As a loose continuation of How best to deal with "what are you expecting?" questions, I believe many new authors don't understand the function of Narrative Necessity in their writing and how it influences, for good and for bad, worldbuilding and the pursuit of "reality."

Many worldbuilders are seeking to build worlds that are as scientifically or logically "real" or "plausible" as possible, not realizing that they may be straining at a gnat. The quest for scientific or logical perfection can hinder the quality of their fiction and often encroaches into realms of theory and hypothesis where a clear, "this is how it must be!" answer simply doesn't exist. Due to inexperience, they don't realize that what they are actually seeking is to make a world that is believable such that the reader is not distracted by the world while reading their story. Quite the opposite, the goal is for the reader to become engrossed in the world, even infatuated with it. To that end, some questions are best answered, "if you want it that way, sure."

To this end I am seeking a world-class definition of "narrative necessity" that includes and explanation of how understanding it will help participants on this site avoid question closure due to being too broad, too story-based, or being primarily opinion-based.


2 Answers 2


Narrative Necessity

Like all great ideas, the notion of narrative necessity is really quite simple. At its most fundamental, it means quite literally that any story (as story) needs certain things to happen, otherwise there is no story worth telling.

People think in terms of narrative arcs. Our lives are narrative arcs (individuation paradigm); our school careers are narrative arcs; the political seasons and the 24 hour news cycle are full of narrative arcs. And these stories, in order to be told as stories, contain events required for the proper understanding of the tale.

When we look at the life story of a Hero, we see common elements. Whether the hero is Hercules or Harry Potter, these elements of the heroic paradigm are matters of narrative necessity --- they have to happen for there to be a story. When we look at history, we see certain patterns and matters of inevitability. Things need doing and those things need people to do them.

Narrative necessity, as regards writing stories and telling the histories of invented cultures and worlds, simply means we as writers or geopoets attune ourselves to the needs of the narrative and, well, "make up" those things that the story needs in order to be told.

Two Definitions

One is the older meaning of narrative necessity: any of the events and situations required to ensure the consistency of the story.

In this view, a narrative necessity is an event which must happen, or a situation which must be present, in order to bring about a conclusion or a situation intended by the author; one could say that narrative necessities are links in the cause and effect chain which connects the premise with the conclusion. At the opposite end are events and descriptions which do nothing to advance the plot, but may be interesting and pleasant in their own right.

Another definition is a newer "post-modern" meaning of narrative necessity as a driving force which structures the story.

This newly identified kind of narrative necessity comes either from fundamental decisions about the story taken by the author, or, even more often, from undeclared (possibly unconscious) bias.

When I use the term in responding to querents here in Worldbuilding.SE, I mean most definitely the first definition. Most often, writers who ask questions here are asking for confirmation of whether some element in their story fits. Classic examples:

Vampire Who Still Eats Normal Food --- see Graham's answer

Excuse to Strand my Characters --- My answer to the related Meta question points out the fundamental narrative necessity of the original query. If you're writing a story set on a starship and you want your crew to become stranded, well, pick a scenario out of a hat. Oh, I know! Microfractures! The point about narrative necessity is that the actual event is not so important.

It could have been a software glitch or perhaps the USB plug that connects the navigator's thruster control to the worp drive came loose or it could have been a bunged up loo. (As a tip to "undeclared bias", I'd say that microfractures probably make for a better non-spoofy element of narrative necessity than a clogged toilet.)

Something needs to happen in order for the story to be a story, and that something is the narrative necessity.

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    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 21:32

Narrative necessity means the story comes first

Terry Pratchett used to refer to narrativium as a basic element of a world (Roundworld, that we live on apparently has none). It's the substance that people run on, but more importantly, that stories run on. People are of course made of stories.

To a certain extent it's the same stuff we refer to as unobtanium or handwavium, but specifically what narrativium does is that it changes the rules to make the story happen. The rules frame a story, they shape it, but the story itself must be the king. If a rule is preventing the story from happening, then the rule must change.

A classic example of this is the speed of travel, it comes up here periodically, how fast does a horse travel, how long would it take to travel distance X in Y historical period. All travel is fundamentally at the speed of plot. Your heroes, like wizards, always arrive exactly when they need to arrive and not a moment before. Narrative necessity sets the journey time, not the distance or the horse, it's well known that the Discworld isn't big enough for everything that takes place within it, but equally well known that nobody cares.

If you need giants, then you have giants, don't worry about justifying how their blood circulation works or how they don't break their legs with every stride, if their characters are believable and the environment suitable, they will be accepted.

Dragons can fly, it's a known thing, the fact their traditional build generally means they could barely slither along the ground notwithstanding, dragons fly.


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