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Narrative Filigree
"Here is Philomène, an air hostess. Amélie keeps her cat while she is away. Philomène likes the sound of the cat's bowl on the tiles. The cat likes overhearing children's stories."

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. Of course, a lot of things that aren't plot-relevant will still tell you something about the characters.

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 Preprepared Gags, or Chekhov's 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, Left Field Description, Random Events Plot, Garnishing the Story.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    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 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.
  • Ultimate Spider-Man. Really, any comic written by Brian Michael Bendis can be full of this, particularly in the form of dialogue loaded with stuttering and other verbal tics most writers would bypass in the name of getting to the bloody point.

    Fan Works 
  • Nights In The Big City, a Kim Possible fanfiction, 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.
  • Part of the reason Shinji And Warhammer 40 K is such a Door Stopper. Intricate attention is frequently given to insignificant details, with even the prologue, which is long enough to be its own separate story, full of things that are never mentioned again (and a few things that are very important later, so the reader still needs to pay attention).
  • The Total Drama story, Legacy has a good deal of filigree in the first and last chapters, which have a "slice of life" feel. The first chapter goes into considerable detail about the condition of the camp to create an autumnal mood, and the final scene deals at some length with the dramatically pivotal subject of what Heather and Duncan had for lunch.
  • Numerous ancillary scenes in The Legend of Total Drama Island have far more detail than is strictly necessary to advance the story.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Many scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the point where the middle section is practically nothing else. Well, until HAL 9000 starts trying to kill everybody.
  • Birdemic has a lot of driving around in it. A lot of boring, pointless conversations, too. The bit with Nathalie's mother discussing her old job and current retirement springs to mind.
  • If Umberto Eco is to be believed, this is very common in pornographic films.
  • In WarGames, the parents of Matthew Broderick's character are having dinner where the father butters his bread and then uses it to butter his corn-on-the-cob, which, he finds out, his wife didn't cook "to preserve the vitamins." He begs her to cook the corn and use pills for getting more vitamins in their diet. Nothing else is said about this scene, not even by them later.
  • This trope was pretty much what amazed people about Reservoir Dogs. It's a heist film, but the first five minutes is all the principals sitting down to breakfast, conversing about pop music and tipping.
  • Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain practically runs on this. Not only is Amélie's conception noted to have occurred at the same time as three completely irrelevant eventsnote , but almost every character (and the occasional animal) is noted to have likes and dislikes, regardless of whether they're important or not.
    Here is Philomène, an air hostess. Amélie keeps her cat while she is away. Philomène likes the sound of the cat's bowl on the tiles. The cat likes overhearing children's stories.
  • In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the tour guide in the Pentagon explains that the building has twice the number of bathrooms that would be actually needed, because it was built when racial segregation was still in effect. Even though that has passed, it would cost too much to remove them. No, this info does not become useful for the plot later, it is just trivia.

    Literature 
  • 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.
  • 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 Lyonesse 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 worldbuilding 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. In the prologue to the unabridged version, he says he felt the original abridged version failed because it was specifically lacking this trope.
      "It's like a Cadillac, but with the paint stripped off and the chrome sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain't, you know, boss!"
    • 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.
    • In a couple of his books, such as The Regulators and Under the Dome, King will introduce a character, explain that they are just about to die, and then proceed to unload a ton of backstory about the character.
  • 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.
  • Breakfast of Champions has extensive narrative filigree, 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.
    Kurt Vonnegut: 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.
  • 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 Door Stopper, 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, Regular 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.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien may as well be the patron saint of his trope, if not the Ur Example in modern literature, as almost every fantasy series since has followed his example.
    • The Lord of the Rings is loaded with poems and discourses on genealogy and history that don't really have much to do with the main plot other than to provide background and context, and mainly serve to flesh out the world of Middle-Earth. The prologue does nothing but describe in detail the history and culture of Hobbits and the Shire, and can be skipped over without leaving the reader confused in the slightest. The Appendices are filled with timelines, dates of birth and death of all the Kings of Númenor, Gondor, Arnor, Rohan, and Chieftains of the Dúnedain, a small lesson in the Elven languages, descriptions of the writing systems, and a brief story of the romance between Aragorn and Arwen that wasn't part of the main narrative (this section was mined by Jackson for the film adaptations to flesh out their characters).
    • The Silmarillion takes this Up to Eleven. Since it's essentially a history of the Elder Days, the entire book is basically Literary Filigree. Though there is a central plot (the conflict between the Elves and Morgoth over the Silmarils) the book is essentially a series of self-contained tales that are only loosely connected to each other. The book also functions as back story for The Lord of the Rings, fleshing out and expanding on tales and events referenced in the previous work.
    • Scores of other Literary Filigree works to The Lord of the Rings have since been published, including: The Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales, the History of Middle-Earth series, and The Children of Húrin. The latter is a further expansion on one of the stories in The Silmarillion, while the others are collections of stories or notes used in writing the different works, some expanding on concepts that Tolkien only glossed over in the final published versions, or providing early or alternate versions that were ultimately abandoned.
  • Gaunt's Ghosts, Eisenhorn, Ravenor, and indeed near every book written by Dan Abnett devotes much attention to histories, locations, technology, vehicles, animals and people, most of which has no relevance to what is happening. It also adds greatly to the Anyone Can Die climate, as there is no way whatsoever of telling whether the recently introduced character - complete with appearance, brief backstory and glimpse of their personality - will be killed unceremoniously in the next few pages or become a major character that lasts for several books.
  • The Night Circus is largely filigree, to the point where one review called it a "cabinet of curiosities," meaning a bunch of pretty things with no story. But they are really pretty things.
  • LARP: The Battle For Verona will give every single person who speaks a name and career description, even if they're never mentioned again. While it's probably meant to emphasise that everyone involved in the story is essentially just an ordinary person, not a soldier, it often ends up just disrupting the flow and gets confusing when they're mentioned by name again despite the reader having quickly forgotten about them.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has lots of this. Consider the lengthy in-story poems/songs for the Oompa-Loompas that drive the various aesops home. Many chapters are largely given over to discussions, descriptions, or even just lists of Willy Wonka's many wondrous inventions and rooms in the factory that have no direct bearing on the plot. In the sequel, when Mr. Wonka explains to Charlie that a full tour of the factory takes three weeks, one can believe it! Some of the filigree inventions are upgraded to plot-affecting ones in adaptations — the Fizzy Lifting Drinks and Everlasting Gobstoppers in the 1971 film, for instance.

