Why I Love The Four-Act Story Structure
I have this weird problem: I can't get the three-act structure to work for me. When I rewrite story arcs to fit this structure, they end up feeling forced and unnatural. If the three-act story structure is so ubiquitous, I should be able to regurgitate it because I've seen it a billion times.
I thought back to the stories I grew up on and tried to remember the three-act story structure they had.
Lo and behold!
The most influential stories I loved as a child couldn't be boxed into the three acts, because the way the characters interacted with the plot definitely went against the advice I was given. According to the writing advice I found, these stories would not get published. Slush pile forever.
But the stories that shaped my childhood are huge hits. Their significance is so strong that they've been revived decades later, bringing a new generation of fans into the fandom.
Are best-selling, three-act aficionados wrong about the methods they preach?
Not necessarily. The three-act story structure works. For them.
There's a different story structure out there, one I've gobbled up since I was ten, one I've learned and loved without even knowing its name, because the best stories of my childhood come from Japan.
Allow me to introduce the four-act story structure: kishoutenketsu 起承転結. The story structure is right in its name. Convenient, right?
Ki 起 means "introduction."
Sho 承 means "development."
Ten 転 doesn't have an exact translation, but the best word I've found is "twist." According to Rudy Barrett in the Tofugu article, "The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction," this act "introduces a major twist that changes the way all the information is perceived." This structure doesn't only work in Japanese horror; it works in other genres, and I'll give examples below.
Ketsu 結 means "conclusion."
At first glance, this may seem similar to the three-act story structure, with a twist climax instead of a twist ending. But the difference lies in the way these story structures treat the main character, or MC for short.
In the three-act story structure, the MC has to learn a universal moral lesson while pursuing a goal, and the struggle to learn that lesson drives the story. Usually, the MC must learn the lesson the wrong way in acts one and two, in order to learn it the right way in act three.
Four-act characters don't have to do it that way.
In many anime and manga I've consumed, the MC learns this moral lesson early or already knows it. The secondary characters are the ones learning the moral lesson from the MC. The MC is not obligated to change in some way; the perception of the MC is what needs transformation.
The most recent example of kishotenketsu I've watched is the anime, Odd Taxi. The MC, Hiroshi Odokawa, is a taxi driver who has a medical condition and suffers from insomnia. Neither of these conditions hinder his life. He works, he has friends, someone may like him romantically. When his friends and acquaintances get in trouble, his medical condition does not stop him from swooping in and saving them. It's in the third act where secondary characters learn the truth about Odokawa's mysterious medical condition, which brings greater understanding to them and the audience. It's a great "aha!" moment and makes re-watching the first episode so much fun.
The conclusion wraps up the mystery of his condition and starts a new mystery I hope to watch.
To an audience inclined to see three acts, Odokawa's main goal is to save his friends from danger, and antagonists get in his way. With wit and allies, he overcomes obstacles and is rewarded for his heroism.
But what lesson does he have to learn?
Now that I know the four-act structure, I see that though he is a closed-off and blunt person, he already knows friendship is important. His heroism demonstrates that throughout the story. His rewards are added bonuses, more for the audience than for him, as they flesh out the twist in a mind-bending fashion.
The twist does not affect the way he views or pursues his goal. It's not a fascinating discovery for him; it is for others. Their perceptions are changed first, not his, to explain to the audience what will come next.
Another example of kishoutenketsu is Millenium Actress, a 2001 film by Satoshi Kon. A production company gets an interview with an actress who retired from show business while in her prime. Chiyoko Fujiwara, now elderly, recounts her life to a film director and his cameraman, and her life story interweaves with her movie roles in such a way that the characters feel like they've been transported there.
Chiyoko is driven by a goal much like a three-act MC: she wants to reunite with a rebel painter whom she hid from a government interrogator during war time. As the story unfolds, the truth about the painter is revealed in the third act. The fourth act concludes as she gently blasts off into the unknown, giving the audience insight into her feelings about the chase to find the painter.
The twist doesn't really affect the actress, since the twist isn't what stopped her pursuit. It affects the audience as the pieces of the past align to create a full picture.
She states the theme in the conclusion, but it seems like she knew the theme well before the story started. It's for the benefit of the characters she interacts with and for the audience that she says it in the end.
This special, four-act relationship between character and theme is why I had so much trouble getting my three-act structures to work. I grew up with MCs embodying a theme early on in their arcs. If MCs already know their theme, the three-act structure renders them ineffective for two-thirds of it, whereas the four-act structure makes them stress-test the theme throughout the entire story, giving the secondary characters/audience the chance to learn from their example.
Character flaws are also treated differently between these structures, so differently that looking back at my Mary Sue series in Kill Your Darlings, I've uncovered another layer behind the existence of my favorite Mary Sue. But that's for another post.
Knowing about kishoutenketsu explains so much now—like why the three-act structure felt so foreign to me, and why my seemingly plotless storylines have raked in the most reader retention compared to ones I've tried to force into the three-act mold. This tells me that other people recognize the four-act story structure, too!
Do you see kishoutenketsu in the stuff you love? Share your favorite four-act story in a review!
"Kishoutenketsu." Jisho org jisho search / kishoutenketsu. Accessed August 8, 2021.
Barrett, Rudy. "The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Movies." Tofugu. tofugu japan / japanese-horror-structure. Last modified October 30, 2014.