Asian story structure: twist instead of conflict

Brian G Turner

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alexvss posted a link to a nice resource in a recent profile post, which highlights a key difference between Western and Asian story structure. Simply put, while
modern Western stories often focus on conflict, where a protagonist has to overcome adversity to get what they want. Asian story structures instead focus on a twist in the 3rd act which changes everything.

Here's a good starter article about it:

Of course, there are a lot of generalizations going on here. However, I'm still struck by the story structure in the Anime film Your Name, which uses the third act twist to brilliant effect.

I thought some people might find this helpful as something to look into, because while a strong twist has often been used in short stories, it's tended not to be a main feature of Western novels.
 

HareBrain

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I thought some people might find this helpful as something to look into, because while a strong twist has often been used in short stories, it's tended not to be a main feature of Western novels
I'd say the twist is near-essential to a fully satisfactory short story. (Or maybe I've been conditioned to think that, and it colours what I find satisfactory.)

The article is interesting, and it's always good to be shown that what we've taken for granted ain't necessarily so, but I'm struggling to see how it could translate to a novel. All the examples the article gives are short form (or very short form), and I don't think I've come across even a Japanese film that relied on a twist rather than conflict. Of course any length work can contain both, but I think the longer a work is, and the more investment it requires in the reader/viewer, the more difficult it is to have a twist create a fully satisfactory ending. Partly this is because to some extent it negates all the previous investment, which has been shown to be based on a false premise. Yes, there is intellectual satisfaction at the turnaround, and being able to adjust perception of previous events to fit, but the emotional investment in the misinterpreted build-up isn't paid off to the same extent.

I could be wrong, though, and I'd welcome examples to show I am.
 

HareBrain

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I don't think I've come across even a Japanese film that relied on a twist rather than conflict.
Your Name was mentioned as an example, but I haven't seen it yet. It is on my Netflix to-watch list, though, and I might bump it up in response to this.
 

Brian G Turner

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I don't think I've come across even a Japanese film that relied on a twist rather than conflict

Have you watched the Anime "Your Name"? It's an excellent film that highlights this use of structure. I was so impressed after watching it that I wondered how I could write a novel with the same type of structure, not realizing it was already a tradition. :)
 

Brian G Turner

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Your Name was mentioned as an example, but I haven't seen it yet. It is on my Netflix to-watch list, though, and I might bump it up in response to this.

I would certainly recommend it. :)

It starts off looking like some routine teen drama/comedy. Then Act 3 hits and it becomes a completely different film. :)
 

alexvss

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Oh, hello there! :p

They say that 99% of all movies follow the Save the Cat! Beatsheet (and some argue that 99% of novels do too), but have you considered that every single scene follows said beatsheet? Ditto for the three-arc structure. Even a dialogue may have beginning, middle and end.

I finished the second draft of the story a week ago (it's currently on critters.org's queue for critique). That story has a bigger four-arc, as well as mini-four-arcs on every scene. The character is introduced to something, it escalates, something unexpected happens, then there's a conclusion.

The only Asian novel I've ever read was Battle Royale (gotta change that), and it's been a while so I don't remember how it's structured. But I think that's how you write a four-arc novel: lots of smaller four-arcs inside a bigger four-arc.

Traditional Asian story structure rellies on twists instead of conflict, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have conflict. It often does. Lots and lots of conflict. They're just not important to the plot; they're there just for the fun. Think about Dragon Ball Z and its fights, or My Hero Academia, which every single chapter clearly follows the four-act structure.

Outlining with that structure made it very easy to draft the story. I was surprised how practical it was.

The hero's journey, on the other hand, although also very practical, can only be used on the whole of a story. You can't complete it in a single scene, and if you do it in a single novel, there's no place for sequels. That's why famous stories scatter that journey along a series of movies or novels. And they do that with a lot of different three-arcs.
 

alexvss

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I'd say the twist is near-essential to a fully satisfactory short story. (Or maybe I've been conditioned to think that, and it colours what I find satisfactory.)

