(I’ve been meaning to write this one for a few weeks, but, real life and all….)
My friend and sometimes-foil Leslie made this post over on her blog Skull Honey, regarding an eastern writing style known as Kishotenketsu. The basic premise of Kishotenketsu is “plot without conflict.” Leslie links to this article, titled, “The significance of plot without conflict.” The author of this article goes in depth explaining Kishotenketsu and expounds on the idea of conflict-less plot, moving away from Western norms, and on why it is a great art form.
Except it’s not.
Yeah, I know, subjectivity in art. Hear me out.
I read very carefully through the examples provided in the article. Do you know what those things struck me as? Not plots. Vignettes. What is a vignette? When I bang the word into Google, it tells me:
“A brief evocative description, account, or episode.”
Exactly. Vignettes are used to set up the true plot, not the plot itself.
Look, I get there is more than one way to skin the storytelling-cat, and I understand (from readings on the subject) that some authors are tired of the three-act plot structure (set-up, conflict, resolution). But one thing seems to get lost in these descriptions of Kishotenketsu and that is character growth.
To me, the entire point of storytelling is not about plot. Plots are a dime a dozen and most are not memorable. What do we remember? Characters. The things that stick with me are memorable characters. Kind of a given of telling a story is the idea that the character is different – either growing or contracting – at the end than they are at the beginning. And how do they experience that change? I don’t think walking through a series of vignettes are going to do it. The four-panel cartoon in the article shows one character getting a soda from a vending machine and handing to another. That’s … nothing.
Growth is scary. Change is difficult. And very little of either come without some form of conflict. People that change who and what they never do so without some friction, be in internally or externally.
(Muse: Maybe the character in the above comic strip grew by accepting the soda. I mean, they’re different, they now have a soda.)
Oh shut up. Substantive change. Meaningful change. You know what I meant.
So while I can see the idea behind Kishotenketsu, I don’t think it is the subtle masterpiece material the article linked above makes it out to be. If authors wish to tell vignettes, that’s fine. I just disagree that it’s a preferred or superior form of plot.
(Muse: You sure someone didn’t pee in your Cheerios today?)
Well, let’s just say I found the tone of the article smug and self-congratulatory. In fact, most of the articles I read on Kishotenketsu could best be summed up as, “Western culture, boo, Eastern culture, zen!” The author of the article I linked used the some derivative of the term “insular Western culture” at least twice and the entire thing had the feel of a snotty philosophy professor deigning to take time from his busy day to lecture the masses with his superior knowledge. So yeah, I was predisposed to think the whole thing was manure. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Postmodernism always has been enamored with its own anus.
Just for the record, I found a more balanced and nuanced article on Kishotenketsu here. In the comments to that article, the author even said:
“…it is NOT some magical Asian narrative structure that is naturally better than regular narrative structures. It’s simply a different way of organizing ideas — some stories will be more suited to this structure while others will not.”
That, I can live with.