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Rule of Perception

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Jon: OW! ...Did you do that?!
Garfield: Nope.
Jon: You kicked me!
Garfield: If you didn't see it, it didn't happen.

If the audience can't perceive it, it doesn't exist.

The audience of a movie will know only what they can see and hear. This means that nothing really exists in a movie unless you can see or hear it (because if it does, you're going to have to explain why it was Behind the Black). As a result, a kind of accepted audio-visual shorthand has been created over many years, to help the audience understand what they're looking at and what's going on. The same is true of all other media as well: video games, theater, art, comics, written stories, and even music all have numerous ways of helping to telegraph the parts of the story that they aren't directly telling, and ways to clarify the parts that they are telling.

  • 1-Dimensional Thinking: Fleeing characters could avoid mishap by stepping aside rather than continue rushing forward.
  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: Realism and accuracy are pointless if the audience can't understand the story.
  • Acoustic License: If the audience can hear (or see speech bubbles for) a sound, then the characters are also aware of it, physics be damned. (It can also work the other way around.)
  • All-Natural Gem Polish: Gems are naturally shiny and pre-cut so that the audience can recognize them.
  • Age Is Relative: Characters who are more competent will also look older/more mature.
  • The Air Not There: You can't see air; therefore, it does not exist.
  • As You Know: The characters already know this exposition, but the viewers don't, so it has to be stated onscreen.
  • Audible Gleam: If it just looks shiny then it could be mistaken, but if it makes the noise too then you know it's meant to be taken as shiny.
  • Audible Sharpness: It's easy to tell when a blade is sharp because it makes a "sharp noise."
  • Bedhead Itis: Visibly unkempt hair can be used as a shorthand for all the internal suffering caused by a disease.
  • Beeping Computers: Computers beep so that you can tell they're doing something.
  • Behind the Black: Anything that's offscreen is invisible.
  • Big Honking Traffic Jam: Car horns are always heard in traffic which is completely stationary.
  • Blah, Blah, Blah: You can tell a character does not understand/is not paying attention to what is being said because it is also made incomprehensible to the audience.
  • Briffits and Squeans: Stationary images have to do something to represent motion.
  • Bullet Sparks: Bullets spark when they ricochet to make it obvious where they hit.
  • Cartoon Cheese: Cheese is always immediately recognizable by a distinctive shape and color.
  • Chainsaw Good: Chainsaws are flashy and make a lot of noise, so they must be really powerful.
  • Characterizing Sitting Pose: One can tell something about a character's personality from the way they sit.
  • Character Tics: You can tell he's feeling a certain way because he's doing that thing he does when he's feeling that way.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Given that Catholic churches tend to be more ornate in design and features of Catholic services are more identifiable (e.g., mass, confession), if you want to make it clear it's a church service then this is the easier kind to spot.
  • Colour-Coded Timestop: When time stops, everything goes gray (except characters who aren't affected).
  • Concealment Equals Cover: If you can't be seen, you can't be hit.
  • Congestion Speak: If a character in a written work has a stuffy nose, certain words will be misspelled (like "nose" to "bose" or "dose").
  • Convection, Schmonvection: Fire and lava are only dangerous if you touch them directly.
  • Convulsive Seizures: If a character has a seizure, the writers will make it the most visible kind of seizure.
  • Cower Power: You can tell a character is terrified by their exaggerated cowering.
  • Culture Blind: The audience probably doesn't know about foreign cultural norms, so the characters will be clueless as well.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Not every work benefits from a Hidden Villain; sometimes, the audience needs to know who the villain is even when the other characters don't.
  • Do Not Touch the Funnel Cloud: If you don't touch the visible part of a tornado, the most it can do is whip your hair around a little.
  • Dramatic Stutter: A clear, auditory representation of a character's shock.
  • Editorial Synaesthesia: Non-visual senses like smell and pain have to have some form of visual representation.
  • Emotional Maturity Is Physical Maturity: If the character looks physically young, they will be emotionally young as well, even if they're Older Than They Look.
  • Ermine Cape Effect: Fancy clothing is an easy way for us to tell which characters are royalty.
  • Every Bullet is a Tracer: Bullets leave visible trails in the air to make it easy to tell which way they went.
