrating and depressing, too. 

    It’s about regeneration. But mostly about getting enough sleep. 

    I hypothesize that two weeks of adequate sleep, limited attention-splitting time wasters, and reaquaintance with nearly forgotten favorites will have back to my old self. 

    I’ll collect data and get back to you with the results. 

    Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

    Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

    Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

    So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

    This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

    At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

    But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

    When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

    So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?

    The Violent Imagination 1: Self-Justification and Police Dramas

    I really like Major Crimes, TNT’s The Closer spin-off featuring Mary McConnell as Captain Sharon Raydor, who’s replacing Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgewick) as the leader of a Los Angeles police unit tasked with investigating murders, kidnappings, and other (drum roll please) major crimes.  I’m actually watching the show now, like I never watched The Closer.

    And I think I know why.

    Under Deputy Chief Johnson’s watch, there was a lot of “we’ll bend and break the rules, but it’s okay, because we’re the good guys.”  This escalated to the point of setting a gangbanger up to get killed because they thought he got too sweet a deal for turning state’s evidence.  The entire unit, Chief Johnson included, were effectively murderers.  How do we sympathize with that?  How does the use of police authority and resources for extra-judicial killings not disgust us?

    The same kind of self-justifying evil leads to hatred from the pulpit, protests at gay soldiers’ funerals, pepper spraying peaceful protesters, beating suspects even after they’re handcuffed, indefinite detention, and waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay.

    It leads a nation to declare its “manifest destiny” to spread “Christian civilization” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, no matter how many “savages” they have to murder along the way.  It leads a bunch of good religious folk to yell “we have no king but Caesar” and “crucify him,” until Pontius Pilate washes his hands of it all.

    It’s a vile and insidious mindset, one that steals our empathy and threatens our very humanity.  Whenever somebody truly believes their side is “the good guys,” everyone outside that group had better beware. Self-righteousness, self-justification, self-idolization … they lead to cruelty, arrogance, and suffering.

    This is utterly incompatible with Jesus’ teaching, yet it rings from pulpits and across the Internet.  “Slap the gay out of your children,” one preacher says from the pulpit.  “Build a fence and lock the gays away,”  another preaches.  Sure, when it gets that outrageous, people push back, but every day I see anti-gay rhetoric across Facebook and the web.  Quieter, sure, less extreme, but possibly uglier in its pervasiveness.

    It doesn’t matter if being gay is a sin.  As Christians, we are called to be better than the world, to love our neighbors and our enemies [Matthew 5:44]   Instead we wallow in the spirit of the worst of the Pharisees, so certain that we’re right that we don’t even try to love our neighbors.

    And I can’t stand to see it glorified on cop shows.  They stack the premises by making sure we, the audience, know the suspects are guilty.  They manipulate our emotions, creating the false dichotomy between “we break the rules to protect you and enforce justice” and “if we followed the rules, the bad guys would go free.”

    The problem is in the real world, you don’t know who’s guilty and who’s innocent, not 100%, not ever.  Those rules are there to protect the innocent from false accusation, coerced confession, and brutality AND to protect the powerful from becoming corrupt, lazy, self-justifying tools of oppression.  And that’s exactly what the Major Crimes unit was under Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson.

    But Captain Raydor is the very opposite.  Originally introduced in The Closer as a painfully by-the-book foil for the loose cannon unit, she’s not their boss.  And she’s made it her mission to make them obey the rules, come hell or high water.  She’s just as tough and strong-willed as Brenda was, but she serves the law, rather than acting like a law unto herself.  And that’s something I can admire.