The article is interesting, and it's always good to be shown that what we've taken for granted ain't necessarily so, but I'm struggling to see how it could translate to a novel. All the examples the article gives are short form (or very short form), and I don't think I've come across even a Japanese film that relied on a twist rather than conflict. Of course any length work can contain both, but I think the longer a work is, and the more investment it requires in the reader/viewer, the more difficult it is to have a twist create a fully satisfactory ending. Partly this is because to some extent it negates all the previous investment, which has been shown to be based on a false premise. Yes, there is intellectual satisfaction at the turnaround, and being able to adjust perception of previous events to fit, but the emotional investment in the misinterpreted build-up isn't paid off to the same extent.

I could be wrong, though, and I'd welcome examples to show I am.
Two examples: The Handmaiden (2016) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003).

The Handmaiden follows two points of view. The first half follows the title character's POV, and it goes on until a twist in the middle. For the second half, it switches to another character, doing the same structure all over again. It's two four-arcs.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) has an American remake (2009's The Uninvited), so it's an interesting case study! The original has a twist a little bit after the middle, and the rest is a long, boring denouement. They did just one four-arc structure. Now, the American remake pushes the twist until the last ten minutes or so. If you haven't watched the original (because you would know what would happen), your jaw drops and remains dropped for the whole credits.

It's similar to what I said about the hero's journey: if you use it all, you must start again with another character. The Psycho novel does that.

It seems to me that Western stories like to show the twist in the very end. Think about Sixth Sense (1999) or Primal Fear (1996) or Shutter Island (2010) or Seven (1995) or Goodnight Mommy (2014). If you're in the movie theater, you go the bathroom with your jaw dropped. Asian movies, on the other hand, twist in the third-act, then alongate for another arc (or start all over). That's a generalization, of course. Shutter (2001) is a Thai movie with a jarring twist at the end. And 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) has a twist for a midpoint (ok, it has another one at the end, but still).
 

HareBrain

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It seems to me that Western stories like to show the twist in the very end. Think about Sixth Sense (1999)
Yes, after I posted above, I thought of this film. However, for me, it's an example of the twist structure not really working for a long work, because it ditches all the emotional investment in Willis's character's situation in favour of one flashy "oooh!" gimmick. And it felt a cheat -- I've only ever seen it once, so my memory might be slightly off, but I recall one scene in which he's apparently talking across the table to his wife, except that as far as she's concerned, he isn't there (the film reveals later). BUT all through that conversation the director is at pains to make sure she acts as if he might be there, even if she never actually speaks to him -- making apparent eye contact etc. If you watch that scene with the knowledge that as far as she's concerned, there's nothing in front of her**, her behaviour doesn't ring true. (And even if Willis's character is a bit deluded, would he really not notice that his own wife doesn't make eye contact throughout the conversation?)

**Even though I've only seen it once, this was in fact what I did, because I knew the twist in advance.
 

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Interesting.
(I admit I skimmed that, I'll explore further later)
Whilst I have followed western convention in my novels I like to add a twist. The good guy becomes the bad guy or the or a key piece of knowledge flips the built scenario on it's head. I think The Magus was influential in encouraging that "things are not as they seem" pivot.

I'd agree with @alexvss that the 'hero's journey' is a sequel killer, however I am not a fan of sequels, preferring stand alones. Not that you can't leave a door open at the end of a novel, but the next volume won't be 'hero's journey 2', it will be 'what hero did next.'
 

Chris 1978

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Really enjoyed that film, I'm trying to remember the twist you're talking about though...never been great at remembering plots! I should watch it again really.

Thanks for the informative link, very interesting and I learned something new.
 
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Toby Frost

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This sounds rather like the structure of a long joke, where there's a basic setup, an expansion of the concept, and then a twist in the form of the punchline that changes the meaning of what's gone before. In some Western strip cartoons (Garfield springs to mind) the last thing you see is someone reacting to the punchline, which is a kind of 4th act.

However, the trouble with twists is that you get used to them and they start to distract from the actual drama. I guessed the twist to The Village from the trailer, purely because it seemed the most unlikely thing that could happen. Unlike a joke or urban legend, the story has to hold up before the twist (and therefore be interesting without it).

Something I like is a mixture of the two: a traditional three-act structure overall, with one or more smaller twists in the course of the story that change the method that the story will be resolved, but don't alter the need to resolve it. I wonder if this is what you see in detective stories, where suspicion moves from person to person.
 

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