On Pacing and Structure (Part 10): Kishotenketsu, or the Four Act Format

The Four Act Format, known as Kishotenketsu in Japan, is an uncommon storytelling style in the West while being more standard in the East. It bares a lot in common with the 5 Act Format (in my opinion), while being significantly different in other ways. This structure is unique in that it has not one, but two Inciting Incidents- more on that later.

I am writing this blog post from a writer’s perspective, to help other writers write their stories and diagnose problems they are having in their novels. As always, I suggest that you read some of my other blogposts in this series if you are an author, to help you write your book. I will be analyzing this structure myself, using language I commonly used in my prior blog posts in this blogpost series.

As I am from the West, I will be using Western novels as examples in my analysis of this format. They are ‘Red Rising’ by Pierce Brown, ‘Barrayar’ by Lois McMaster Bujold and Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler.

Kishotenketsu Story Structure--the height of the bumps leading to the twist can change per story.

(I got this infographic off Wikipedia.)

For the record, this infographic is useful but it is in no way mandatory. You don’t have to follow those percentages exactly. ‘Red Rising,’ as an example, has a very short Act 2 and long Act 3. Bujold structured ‘Barrayar’ so that each of the four acts were nearly equal in size. When you are structuring your novel, don’t feel compelled to shape and mold the size of your acts to fit in with some pre-existing formula.

  1. Ki- aka ‘The Status Quo’
  2. Sho- aka The Road of Trials 1.0′
  3. Ten- aka ‘The Road of Trials 2.0’
  4. Ketsu- aka ‘Climax and Denouement’

Ki- ‘The Status Quo’

Kishonenketsu is a story told in four parts. The first of the four is Ki. In my analysis, this is the ‘Status Quo’ phase of the story wherein the author establishes the basis of the story. Who are the characters? What is the setting? What are the pre-existing problems which the characters have to deal with?

This is called the ‘Status Quo’ for a reason; the author should establish why the protagonist is stuck in a rut and unable to achieve their true goals and desires. The setting and characters in this act should form a stable situation.

Why does this act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the status quo for the reader, and hopefully interest the reader in reading a story about the protagonist. This act serves as a hook.

Examples:

  • In ‘Red Rising,’ Act 1, this act revolves around the protagonist’s attempt to win a prize called ‘the laurel.’ Before the contest halfway through the act, the protagonist Darrow lives in a state of naivete towards how the world works. He thinks the government is just. After he loses the contest because someone bribed the judges, his eyes are opened to the corruption of the world. The act then ends when Darrow’s wife rebels against the government and dies.
    • This act portrays a stable, corrupt environment. Darrow’s family are slaves, have been slaves for generations, and will continue to be slaves for generations. This is a pre-existing problem which the rest of the book must address
  • In ‘Barrayar,’ Act 1 establishes the new status quo on the planet of Barrayar. The protagonist Cordelia must rapidly integrate herself into the techno-feudal lifestyle of the planet, making allies to go along with her enemies.
    • This act portrays a stable environment- but that stability is threatened to end at any moment. The old emperor is dying, and with his death there will be a power vacuum on the planet. And as Cordelia is the wife of the regeant, she is in the very center of that power vacuum.
  • In ‘Blood of the Chosen,’ Act 1 serves to call-back to book 1 in this series. ‘Blood’ is a sequel to ‘Ashes of the Sun.‘ Act 1 has the protagonists Maya and Gyre return to locations from book 1 and re-introduce characters met in book 1.
    • By going back to settings and characters found in book 1, the author cleverly uses all of the characterization and worldbuilding work in book 1 as the new ‘Status Quo.’ The rest of this novel then is structurally moving away from the status quo set up in the prior novel.

Sho- Act 2: ‘The Road of Trials 1.0’

In this section, the author states the thesis of the story. What is this story about? What is the plot? What is the message the author trying to send to the reader?

Between Act 1 and Act 2 is the first Inciting Incident. In most stories, there is only one inciting incident serves as the trigger point of the plot. In 4 Act stories, there are two inciting incidents: one at the beginning of Act 2, and one at the end of Act 2. Why does Act 2 begin and end with Inciting Incidents? Because the 4 Act Format seeks to tell two plots. One plot begins at the beginning of Act 2, and a second plot begins at the beginning of Act 3.

In this Act, the author seeks to disrupt the status quo of the protagonist(s), throwing their life into an unstable state. The outside world has intruded into their everyday life via the first Inciting Incident, causing the events of the plot.

Why does this act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the themes of the story
  • To trigger the plot, but in a small way.

Examples

  • In ‘Red Rising,’ Act 2 serves as a montage sequence where the protagonist grows up. He leaves seclusion at Lambda, is trained and bio-modified to become a supersoldier. The inciting incident which begins this act was his wife’s death at the climax of Act 1. The inciting incident which ends this Act is Darrow killing a defenseless boy in order to get into battle school.
  • In ‘Barrayar,’ Act 2 ups the ante from Act 1. The inciting incident which triggers Act 2 is an assassination attempt against her husband the regent. Act 2 then is a hunt for the sponsor of the attempting assassin. The inciting incident which ends Act 2 is the outbreak of a civil war against her husband the regent. Additionally, this act introduces Cordelia’s son Miles as an independent character.
  • In ‘Blood of the Chosen,’ Act 2 is a low pressure act when the protagonists travel a long distance and make new friends. Where Act 1 brought back themes and characters from book 1 in the series, Act 2 serves to diverge the story in new directions by bringing in themes of betrayal and factional war.
    • Act 2 begins with two inciting incidents: Gyre and his friends set out from Deepfire (the setting of the first book) to travel into the unknown. Maya and her friends set out from the Forge to rob a bank.
    • Act 2 ends with two inciting incidents: Gyre arrives in the Lightning Barony, and is ambushed by multiple allied/enemy factions. Maya is introduced to a potentially friendly/potentially unfriendly person who needs her help.

