Michael He

March 15, 2022

The Four Stage Narrative

There is a fundamental difference in the narrative structures between East Asian and Western culture.

I was listening to BTS's Love Yourself trilogy (Her, Tear, Answer) and noticed two details. The first is the hanja (Chinese character) attached to each album: 承 for Her, 轉 for Tear, and 結 for Answer. The second is the hanja associated with three tracks in Love Yourself: Answer: 起 for Just Dance (by J-Hope), 承 for Love (by RM), and 轉 for Seesaw (by Suga). 
There four characters in total: 起承轉結. It seems familiar, because in Chinese there is a concept known as 起承轉合 (qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé). It is the four-stage composition style for Chinese poems since the Tang Dynasty.

Turns out, this narrative structure is also widely known as 起承転結 (Kishōtenketsu) in Japanese and 기승전결 (gi seung jeon gyeol or 起承轉結) in Korean. 

The Four Components

The four components correspond to the following roles. I use the Chinese version 起承轉合 due to my familiarity, but the components are interchangeable.

起 means "begin". A common Chinese phrase is 起点 (qǐ diǎn), or "the starting point". In literary context 起因 (qǐ yīn) means "the original motive".

承 means "support" or "development" by extension. A common Chinese phrase is 承担  (chéng dān), or "to shoulder" things like responsibility or weight. In literary context 承接 (chénɡ jiē) or its idiom 承上启下 (chénɡ shànɡ qǐ xià) mean "continuation and development".

轉 means "turning". A common Chinese phrase is 转换 (zhuǎn huàn) or "to switch". In literary context 转折 (zhuǎn zhé) means "the turning point".

合 means "closure". A common Chinese phrase is 合拢  (hé lǒng) or "to close something together". In literary context 合 directly translates to the action of "closing a book".

The four components are not equally divided in terms of occupied space. The first and last combined take up less space than the second component alone. The introduction and resolution are short by definition. Once the contexts (characters, setting, some sort of purpose) are presented, the story begins to develop. And when the absolute climax happens, the decline in excitement must happen quickly to avoid a slow ending that seems to drag on forever.

The Unique East Asian Narrative

In fact, it is the interplay between the second and third components that distinguishes 起承轉合 narrative with other narrative forms. There lies the key difference between East Asian and Western narrative structures. The term Western here refers to the cultures stemming from Ancient Greece, since Greek dramas set the stages (pun intended) for future development in the narrative format.

You see, Western narratives today often follow the three-act structure: the opening, the development, and the resolution. Hollywood films and contemporary storytelling often make use of this structure. It is something we are very used to. For further contexts, Shakespeare writes in the five-act structure. Aristotle has written about the one-act narrative. Five-act narratives are also popular in Western culture, but there is no four-act narrative structure. 

Therefore we cannot simply assume act two of the three-act structure is the combination of 承 and 轉 or some other combination to fit 起承轉合 into the five-act narrative. It doesn't work.

Each component of 起承轉合 is unique. One cannot formulaically match the components of 起承轉合 to the three-act or five-act structure. Sometimes 承 will be in act two. Sometimes it will be in act one. But it is most likely to be split for both acts with differing weights. The same thing applies to 轉.

This fundamental difference leads to a vastly different way in storytelling. Stories under 起承轉合 do not require conflicts. In fact, the central focus on conflict deems an odd number of acts necessary for Western storytelling - you must have an introduction and a conclusion to the conflict, which can unfold in one stage, or three stages (conflict, plateau, more conflict), or even more, always adding twos to make the final act count an odd number.

The very definition of an act in Western narrative structure relies on some type of action to perpetuate the motion forward. In contrast, 起承轉合 will always have four components. They exist for their own sake. If you read famous Tang Dynasty poems, you will realize there are very little conflicts between any characters. Lamentations, sensibilities, and romanticism are the protagonists instead. It's a self-sustaining narrative structure.

Stories under 起承轉合 are still linear, but they are much more nuanced. Western narrative structures either go for the usual linear structure or make a complete detour to the nonlinear or even the interactive structures. 起承轉合 do not work well with nonlinear and interactive structures, but that doesn't mean 起承轉合 is easily predictable, hence boring.

