Originating in the Lord Byron quote "Tis strange - but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction;" No matter how weird, freaky, or squicky fiction gets, there will be something in Real Life that is even weirder, freakier, or squickier.
When such a thing is reported to other people, it will include a "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer because Reality Is Unrealistic and we really cannot, or do not want to, believe it is real. Can be subject to Values Dissonance as well; anything one culture takes for granted about itself can look quite strange from the perspective of another culture that isn't used to the same assumptions.
When such a thing is adapted to fiction, the producers will be sure to insist on their story's realism. These adaptations are usually just Very Loosely Based on a True Story, and so the original real thing probably still fits this trope.
Poe's Law is when it is difficult to prove, without a smiley or other blatant evidence of sarcasm, whether something — religion, Fandom, politics, even pizza toppings — is serious or a parody, because no matter how crazy a parody might sound to the parodist, there's an actual person there saying something similar to the parody.
Rule 34 — "If it exists, there is porn of it" — is a subtrope of this.
Not to be confused with Stranger Than Fiction, which is a movie.
- Timely Comics' (future Marvel Comics) writers imagined the Red Skull back in 1941 as a cartoonish exaggeration of evil fit for propaganda against Nazi Germany, as nobody would believe such creature did exist. At least a few senior figures of the Nazi empire did suspiciously similar things during the war, but the world found out only years after.
- The film The Magdalene Sisters depicted the plight of girls sent to live in convents as washerwomen for the crime of being pregnant out of wedlock - or even for being accused of being "flirtatious"; many inmates were still virgins. The film actually toned down the habitual violence the girls endured under the nuns's hands and also showed the girls speaking to each other and forming friendships - in reality, both were forbidden...
- In Singin' in the Rain, Cosmo says of film star Lina Lamont: "She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat." Now, who in Real Life would build a musical around a Hollywood star who couldn't sing, dance or act? That would be the producers of a musical revue titled Two's Company, which opened on Broadway the same year Singin' in the Rain was released. What critics had to write about Bette Davis's leading performance resembled the movie's put-down of its fictional actress.
- This is also a reference to a Hollywood executive's first impression of Fred Astaire: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little."
- The film Changeling ran into this trope. It was, in fact, based on a true story, but nobody would believe it...when it was, in fact, not exaggerated in the slightest. So writer J. Michael Straczynski added sources to the script and such, to prove it was real! Not only that, but many of the more bizarre and freaktacular parts of the serial killer's exploits were left out, as they distracted from the main story. During an DVD extra, Clint Eastwood noted that if it were fiction, no one would believe it.
- WWII hero Audie Murphy played himself in the movie To Hell And Back, based on his autobiography. During the adaptation, he requested that certain parts of his exploits (like the time he had malaria and leapt on top of a burning, half-destroyed tank-destroyer to use its pintle-mounted machine gun and single-handedly hold off an entire company of German mechanized infantry for half an hour) be watered down a little, since nobody would believe the real thing.
- Obviously, the events of the film Apollo 13 actually happened. But what they don't mention is that there were several additional malfunctions, and one or two of the events mentioned in passing in the movie were actually critical problems in reality. These were removed/downsized because, yes, producers thought no one would believe it. No one in the Apollo program at the time would have believed it either had it not actually happened. (The movie depicts Sy Liebergot as saying "It's reading a quadruple failure. That can't happen!" because that's what he really said. But it did happen.) Also, some test audiences reacted poorly to the ending - saying it could never happen and was totally unrealistic. After the original flight NASA amended their training simulations to include malfunctions that happened to Apollo 13, which had previously been ruled out as impossible. note
- Frank Abagnale's last escape could never have been included in Catch Me If You Can due to being even less plausible than tunneling out of a landing airplane. That solitary cell in federal prison? He allegedly conned his way out by pretending to be an undercover FBI agent.
- Anyone watching The Way Way Back might wonder who in their right mind would name a water park "Water Wizz". They did.
- Pain and Gain had several Not Making This Up Disclaimers. They actually happened although slightly differently than shown. One of the criminals grills the severed hands of their latest victims just outside their hideout, waving to their neighbors. In real life, it was a different character and it was the hands, feet, and skulls. No one saw him, but he still did it just outside their hideout. They also try to return a chainsaw after it gets jammed on the victim's hair when they try to dismember her body. It still had her hair and some skin lodged in the teeth. In real life, they returned the first chainsaw since they forgot to put oil in it and it broke. The second one got caught on the victims hair and they said, "Fuck it," and used a hatchet. Their first victim, who miraculously survived their attempts to kill him, was actually arrested for unrelated Medicare fraud immediately after testifying in real life. This scene wasn't in the movie, likely because not even a "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer could convince people that someone had that many things happen to them.
