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When reality is too unrealistic for fiction

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

Due to the exaggeration or fabrication of certain things in movies and TV shows, people will often believe the fictional version of something and find the reality to be weirdly “unrealistic”.

Known as the “Orange Box” problem (named after the “black boxes” of aeroplanes which are in fact orange to make them easier to spot), there are several examples of this in modern entertainment:

  • Computers that make beeping noises at random, and when keys are tapped.
  • Spaceflight that involves aeroplane-like steering with gradual turns, dogfights, etc. In reality these types of manoeuvres are only viable when flying in a medium such as air.
  • Vikings having horns on their helmets – there’s no historical evidence that they did.
  • Fixing complex machinery with “percussive maintenance” – hitting it really hard in the right place.
  • Spaceflight with continuous acceleration, which would be unnecessary without air friction.
  • Car tires making a squealing sound whenever the car starts moving.
  • Quicksand being deep and sucking you down, whilst in reality it’s usually shallow and can be easily escaped by being patient and floating on top of it.
  • Things in space making sounds when they explode, shoot, or hit other things – without air, there can be no sound.
  • Computer hacking being a fast & easy process, not a process of days spent finding weaknesses and coding exploits.
  • Damaged fire hydrants always resulting in a massive geyser of water.
  • Sharks being vicious killers.
  • Cars exploding when struck by bullets, rolling over, or hitting something.
  • Snow always being fluffy and white instead of slushy and muddy.
  • Radiation always having a sickly green glow.
  • Swords making a metallic scraping sound when drawn from sheaths.
  • The “whump” sound when someone is hit with a fist, real-life fistfights are mostly silent.
  • Instant death from gunshots, whilst in reality the person would probably keep moving and making sounds for a few minutes.
  • Explosive decompression in space, whilst in actual fact a hole in a spaceship would cause no more than a gentle breeze.
  • Horses’ hooves sounding like coconut shells tapping together, no matter what they’re walking on.
  • Gorillas pounding their chests with their fists, while in reality they use their palms.
  • The “enhance” feature used on computers in crime shows to unrealistically sharpen low-resolution pictures or videos.
  • Piranhas being voracious feeders that will attack and eat a human in seconds.
  • Firearms that make a cacophony of clicking and ratcheting sounds whenever they’re raised – if your gun makes those sounds all the time, you absolutely shouldn’t be firing it.
  • People being thrown backwards when hit with a bullet, whilst in reality bullets will pass right through a body without this “slamming effect” (else the recoil of the shot would have slammed the shooter backwards too!).
  • Instantly freezing when exposed to the vacuum of space. In reality, you’re much more likely to overheat and start boiling because you can’t radiate your body heat away.
  • Characters snapping someone’s neck with their bare hands, and it leading to the victim instantly dying.
  • Dialogue that’s much more polished than and missing many of the “spacing words” that real conversations would have.
  • Bows that creak – if your bow does this it’s close to snapping and you absolutely shouldn’t fire it.
  • The huge amount of fake blood & gore that gush out whenever someone is cut, stabbed, or shot.
  • All snakes making a rattling sound, whilst in reality only rattlesnakes do.

The same “too unrealistic for reality” problem appears in written fiction too. For example, the name “Tiffany” sounds like one that would belong to a modern-day American cheerleader, but it is in actual fact a 12th-century medieval name – short for “Theophania”. Unfortunately, authors can’t use it in historical or fantasy fiction because it seems too modern.

A related problem has to do with the traditional framerates used for movies versus TV shows. Although higher framerates should look more realistic, most people have associated them with bad “soap operas” on TV and so think movies shot in framerates higher than 24 FPS look unrealistic.

Read more here.

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