What Sets It Apart

The true beauty of 起承轉合 is in its unpredictability. Just like how predicting the inflection point is difficult in mathematics, we don't know where the turning point is until the story is finished. Current conflicts may be much smaller than what is to come, but we do not know that as the audience. Or the hardest battles may already be won, but we still think there are harder battles to come. In this scenario, further downturns are mere side gigs in the winding-down process. We don't know in either scenario. There is nothing set about how a story should progress just because it follows 起承轉合.

What appears to be the same-old narrative can in fact become a smaller component to a longer narrative arc. Attack on Titan is a good contemporary example. So is Neon Genesis Evangelion. You think things are bad enough already, but you are dead wrong until the very end. The closure happens quickly for these examples, since the true climax is pretty much near the absolute end by design. That leaves a very strong impact, a heavy gut punch, but it requires an ongoing mind-game between the narrative creator and the audience. You cannot reveal your cards until the very end, yet you cannot force something so inconceivable and baloney that upset people. It's like a chess game, which you meticulously plan out the end game before even starting. Otherwise, things will fall apart.

Many storytellers shoot for this route, but few can do it well. The most notable pattern exists in the anime world, where a series often starts with grand setting full of promise and the rest of the show nosedives like splattering pancake batter. This is partly why Attack on Titan and Neon Genesis Evangelion are so admired and loved. 

A much less popular yet equally refreshing strategy is to take something that already appears normal in length and shrink it even more. Ted Chiang's short stories are excellent examples in that regard. The initial worldview and scope makes you think the story will unfold over many pages, but Chiang wraps up everything beautifully in a dozen pages. What can stretch to be a perfectly fine novella is only ten pages long. This gets your mind spinning with the implications and the particular worldview and such. Hell Is the Absence of God, Tower of Babylon, and Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom can be much longer and still be enjoyable, but the short lengths make reading them a gut-wrenching experience in a positive way. This strategy seldom happens in storytelling, but when done well it is extremely powerful. It's the epitome of deliberation - every word matters.

The BTS in 起承轉結

In the case of BTS, 起承轉結 has three layers as to the album concept, the trilogy's theme, and BTS's career.

The specific tracks with the Hanja (Just Dance, Love, Seesaw) are not necessarily the cutoff points of the four stages. They are solo tracks used to approximate narrative arcs. There are tracks better for categorizing the 起承轉結. You start with the search for love (Euphoria), enters the romantic stage (Her), encounters torment (Tear), and reaches the moment of realization (Epiphany) to carry on (Answer: Love Myself).

In terms of the Love Yourself trilogy, you start with the search for love at the end of the previous Wings and You Never Walk Alone albums, finds the beauty in love in Love Yourself: Her, encounters pain and desolation in Love Yourself: Tear along the way, only to heal and mature at the end of Love Yourself: Answer. The music video trailer makes this clear. There are four more videos for (Euphoria, the beginning track of Love Yourself: Answer), 承 (Serendipity, beginning track of Love Yourself: Her), 轉 (Singularity, beginning track of Love Yourself: Tear), and 結 (Epiphany, the last solo track of Love Yourself: Answer and the trilogy). Note the release dates differ from the narrative order (承轉起結), which indicates the level of meticulous planning that goes into this album concept (and yes, it is brilliant). 

Interestingly enough, BTS is an ongoing story of 起承轉結. Their 2013 debut single 2 Cool 4 Skool marks the beginning. Seven young men join an unknown music agency, train for years, only to debut to find out how unexpected everything is to come. They are also part of the lost youth.

In the process group searches for their voice and that of the young generation first in South Korea then around the world. The School trilogy and The Most Beautiful Moments In Life trilogy are formative parts to their growth that lay the foundations to the distinctive BTS voice and the stories they want to tell. 

Once BTS reaches superstardom with Wings and the Love Yourself trilogy, things take a nosedive not in fame or success, but in psyche and morale as the members feel confused, stressed out, and insecure about their newfound fame and limelight. They consider disbandment at their very height. Tear is a song about that particular moment, a living testament to how things have changed before and after their rocketing success.

