Created By: LaplacesKyton on October 18, 2011 Last Edited By: LaplacesKyton on November 13, 2011

Pulp Friction

The Narm Charm of seeing serious content meet the over-the-top tropes of sci-fi, fantasy, comics etc.

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(Possibly Needs a Better Name)

A hardened police chief discusses a sociopathic crime boss- with a guy wearing a bright red leotard. A knight laments the mortality and brutality of war despite having seven phoenix downs in his inventory. In a futuristic Cold War allegory, a starship captain tries to negotiate a truce before total war breaks out with the Rubber-Forehead Aliens.

Pulp Friction is a special kind of Narm Charm that happens when serious attempts at quality writing meet a genre or medium with a commercial/pulp reputation. When deep, complex subject matter meets the over-the-top and often escapist tropes of a genre like fantasy, sci-fi, video games or superhero comics, there can be some dissonance between the two- or friction, if you will.

Unlike most Narm, though, Pulp Friction is frequently the specific result of good writing. A writer can seem narmy just by trying to tell a substantial story in a genre/medium that people consider part of the Sci Fi Ghetto. It's worth noting that almost every literary medium has gone through a phase like this, novels, stage and cinema included.

Thankfully, skilled writers can often minimize this effect and make the final result seem like Narm Charm- the quirky, endearing growing pains of a genre with great potential. Some tasteful Lampshade Hanging can also help.

There are two main kinds of Pulp Friction:

I) Conventional. Sometimes, Pulp Friction is just the result of popular perceptions or social conventions. To some people, the idea of using comic books, high fantasy or their respective tropes for serious storytelling is Narm-worthy in and of itself, though it will no longer seem that way as the medium/genre in question starts being taken seriously.

II) Inherent. Sometimes, though, you can't escape it. The early tropes of pulp genres tend to be commercial, driven by escapism and spectacle rather than content, so even just using them to tackle serious subject matter can seem silly. Even in the hands of a great writer, an edgy film-noir story about a man wearing bright red tights will be Narm, though a skilled hand could probably turn it into Narm Charm.

Established settings with long histories are especially prone to Pulp Friction, since writers can't always tweak to suit their themes without interfering with the canon. It's hard for a character to talk about the harrowing emptiness of a potentially godless universe if another writer had them chatting it up with Thor a few issues back.

Keep in mind that Pulp Friction- especially type I- is a Subjective Trope, since it's dependent on the flexibility of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief of the individual audience member.


  • Watchmen induced quite a bit of Pulp Friction when it first came out. It still probably does, but the idea of a serious superhero story is somewhat more palatable to people these days.

Live-Action TV
  • Star Trek: The Original Series. The portion of the description above talking about Cold War allegories and Rubber-Forehead Aliens is pretty much referring to this.
  • The original Land of the Lost Saturday morning show was a Sid and Marty Krofft production with rubber costumes, cheap sets and cheesy special effects. And yet if you look beyond the production values, it's clear that someone was trying to take the show seriously- episodes were aired based on scripts by respected science fiction writers such as Larry Niven. Fans of the original have been hoping for years that it could be reimagined into a serious science-fiction television series.

  • Theater was considered a lowest-common-denominator medium early on in Shakespeare's career, so Pulp Friction is fairly conspicuous in his works. Stage theater is respected enough now for Type I Friction to be absent, but Type II examples are still somewhat conspicuous. Some examples:
    • Characters sometimes announce their own deaths in ways that would be considered campy in any modern work of fiction. ("O! I am slain!" etc.)
    • The shameless use of Anachronism Stew and Aerith and Bob.
    • Shakespeare is arguably the trope codifier for Chewing the Scenery.

Western Animation
Community Feedback Replies: 30
  • October 18, 2011
    Terrible name.

    Also the laconic made me think this was Melodrama... which in fact is what it is. I don't agree with your premise that melodrama is rare in fantasy or sci-fi. You've just highlighted the difference between Low Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, and High Fantasy.
  • October 18, 2011
    The comment about the name is noted, though some clarification would be nice. But how is this like melodrama? Also, where do I say it's rare?
  • October 19, 2011
    This was how Watchmen was during the time of its publication.
  • October 20, 2011
    Not Melodrama at all. This is a subtrope of Narm, but definitely tropable in its own right.
  • October 20, 2011
    I think the biggest problem with this description is that you're making it sound as if this is inevitable in any serious work of Sci Fi. Remember, the Ghetto is not a sub-genre of poorly made sci-fi, but rather refer to the habit of supposing all sci-fi is second-rate fiction. Your description seems to suggest that the ghetto is justified and sci-fi should accept its limitations, which is generally understood not to be the case (at least, around here).
  • October 20, 2011
    I loled at the name, but I can see how it's a little misleading.
  • October 20, 2011
    Terrible name? It's a wonderful name.
  • October 22, 2011
    Another name I was considering was "Genre Growth Spurt", though I'd have to revise the description. But if someone can think of a name that doesn't sound vaguely sexual, that'd be awesome.

