The power of ten

Virginia is a British woman who grew up in Shanghai.
She survived imprisonment by the Japanese during WWII and has lived a full life.
Kishōtenketsu is a narrative tradition from Asian cultures.
Virginia’s story may best be told using kishōtenketsu.

I’d never heard of kishōtenketsu until I read a column by Still Eating Oranges. Oranges notwithstanding, Kishōtenketsu isn’t a food, a place, a polite greeting or a martial art. Kishōtenketsu is a storytelling art. I haven’t lived with it long enough to fully understand it — heck, it took a week just to learn how to say it — but I’m intrigued.

People in western cultures are used to a basic three-act story structure:
1 Beginning = introduction of characters and their world
2 Middle = development of conflict among characters leads to crisis
3 End = conclusion

Kishōtenketsu does it in four:
1 Ki = introduction of characters and their world
2 Shō = development of characters and their situation
3 Ten = the twist: a new and unforeseen element appears
4 Ketsu = connection and consequence

At first glance it doesn’t look so different. Three acts, four acts? Story begins… stuff happens… more stuff happens… story ends. Screenwriters learn to treat Act 2 as having a midpoint, effectively creating 2A and 2B (one reason second acts can be so dreadfully long). That’s like four acts, right?

Not really. In the eastern tradition, the second act takes us deeper, and then comes ten — the twist, the curve ball, the third act from nowhere. It’s the new element which has not been plotted with cookie crumbs along the way. You can’t go back and find the clues to this kind of twist. And it doesn’t have to be earthshaking, just unexpected. The story ends with connection even if it leaves some things unresolved.

What I like is kishōtenketsu’s potential to engage the audience not only inside the story but outside it. Still Eating Oranges gave its essay on the subject an unfortunate title, I think: “The significance of plot without conflict.” A writer friend of mine was up in arms about the idea of a story with no conflict (I’m talking about you, Brian). What we all strive to do as storytellers is to engage people emotionally. Even documentaries. Especially documentaries. It’s one thing to engage in the life of a fictional character, but a real one? That’s golden.

My Shanghai is a life story, and the storyboard is not a blank slate. It’s full of real things. Exciting things. You want conflict? Unexpected things.

Last month I retreated to the coast for four days. Writers need this, and I felt I was taking too long to create the script from what was beginning to feel like 20,000 hours of footage. I came home with an 86-page first draft, a rough blueprint* for the film. I also came home with a punch list — dates to pin down, places and faces to identify, strands of the story that were not meeting up. A couple of days ago I was able to tie them off, for the most part, during a short visit with Virginia.

I am truly fortunate in this regard. Pity the documentarian who cannot continue to delve into her subject’s story and discover a third act twist. And pity the documentarian who does not experience the telling of a life story as an ongoing adventure in itself, a story still unfolding.

It’s too early to say whether My Shanghai will take its final form using kishōtenketsu. Her life in four acts? Four may not be enough.


*I can say “blueprint” here because I am literally building the film from the pieces already recorded. See my rant, “There’s no award for Best Blueprint” at

© 2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

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