14.44: Realism vs. Rule-of-Cool

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Where do you draw the line between what seems plausible, and what would be cool? If you pick “plausible,” how do you stay cool? If you pick “cool,” how do you avoid knocking the readers out of the story? And finally, how might we structure things so that when the time comes, we don’t need to choose one or the other, because we can have both?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and engineered by Alex Jackson


Take something super-cool, and make it sound realistic. Now take something very grounded and make it sound outlandishly incredible.

Terminal Uprising, by Jim C. Hines

7 thoughts on “14.44: Realism vs. Rule-of-Cool”

  1. My signature on one of the forums I frequent:

    “It is one thing to suspend your disbelief. It is another thing entirely to hang it by the neck until dead.

    The concern is not realism in speculative fiction, but rather the sense that a setting or story could be real, fostered by internal consistency and coherence. Verisimilitude — n, the appearance or semblance of truth, likelihood, or probability.”

    In my own worldbuilding and writing, there comes a point where no amount of “cool” will justify something that just doesn’t fit or contradicts something else I want.

    My experience with combat scenes in fiction, especially movies and television, is that the standard tropes and a lot of the “rule of cool” make for instant killers of suspension of disbelief… “I know, let’s show these elite veteran soldiers charge across open ground into the teeth of enemy fire, and ignore all the cover and flanking they could use.” Ugh. More generally, action movies are getting more and more eye-roll-worthy over the years, and I don’t think it’s me, I think it’s the “need” for ever-bigger-spectacle.

  2. The fantastic four, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, tried hang-gliding under giant bats, then came in for a landing to talk about when do you try for realism, and when do you chuck that out the window and just go for the cool stuff! Giant crabs, Chinese profanity. Sparkle and fighty more. The Doctor has left the stage. And lots of other cool stuff! Read all about it in the transcript, available now in the archives.

  3. Thank you to Mary Robinette for bringing up what totally destroyed any desire for me to watch or be interested Firefly.

    White people may not notice, but to a Chinese American, the premise could work (and yes, the linguist is right…) but the lack of anyone Chinese or otherwise East Asian in any of the episodes, let alone as a member of the main cast tossed me out of the suspension of disbelief. And then to hear about the attitude of “oh, one actress looks Asian enough”, tho she is not Asian at all… that lost me entirely.

  4. Occurred to me partway through, that rule-of-cool is why fanfiction can be so much fun. Because realism is usually thrown out in favor of writing what the author wanted to see in canon or what they thought would look amazing.
    Taking about moving from one extreme to the other is helpful for switching from fanfic writing to original writing.

  5. Love your show! Just a quick note regarding the firefly anecdote. It’s a great point you’re making regarding the role of cool, but unfortunately in this case, firefly is a bad example. I’m going to hazard a guess that the linguist on the panel did not actually speak Mandarin, because the tonality used in the show is atrocious. In fact, every single native Chinese speaker I’ve talked to did not realize the actors were speaking Chinese until they were told after the fact. So I guess in this case, you could say that the show unintentionally stuck with realism despite trying to go with rule of cool, simply because the English-speaking actors were not able to get over the reality of intonation difficulties . Ironic :-)

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