Outline Your Light Novel with the Superior Plot Pyramid: Jo-Ha-Kyu

Why am I bothering to tell you how to outline your Light Novel (LN) at all?

All you have to do is align your story with the magic story pyramid, right? You know the one. Whether it was in grade school or just recently, you’ve probably seen the below pyramid on several occasions.

Freytag’s Pyramid (FP) is undoubtedly useful and has helped writers in every medium outline their stories. But it doesn’t cover everything you should know if you want to write a perfectly balanced LN. It tells you where to place each section and what it should consist of, but not much else.

I propose a different method of outlining your LN (or any piece of media). It is not well known outside of Japan and even there it is typically only associated with theatre arts. However, I’ve found it can be applied to literally everything from a novel to a piece of music.

This method is known as Jo-Ha-Kyuu (JHK).

What is Jo-Ha-Kyuu?

Without getting into too many details (I could talk about this all day), JHK is a 5-Act play structure.

It originated in the Japanese music performance called Gagaku. It was first used to determine the order of a concert’s set-list of songs. Later, it was molded to fit actual plays. The man who gave it its name was known as Motokiyo Zeami.

Zeami, annoyed at Gagaku’s lack of structure, in which each song was interchangeable and some even being left out, wanted the songs performed in a predetermined order. Rather than at random, he insisted on them being presented as Jo, Ha, and then Kyuu. Here are their rough translations:

  • Jo (序): Introduction
  • Ha (破): Breaking
  • Kyuu (急): Rapid

Zeami then realized JHK could be applied to Noh plays, which is ultimately what made it the standard for almost all forms of Japanese theatre. Spare the occasional 4 or 6 act plays, Noh follows a 5-act structure, which looks something like this according to Zeami:

Act 1, Jo – “…should have a simple source, be constructed without any complex detail, be felicitous in nature, and have a plot that is easy to follow.”

Acts 2-4, Ha – “…place an emphasis on complexity of expression…require great artistic efforts on the part of the actor…form the central element in the day’s entertainment”

Act 5, Kyuu – “…extends the art of ha in turn, in order to represent the final stage of the process. In this fashion kyuu brings on powerful movements, rapid dance steps, as well as fierce and strong gestures, in order to dazzle the eyes of the spectators.”

There is some room for flexibility in that acts 1 and 2 could comprise the Jo, but Zeami insisted the 3rd act in 5-act performance should contain the climax (Ha).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is just Freytag’s Pyramid.”

I agree. On a surface level, they look the same. The Jo is introduction/rising action, Ha the climax, and Kyuu the falling action/conclusion. But that isn’t all there is to JHK. We’ve yet to introduce the other man who made it into what it is today.

His name was Takemoto Gidayuu and he took Zeami’s logic and made it much clearer.

Rather than a nebulous Jo, Ha, and Kyuu that could make up any number of acts, he shaped them to fit a 5-act mold. The makeup of which is somewhat similar to what I suggested earlier. Act 1 is the Jo, 2-4 the Ha, and 5 the Kyuu.

Gidayuu also elaborated on the theme of each act and thus what emotions it should inspire in the audience.

This is what I meant by claiming FP fails to tell you everything you should know about outlining your LN.

You might understand the structure, but left unmentioned is the general ‘mood’ or ‘vibe’ each section should convey.

You obviously don’t have to match the following themes, but they are a surefire way to keep your LN engaging and consistent.

Anyway, in Gidayuu’s own words (complicated words I’ll explain in the next section):

“Act One: The theme is “Love”: one must entice the feelings of the audience through pleasant melodies and appearances. The opening must be auspicious. While your heart must be strong, the words should be light, and your spirit gentle.

Act Two: The theme is ‘Warriors and Battles’. The mood is light with vigorous rhythms and fast beats.  ‘You should chant with speed and force so that the audience listens tensely without relaxing their clenched fists.’

Act Three: The theme is ‘Pathos, tragedy.’ It is the climax of the play.  ‘While chanting this act, you must hold the essence of the entire play within your chest.’

Act Four: The theme is a ‘Travel Song’ (michiyuki). ‘In this act the entire play begins to come together as a whole, but since the emotions of the audience are exhausted after the third act, you must be careful not to tire them further.’

Act Five: The theme is an ‘Auspicious Conclusion.’ ‘The mood of the act is auspicious.’”

From the Introduction to Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays by C. Andrew Gerstle and Chikamatsu

And thus, a new pyramid is born.

Looks different than Freytag’s now, doesn’t it?!

Once you’ve recovered from the shock of my awe-inspiring Microsoft Paint skills, let’s break it down piece by piece.

Jo – The Introduction

Rather than include the rising action, the Jo only covers the introduction.

This is where you introduce the main characters, their motivations (which set the story into motion), and the world they inhabit.

As Zeami said, you should be cautious not to make this section too complicated. It may be tempting to grab the audience with an overload of cool ideas and intricate plot details, but this often scares readers away rather than pulling them in.

