Theory of Narrative Causality

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"The truth about stories is that's all we are."
Tom King, novelist

Things happen because the plot says they should.

All fictional realities have this underlying principle to one degree or another. It is the reason Plot Technology and Plot Armor work. It's why The Good Guys Always Win in the end, even though many individuals may try and fail and die gruesomely before the protagonist comes along. It's why it seems like the world's out to get the protagonist, it's why the reasonable explanation is almost never true, it's why someone can be Genre Savvy or Wrong Genre Savvy, why a trope can be Invoked, why a Million-to-One Chance crops up nine times out of ten and why it's never a good idea to Tempt Fate. Reality itself is mutable before the will of the plot. In stories where this is strong, Tropes may as well be laws of physics.

Another way to look at it is that amazing things don't happen to the main characters because they're the main characters—rather, they're the main characters because amazing things happen to them. If they weren't remarkable people with remarkable feats and tales to their name, there wouldn't be a story about them and you wouldn't be hearing it in the first place.

Or, an even shorter way to look at it, the reason something happens is that the story is better if that something happens.

Named for the principle laid out in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, in which this phenomenon is not only an explicit physical law, but has been codified, studied, tested, found to be an element ("narrativium") and may be the local equivalent of the strong nuclear force, although the term Narrative Causality is older than that.

Warning: This law may not apply if you've found a missing shaggy dog.

See also: The Plot Demanded This Index, Chris Carter Effect

Examples of Theory of Narrative Causality include:

Due to the omnipresence of this trope, please limit examples to in-universe references or Lampshade Hangings of the principle.

Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • A discussion of this idea bookended a two-part episode of Suzumiya Haruhi. Just because you're in a setting that's perfect for a murder mystery, doesn't mean one is going to happen, right?
    • Played straight in the rest of the series too, possibly. Haruhi thinks life is like an Anime. If she thinks she's the good guy and she's facing bad guys, she's going to win, because the good guys always defeat the bad guys.
  • The Bigger Bad of Medaka Box Ajimu is fully aware that the narrative causality of shounen manga is in effect, and avoids directly fighting The Hero Medaka because of it. If the Bigger Bad stepped down to Big Bad, her loss would be inevitable. So the Bigger Bad arranges a falling out between Medaka and her Supporting Protagonist Zenkichi which leads to Zenkichi's Face Heel Turn. Since he's the other main character, he's the only one who could conceivably defeat Medaka. Ajimu even believes Zenkichi will win because he's more heroic than Medaka because Medaka apparently murdered someone in the past.


Comics[edit | hide]

  • Briefly discussed in the first issue of the DCU Crisis Crossover Final Crisis. One Monitor says to another, "Behold: we monitors who were faceless once... We all have names now, and stories. There are heroes and villains... secrets and lovers." Translation: Nothing happened to us as long as they didn't write us into the stories. Now we're in them, and all hell is breaking loose.
  • In JLA: Earth-2, Grant Morrison's Post-Crisis reimagining of the DC Universe's Mirror Universe (Earth-3), the twist was that even narrative causality was inverted, so that all good deeds were doomed to failure in the mirror universe (just as evil was doomed to ultimate failure in the regular DCU).
    • In many cases it came down to character motivations. In the evil universe, humans would toady up to any power that came along whether it was good or evil and would continue to be corrupt and self-serving. In the good universe, Owlman discovered his alternate counterpart's father was dead and found he couldn't keep fighting because there was no one left to hurt.
    • A sequel had the mirror universe supervillains realizing that the narrative causality law had failed, giving them a chance to win in their alternates' world. Of course the heroes, once they quickly figured it out, went on the attack themselves in the mirror universe.
  • In Marvel 1602, Reed Richards attempts to formulate this theory. "Benjamin Grimm won't be changed back into a man, since he is much more interesting as a monster."
  • Morpheus in The Sandman, as Anthropomorphic Personification of dreams and storytelling, is obviously aware of it.
    • Although perhaps more in an academic sense more than anything. His brother Destiny on the other hand usually invites people over to his place for no reason other than the story requires them to be in his realm at that particular point in time.
  • In Monica's series Smudge (Cascão), the title character asks why he's been kidnapped and the answer is "Because of the hero of this comic book. If I kidnapped Robertinho or other, there would be no fun.".
  • In Harry Kipling (Deceased), the return of the gods has turned science into a mere suggestion; the mythic ideas are the ones that actually work.


