Narrative Filigree

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

Most works follow The Law of Conservation of Detail. If you see something, chances are it's important - either for the plot, or for establishing character or setting.

However, some works thumb their noses at the Law and decide that, more than anything, they want to engage in World Building. They want to show realistic diction. People may actually have to drive around for a bit to find a parking spot. They may actually have to go to the bathroom (and not due to a Potty Emergency, either). There may be offhand conversations that have nothing to do with the plot.

In short, these are works full of details that are pretty but not required for the story - filigree, in fact. It's where the actual narrative is full of things that aren't really plot.

Slice of Life stories often fall into this, but not always - some of them are a set of vignettes, with each capsule story adhering to the Law individually. Many sitcoms also apply, because jokes (at least those that aren't Brick Jokes, Overly Prepared Gags, or Chekhovs Guns) tend to be one-offs.

Because many video games don't have linear narratives, this trope does not categorically apply to many of them. Only the story contained in cutscenes and dialogues of the more heavily plot-based (and linear) games would qualify. Sandbox-style games, while sometimes possessing central, driving storylines, are arguably defined by the huge quantity of Narrative Filigree contained in them, so mentioning this trope in the context of such games is almost superfluous. If details have been added for the sake of creating a realistic, unrestrictive game environment, then the Dev Team Has Thought of Everything.

Compare Establishing Character Moment, Cryptic Background Reference.

Examples of Narrative Filigree include:

Comic Books

  • Cerebus the Aardvark makes frequent use of this trope.
    • Four consecutive pages of one issue are devoted to the title character getting out of bed and urinating. A reader famously wrote cartoonist Dave Sim, demanding a pro-rated refund for that portion of the issue.
    • In another issue or two, Cerebus is portrayed with cold symptoms. This isn't a plot point; nor (if I recall correctly) do he or other characters even mention it. He just happens to have come down with a cold.
  • Brandon Graham's comics can go off on small tangents to give details about of the setting or background characters. The plot will also spend time with the main characters eating and even taking a leak.

Fan Works

  • Nights in the Big City, a Kim Possible Fan Fiction, builds an alternate universe where details casually thrown out just to give the world texture include mentions of minor Canon characters in different roles, that Robert E. Lee was the 13th President, the cars run on ethanol, the space program hasn't gone further than the Moon, and that the Pope is female and so is God. These don't have any relevance to the story, they just give a better impression of a whole world beyond the frame.



  • The Thursday Next books are full of jokes, parodies, and satire as part of their Alternate History that has little to do with the plot and are simply bits of fun.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has all kinds of asides and Guide entries that are only marginally, if at all, connected to the thread of the story.
  • Harry Potter fits this nicely, with many instances that are great for drawing the reader into the world, but otherwise being unimportant in the overall plot. For example, instances with the students of Hogwarts studying for exams. Of course, some elements which look like this become very important... four years later.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell! Susanna Clarke quotes and often criticises from an academic point of view nearly half hundred books, some periodics and some essays and several folktales, all of them fictional. And even expands the information given away by the characters in casual conversation in really long 185 footnotes (one of them is over 5 freakin' pages long), some of them even referring to other footnotes!
  • The Discworld series's amusing digressions and attempts to be realistic about how people act and interact (even when it slows down the plot) where most fantasy series wouldn't, are some of its major selling points.
  • A constant in the works of Jack Vance. World building is an objective in and of itself. In Lyonnesse we learn the exact layout of Suldrun's garden, the names of the plants, how it looks at several times and day and times of year. For the grand plot it would suffice to simply confine Suldrun to her garden. Vance will build up a history, a religion, a race, a river or a plain, never necessarily needing it to advance the core story.
  • The Spider-Man novels by Adam-Troy Castro feature massive amounts of World Building and tiny details, often by cutaways to the everyday life of people in metahuman-infested New York. In "Revenge of the Sinister Six", there's a constant stream of news reporting on Spider-Man's efforts to prevent mass slaughter by the eponymous villains, including commercials for 'Supervillain Insurance'.
  • Stephen King tends toward this in his novels.
    • The Stand (especially the unabridged version) not only tries to give almost everyone the depth of Backstory you'd normally reserve for the main character, but also dedicates a huge amount of space to characters and events that are, at most, tangentially connected to the main plot. This includes a large section given over to introducing characters just to show how they died as an indirect effect of the plague. Of course, we're talking about a single book that's about as long as The Lord of the Rings.
    • Early in The Dark Half, we are treated to a full chapter dedicated to the life of the man who discovers the empty grave that sets the plot in motion. The man literally serves no other purpose and is never mentioned again.
    • Toward the climax of The Shining, when the novel starts to take on its true gripping nature, King does much the same with the policeman who pulls the chef over.
  • Tristram Shandy spends so much time on narrative filigree and digressions that it forgets to have an actual plot. The entire book consists of digressions within digressions within digressions, and so on.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions has extensive narrative filigree, as justified in the quote at the top - from describing the different sci-fi stories Kilgore Trout has written, to bizarre and inconsequential interrelationships between characters, to the penis lengths and circumferences of each male character.
  • The Catcher in The Rye falls into this sometimes when Holden Caulfield wanders off on little tangents about things that don't directly relate to what's going on at the moment.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: It's difficult to have a series with an intended length of seven books, each of which is twice the length of an average Doorstopper, without falling prey to this a little. Each of the prologues goes to great length to bring to life a character who will inevitably die at the end of the chapter. There's also a fair amount of World Building, Food Porn, Scenery Porn, and characterizing side characters. Outside of this sort of description, though, Martin does a pretty respectable job of making all events and conversations important.

