Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu- a Japanese way to structure your stories.

A while back, I blogged about a Japanese story structure called Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (Kee-Show-Ten-Ketsoo), which is normally presented as an alternative story structure which doesn’t revolve around conflict. I found the whole idea fascinating, especially since our normal “western” story structure is generally entirely based around characters in conflict (with others, their environment, themselves, society, etc). Finding the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (KSTK) format seemed like a great alternative, and that’s especially true since there aren’t a lot of different story structures out there.

For those who aren’t familiar with the structure, it works like this:

  • KiSetup the situation.
  • ShoDevelopment of the situation
  • TenTwist or surprise on the situation that the audience expects.
  • KetsuResolution of the situation.

For example:

  • Ki– Sazae-san is enjoying a riverside view.
  • Sho– An American Soldier appears and asks her to kneel down.
  • Ten– Sazae-san is pleased he wants to take her picture.
  • Ketsu– He’s really taking a picture of the beautiful girl behind her.

This format was originally found in Japanese poetry, but later became “famous” as the structure used in their Yon Koma (4 Panel) gag comic books. (Their equivalent to our newspaper strips.) Some others have come to use it in different ways, but the information out there in English said that it was a structure that relied on dramatic and situational twists to produce a reaction from the audience (usually a humorous one). However, when you’re working with limited sources of information about a subject that isn’t in a language you speak, there’s bound to be some miss-communications here and there.

Having recently been able to read the fascinating book Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki, I have discovered that my understanding of the KSTK form wasn’t quite right.

I had believed it was a form without direct conflict, but now thanks to Araki I understand that instead it is highly flexible form where the conflict is optional because the story structure doesn’t require it. In fact, Araki demonstrates in his book that it is in fact the standard format still used by many manga writer/artists today when planning short stories and chapters of their serials. Not only that, he demonstrates how flexible the structure is.

But first, let’s make sure it’s clear what each step represents.

  • Ki – In this stage, we get a character and situation, and that character demonstrates a need, usually one based on a derivative of basic human needs.
  • Sho – The character makes a plan, and tries to follow a path they think will fill that need.
  • Ten – The character faces an obstacle to their plan, and must figure out how to overcome it.
  • Ketsu– The character is done facing the current obstacle(s) and now has either fulfilled their need or moved closer towards fulfilling it.

This structure actually conforms to the basic structure that all stories must follow, and represents a simple and universal way of looking at story.

A sample short Romance story:

  • Ki– Two people meet.
  • Sho– They fall in love.
  • Ten– The man’s ex-girlfriend gets in the way.
  • Ketsu– They overcome their challenges and marry.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that, according to Araki, most manga stories tend to follow this structure closely or loosely. He also mentions that a common variation of it is the structure of Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten-Ten-Ketsu (with the number of Tens (twists) being as few or many as needed). In fact, referring to Ten as “Twist” might be a mistranslation in this case, as it’s often more like “Dramatic Event,” “Unexpected Revelation,” or just plain “Opposition.”

You could have a dozen small Tens or just one big one, and they can take any form you’d like, as long as they keep building the dramatic power of the story.

A longer Romance tale:

  • Ki– Two people meet.
  • Sho– They fall in love.
  • Ten– The woman’s insecurities get in the way. (problem)
  • Ten– The man’s family hates the man. (bigger problem)
  • Ten– The man must follow the woman to Europe and bring her back. (biggest problem)
  • Ketsu– She agrees and they marry.

Also, as Araki also points out, the Ketsu phase can be moved around and take different forms. For example, in serial stories (or chapters of a book), the Ketsu might be delayed to the start of the next installment, so you end up with a structure like:

  • Part A: Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten
  • Part B: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
  • Part C: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
  • Part D: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu.

In this case, the Ki in part B-D is actually the “new normal”, not a complete reset to zero. The Ketsu is producing a “new normal” or “new state” which the characters are at, and then the next round of buildup (Sho) begins towards a dramatic situation. There is always an upward building of dramatic momentum as the story progresses, so that each cycle tops the one before it. This way, the reader is always wanting to read the next installment/chapter to find out how the situation resolves, and is kept focused on the story until the end.

Specifically in Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:

  • Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.

Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)

  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
  • Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)

So, for example:

Opening Story Arc Chapter:

  1. Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over a Ancient Ruby.
  2. Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
  3. Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
  4. Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)

Middle Story Arc Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
  • Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
  • Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
  • Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
  • Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
  • Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)

End Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
  • Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
  • Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
  • Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
  • Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
  • Ketsu–  Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)

Finally, one last advantage of this story structure is its flexibility of length. You can make a KSTK story as long or short as you want, and obviously have a overall KSTK structure with the chapters within also having mini KSTK structures. The above Romance could be a short story, or it could be the root structure of a whole novel, depending on how you want to let the story unfold. It is especially good for stories where character or setting have a greater focus than plot, because it can allow those elements to play out while still having what the audience will recognise as a story structure underneath.