Fan Works[edit | hide]

  • The Hunter seems to be aware of this in With Strings Attached, and that he's a secondary character; he talks several times about how his participation in the story of the four will not be very long.
  • Uninvited Guests has the characters attempting to discern what the plot wants them do. Aizen even weaponizes it in order to give himself and his minions Plot Armor.
  • The Mega Crossover fancomic Roommates plays with, discusses, lampshades etc.. this for comedy and tragedy. The cast members are not above using their Plot Armor, routinely facepalming when they notice Tempting Fate moments, angsting on the fact that The Good Guys Always Win etc..
  • Kyon, in The Emiya Clan, can basically contrive this on the spot. His EX ranked Common Sense give him full knowledge of all possible outcomes for a certain situation. If he Lampshades a certain one, chances are almost exact that it will happen.


Films -- Live Action[edit | hide]

  • This is subverted in Galaxy Quest, where one of the characters was a guest star who played a Red Shirt in the original program. He repeatedly insists that he's "expendable", and could get killed at any moment (his character never even had a last name). Ironically, he provides a role of Plucky Comic Relief (another character even suggests to him this might be the case), and in the epilogue, is added to the show's revival as a full-time character.
    • Near the end of the film, when a shapeshifting alien goes on a shooting spree, this character is the only one that doesn't get shot.
  • The Genre Savvy protagonist in Last Action Hero tries to exploit the rules of the action-movie universe he's trapped in to his advantage, playing chicken with the bad guy's car on his bicycle. Just in time, he realizes he's the Plucky Comic Relief, not the hero, and swerves out of the way.
  • In Enchanted, the way Giselle seems to teleport from place to place during her musical numbers (not to mention the infectious singing or Spontaneous Choreography of said numbers); makes elaborate and beautiful dresses in no time at all, out of curtains and blankets; and somehow manages to climb up the side of a skyscraper and onto the roof to save Robert from Narissa, when there is no apparent way for her to have climbed up there. Really, anything that Giselle does that makes little sense outside of an animated feature.
  • Austin Powers' father irritatedly lectures a Mook about to attack him that he's an obvious Red Shirt who doesn't even have a name tag, and should just lie down right now. He complies.
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights: After losing an archery contest against a master archer, Robin double-checks the script, confirming he's "not supposed to lose."
  • The Cabin in the Woods is basically an explanation for why Narrative Causality exists, at least in horror movies: all the tropes and cliches of horror movies are actually part of an elaborate ritual needed to keep some Eldritch Abominations happy, and there's a massive conspiracy manipulating people into fulfilling those ritual cliches.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Naturally, the Discworld series is full of examples of how the theory manifests:
    • If three brothers set out on a quest individually, and it claims the lives of the first two brothers, it is impossible for the third brother to fail.
    • A one-in-a-million chance crops up nine times out of ten. (There's a point in one of the video games where to complete a task, you have to determine, and then implement, the right set of circumstances that will give you exactly a one-in-a-million chance of success. Based on the Guards! Guards! example below.)
    • In the Science of Discworld books, the wizards of Unseen University examine "Roundworld" (i.e. Earth) and are surprised to learn that it contains no Narrativium—this being scientifically impossible (by Discworld standards).
    • Doubly subverted in Guards! Guards! when Nobby and Colon get all Genre Savvy and try to adjust the odds such that they achieve a Million-to-One Chance to hit a dragon's male "voonerables". It doesn't work, but this isn't because of the theory failing- it turns out the dragon was a she, so they had a 0% chance all along. They promptly survive the ensuing explosion, the odds of which were exactly a million to one.
      • Since the reveal of the real reason they failed is still some way off, it also mentions that since they were just a bunch of random guys trying to figure out what circumstances would make Fred's chances exactly a million to one by blindly guessing, they missed the mark somewhat and got a million-and-pocket-change chance, which, not being exactly a million to one, had only about a million-and-pocket-change to one chance of actually happening.
    • Still in Guards! Guards!, Vimes is about to be arrested. The several armed men who come to do so immediately notice that he is a) unarmed and b) smiling. They conclude he's very bad news and refuse to take him, assuming he'd start to swing on the chandeliers and break things at any moment. Luckily for them, he agrees to come along quietly.
    • Lady Lilith de Tempscire, the Big Bad from Witches Abroad, tries to rule a whole city-state according to the laws of fairy tales—such as "all toymakers must be jolly fat men who sing and tell stories to children, on punishment of death." With herself as the good fairy godmother.
    • For exploiting Narrative Causality, no one tops the Silver Horde, Cohen the Barbarian's well-armed, battle-experienced (if geriatric) warriors, who simply live by "The Code". It culminates with The Last Hero's climax, where the Horde are ready to finish what they'd decided to do, and they won't let anybody stop them... when they realize that it's seven of them (including minstrel), against one single, heroic-looking young man, ostensibly a simple city guard, armed only with a worn sword, and wasn't there a rumor about the lost heir to the throne being a simple city guard? And he's smiling. The Horde realize they don't have a chance and give up.
    • Then there's Rule One: "Do not act incautiously when confronting a little bald wrinkly smiling man!". Especially if you're armed, and they're not.
    • Lampshaded in Interesting Times:

