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.

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Hey, Congressman Palazzo: The EPA Does More to Fight Crime than the FBI!

This is called the “Lead Hypothesis,” and research had found the same correlations not only across the US, putting Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory to rest, but across the world, putting Freakonomics’ “Roe v. Wade/abortion solves crime” theory down.

Kevin Drum’s Mother Jones article gathers the evidence in one really readable piece, and the evidence is strong.

It wasn’t mass incarceration or abortion that stopped America’s thirty year crime wave. It was banning lead paint and gas.


And now, my congressman, Steve Palazzo, and a handful of other corporate reps want to eliminate the E.P.A., which would almost certainly create a “race to the bottom” as states compete to bring in businesses by giving exemptions to environmental protections, or gutting them entirely.

If you like the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, you’ll love the new, EPA-less America.

Four Types of Violence, Part Four: Self-Defense

What I’ve said so far is pretty non-controversial.  Nobody, religious or not, really thinks it’s okay to kill someone for the insurance money, or hunt down and kill someone instead of pressing charges at the police station, or forcibly convert someone (at least nominally) to your religion or point of view.

It’s possible to get so caught up in your nation’s patriotism and propaganda that you miss the fact that a war is primarily about conquest (securing national interests, or, to be cynical, “oil”) as opposed to the official line, which says it’s vital to defend us all from harm.

That’s a failure of discernment, and a dangerous one, but it doesn’t mean people who feel that way actually believe wars of conquest are okay.  A few might, but most do not.

The last type of violence, however, gets the juices flowing.  It’s the difference between just war and pacifism, between the Baptists and Anabaptists.

Self-Defense:  Defensive violence sees an attack in progress and steps in to stop it.

  • It could be a person breaking into a house during the middle of the night, when it’s obvious the owners are home.
  • It could be an invasion by another country.
  • It could be a genocide that merits a peacekeeping action by the U.N. or a coalition of nations.
  • It could be a woman accosted on a city street.
  • It could be World War II.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Do you raise your hand to fight back, or do you stand on principle and allow yourself (or a third party, such as a crime victim or ethnic group facing genocide) to be slaughtered?

It sounds like an easy answer, but the truth is, it’s not.  Jesus talks a lot about peacemakers, about non-aggression, as does the apostle Paul.

And the truth is, just about any war can be justified as a defensive action if the government works hard enough to manipulate public sentiment (or even presents misinformation, such as in the Gulf of Tonkin or U.S.S. Maine incidents).

If “Just War Theory” doesn’t effectively prevent (or at least condemn) any of the many wars the U.S. keeps finding itself in, what it’s good for? 

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.