  • Every Pizza Is Pepperoni: Pizza in animation is always immediately recognizable with red spots.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: The person who gets to eavesdrop will almost certainly come in when something important is being talked about.
  • Exact Progress Bar: Everything has a progress bar, even if it logically shouldn't, so the viewers know how close it is to being done.
  • Extreme Graphical Representation: Computers use flashy, unnecessary graphics.
  • Eye-Dentity Giveaway: Characters may not always be able to tell whether or not a character is an imposter, but the eyes may be the definite giveaway for the audience.
  • Face of a Thug: Particularly used in comedy purposes, the audience may not always be able to tell whether or not a character with an intimidating face is a good person, but after some time, they will get to know them.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Namely, when the "drug" turns out to just be sugar, salt, flour or the like, the cop will say so, as obviously the audience can't taste what they're tasting.
  • Flash of Pain: You can tell a video game character just got damaged because they briefly flashed a different color.
  • Flatline: If a hospitalized character's cardiac monitor starts sounding a long beep, the audience knows that they have died or are on the verge of death.
  • Fluorescent Footprints: When you're tracking someone, their trail will glow brightly so the audience can see it too.
  • Flynning: Many real life sword techniques rely on very quick and subtle movements, meaning the layperson might be unable to tell what's going on, such as if the opponent gets hit despite it seeming to the untrained eye as if the sword never made contact. Since most viewers are unfamiliar with sword techniques, movie fights exaggerate movements to make it clear what is happening.
  • Gasp of Life: If a character previously shown as dead has been brought back to life, they need to prove it by breathing loudly enough for the audience to hear.
  • Gonk: Particularly in animated medium, if a character is supposed to be considered ugly, then the best way to do so is to lay it on thick.
  • Green Around the Gills: Need to show someone is nauseated without having them gag, throw up, or say so? Have their face green!
  • Half-Dressed Cartoon Animal: Since Animals Lack Attributes in most animated works, nudity isn't really a concern. They often still wear something so the audience can recognize them, though.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Fraternal twins need to be (nearly) identical too, or the audience won't recognize them as twins.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: If a character can literally turn heads as they pass, they're clearly supposed to be seen (at least in-universe) as attractive.
  • He's Dead, Jim: There will always be an obvious cue so we know the exact moment when a character dies.
  • Hesitation Equals Dishonesty: When a character pauses their speech for any reason, it's an audio cue that he's second-guessing what he wants (and doesn't want) to tell the others.
  • Highly-Visible Ninja: Ninjas are stealthy, but they can't be so stealthy that the audience doesn't know they're there.
  • High-Speed Missile Dodge: As long as you don't touch the rocket, you'll be okay.
  • Hit Spark: Every kinetic impact makes a bright, fireworks-like effect.
  • Hollywood Darkness: It's dark, but not so dark that we can't see what's happening.
  • Hologram Projection Imperfection: Holograms have little flickers and static effects and such so that it's obvious they're not real.
  • Honking Arriving Car: When the audience hears a honking sound from outside a scene or off-screen, they immediately know that a car is present and relevant.
  • Ice Crystals: Ice with a crystalline shape or structure.
  • Impairment Shot: The camera's "vision" gets distorted when depicting the POV of a drunk/high/injured etc person to make it obvious something's wrong.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: Bugs, tracers, hidden cameras, listening devices, and their ilk will be very conspicuous—if they were as inconspicuous as real ones, the audience wouldn't know they were bugs.
  • Inverse Law of Sharpness and Accuracy: Attacks that don't cause massive open wounds are treated as much safer and less damaging than ones that do.
  • Jingle the Coins: The presence of money is confirmed by the rattling of coins.
  • Kung-Foley: Physical blows make loud noises so the audience knows when someone gets hit.
  • Law of Cartographical Elegance: Maps only need to show what's important to the story, so in order to prevent the audience from wondering what places might lay beyond it, no landmasses extend off the boundaries of the map.
  • Laser Hallway: A type of security system that is conveniently easy to see.
  • Laser Sight: Snipers use laser sights so that the audience can tell where they're aiming.
  • Luckily, My Powers Will Protect Me: If it's not visually obvious that your superpowers are protecting you, you'd better state it explicitly in dialogue.