Twoflower: "When seven men go out to fight an army 180,000 times bigger there's only one way it can end."
Rincewind: "Right. I'm glad you see sense."
Twoflower: "They'll win. They've got to. Otherwise the world's just not working properly."

  • Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time: The three main characters are said to be ta'veren, which indeed roughly translates as "Main Character". This is (part of) the in-universe reason given for all the Contrived Coincidences that keep happening to them.
    • It's at least someone Justified because the coincidences aren't just contrived for story purposes, the ta'veren are also followed around everywhere they go by bizarre random chance, which often has nothing to do with the story. Sometimes it's a Contrived Coincidence in a plot-furthering way, like a very unlikely reunion with an old acquaintance, but then again sometimes it's important to other characters in-universe but completely unimportant to the main plot, like an Innocent Bystander tripping over a tiny rock and breaking his neck, and sometimes it's not important to anyone at all, like a sandbag breaking and the sand just happening to fall in the shape of something with great symbolic importance.
      • In RPG terms. If one of the main characters needs to roll a six to make it past the next challenge, then everyone around them will continue to roll sixes constantly until the ta'veren leaves the area.
      • In-universe philosophers actually theorize that things balance each other, so there would rather be only sixes and ones in equal proportion until the character leaves.
  • The world in Mercedes Lackey's Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is governed by this trope (named "The Tradition" in this instance). The characters are aware of this and spend a great deal of time trying to manipulate/subvert/redirect this force for their own goals.
  • Craig Shaw Gardner's The Cineverse Cycle, although in this case the universe is suffering from a breakdown such that you can't rely on the rules to work properly.
  • Christopher Stasheff's A Wizard in Rhyme series has this as an explicit law of the setting, which natives must remind the Trapped in Another World / Ordinary High School Student protagonist of on a regular basis. Of course, this is a setting where magic is triggered by spoken verse (with the implied extension that All Myths Are True), so it actually makes sense in context.
  • Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle makes a point of narrative causality at the beginning (Sophie, as the eldest of three daughters, is expected to never succeed in anything, while her youngest sister is sent off to accrue her "inevitable" fame and fortune), and then steadily works at subverting it.
    • No such use of this in the movie, unfortunately.
      • In large part because Japan has different narrative traditions and so some of the bits might be rather hard to understand. Then there's the whole thing with the poem...
  • In The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross, a powerful spell of compulsion means everything has to happen exactly the way it would in a James Bond movie. That still leaves room for a couple of twists, though.
  • Robertson Davies' The Lyre Of Orpheus suggests that this happens in Real Life, using the idea that there are only a certain number of plots in the universe. He compares them to wax, and that each human life is just a unique impression on the same wax. His characters - by putting on an opera about King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere - find their lives conforming to that tragic love triangle.
  • Timothy Findley's Headhunter is set Twenty Minutes Into the Future, where hardly anyone reads novels. One of the few readers left is a schizophrenic woman who believes she has set Kurtz free from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Throughout the novel, characters' lives are destroyed by their tendency to conform to novels they've never read - Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Fahrenheit 451 - with the suggestion that if they'd read more, they'd be less genre blind and more likely to avoid the inevitable tragedy.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In the Buffy episode "This Year's Girl", Faith taunts Joyce while holding her prisoner in Buffy's room, saying "do you think Buffy's going to just leap through that window?". She continues to monologue, with Buffy a no-show, until Buffy eventually does leap through the window later than expected.
  • In Babylon 5, Marcus knows exactly the right time to hide and set up an ambush before some guards appear. When asked how he knew, he says it would have been the most inconvenient time to be discovered, so of course that's when it would happen.
  • In Doctor Who, The season five finale The Big Bang The Doctor, upon facing annihilation and erasure from time itself, a surprisingly common situation for him, says to Amy:

"I'll be a story in your head. That's okay, we're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one 'aye."


