read or write kishōtenketsu?

Toshi Yoshida - Cherry Blossoms

Kishōtenketsu is an ancient Chinese poetical form. Verse written in this framework presents an idea (ki), develops that idea (shō), holds that idea in contrast against some new, surprising element (ten), and then resolves itself by hinting at a newly gained perspective (ketsu). Today it most popularly manifests in yonkoma, a type of 4-panel Japanese manga, though the concept at large is still integral to Eastern modes of thought, speech, writing, and film.

It’s the inclusion of ten — the unexpected, the puzzling, the abrupt — which separates kishōtenketsu from Western written forms that sanctify conflict as the lifeblood of plot. Struggles of the “X vs. Y” variety are relatable to everyone, and Western storytelling has bottled and distilled their essence for centuries. But life, by-the-by, is more capricious and less Hero’s Journey the majority of the time.

Most people’s hours unfold in very kishōtenketsu-esque fashion: episodes of normalcy, periodically invaded by bouts of uncommonness, which are then either reconciled or ignored. The form reminds us that stories, both personal and fictitious, can operate without engines of violence at their centers, relying instead on the everyday fuels of juxtaposition and unpredictability.

This is also why the form is so powerful: it defamiliarizes the arbitrary march of existence. Kishōtenketsu reflects our cumulative daily experiences, infusing them with the humble wonders and glaring inconsistencies hustled past in our perforated 9-to-5 patterns. It champions those mundane, modest, and misleading aspects of human existence, our quotidian chores and habitual natures, and makes them seem vital again. Because, of course, they are.

Life is a struggle, without question, but it is also a mystery machine, a feather that tickles, a joke that throws us off balance. Daily grinds and disarming surprises are more than just the interstitial fabric connecting once personal conflict to another. They are the bulk and beauty of life itself.

Kishōtenketsu invites readers to rekindle their amazement at the universality of the unexceptional. Where will this new appreciation take you?


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