Save the complications for later once your readers have become familiar with your characters and world. It’s difficult to care about a complicated story if you don’t care about the characters involved in it. If delivered up front, info-dumps are ten times as boring and tragedies illicit no emotion.

Furthermore, as Gidayuu said, it should be auspicious. If you were anything like me, you have no idea what that means, so I looked it up for you—

Auspicious: showing or suggesting that future success is likely

Meaning, your characters should be somewhat ‘happy’ about their newfound situation. A common example is that of a young man setting out to fulfill his dream of becoming a master chef/boxer/cat whisperer. Despite all the problems you should be throwing at him, the Jo should show him looking forward to achieving his goal.

On the flipside, let’s say your story involves a girl being forced to lead an army against her will. It might not seem like you can make that auspicious, but you can.

She may not be thrilled with the role she’s been given, but she can be presented as looking forward to overcoming it and being free of her burden.

The ultimate goal is to make the Jo light. If you open with a bunch of depressed saps who want nothing to do with what life has dealt them, (almost) no one will want to read your LN.

Most readers prefer to relate to a character filled with hope who presses on in the face of despair.

Ha – The Rising Action and Climax

The Ha covers both the rising action and the climax.

This is where you want to ramp up the action leading to your story’s climax. The story you introduced in the Jo should be developed further as the protagonist works toward resolving the primary conflict. Keep readers closely engaged and ‘on the edge of their seat’ without giving them a break.

A good way to do this is by introducing additional conflicts on top of the primary one. This creates a sense of impending doom that adds a lot of tension by making the protagonist’s situation seem hopeless. A guide to the different types of conflicts you should have in your LN is here.

Once you’ve done everything you can to bring the tension to its peak, you can initiate the (first) climax.

This could be something like a betrayal, the antagonist besting the protagonist, anything that can be categorized as a tragedy.

As Gidayuu said, ‘the essence of the entire play’ should be represented here. You want readers to reflect on everything that’s been building up to this tragedy and really feel the misery the protagonist experiences.

This type of climax is totally different from the type implied by FP. Gidayuu’s is not a solution of the primary problem, but a perpetuation of it.

Common examples of a ‘first climax’ are:

  • The protagonist facing off against the antagonist, losing, and barely escaping with his life.
  • The detective arresting the supposed serial killer only to learn another murder has occurred.
  • A love confession from the protagonist’s crush that turns out to a cruel joke played by the class mean girls.

Rarely should the protagonist thrive as a result of this climax, but suffer. This might seem counterintuitive, but it is necessary in order to create the greatest emotional impact during the Kyuu.

Michiyuki – A Period of Reflection

Michiyuki literally means ‘journeying’ or ‘to go on a road’. In Japanese theatre, this act had the principal characters go on a literal journey (across the stage or down a walkway attached to the stage) in order to reflect on the tragic climax.

This is what really sold me on the JHK structure. Instead of following FP and letting the audience go through a slow decline towards the conclusion, the Michiyuki bottoms out.

All the tension that led to the climax has naturally disappeared as a result of its tragedy along with both the protagonist’s and audience’s mood plummeting. This allows both time for the protagonist and audience to reflect and recover after the emotional high of the climax.

The Michiyuki is a great time to show some character growth. Reveal what your characters have learned from their tragedy and how they feel about it. There are many ways you could represent the Michiyuki. Here are three common methods:

  • A literal journey in which the protagonist must travel to a final destination in order to resolve the primary conflict once and for all.
  • A training ‘journey’ in which the protagonist trains in order to become strong enough to defeat the villain who bested them during the Ha (you’ve likely seen this a million times in Shonen manga).
  • An emotional ‘journey’ in which the protagonist comes to terms with what she learned or lost during the Ha before facing her primary problem a second time.

However you represent it, you should do as Gidayuu said and ‘be careful not to tire them further’. This means making a point not to raise the tension or introduce new problems until your protagonist has completed his journey.

Why? Because you’re going to ramping it back up to a fever pitch during the Kyuu.

Kyuu – Second Climax and Conclusion

You might argue the Kyuu looks less like a conclusion and more like a second climax. And you’d be correct.

According to both Zeami and Gidayuu, the Kyuu needs to raise the tension back to the same level it was during the first climax and hit the audience hard.  Doing so will leave them with a strong impression of the play as a whole.

This is my biggest problem with FP. Instead of suggesting you ramp up the action near the end, it implies an overlong falling action/conclusion. If subjected to it, most audiences will start wondering when it’s going to get the point and end or outright fall asleep.

That said, Zeami and Gidayuu had different opinions on how the Kyuu should be presented.

Zeami insists the fifth sequence be the most vigorous and lively of all sequences and end promptly leaving no time to observe or reflect on the conclusion.

Conversely, Gidayuu suggests it contain an upbeat, lively conclusion of the issues presented during the Ha, but also that the play return to the same atmosphere that the first act presented.

For Zeami, the Kyuu should make up 90% of the last act. He does this to ensure the audience has little time to mull over what the whole play means or how they feel about it.

This almost guarantees the audience will leave the theatre at an emotional high. And if they don’t reflect any further, this will often cement the experience as a pleasant one in their minds.