  • Luminescent Blush: Blushing can be quite subtle, but in fiction it's usually clearly visible from the other side of the room so we can see their emotions. For a Funny Animal, it will also be visible under their fur.
  • Made of Iron: The audience can't feel the character's pain, so the character won't be incapacitated by what should be serious injuries.
  • Midair Bobbing: When a character is bobbing up and down, you know they're floating in the air and not just misaligned with the background.
  • Mind-Control Eyes: If his eyes are glazed over or spiralling, it's a good indication to the viewer that he's being brainwashed.
  • Model Dissonance: Sometimes a game's graphics must be tweaked so they look right to the player.
  • Morphic Resonance: When a character shapeshifts, there are visual cues that make it easy to tell they're the same person.
  • Motive Rant: If the writers want the audience to know the bad guy's motives, he has to actually explain them at some point.
  • Narrating the Obvious: For the benefit of the audience, characters narrate events that should be extremely obvious to them.
  • National Stereotypes: How else will you know that it's foreign?
  • Nervous Tics: She must be nervous because she always does that thing when she's uncomfortable.
  • Never Found the Body: If a character is presumed dead and their body isn't shown to confirm it, it's nearly certain that they survived.
  • No Peripheral Vision: The camera doesn't have peripheral vision, so neither do the characters.
  • No Power, No Color: Lack of color indicates that something's energy is depleted.
  • Not the Fall That Kills You…: As long as you don't splat into the ground, you'll be okay.
  • Obfuscated Interface: Interface displays are unclear/confusing to the viewer, the characters, or both.
  • Obligatory Earpiece Touch: When a character wears an earpiece, they will touch it to let the audience know a message is being transmitted.
  • Obvious Pregnancy: A woman must have a baby bump even right at the beginning of her pregnancy, or else the viewers will forget she's pregnant.
  • Offscreen Inertia: As long as a character is offscreen, it's assumed that they continue doing whatever it was we last saw them doing.
  • Offscreen Reality Warp: Implausible changes are accepted if they happen offscreen.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Offscreen characters are in a sort of limbo that allows them to reappear wherever they like when they come back onscreen.
  • Outrun the Fireball: As long as you can escape the visible blast, you won't be hurt by the invisible shockwaves that would tear you to bits in real life.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: A character's disguise is much more transparent than it would take to obscure who they are, but if their disguise was actually that good, the audience might not recognize them, either.
  • Pattern-Coded Eggs: Eggs are colored like the creature that will hatch from them, so the audience knows what creature that will be.
  • Piecemeal Funds Transfer: Cybernetic funds are transferred gradually, with an Exact Progress Bar to represent it.
  • Power Echoes: Super-powerful characters have a voice that echoes or reverbs dramatically.
  • Power Floats: Ordinary people can't float, so if a character can then he must have some sort of mystic power.
  • Power Glows: Power is represented with a highly-visible glowing effect.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: A strictly-mental injury is represented with the more-visible effect of a nosebleed.
  • Puny Parachute: Parachutes are small enough to fit on the screen.
  • Radio Voice: You can tell the voice is coming from the radio because it's slightly distorted.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Fictional conversations are, on a meta-level, pre-scripted, so there's no reason they can't be perfectly polished and smoothly flowing unless the plot specifically calls for it.
  • Red Live Lobster: Crustaceans in cartoons have to be red-colored, otherwise, they just can't be crustaceans.
  • Repeating So the Audience Can Hear: We can't hear the other end of his telephone conversation, but that's okay because he'll repeat it back for us.
  • Rustproof Blood: Blood stains stay red to let the audience know that it's blood, as opposed to other things that stain brown, such as mud, chocolate, or feces.
  • See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Off-screen events won't be audible until they appear on-screen.
  • See Water: The camera (and audience) can see clearly underwater; therefore, so can the characters.
  • Shapes of Disappearance: The audience gets to see the outlines or afterimages of where an entity that suddenly disappeared used to be, so they get to see what isn't there but is supposed to be there.
  • Shock and Awe: Electricity-based powers and weapons almost always involve visible arcs of electricity coursing over the target to make it clear what's happening.
  • Sickness Equals Redness: You know that the character is sick because their nose is red.