- Hacksaw Ridge actually downplays how far Desmond Doss would go to save his fellow soldiers - one such absent moment is that while Doss was being carried away in a stretcher, he jumped out and crawled to an injured man!
- 50/50 is based on the screenwriter's own experiences with cancer in his twenties. In real life his best friend (Seth Rogen - who essentially plays himself in the film) got the news while he was in the toilet. They left this out of the film.
- Elizabeth: The Golden Age depicts the Armada during Elizabeth I's reign, and makes mention of some casualties on the English side. In reality the English didn't lose a single ship during the Armada.
- Law & Order gets its plots from somewhere.
- Such as the case of Colleen Stan.
- One of the better "we can't make this shit up" examples might be "Hands Free," where the detectives believe an eccentric crossdresser is responsible for the body that's shown up in pieces in trash cans all over New York City. Based strongly - yes, down to the crossdressing - on the case of Robert Durst.
- The writers of Leverage note several times in episode commentary that many of the villains on the show are heavily inspired by real-world events. In fact, they've commented that they needed to tone down some of the cartoonish villainy some CEOs display, as people wouldn't believe it.
- Criminal Minds: Many of their stranger episodes have been based on actual events. note As it turns out, serial killers and sadists often have severe mental issues and do things that seem like the work of Pulp Magazine villains. Like building death courses in meat packing plants, keeping their victims chained for years in their basement, centering their crimes around bizarre obsessions and signature murder rituals, and taunting the authorities with Criminal Mind Games.
- An episode of House ("Alone") references the real-life case of Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn where two girls were in an accident, one killed and one surviving but too injured to identify herself, and the surviving and dead girl's identities were switched.
- CSI: New York also based an episode around this story, with an added twist: the spiteful mother of the "dead" girl smothered the survivor before the switch was discovered, ultimately getting her arrested for murdering her own daughter.
- The Supernatural episode "No Exit" featured the ghost of the United States's first documented serial killer, one H.H. Holmes. Holmes's actual exploits — which included building a "murder hotel" whose guests sometimes didn't check out — can be read about in Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series and in Erik Larson's book The Devil in the White City. And yes, his tomb was sealed in concrete.
- One time the Lifetime Movie of the Week came Too Soon, but for entirely different reasons, was when it adapted the Natalee Holloway disappearance case in 2009's Natalee Holloway, and finished with Holloway's mother finding solace when Van der Sloot, having been let go on lack of evidence, falls prey to a TV sting operation and is filmed saying that Holloway died in an accident and he dumped her body in the ocean. The next year, Van der Sloot contacted Holloway's mother and offered to disclose the location of the body for $250,000 in cash, after which he fled to South America, all while escaping a joint operation of the FBI and Aruban police to arrest him, and murdered Stephany Flores in Peru before being arrested in Chile by Interpol. The eery similarities between the Flores and Holloway casesnote now cast doubt that the latter was an accident. This bizarre turn of events spurred Lifetime to produce a sequel, Justice for Natalee Holloway (2011), in what's probably a first for Based on a True Story TV films.
- Six Feet Under has the evil corporation Kroehner that is progressively buying up all the funeral homes in the area, and using dirty tricks to fight anyone who won't play along. In the real world they would be shut down pretty damn quick for violating anti-trust laws and anti-competitive behavior, right? Not really, they are based on a real corporation whose reach is even greater than that portrayed. And whereas Kroehner eventually got destroyed by the SEC, their real-life counterpart lives on, seemingly untouchable.
- Band of Brothers:
- The second episode shows Malarkey bumping into a Kraut soldier who is from a nearby town to him (but with German ancestry, hence why he's in that army). In reality they were from the same town and had worked across the street from each other. Presumably this was changed because the coincidence was too unbelievable.
- Buck Compton is shown throwing a grenade at a soldier, and it explodes as soon as it hits the soldier's chest. Not only did that happen in real life - Buck had been a star baseball player - but in reality it was the soldier's head that got hit.
- Stranger Things: In season 2, Nancy and Johnathan, in an effort to find justice for Nancy's friend Barb who was killed by a monster in the first season, try to expose the government conspiracy that involves psychic powers, monsters, and alternate dimensions. The reporter they go to actually does believe them, but points out that no matter how much proof they have, it will be trivially easy for the government to "disprove" it, because no one will want to believe it. They have an epiphany and decide to "water it down," turning it into a simpler conspiracy about a chemical spill and a coverup. The only way the government would have be able to disprove the fake story would be to tell the truth, so instead they just let all the guilty people get properly punished.
- Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita is a retelling of the life of Eva Peron, a poor actress who rose to become the powerful First Lady of Argentina, and nearly Vice President, before a young death. The story ends here, possibly because what happens next the widower president is overthrown, remarries a nightclub dancer, is elected back to power, makes this wife Vice President then dies, causing the politically ignorant nightclub dancer to become president, who then falls under the spell of a sinister mystic, she is then overthrown and the country goes to war with Great Britain would make for a somewhat zany epilogue.
