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Is there a term/trope for the sort of underlying concept of a story, which itself is most likely unrealistic, but which we must accept without explanation, proof or tie back to real-life, for the story to work. A sort of "narrative axiom" if you will??

For example, in Toy Story, whenever people aren't looking, the toys come to life, interact, and have lives of their own, while new toys appear to need time to realise they aren't actually the person the toy represents. We're never given a reason for it. No attempt is made to explain how toys became alive, the story just asks us to imagine our toys come to life while we aren't looking.

Not quite a framing device which is more like an outer story to allow the telling of the main story (e.g. Robert Walton's attempt on the North Pole in Frankenstein) or a plot device which, as I understand, is a bit too broad for what I'm thinking, i.e. anything that can help move the story along.

Is there a word for this? (If not, I'd like to coin the phrase narrative axiom ;) )

3 Answers 3

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The term you're looking for may be conceit, defined by TV Tropes as:

In literature, a conceit is an idea, collection of ideas, metaphor, structure, or other imagined device which defines or enables the world of the story, or some action in it. Conceits can be obvious; if a book is about space explorers who question their humanity upon discovering life on Mars, the conceit is that there is life on Mars. Originally the term was used much more specifically, to refer to a deliberately chosen juxtaposition that rarely or never occurs naturally (life/Mars), used as a means of revealing the unique properties of the items or ideas being juxtaposed. Its usage has become much broadened.

How well explained they are depends on the genre of fiction. Hard science fiction often does have an explanation, while soft science fiction and fantasy either give an unrealistic explanation or none at all.

Some sources call them "fantasy conceits" when they are fantastical elements specifically that define the story. From the The Four Cs of Fantasy Worldbuilding:

Creative deals with how often and to what extent the constructed world deviates from the real world.

Jemisin calls this “element X,” and it is also known as fantasy conceits, or what the creator wishes to examine in the world. The creative component is also what makes the genre fantasy in the first place since it’s made up of the unreality the audience craves. This is why we read the genre, after all.

Each fantasy conceit can create massive changes to the world in question, and it’s worth noting that Harry Potter only has three major conceits: 1) magic exists, 2) otherworldly creatures like goblins, giants, and dragons exist, 3) ghosts exist. Yet a whole world was wrought from those changes to the extent that there are now theme parks dedicated to its worldbuilding. Even Middle Earth, the granddaddy of all modern worldbuilding, in only has about five fantasy conceits total, yet still holds our attention 70 years later.

Tolkien was the first to point out that anything in the world not covered by one of the fantasy conceits must adhere to the audience’s understanding of the real world. So rivers should not flow uphill UNLESS that’s a integral point of the worldbuilding that the author intends on exploring. Tolkien also believed that all fantasy conceits should be explored to their fullest, and named changes made to the world that have no effect “nominal changes.” Nominal changes, to Tolkien, were just window dressing used to make the world feel exotic without putting in the real work of making it logically sound.

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What you describe is part of worldbuilding: defining the world's rules. It's the hallmark of good storytelling to show the rule in action with as little explanation as possible. Stars War doesn't explain lightspeed and Pixar doesn't explain the toys collapsing when a human enters the room. Tolkien doesn't explain how the ring works. All of these examples just show the effect.

As a side note, an axiom is a very high bar. It connotes an assumption in a formally defined system. 'I think, therefore I am,' is an axiom in De Carte's metaphysics. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C is an axiom in mathematics as well as Aristotle's ethics. I don't think most stories rise to the level of a formal system

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You seem to be mixing up two (or three) things: the premise or concept on the one hand, and the unreal, that requires we suspend our disbelief, on the other.

In Toy Story these things coincide. The concept of Toy Story is: "What if toys were alive?" The premise of Toy Story is: "A cowboy doll is profoundly threatened and jealous when a new spaceman figure supplants him as top toy in a boy's room." The unreal that we must suspend to disbelieve is that toys are alive.

Which of these you are asking about doesn't become clear from your question. You may want to follow the links to the respective Wikipedia articles and see if one of them is what you are thinking of.


Edit after your comment

The aspect of art that requires that we suspend our disbelief is its fictionality: the fact that it is not real (no matter how "realistic"). Coleridge, who coined the term suspension of disbelief, called this the "shadows of imagination".

Tolkien disagrees with Coleridge's dictum and says that a work of art requires inner consistency.

I don't think the two concepts contradict each other but instead complement each other: inner consistency is a requirement for readers to be able to suspend their disbelief. You may want to read Colderidge and Tolkien (sources in the Wikpedia article) and come to your own conclusion.

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  • I kind of meant - the concept that requires we suspend our disbelief. But was wondering if there is a specific term for this.
    – komodosp
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:29
  • @komodosp I edited my answer.
    – Ben
    Dec 18, 2023 at 20:26

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