  • Sizable Snowflakes: Realistic snowflakes would not be very visible on screen, particularly in stylized works.
  • Slow Laser: Lasers behave in unusual ways that make them more visible.
  • Social Semi-Circle: When characters form a group or sit around a table, they'll leave a gap so that none of them have their backs to the camera.
  • Soft Water: Why shouldn't water be softer than dry land?
  • Some Kind of Force Field: A visible disruption effect in the air, usually with appropriate sound effects, accompanies a force field.
  • Sounding It Out: A character reads something out loud for the benefit of the audience, even though there's nobody else around to hear.
  • Sounds of Science: When scientific minds are engaged in scientific debate, they will mutter in a scientific manner so everyone can tell that's what they're doing.
  • Space Is Noisy: There is sound in space because the viewers want to be able to hear what's going on.
  • Stock Costume Traits: Certain visual cues let the audience instantly identify a character's profession.
  • Stock Visual Metaphors: An index of visual shorthands that help the audience understand what's going on.
  • Streaming Stars: If the stars seem to be stretching into lines as they go by, you're moving through space very quickly.
  • Suddenly Obvious Fakery: Something should be obviously fake, but the story relies on both the characters and audience being fooled, so it is portrayed as if it were real with no explanation until the audience needs to know the truth.
  • Tap on the Head: Since injuries to the head aren't outwardly apparent, knocking someone out with a hit to the head is much less likely to leave lasting injuries in fiction compared to real life.
  • Tastes Like Chicken: Since the audience can't taste whatever exotic meat the character is eating, they have to say what it tastes like, and the best way to describe a taste is to name something else it tastes like.
  • Technicolor Toxin: Poison is brightly-colored so it's easy to tell that it's poisonous.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: For obvious reasons, you can't just display a character's genitalia, so you've got to find some way to make it clear who's a boy and who's a girl.
  • Theatrics of Pain: Actors exaggerate pain for the benefit of the audience.
  • Thinking Out Loud: A character expresses their thought out loud for the spectator's comprehension.
  • Translation Convention: The characters may be foreigners, but the audience has to understand what's going on, so they're speaking English (or whatever the audience's language is).
  • Traveling-Pipe Bulge: When a character is traveling through a pipe, the pipe will bulge to show their location.
  • Tron Lines: Glowing blue lines over everything are a good indicator of advanced technology.
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Computer interfaces are designed for the viewers watching them on TV, not the characters who are actually using them.
  • Visible Invisibility: The audience needs to be able to see what an invisible character is doing.
  • Voiceover Letter: We can't see the actual text of the letter, so instead we hear a voiceover of the person who wrote it.
  • Voices Are Mental: If characters swap bodies, their new body will talk in their old voice so that you can tell it's the same character.
  • Waist-Deep Ocean: If the floor of a body of water isn't directly visible, then the depth can change to whatever the plot needs.
  • Walk-In Chime-In: A character just entering the set has somehow heard what the characters already there were talking about before they walked in—the audience knows, after all, so the characters should too.
  • Water Is Blue: In drawn media, water is always depicted as a clean blue rather than clear. This way, it's much easier for the audience to see it.
  • When It Rains, It Pours: There's no point in having it rain so lightly that the audience can't even tell it's raining, so if it's gonna rain, it rains a lot.
  • When Things Spin, Science Happens: Something spins so you know the machine is doing science.
  • Worm Sign: When something is tunneling underground, you can tell where it is because it will displace dirt or break floorboards on the surface.
  • Written Sound Effect: In comics, the audience can't hear the sounds, thus they're written down so the audience can see them instead, especially if the sounds happen offscreen and/or are important to the story.
  • X-Ray Sparks: You can tell a character is being electrocuted because their skeleton is showing through their skin.
A lot of these violate Real Life physics because Reality Is Unrealistic. But Tropes Are Not Bad. Remember, this is in consideration to the audience, so if you're looking for realism, go check out naturalism, aka Slice of Life. The Rule of Perception is the whole reason Foley artists and sound mixers exist.

Related to The Coconut Effect, in that the Rule of Perception is often what causes the initial drift away from reality.