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • The Fair Folk from Exalted live their lives according entirely to what's dramatically appropriate. Their Shaping Combat works entirely by "rewriting" someone or something else's story. The Wyld even has paths known as "waypoints" which operate not by distance, but by where a person is in a particular story.
    • Creation works like this in some ways, too. Many Sidereal effects work by setting someone in a particular role in a story... a role that happens to fit with the Sidereal's plans.
  • Why do things keep getting worse in Warhammer 40,000? Aside from massive inertia, mostly because the writers say so.
  • The Discworld GURPS Role-Playing Game actually has rules for invoking this: A spell that lets you twist narrative tropes, as well as a caution that just because you set yourself up as the Hero Who Saves the World From the Evil Troll doesn't mean you're not actually One of the Dozen Hapless Characters Who Get Killed by the Troll Before the Hero Shows Up or, if the story is being told from a troll perspective, The Devious Little Human Squashed By The Troll Hero. ("Troll fairy-stories are not very subtle.")
  • Changeling: The Lost features the art of Talecrafting. A savvy enough changeling with a proper knowledge of legend and lore can call upon the motifs and themes of stories to ensure victory in his efforts (e.g., setting it up so that if the first two attempts failed, then the third time has a much better chance to succeed).
    • Changeling (and by extension, the entire World of Darkness) embodies this trope, as the Wyrd, which is the life's blood of all things fae and of which Faerie and the True Fae are essentially manifestations, is the fundamental narrative force of the universe, incorporating time and fate, destiny and chance, predestination and free will. The above-mentioned Talecrafting works because, due to the Wyrd, the World of Darkness runs on tropes.
  • This is the entire point of a table top RPG. You as a player are there to make a person who will wind up thick in the middle of the plot. Your PC, by virtue of being a PC, has been designated a major character. Players who subvert this trope and frustrate their GMs by refusing to get off their duffs when the Call comes simply find ever stronger motivations for their characters to take the plunge. You're there, and you're a PC; plot and remarkable events are inevitable.
    • Dungeon Masters trying to prod the players into taking a certain track is such a common behavior it has a nickname. It's called "Railroading."


Theater[edit | hide]

  • The famous line from As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players".


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Interestingly lampshaded and subverted in Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning. The world of Amalur has its entire history set in stone, there is no such thing as determining your fate. In fact, the Fae's entire culture revolves around Narrative Causality: their fates are pre-determined by their ballads and songs, and they simply go along for the ride with no protests. The villains in their stories are pretty much designated as such, as are their heroes. It's actually a major plot point that the main character is an anomaly and fate has no power whatsoever over him/her, allowing him/her to actually change the fate of his world.
  • Alan Wake revolves around this trope. The Dark Presence abducts artists and tries to use their works to warp reality so it can escape. The artist can escape by inserting themselves into the work, but they must obey the internal laws of their own creations. The writer before Alan, Thomas Zane, tried to simply bring his wife back to life, but since this destroyed the story's internal logic she Came Back Wrong. Alan simply writes himself in as the protagonist, but since it's a horror-thriller, it has to appear that he could lose or die at any point, and has to give Equivalent Exchange to rescue Alice from the Dark Place instead of conjuring up an Esoteric Happy Ending.
  • Disgaea 3 has fun with this. Mao, after intense study on superhero stories, comes to the conclusion that if he's going to defeat his father the Overlord and take over, he must become the hero because hero's always win. Being a demon, he doesn't bother to change himself for the better, and just steals the title of 'Hero' from some hapless passerbyer. Naturally, the plan works as well as you can guess. However, the title soon affects Mao's mind, subtly making him more heroic.
    • While the only plot-centric one, this is hardly the only instance of this in the Disgaea series. The Fourth Wall is flimsy at best in the 'verse and major players are very aware of main character priviledges, occasionally attempting to usurp the position. In the remake of Disgaea 2, this can even succeed and net you a Nonstandard Game Over.
  • Video games in general deconstruct this trope. Any game with lives, save points, or both, allow the audience to fail to move the story line forward upon either death or failure, thus ending the narrative. Successful completion of the task at hand, however, will usually lead to a dictated outcome. Furthermore, games with branching storyline or "sandbox" structure allow for a bizarre form of aversion for this trope.
  • Balthier of Final Fantasy XII believes that he is the leading man of the story, and invokes this on several occasions. Once, he warns Vaan to take care of his ship in the case that something "untoward" should happen to him because he "might have to do something heroic." He also assures Ashe that because of this trope, he can never die. He is eventually shown to right on both counts, despite his lack of leading man status.