- In the musical 1776, John Adams warns that if they strike down the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery, "posterity will never forgive us!" What was actually said (by John's cousin Samuel) was "There will be a trouble a hundred years hence! Posterity will never forgive us!" The writers admitted they left that out, because no one would believe Adams would be that scarily accurate.
- Cracked.com is practically in love with this trope as much as boobs, writing humorous articles on true stories and facts that seem utterly ridiculous half the time even though it's real.
- When The Angry Video Game Nerd reviewed various Game Boy accessories, he said he was going to make up a bunch of fake ones as a joke to stick in at the end of the episode (a common practice of his), such as a Game Boy attachment that picks up dog poop. However, he ultimately decided not to bother, because nothing he could come up with was weirder than the very real (though unreleased) Pedisedate — a Game Boy attachment intended to be used by hospitals that would administer sleeping gas to children about to go in for surgery while they played.
- Everyone knows the British love a Spot of Tea. What people don't know is that they hollowed out a mountain in order to build a power station that could respond to sudden spikes in electricity demand caused by everyone putting their electric tea kettles on at once (such as during half-time of the F.A. Cup final). Built in 1974, Dinorwig power station in Wales is the fastest operating power station, able to generate 1,650 MW of electricity in seconds should the need arise.
- It is inside the mountain in order to contain the enormous explosion that will result if it ever fails to cope with demand.
- British armored vehicles all contain a boiling vessel (BV or bivvie) to heat water. This can be used for field (boil-in-the-bag) rations but is usually used for making tea. American troops initially mocked this until they realized it's extremely handy to be able to boil water in the field at a moment's notice. Tip: don't ever approach a British tank asking for a cup of tea or coffee because the cup will almost certainly be skiffed (look it up at your own risk).
- BTK Dennis Rader, of Wichita, Kansas, has probably been the basis for several fictional serial killers. He would have gotten away scott-free, right under everyone's nose, too, if he hadn't decided to get himself caught twenty years after the fact by stalking the local newspaper and the detective who was head of his case way back when. His crimes were horrifying, but his reported beliefs about the afterlife were worse: he thought his victims would be his eternal slaves. His pastor, who sat through the trial up to this point in demonstration of the belief that even killers could be achieve salvation if properly repentant, stood up and walked out (Rader previously was president of their church council).
- Another major aspect of how he was caught is remarkable - when he'd started his killings, computerization hadn't taken off. When he resumed the taunting letters, he sent a 1.44 MB floppy disk to the local news network... without realizing it had metadata from a deleted Microsoft Word file on it, which was last modified by "Dennis". Had he not sent in that floppy disk, he likely wouldn't have been caught. Not only that, but he asked police whether it could be traced, and believed them when they claimed it couldn't.
- Descriptions of Jørgen Haagen Schmith's last stand (also his first stand, since he was the driver) are considerably more amazing than the version of events shown in Flammen og Citronen.
- World War II in general would make a terribly, terribly implausible TV show.
- Ditto for the start of World War I - who'd imagine that the death of an Archduke would cause practically every country in the first-world to declare war?
- Every country but one. And even Italy's justification to stay out (namely that their alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany was defensive in nature and that Austria-Hungary had been the one to declare war first) is unbelievable, both for the sheer balls of it and the expansionist Italy throwing away an easy victory with possibilities for fruitful colonial expansion to pursue their territorial squabble with Austria-Hungary.
- Imperial Germany's repeated seizure of the Idiot Ball until it ensured its own defeat also counts. From the invasion of Belgium (which wasn't actually as needed and inevitable as Schlieffen and Moltke put it), to the unrestricted submarine warfare, to the Zimmermann Telegram, an offer to divide the (neutral but pro-Entente) United States with civil war-torn Mexico, when Germany had its hands full in Europe, and that to reach its destination had to be sent by a cable controlled by Germany's enemy Britain and the United States itself. The offer could have been easily painted as British propaganda intended to make the US declare war on Germany if Germany's foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann had not come forward immediately and recognized the telegram as real. Germany's many other pre-war blunders which destroyed Bismarck's careful work to isolate France, and alienated successively Russia, Britain, Japan, Italy, Portugal and the United States also ensured that there would be a war in the first place, and that Germany could only rely on the decomposing Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires when it happened.
- Even funnier is when one considers, exactly, WHY Gavrilo Princip was able to kill Franz Ferdinand in the first place. Three attempts were made on Fredinand's life during the parade, but the perpetrators were either caught, or in one case, their hand grenade didn't go off. Depressed by this development, Princip went to a little cafe he liked to get a sandwich and sulk, when, due to a wrong turn, Ferdinand was turning around in the driveway and stopped to help an old woman with something. And Princip just happened to have his pistol on him, still...