  • In a feminine-hygiene ad, some blindfolded women try to identify the rhinoceros standing between them. Their guesses are all inanimate objects, based entirely on the shape of its body parts that are seen on screen ("It's a rope", "It's a pillar", etc). None of them notice that it smells like a big freakin' animal, that it's warm to the touch, or that it's moving slightly. A case of Rule of Perception, as in the original parable that inspired this scenario (which involves an elephant), the blind investigators know it's an elephant, and are asked what the animal is like, not what it is.

     Anime and Manga 
  • Case Closed often has people whose actions the audience is supposed to know, but whose specific appearance is unknown to the other characters, rendered as all-black silhouettes even in places where there would be no shadows (even outdoors in the middle of the day).
  • Death Note:
    • Light Yagami's eyes turn red and glow during his most psychotic moments. Unlike other fictional characters with glowing red eyes, Light isn't magical (not that the option wasn't offered multiple times) so his eyes aren't actually glowing in-universe; it's just visual shorthand to show us how far he's gone.
    • It goes further than that - Word of God is that Shinigami-vision, when transferred to a human, creates no visible differences in the human's eyes. So all those scenes where people who've made the eye trade suddenly have Glowing Eyes of Doom? That's for the audience's benefit only.


    Comic Books 
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: In Don Rosa's "The Three Caballeros Ride Again", Jose Carioca hides out in Donald Duck's trunk and asks him to help him flee from a bandit. The two exchange several lines of dialogue, but do not recognize each other until they are face to face—apparently in a comic book, neither of them can hear the other's distinctive speech patterns...
  • Doctor Strange's astral self is represented by a 'ghosted' version of himself with various other visual effects. Whether other characters can see him is indicated by dialogue. He also has visual indications when spellcasting, usually in the form of a glow around his hands.
  • Fantastic Four: Sue Storm's "invisible" self and force field are visible to the audience, by dotted outlines in the comics and CGI Predator-like distortion in the movies. Played with in both. When they want the audience to see that Sue is doing something, such as sneaking around invisibly or deploying an invisible force-field, they will be rendered visibly. When they want Sue's reveal to be a surprise, they will leave her and her force fields totally invisible until the reveal. Improvement in art quality has removed the infamous dotted lines from the comics and replaced them with the same effect used for glass.
  • Poison Ivy often has some sort of Mind Control in the form of some pheromones/pollen etc that allow her to control people who inhale them. Typically they are represented by green or pink squiggly lines, although whether people in-universe can see and/or smell it, or whether it's just there for the reader's benefit varies, and is often left unclear.
  • Superman:
    • A Mind-Switch in Time, Euphor's emotion-eating powers have a representation visual for the reader's benefit: some kind of blue energy surrounds his target before moving to him. No character shows signs of seeing it in-universe.
    • In Strangers at the Heart's Core, Lesla-Lar's astral form is represented as a floating, glowing, shapeless will-o'-the-wisp which nobody in-universe ever sees.
    • Superman vs. Shazam!: When Superman contacts Supergirl using his super-ventriloquism, large blue letters flash above Kara's head so readers know what she is hearing.
    • In The Girl with the X-Ray Mind, Lena's mind-reading is illustrated like a floating image depicting one scene invisible to everyone in-universe.
    • The Strange Revenge of Lena Luthor: Mind-Bomber's bursts of mental power are depicted as pink waves, which nobody ever sees in-universe, flying straight towards his target.
    • Death & the Family:
      • After telling Kara no doctor has been able to identify her illness, Kara stands still in front of Lana for several seconds. Readers can see two conical beams of bluish light erupting from Kara's eyes and bathing Lana, who has to guess Kara is using her microscopic vision.
      • After Supergirl has been struck by Silver Banshee's sonic scream, the dialogue bubbles become blank to show Supergirl has become temporarily deaf.
    • The Plague of the Antibiotic Man: The sounds emitted by Amalak's star-amulet are depicted as rows of musical notes wrapped in a yellow bubble speech.
    • Let My People Grow!: Brainiac's words when he has been shrunk to nearly nothingness are rendered as nonsensical letters, so readers understand it is unintelligible gibberish.
    • "Brainiac: Rebirth": Brainiac's disintegrated body is depicted as a stream of highly-visible, multi-colored, marble-like molecules, since readers obviously need to see it, and people tend to associate molecules with round shapes.