    @pinkdalek: After reading the entry for Narm I definitely concur that this is a subtrope, though less likely than most Narm to be the result of bad writing.

    @Shai Halud: I was actually trying not to imply that, though I don't think it worked. I was going for affectionate, but I think this comes off as more derogatory. Lemme try that again.
  • October 23, 2011
    Pulp Friction is an awesome name.

    Example: Friendship Is Magic. That is, until people give it a chance.
  • October 25, 2011
    I can't think of a specific example, but this happened a lot on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and was frequently lampshaded, or at least played for bathos (e.g. Willow and Buffy have a serious conversation about relationships, punctuated by Buffy stabbing vampires at strategic moments).
  • October 26, 2011
    I strongly object to that name; it isn't in the least bit clear, and I don't think it's particularly funny either.
  • October 28, 2011
    I personally like the name, but how about Medium Induced Bathos, for the spooners in here.
  • October 28, 2011
    ^Boo. I enjoy the use of the word "Bathos" as much as the next troper, but the name is fine.
  • October 29, 2011
    I'll change it pending more objections, but I think the yays have it for now. Medium Induced Bathos is mostly accurate but it's a bit clinical for my taste.
  • October 29, 2011
    This is why the Gainax Ending of Super Mario Galaxy caught fans off guard; they weren't really expecting something so philosophical from a series and a genre better known for avoiding more complex story material.
  • October 29, 2011
    ^^ Wouldn't it be Genre Induced Bathos? The Shakespeare example confuses me.
  • October 30, 2011
    ^ Included stuff like comics and video games in the description, so it'd be both. Will try and clear up the Shakespeare example when I get a moment.
  • October 30, 2011
    The original Land Of The Lost Saturday morning show was a Sid and Marty Krofft production with rubber costumes, cheap sets and cheesy special effects. And yet if you look beyond the production values, it's clear that someone was trying to take the show seriously- episodes were aired based on scripts by respected science fiction writers such as Larry Niven. Fans of the original have been hoping for years that it could be reimagined into a serious science-fiction television series.

  • October 30, 2011
    The name Pulp Friction makes no sense. This has nothing to do with friction whatsoever.

    I can also easily imagine this degenerating into Complaining About People Not Liking The Show, mainly because of that My Little Pony example.
  • October 31, 2011
    "The Narm Charm of seeing serious content meet the over-the-top tropes of sci-fi, fantasy, comics etc."

    My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic does not have serious content.
  • October 31, 2011
    ^^ It's meant to evoke the dissonance- the friction- you experience when you see substantial content alongside the tropes of a medium or genre associated with pulp. As far as Complaining About People Not Liking The Show... not sure how to remedy that. Any suggestions?

    ^ Reworded. Even pure comedy that's barely if at all about anything serious can be a serious attempt at art (Seinfeld, Twelfth Night, Barefoot In The Park, etc.)
  • November 1, 2011
    Hold Your Hippogriffs is a common source of this.
  • November 2, 2011
    I'd suggest reducing the references to narm in the description--since that's a YMMV thing.
  • November 2, 2011
    • Star Trek Deep Space Nine has several examples of this. It introduced not one but 2 races whose Gods are real. Sisko featured in atleast one episode that tackled the issue of race, and generally being the first black "captain" in the Star Trek series had an element of seriousness in itself. It used the Ferengi characters to handle issues related to Gender Equality. Dr Bashir who was genetically engineered had to live in a world where genetically enhanced individuals were outcast. Some people have drawn parallels between autistics and one of the genetically modified character called Sarina
  • November 2, 2011
    ^^^^That's a very loose usage of the word "friction".

    ^^This is going to be YMMV no matter what, since it refers to how audiences perceive certain genres.
  • November 11, 2011
    ^Conceded, but I'm still gonna wait for more Nays before I change it. Also, more alternate suggestions welcome.

    ^^DS 9 definitely had at least a few examples, but I'm not sure how your examples fit this trope. This doesn't refer to the combination of serious storytelling with any sci-fi tropes, just the ones that seem silly in contrast.
  • November 11, 2011
    Already, this draft is suffering from a severe case of Tropes Are Good syndrome. Tropes Are Not Good. The My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic and Land Of The Lost examples are reading to me as "ZOMG my favorite show is sooo misunderstood, everyone thinks it's shallow but it actually has totally deep messages and themes, you guys!"

    And the other examples are just Genre Ghetto.
  • November 11, 2011
    ^^^ I agree. Definitely an objective trope, dependent on the flexibility of the Willing Suspension Of Disbelief of the individual audience member.
  • November 11, 2011
    ^You mean subjective.
  • November 12, 2011
    ^ D'oh! Sure, that's what I meant! Sorry about the mistake.