Live-Action TV

Interviewer: That was a clip from your latest film, Sometimes Fires Go Out, which has been described as "unrelentingly real", "a devastatingly faithful rendition of how life is", and "dull, dull, unbearably dull". Those quotes, oddly all from the same review.

    • The film "The Man Who Has A Cough And It's Just A Cough And He's Fine" is a 19th century period piece, skewering the Incurable Cough of Death.
  • How often is the Doctor of Doctor Who going to mention something completely incidental which has no purpose to the plot? A lot.


  • Street Scene immerses the audience in the everyday life of the urban setting suggested by its title. There are several points in the play where a couple of minor characters, usually unnamed, cross the stage conversing with each other about something not relevant to anything else in the play.

Video Games

  • Resident Evil Code: Veronica - way more objects modeled than mattered. A number of rooms were just crammed with well done object models with no game function: furniture, victrola, mannikin, vending machines, books, and so on.
  • Ghost Hunter
  • Fallout 3 has tons of items, some of them with no apparent purpose. However, most of them can at least be picked up and used for something.
  • Primal - The Count's chateau has an armor museum, a library, and a chapel. All exquisitely done, but with no function what so ever.
  • The Pokémon games actually do a fair amount of this. Plenty of NPCs exist only to make amusing comments on the everyday tasks for which Pokémon are used.
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is arguably the most complete, interactive example of this trope. In most fantasy-RPGs, boxes, chests, and barrels are filled with what else? Treasure! Gold! In Cyrodiil? Yarn! Grain! Calipers! In most games, NPCs who do something other than stand there are often leading the player to secret treasure, or maybe just running around in a little circle. In Cyrodiil? They have entire lives. They farm, they eat meals, they even cheat on their spouses (and they have nonsensical conversations and rake the carpet). Unlike Bethesda's subsequent game, Fallout 3, where the supposedly "junk" items can all be used in some way or another (appropriate to its post-apocalyptic survivalist atmosphere), in Cyrodiil yarn is exactly that, and has about as much usefulness to an adventuring hero as you might imagine. Less, actually, since you can't even knit woolly underwear with it.
    • In fact, this applies to most, if not all, Elder Scrolls games. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has just as much clutter if not more than Oblivion, although significantly more of it is useful in some way (candles and lanterns set on tables can be picked up and used for light, for example), but there's still a ton of random stuff that never gets used for anything.
    • The games that Bethesda produced after coding the Radiant engine have a lot more of this than their older works (or older works in series that they took over). This is because the engine allows "actors" to determine the optimal (according to their own judgment) methods for achieving goals, which removes the need to script each and every action and allows the developers to work with a larger number of actors and goals.
  • Part of what Beyond Good and Evil was praised for was its narrative filigree, as the creators worked to make a solid "world" instead of simply a setting. Thus, there are animal species, posters and billboards for events and services, fake commercials, and NPCs with their own little history that don't directly contribute to the main plot, but give some depth to the planet of Hillys.
  • BioShock: nearly every wall covered in posters for in-game shows or products and audio diaries from people going about their normal, non-plot-related lives.
  • The Neverhood has the absolutely massive Hall of Records, which takes up about 40 in-game screens of tiny text and around 100 pages of flat printing. It describes the lives and worlds of the seven sons of Quatar, precisely one of which, Hoborg, is at all relevant to the plot. (Two, sort of, if you count Willie's father, Ottoborg, but his origins aren't relevant to the plot.) The Ynts and Skullmonkeys also become important in the sequel, but for the most part, it's just a lot of World Building coupled with some truly bizarre fables—such as the one about the talking burger box.
  • Heavy Rain, particularly in the earlier chapters, lets the characters take lots of little mundane actions—drinking coffee, using the bathroom, playing games, generally fiddling with stuff that serves no actual purpose. In the developer's previous game, Fahrenheit (2005 video game), such activities did have an effect on gameplay (they raised the characters' Sanity Meters), but in Heavy Rain they're just... there.
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky: practically every town is full of NPCs who say things that don't matter, and houses or rooms without anything to examine, interact with, or find.
  • Wii RPG Opoona is a game that actually sells itself on its narative filigree: It bills itself as a "Lifestyle RPG," and half the focus of the game is learning about the culture of the alien planet on which you've landed. Things such as the planet's art history, pop culture, fashions, industry, and ecology are all nonessential and "secondary" to the main plot, but they are there to be explored by the curious.
  • Baldur's Gate is utterly filled with readable books, and not just the same two or three, there are dozens. There are also plenty of empty containers and vast, vast, amounts of wilderness to just wander through, with Tales of the Sword Coast adding even more. The story itself didn't need half of it and most players will never even see more than about 60-70% of the entire map. Sadly Baldur's Gate II is pretty linear by comparison.

Web Comics

  • Discussed, parodied, and turned up to eleven by Unwinder's Tall Comics, on this page. In the in-story mystery novel The Gun and the Grapes, author Greg Kirkpatrick describes everything in excruciating detail, to deliberately obscure the relevant clues under mountains of irrelevant ones.