    • The Legion of Super-Heroes!:
      • Saturn Girl's telepathic messages do not get their own speech bubbles. Instead, they are depicted as letters floating in the air or water. Naturally, nobody can see them.
      • As the Time bubble travels through a dark-blue limbo, an ascending number of years trail behind it to show the teenagers are moving through the timestream.
    • Supergirl's Three Super Girl-Friends: When Kara turns on her belt-generated force-field, she is surrounded by a thick white outline which only the readers can see.
    • The Dominator War: As four Legionnaires travel through the interior of the Earth, Brainiac 5 complains he cannot see absolutely nothing on account of being thousands of miles away from any source of light. However, he and his partners are surrounded by a bright orange glow that allows the readers to see the team and their reactions.
    • Brainiac's Blitz: When Supergirl dives deep into the Metropolis' harbor, Kara is perfectly visible -and blue-colored- despite being surrounded by lightless, murky black waters.
    • Supergirl's Greatest Challenge: As Supergirl's Legion figurines are sending a distress call, their heads are crowned by a halo of black lines to mean they are glowing.
    • "The Unknown Legionnaire": So that readers know Unknown Boy is using his x-ray vision, a -invisible to the characters- cone of yellow light sprouts from his eyeless mask whenever he is scanning something.
    • In Superboy (1949) #201, tiny white stars are drawn around each member of the Legion of Super-Heroes to represent that they are feeling dizzy and succumbing to the effects of an invisible poisonous gas.
    • Superboy 1980: In issue #4, Astralad shouts his real name, but Superboy jumbles the sound by flying between Astralad and Lana at supersonic speed. This is represented in the panel by the name's letters getting scattered and turned upside down as Superboy flies through them.
  • X-Men:
    • When Jean Grey uses telekinesis, visible (to the reader) pink energy is often shown moving from her head to whatever she's manipulating. Other telekinetics often have similar effects (light blue for Justice/Vance Astrovik, purple for Psylocke, dotted lines or translucent white for the Invisible Woman, etc.). Rarely, if ever, is it made clear whether this energy is supposed to be visible or not. Often, onlookers will clearly be unable to tell why an object is moving seemingly under its own power, but on at least one occasion another character referred to Jean's telekinesis as "pink stuff."
    • Every mental power gets a visual representation. Examples include concentric yellow circles for Aquaman's animal control powers, lightning bolts around his head for Professor X's telepathy (rarely used anymore), a wavelike effect for Magneto's magnetic powers, squiggly lines around his head (with half of his face turning into his mask if he's in his civilian ID) for Spider-Man's spider sense, etc.
    • Ink was a character who thought he had the mutant ability to simulate others' powers by getting an appropriate symbol tattooed on his body (it turned out he was a normal human - it was the tattoo artist who had super powers). One of his tattoo powers was telepathy, which he got from having lightning bolts tattooed on his head, just like the ones used to show Professor X using his powers in old school X-Men comics.

    Fan Works 
  • My Immortal is blissfully unaware of the Rule of Perception, as a result of which characters often seem to materialise out of nowhere.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series sometimes likes to poke fun at this trope. For example, Mai Valentine is treated as a poor duelist because all her on-screen battles were losses on her part, with the only exception being her battle with Jean Claude Magnum, who is just a mere filler villain. However, Season 4 eventually acknowledges that she actually has a pretty huge winning streak. It's just that these battles occurred offscreen. Joey retorts Mai by pointing out that anything that happens offscreen doesn't actually happen, in which Mai proceeds to humiliate Joey by claiming that his balls never dropped because nobody saw it happen.

    Films — Animation 
  • In The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Captain Haddock recounts the legend of his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock and realizes the villain Sakharine is the descendant of Francis’s nemesis Red Rackham. This reveal is done by Red Rackham dramatically unmasking in a flashback, showing he has the same face as his descendant, yet Captain Haddock shouldn’t have any way of seeing this because he’s just reciting the tales his grandfather told him.
  • Puss in Boots: Puss doesn't know that Kitty is female until he hears her voice. In real life, cats can tell the sex of another cat by smell.