- The world's most proficient sniper, Simo Häyhä; AKA "The White Death", has over 700 confirmed kills. Yes, seven hundred. All achieved in about three months in far less than optimal conditions, which includes the lack of a scope (he never used one, as the light glinting off of a scope can reveal a sniper's position.) The Other Wiki has more information on the guy, but needless to say, if he was fictional, this would be considered ridiculous if it was played for anything other than laughs.
- His Moment of Awesome is either the time he was hit in the face with a round meant to be used against tanks, got back up, and killed the one who fired it, or the time he shot eight enemy soldiers with one bullet, sending all the others running for their lives thinking a whole squad was targeting them.
- The Conlang community uses "ANADEWism" to refer to things that A Natural language has Already Done Even Worse.
- New York writer Paul Auster finally got tired of people telling him his stories were unrealistic (in fact, a lot of them deal with coincidences and unlikely events of all sorts). So he encouraged the audience of NPR to write up their own stories. Only condition: the story had to be true. The result is available as a book ("I thought my father was God").
- The Shot Heard Round The World, where Bobby Thomson's three-run walk-off homer capped a ninth-inning rally that turned a looming 4-1 defeat into a 5-4 win for the New York Giants, a win that got the Giants the National League pennant in the deciding third game of a best-of-three playoff necessitated after the Brooklyn Dodgers blew a 12 1⁄2 game lead in the standings with seven weeks to go in the season and the two teams ended the regular season with the same record after the Giants won their final game 9-8 in 14 innings against the Phillies. Writer Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune opened his recap of the game thus:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
- Having had a foreign coach on the 1980's that eventually won a World Cup with another team (Carlos Bilardo with Argentina) Colombian fans pleaded for a foreign coach for three decades; the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the Colombian side started in 2011 with the usual flunky team that the country had been used to for the last fourteen years. The first coach, beloved former player Leonel Alvarez, was ousted due to bad results. He was replaced with the last qualifying coach the team had had, Hernan Darío "Bolillo" Gomez. He was flunking too until there was a twist worthy of a Soap Opera where he repeatedly struck a woman who had accompanied him into a pub (presumably his mistress). Various groups against violence towards women denounced the coach, who had to resign and dig up a hole to hide into. The Colombian federation resorted to hiring someone that the press and the public could not possibly object to in veteran Argentinian coach Jose Pekerman, who had extensible experience in the U-20 World Cups for Argentina. Pekerman wound up taking Colombia to its first World Cup in 16 years and further than they had ever been before (Quarter-finals). As such, Colombian fans often joke that they have to thank "Bolillo's Mistress" or "Bolillo's Floozy" for their triumphant run.
- In the vein of the Colombian team, there was a scandal regarding GK Rene Higuita in the mid-early 1990's where he visited the recently jailed narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar in a private jail the government had built for him on the outskirts of Medellin. He was arrested for "mediating in the kidnapping negotiations of an abducted girl" and was sent to jail, where the kidnapping-related charges never came into questioning; he was rather questioned regarding his visit to Escobar. What the press didn't know, or wasn't divulged due to government intervention, note is that everyone on the squad actually visited the jail at Escobar's request and played a match in there.
- The massive cyber-attack 'WannaCry' that hit the world in May 2017. Writer Charles Stross submitted the actual facts as a novel ("Zero Day: The story of MS17-010"). It received this rejection letter for being "totally implausible".
- Jamal al-Harith was a convert to Islam from the United Kingdom, who in 2002, after travelling to Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban believing him to be a British spy. After the US military toppled the Taliban, found him imprisoned among other foreigners, they secured his release...but then they found his story backpacking trip to Pakistan to be implausible, and themselves held him in Guantanamo Bay for over two years. He has later released without charge when no evidence emerged that he was a security threat, and sent back to the UK along with five other British detainees. He became something of a cause celebre for human rights groups to rally against the usage of torture by the United States government in the War on Terror, and even (unsuccessfully) sued then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the torture he received in 2004. Fast forward to a decade later, he joins Islamic State, and in February 2017, carries out a suicide bombing at an Iraqi army base. British tabloids expressed outrage particularly over the fact that he received £1 million in compensation. Some of his relatives insist that during his imprisonment in Guantanamo, he was not a terrorist then, and it was actually the difficulty he experienced in rebuilding his life from the stigma of the "terrorist" imprisonment, that pushed him towards Islamic extremism.
- At the end of 2016 Carrie Fisher passed away of cardiac arrest. Her own mother died the very next day, and her last words were "I just want to be with Carrie" - and several people commented that if something like that happened in fiction, no one would buy it.