Realism in Writing (Or The ‘Cars Don’t Actually Explode’ Problem)

Tuesday 19 May 2015 by

My partner used to be a Firefighter. Along with some really smelly washing, and frequent late night wake up calls, it came with one other major inconvenience – it became impossible to watch an action movie together.

It transpires that fire does not behave in the way it’s often shown to in movies. My partner’s big bugbear was cars. Apparently they don’t actually explode. Occasionally the batteries pop, but no balls of fire blooming, or tyres blasting away from the vehicle.

There’s a scene at the end of Quantum of Solace, where Bond is in a building on fire. We went to see it in the cinema. Afterwards, I got a nice long talk about how it would have been so hot, Bond’s face would have melted off, and the air would have been un-breathable so he would have choked to death anyway.

I was reading a book the other day and suffered a similar problem. A character was doing something I do at work all the time, and he found a piece of information I knew for a fact that he couldn’t get. It was a tiny thing, inconsequential really – a nerdy understanding of a specific computer system and what it can and can’t tell you – but it made me laugh and pulled me out of the story.

My incident was far more nit-picky and minor than the ‘fire doesn’t work like that’ issue that my boyfriend has, but it’s part of the same problem – how accurate should you be in writing?

In my view, there’s a delicate balance to strike. With my computer system issue, the character needed to find some information that he could absolutely have found by checking a few different systems – but as readers do we need to have a whole list of computer systems when the name of one recognisable one could be used?

And with the cars exploding, yes it’s not very accurate in terms of physics and chemical reactions, but isn’t it a hell of a lot more exciting when cars are exploding all over the place in an action movie, rather than just smouldering away, a few of their batteries popping?

For those of us in the know about these things (sorry for bursting the exploding car bubble) it might prompt a few sniggers and frowns, but for the rest of the world, a little inaccuracy can go a long way to making a much better story.

You can follow Loralei on Twitter: @LAHaylock

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