And, of course, not all the dramatic twists have to be ones based on conflict, and I now know and appreciate. 😊Live and learn!

Have fun experimenting with this structure, and read Araki’s book if you get the chance, it covers a lot more things than just this, many of which you might find useful.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

Rob

Review- Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga

As a writer, writing teacher, and a lover of Japanese comics, I was excited when I stumbled upon Hirohiko Araki’s Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga on Amazon the other day. Published in English in June of 2017 (it was published in Japanese in 2015) by VIZ Media, it was of immediate interested because Araki is the writer/creator of the manga epic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which has been running in Shonen Jump and Ultra Jump for over 25 years. So, naturally, I snagged the eBook edition of the book for my tablet and started reading.

Having just finished the book, I wanted to share my thoughts, but if you want the short version of my review, here it is: If you want to write Shonen (boys) adventure stories like Naruto, One Piece, and Dragonball, this is a must read. If you’re a new writer looking for a basic book on writing in general, this is a pretty good read. If you’re an experienced writer who has read/written lots, it’s an interesting read, but mostly from a cultural perspective. It’d give it 4/5 stars.

Okay, with that out of the way, lets divide this up into the Pros and Cons of this book.

I’m going to start with the Cons, just to get them out of the way, and because they’re short.

  • Araki is a oldschool battle manga/pulp adventure writer. So that’s what he’s basically teaching you how to write in this book. If you want to write something else, it can still be useful, but this might not be the book for you. He’s also a bit of a maverick, with his own way of doing things that falls outside of the norm even by boys manga standards. (He didn’t apprentice under the previous generation, is largely self-taught, and his stories are often radically different than most other Shonen stories are.)
  • This isn’t a book for visual artists, except in the very general sense. He’s got a lot of suggestions and comments about manga art and comic composition, but it won’t teach you serious hardcore artistic theory like Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics will. Heck, even those “How to Draw Manga” books will likely give you more actual how-to than this book does, if that’s your chosen style.
  • Piggybacking on that, the rest of this book is for writers, but again, it’s really just a collection of tips and basic theory that he’s picked up over 25 years in the business. If you want to get into how to write story in depth, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is the book you want. Also, the story structure he teaches (Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu) is really intended for short stories and chapters of longer serials, and he doesn’t really go into writing and structuring a full serial.
  • A lot of the advice here is specifically for the Japanese manga market, because this is just a translation of a Japanese book for a Japanese audience, not an edition for foreigners.
  • He gives a passage from a Hemmingway story and claims that it tells us information that it really doesn’t. I have to wonder if this is a mistranslation of what he was saying the passage was supposed to be giving us.
  • There are a few times when the translation is a bit unclear, but those are few and far between overall.

Okay, that aside, let’s look at what the book does well.

  • This is a really good primer on writing in general for new writers, whether you’re a visual artist or a pure writer, or both.
  • This is a great book for understanding the ways of thinking that lay behind writing boys manga (aka The Golden Road), and how Japanese view creating manga in general. His thoughts on how manga are more emotionally driven than western comics are were interesting to read, and he really takes you through the process of creating his manga and how the Japanese manga artist system works. (If this part interests you, you should also read the manga Bakuman, which covers this in more detail and in more dramatic form.)
  • Araki’s thoughts on the relationship between Setting, Story and Character and how they’re all tied together by Theme are worth remembering and a good primer for new writers. He also gives a lot of good tips and suggestions about those elements of story and how they work in a Shonen comic.
  • The Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu story structure he outlines is a good one for short story writers to keep in mind, and simple and flexible while still offering a straightforward way to structure your stories. (One of his two Implementation chapters acts as an example in great detail, which is also nice. Although after you read it, you can look at any Shonen comic and see it in action immediately.)
  • He goes into great detail about how he creates characters, and even shows you his character template that he uses to think through his characters before he sits down and designs them visually.
  • He goes into detail about his own experiences moving up through the manga industry. It’s not quite “On Writing” (Stephen King’s book), but it does give you a feeling for his highs and lows in the industry.
  • You get a behind the scenes look at his Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, and the thoughts, ideas and approaches that went into making it the series it is. (I have to say, as a Jojo’s fan, I really enjoyed all the tidbits about the series he scatters throughout the book.)
  • It’s a pretty quick and easy read. It took me about 3 hours to read, and I wasn’t trying to power through it.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and as I said above, I recommend it to new writers and Shonen manga fans. Araki himself says this book is really intended as a “passing of the torch” book where he shares his secrets with the next generation of manga producers, and that’s what it is. There isn’t likely to be too many mind-blowing ideas here, but there is a lot of things worth thinking about, and I’m very glad I was able to read it. Like I said above, if you enjoyed this, try Bakuman next, which is a dramatized version of this topic. (And an amazing one at that.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to track down his Rohan Kishibe stories, which look amazing.

Rob