Gidayuu recommends a 50/50 split. The first half sees the resolution of the primary conflict, while the other half is left for reflection.

This is better for character development as the audience gets to see how they feel about the conclusion, what they’ve gained/learned, and what happens to them afterwards.

Both are effective, but I recommend Gidayuu’s for LNs. You have plenty of space in a novel (compared to a play) to elaborate. It’s often more interesting for readers to see more character development. Plus you have space to set up the next volume if you’re writing a series.

As a final note, you should make the ending auspicious as Gidayuu recommended. Many claim to not like happy endings, but no one likes bad endings either.

If the end of your LN is filled with crushing despair and no hope for salvation, your readers will feel like you’ve wasted their time. They sat through your entire LN only to be disappointed. Where’s the fun in that? And what’s the point in picking up the next volume?

However, this doesn’t mean you must write a happy ending. Again, it should be auspicious.

That is, looking forward to a future success.

Even if the overall outcome is ‘bad’, you should show that your characters are prepared to deal with the consequences with a smile.

This is why ‘bittersweet’ endings are so popular. They replace what many consider to be a trite ‘everybody wins’ happy ending with an ending that tugs at the audience’s heartstrings but doesn’t leave them crippling depressed either.

What Does Jo-Ha-Kyuu Look Like?

Now that you have at least some understanding of JHK, I’ll give you a couple examples of what it might look like in Anime and LNs.


Much like the number of acts in Noh plays range from 4 to 6, Anime seasons range from 10 to 13 episodes / 22 to 26 episodes per season.

Typically, those in the action / drama genres follow a 3 (Jo), 8 (Ha/Michiyuki), 1 (Kyuu) format that follows Zeami’s structure in order to attain the greatest emotional high.

On the other hand, slice-of-life / comedy / romance anime almost always follows a 3 (Jo), 6 (Ha), 3 (Kyuu) format following Gidayuu’s structure. The Michiyuki comes around the eighth or ninth episode as a final ‘fun time’ before the characters have to resolve the primary conflict (episode 9 always seems to be the beach episode).

In Zeami’s structure, a final episode would comprise of a final battle, or something similar, concluding after around 18-20 minutes, leaving only 4-6 minutes to think about the aftermath.

In Gidayuu’s structure, a final episode would have the ‘final battle’ beginning and ending during the first 12 minutes. The story would then have 12 minutes left to mull over the aftermath and clean up any loose ends.

Furthermore, individual episodes work the same way in 24 minute portions.

  • (6, Jo) – OP Song and introduction of problem
  • (12, Ha) – Main portion, first climax, situation seems hopeless
  • (6, Kyuu) Sudden revelation, second climax, problem solved, ED song, preview

Light Novels

The average LN contains five chapters made up of 50K words, so we’ll use it as our model. Note: words counts will vary depending on your story.


The first chapter (5K) introduces your protagonist, her motivations, the world she inhabits, the major characters she gets involved with, and the primary conflict she must resolve to achieve her goal.


The second, third, and potentially part of the fourth (30K) have the protagonist working toward resolving the primary conflict while other new problems increase the overall tension. The climax should leave her hopeless and seemingly unable to ever achieve her goal.


The fourth (5K) should have her coming to terms with the previous tragedy and rethinking how to tackle the primary conflict.


The fifth (10K) should only come once she’s figured out how to truly achieve her goal. Raise the stakes back to same level they were during the first climax and then resolve the primary conflict.

Afterwards, allow for a period (short or long, depending on whether you follow Zeami’s or Gidayuu’s structure) of reflection and set up the next volume’s primary conflict.

The Omnipresence of Jo-Ha-Kyuu

Before you hang a picture of your newfound pyramid next to a poster of your waifu, there is one more concept I’d like to leave stewing in your brain.

To quote Zeami again, he claimed that “the principle of Jo, Ha, Kyuu is universal”.

What he meant by this is that JHK is present not only in plays, but in every form of media as well as life itself.

Without meaning too, everything tends toward JHK.

It wasn’t so much that Zeami invented JHK, but that he discovered it and gave it a name. JHK is always present in some form or fashion, but remains undefined until acknowledged.

JHK is here in this very article.

The Jo provided a short introduction to what I was going to discuss.

The Ha answered the question of what JHK is, while the climax was the revealing of the new pyramid and the explanation of its elements.

The Michiyuki took you through what JHK looks like and gave you time to reflect on your newfound knowledge.

The Kyuu is what you are reading right now, a climatic revelation that solidifies the power of JHK and reveals its true omnipresent nature.

So, now that I’ve cursed you with the knowledge that you can never escape JHK, it’s up to you to use it to the greatest possible effect in your LNs.


Hey, my name's Azuma. I first dove deep into Otaku culture in 2010 and never quite grew out of it. After a million different anime, light novels, manga, and visual novels, I learned a lot about each art form. Knowledge I want to share with you from writing advice to drawing tips. I'm also the Author of two light novels series, Garden of PSI and On Creating the Ultimate Weapon. Happy creating!

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