    Live-Action TV 
  • How often is the Doctor of Doctor Who going to mention something completely incidental which has no purpose to the plot? A lot.
  • That Mitchell and Webb Look
    • The show has a series of sketches about a director whose films consist of nothing but this.
      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.
  • Pushing Daisies, whilst only occasionally delving into moments irrelevant to the current plotline, invokes this several times per episode through a nigh-omnipotent, eccentric narrator specifying time difference between events right down to years, months, weeks, days, hours and seconds.

    Theater 
  • 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.
  • The Mikado explains this trope in-universe:
    Pooh-Bah: Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

    Video Games 
  • The first half of the police station level in Max Payne 2 is dedicated to this. You can continue on with the story at any time, but you are encouraged to wander around the station, dicking around with people, breaking a room refreshener, listening to your colleagues bantering and a criminal trying to explain how his wife and her friend killed themselves and framed him for it.
  • 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.
  • 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, even if that something is the Rock-It Launcher (a gun that fires almost anything that lands under the "Misc" category).
  • Primal: The Count's chateau has an armor museum, a library, and a chapel. All exquisitely done, but with no function whatsoever.
  • Pokémon
    • The 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 Pokédex also counts. Each Pokémon has a short description you can read once you catch it, which changes in almost every game and has practically no impact on the game. Frequently they even fall under Gameplay and Story Segregation (such as with how Slowpoke evolves).
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • 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. 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.
    • Another staple of The Elder Scrolls games, especially Morrowind, is the huge number of books that can be read: some are related to quests, others give information on the backstory, but most are just there for world building.
  • Part of what Beyond Good & 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 worldbuilding 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, Indigo Prophecy, such activities did have an effect on gameplay (they raised the characters' Sanity Meters), but in Heavy Rain they're just... there.
  • 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 narrative 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. Baldur's Gate II is pretty linear by comparison.
  • The majority of Psychonauts characters, including the asylum patients and all but one or two of the camp kids, are utterly irrelevant to the plot, but exploring and discovering their quirks is half the fun of the game. Spying on the Soap Opera-level love lives of ten-year-olds is way more fun than it should be.
  • Hitman: Absolution, which advertises itself as having "a living, breathing world", contains numerous irrelevant sequences with both enemies and civilians that can be observed. For example, "Terminus Hotel" (READ: part of one level) contains: a failing shoe salesman flirting with a maid; a woman arguing with her unemployed partner (who is having a midlife/existential crisis); a territorial landlady bickering with security; a woman arguing with "an asshole" over the phone; two guards discussing an absent colleague; and two electricians discussing a friend who was struck by lightning and who can now light bulbs by touching them...
    ''Life is a wonderful thing. Full of hopes and fears. Comedy and tragedy. Thousands of lives intermingle. An intricate web of relations and situations. Desires and regrets. Plans. Allegiances. Watching from the shadows, 47 learns the most intimate of secrets.
  • The Deus Ex games have this in spades, especially the first one. There are all kinds of NPCs the player can talk to, newspaper articles and books they can read, and areas they can explore that have nothing at all to do with the main plot. All these details do a pretty decent job of building a future world full of complex politics, social unrest, and soda machine conspiracies.
    • Also applies for sequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as when players visit foreign countries, they will sometimes find foreign emails that can be translated for humorous conversations and easter eggs.
  • The Mother series revels in this. It's quite rare to find a character or object that actually contributes to the plot, most of the time just telling jokes, reacting to things that go on, referencing pop culture or simply saying they like croquet rolls.

    Web Comics 
  • Discussed, parodied, and turned up to eleven by Unwinders 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.

    Web Original 
  • The Phase novels of the Whateley Universe. There's tons of world building and characterization, but man, can the author go on about stuff that's not relevant to the plot. Like a detailed description of the awesome dinner the chefs prepared for Ayla, or Ayla's schoolwork.

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