Ten- Act 3: The Road of Trials 2.0

Acts 2 and 3 serve a very similar purpose in the 4 Act Format: the characters engage with the plot and themes, and moving in their personal character arcs. Acts 2 and 3 are the bread and butter sections of the plot, where most of the ‘stuff’ happens. Act 2 + Act 3 in the 4 Act Format are equal to Act 2 in the 3 Act Format.

So what differentiates Act 2 and 3 in the 4 Act Format? Stakes and tension. Between Acts 2 and 3 is the second Inciting Incident. Something happens with the plot, relating to the themes of the book, which causes a revelation and amplifies the tension of the book. This incident can be a Mid-Point Climax.

One strategy an author can take using the 4 Act Format is using Acts 1&2 to tell one story, then use acts 3&4 to tell another story BUT use the same themes and ideas to tell a larger story. Basically, Acts 1&2 are a trial run for acts 3&4, telling a smaller story to prepare the reader for a larger story. For example if your book is about racism, you can tell a smaller-scale story about racism in the first two acts (such as the story of Rosa Parks refusing to move off a seat in a bus), and in the second half tell a larger story (such as how the Rosa Parks incident in part led to national reform, and led to her becoming a national icon).

Why does this act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To establish the themes of the story
  • To follow through on the plot, but in a BIG way.

Examples

  • In ‘Red Rising,’ Act 3 takes place on the surface of Mars. It is a ‘Hunger Games’-esque sequence, where 100+ people are sorted into various guilds and forced to compete against one another to found a nation… but murder is allowed to annihilate your enemies.
    • This echoes the themes of social corruption from acts 1 and 2. Just as Darrow’s wife was killed to protect the corrupt social order, so too can the guilds murder their rivals to achieve a social order.
  • In ‘Barrayar,’ Act 3 is a civil war. Cordelia has to go on the run to save her life- and the life of her charge Gregor- from their enemies. But Miles is held captive by the enemy.
    • The whole civil war is an elaboration of the conflict which occurred in acts 1&2. Acts 1&2 were a political story which used bloody assassination attempts as plot points. Acts 3&4 contain a civil war- and what is a civil war but a large and bloody political story? The author used the assassination attempts to foreshadow the later war.
  • In ‘Blood of the Chosen,’ Act 3 is when the two plotlines merge. Maya’s faction attacks Gyres faction, and the vice-versa is also true.
    • You remember when I said ‘One strategy an author can take…’ above? Well, in this case the author did not use the strategy of having Acts 1&2 echo Acts 3&4. And that’s fine, not all books have to be heavily structured.

Ketsu- Act 4: Climax and Denoument

In this act we draw the story to a close. The characters take the questions asked in the prior acts and answer them. If you are telling a story about the protagonist discovering their true nature, that occurs here. The same is true for a resolution to any conflicts the protagonist has with their antagonists. You get the idea.

In the 4 Act Format, we synthesize the concepts and characters introduced in Act 1, along with the Inciting Incidents and plot developments in Acts 2&3 to come to a satisfying conclusion. You’ve read books/watched movies before, you know how this works.

What is the structural purpose of this act from a narrative perspective?

  • To provide commentary on the themes the author proposed in the prior three acts.
  • To bring the story to a satisfying climax, a good denoument.

Examples:

  • In ‘Red Rising,’ Act 4 takes the themes of rebellion and corruption and turns them on their head. The protagonists team up across guild lines to fight back against the system.
    • It is revealed that the supposedly unbiased ‘Hunger Games’ system is staged in favor of one of the contestants- just like how the laurel was awarded by the judges corruptly.
    • Bringing the meta-narrative in harmony with the narrative, the protagonists fight against the corruption of the ‘Hunger Games’ system just as it is secretly Darrow’s goal to destroy the entire corrupt society which killed his wife.
  • In ‘Barrayar,’ Act 4 turns the tables on the themes of assassination and political chicanery and family. Instead of being the victim of assassination attempts, Cordelia goes on an assassination attempt of her own.
    • She kills the man who staged the civil war, and saves her son Miles in the process.
    • This neatly ties in a bow the theme of family, politics and assassination.
  • In ‘Blood of the Chosen,’ Act 4 has the protagonists team up and work directly together, instead of at odds with one another.
    • Once again, this book defies the trend of having Act 1&2 mirror 3&4. The author used a structure of Acts 1, 2, & 3 tell one story, while act 4 tells another story, setting up the next book in the series. I felt it worked well

And that’s that. The 4 Act Format is a useful tool to have in your toolbox for a lot of stories, especially those when you want to write a book which follows the pattern of (Microcosm plot) followed by (Macrocosm plot). Or if you want to write a book which follows a traditional 3-Act Format, followed by a single act novella/Novellette/short story tacked on at the end to continue and finish the story(see ‘Blood of the Chosen’ for an example of this).

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