While Love Yourself: Answer seems to provide a satisfactory answer at the time to the turning point, Lady Fate plays a massive wild card. The pandemic has refreshed the BTS 起承轉結 narrative. Perhaps we are still at the turning point stage or are even in the development stage (switching between smaller developments and turning points) similar to a prolonged turbulence mid-flight. Even the group's recent concerts provide some evidence on how the members feel (e.g. RM in PTD Seoul and Jimin in PTD online). We simply don't know how things will end.

But it's okay. That is the beauty of 起承轉結. You never know the full picture until it's over, so just sit down, buckle up, and enjoy the show.

As a side note to the BTS story, notice how there is no direct conflict between BTS and some particular enemy (though the members occasionally fight mildly in the early days), yet the story keeps moving forward. In the absence of enemies, BTS has declared "war" on broader forces in the world: things that drive hope out of people; various forms of hate (not limited to racism, sexism, discrimination of every sort); mental health struggles, and so much more. The group therefore stands for something far greater in tangible and symbolic value - love for one another, love for the beautify moments in life, and most importantly, self-love. This may be one of the many reasons behind ARMY's enduring love for the group.

Further Implications

The unpredictable nature of 起承轉合 brings it a geometrical aspect. The expected four components can easily fracture into mini-parts, each as a self-containing mini 起承轉合. One can imagine a smaller 起承轉合 arc in the broader development or turning point stages, but they can also exist in the beginning and the end. The premise can include an entire story that sets off a journey. The end can include another story that carries moral implications yet does not interfere with the entire narrative (only to enhance it).

If you let this going, the story becomes a non-perfect fractal. The picture below is an illustration of the "perfect" Sierpinski Triangle.


起承転結 is actually widely used in Japanese video game design, whose influence extends to the entire video game world. Mini-games and side quests are unnecessary to finishing the main story, but when done well the game becomes much more immersive and enjoyable.

Pokemon is the very embodiment of 起承転結. You only need to defeat a dozen Pokemon trainers to end the game, but no one thinks that is the point of the game. Nintendo's Super Mario and Zelda also follow this structure, because you cannot easily tell when the turning point is but you sort of know where you are in the story. Mario often has side quests, rooms you don't need to enter but are fun nevertheless. Zelda gives you the option to roam around its world and make full use of your skills. It's the vague sense of direction that propels you to discover and be surprised. This is the fundamental premise to what I call "escapist" video games that are hugely popular, such as Genshin Impact, popular MMORPGs, and what the hype around Metaverse seem to imply.

Of course, open-world and sandbox video games take this concept to a new dimension, given that is their entire premise. Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and the list goes on.

In personal life, 起承転結 also seems to work. Side quests add meaning and fun to life. Imagine manifesting one's life into a playable game with potentially ten or twenty actions and all you do is to press them, with some actions taking a disproportionate amount of space (e.g. sleeping, eating, working) and some mandatory actions (e.g. sleeping, eating, working). Of course you need side quests such as playing with pets, go on a trip, read a new book, and such to make it more fun.

Unanswered Musings

There are also three-act narratives in East Asian cultures. 序破急 (Jo-Ha-Kyu) is a widely used format in Japanese traditional culture, such as Noh theatre, kendo, and even tea ceremony. The translation "beginning, break, rapid" implies that actions should begin slowly, speed up, and then end quickly and swiftly, for example Miyamoto Musashi's sword fight or Mifune Toshio's ronin in Akira Kurosawa's films. A contemporary example is the Rebuild of Evangelion film series, as director Anno Hideaki attempts to retell the entire story of Neon Genesis Evangelion in four films, the first three specifically titled 序, 破, and 急 (written as Q). I have more thoughts on this, but they are for another day.

Notice the prevalence of even numbers in Chinese literary structure and its potential connection to Daoism and the number two. Starting with the concept of yin yang (2 or 2^1), the opening statement 元亨利貞 (4 or 2^2), and the eight trigrams 八卦 (8 of 2^3), we end up with 64 possible hexagrams of I-Ching (64 or 2^6 or 4^3 or 8^2). Now connect that to 起承轉合 (4) and the eight-legged essay 八股文 (8), I have many questions to ask.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.