Webcomics[edit | hide]

  • In Eight Bit Theater, Thief tries using this trope to blackmail a dragon.
  • Explicitly referred to in this Irregular Webcomic, by a character who presumably is himself familiar with the concept from Pratchett (being a present-day fantasy and science fiction fan).
  • Most of The Order of the Stick works this way, and the characters know it. And more often than not, try to exploit it.
    • Elan in particular is extremely well versed in tropes from being a bard, and is the fastest and most clever in exploiting them. When he doesn't get distracted.
    • One villain has also demonstrated the same level of awareness as Elan, if not higher; he rationalizes that if a hero always rises to oppose the Evil Empire, that means there's always going to be an Evil Empire to oppose, so why not be the one running it? He uses his trope-awareness to secretly control most of a continent and keep it firmly under his boot with an aim to keep expanding his influence. He even gloats about how his eventual and inevitable defeat will be meaningless because he gets to live the good life for years if not decades until that happens and then his story will live on forever, inspiring generations of new villains.
      • Which is appropriate, since the villain in question is Elan's father. Being Genre Savvy is genetic, apparently.
  • The webcomic Footloose is built around this trope, with the Plot being an active force in the universe that can be predicted by the Fae.
  • In The Way of the Metagamer, narrativium not only exists, but can be manipulated through use of a literal Plot Hole.
  • Fuzzy Knights, like Discworld, has The Story as a tangible force - it's originally introduced in the context of the tabetop RPGs that the fuzzies play (and frequently run Off the Rails) but it becomes important in the Tournament War storyline with Mossfoot and HamaEstra fighting to influence and control it. When plot-convenient coincidences start happening a lot, it's best to pay attention.
  • Get ready for this, the villains in Mixed Myth use a filmic version of this. The elves worship a power called "Cynamatik" and use it to fuel their magic. As the name suggests, the elves have a limited ability to control this force, because it will always cause the most dramatically appropriate circumstances—so the elves are only on top for as long as it's dramatically appropriate, and the instant the story calls for their defeat, it's impossible that they won't lose the battle.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • The idea that human lives conform to the stories they tell is a cornerstone of everything from Jungian psychology, to the Postmodern concept of metanarratives, to some very old bits of philosophy. Cherokee author Tom King considers this part of the Native worldview, or as he puts it, "The truth about stories is that's all we are."
  • Many religions believe the universe was intentionally created and designed to serve some kind of purpose. Throughout human history, attempts to determine and/or manipulate that purpose have led to a number of serious wars.
  • The conjunction fallacy is an example of assuming that two specific events are more likely to occur simultaneously (or be related) than for at least one of them to occur. (Mathematically speaking, the reverse is true; the probability of either event is always equal or greater than the probability of both occuring.)
    • Only true if the events in question are randomly occurring. Human behavior throws a wrench in the whole business.
      • That is the fallacy in a nutshell, though it requires recognizing that "the probability that X will happen" includes "the chance that someone will cause X to happen". If thing B always happens (100% likelihood) when thing A happens, because someone does thing B every time that thing A happens, then the probability of (A and B) is equal to the probability of A. If there is ever a case, even once, where someone fails to do B when A happens, then the probability of (A and B) is less than the probability of A. Further, if B always and only happens when A happens, then the probability of B is equal to the probability of (A and B); if B always happens when A happens, but B could also happen without A, then the probability of B is larger than the probability of (A and B). It holds for any other way you rig it too.
        • This does not work. "If thing B always happens (100% likelihood) when thing A happens, because someone does thing B every time that thing A happens," Then the probability of A and B happening is 100% and the probability of A happening solo is 0% (It cannot happen because B always happens when A does), then the probability of A and B(100% of the time) is greater than A(0%). Then mathematically speaking, the fallacy holds if you allow two events to be related so as to require each other. I think I see the mistake. It is not that "one event" is more likely, it is "at least one". Maybe if you replace the either with one or more.