    Films — Live Action 
  • In The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron, No Endor Holocaust appears to be in play during the battles in Manhattan and Sokovia, respectively. Captain America: Civil War averts that trope with footage from those battles and others showing that, yes, innocent people had died during those battles and the Avengers had not noticed due to dealing with Loki's Chitauri army and Ultron.
  • In Cloverfield, the eponymous monster just shows up practically on top of the protagonists in Central Park at the very end, yet no indication of its approach is shown beforehand, like the fact that the ground quakes when it walks, and it tends to clumsily destroy the surrounding environment wherever it goes. The creature just appears out of nowhere to the protagonists because it appears out of nowhere to the audience.
  • Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: We know that large insects are noisy. One would think that Megaguirus, being a monstrous dragonfly-like insect almost as big as Godzilla, would be pretty loud. But no, turns out she is as stealthy as a Ninja. Godzilla and humans alike tend to fail to detect her until she is right on top of them.
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Enforced. One of the film's famous rules is that nothing exists until it has been shown on screen; consequently, characters will frequently fail to notice things that should be extremely obvious to them, simply because the audience has not seen it yet.
  • In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, absolutely nobody out of several thousands of people, haven't notice Azog building up his camp (which should involve a lot of noise too) on the highest and most visible point. Everyone was so preoccupied with their own conflicts that he had to announce his own presence.
  • In Moving Violations, the jerkass deputy doesn't realize that the prankster of the traffic school class has rubbed brown gunk on his megaphone's speaking end, and reports to his boss with a brown ring smudged around his lips. Never mind that anything moist or tacky enough to adhere to human skin would easily be felt on one's own face ... that is, if this trope didn't prohibit characters from having a sense of touch.
  • In Self/Less, Madeline doesn't recognize the body of her husband until he turns around, despite having a good view of him from behind and hearing him speak. Granted he's wearing different clothes and was thought to be dead, but she seems to think he's a complete stranger until he turns around and she sees his face.
  • In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Scotty is shown sitting alone in the conference room studying some blueprints shortly before discovering a major plot point. The blueprints consist of small-scale external views of the Enterprise. This is the sort of basic information we'd expect the chief engineer to have committed to memory. But it tells the viewer that Scotty is hard at work, better than a random electrical schematic might.
  • In the 2010 version of True Grit, the speed of sound issue is noticeably averted. When Rooster Cogburn fires a rifle as a signal from across a valley, we see a plume of smoke shoot silently out of the gun, followed seconds later by the distant crack. Rule of Perception is one of many tropes that The Coen Brothers make a habit of averting and subverting in most of their films.
  • Tenet: When the Protagonist at Freeport fights an Inverted Gas Mask Mook, the opponent’s goggles are clouded and no part of their face can be seen. When the scene plays again from the Inverted Man’s POV, their goggles are clear, revealing it’s the Protagonist’s future self being fought.
  • In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), none of the visitors recognize that the chocolate river is chocolate until Mr. Wonka tells them. Mr. Salt even comments "It's industrial waste, huh?" Clearly, the chocolate smells no stronger near the chocolate river than anywhere else in the confection-filled room.
    • Epic Movie has a characteristically boneheaded take on the same scenario: Edward drinks from the "chocolate river," and apparently likes it just fine, until someone tells him it's actually a sewage line.
  • In Zero Dark Thirty, during the climactic raid, Pakistani civilians neighboring the compound start to approach in curiosity. The SEAL team's translator tries to warn them off in (untranslated) Arabic, but to no avail. It's not until he cries out "Get away! They will kill you!" in English that the civilians stop, because this is an English-speaking movie.

  • In Hush, Hush, Nora finds a gun in Patch's car, which is splattered with a red substance that she assumes is blood. Patch explains that the gun is a paintball gun and that the red substance is paint from a game a few days ago. It's possible that Nora simply can't tell the difference between a paintball gun and a real one, but the smell, texture, and color of several-days-old blood is different than several-days-old paint. (For starters, dried blood gradually darkens to black.)
  • In I Love Lemonade, Quirky Turkey accidentally drinks goat pee instead of lemonade. In reality, the smell would give it away.
  • In A Mouthful by Paul Jennings, the main character tricks her father into eating real cat poop instead of the fake poop he pranks his daughter and her friends with. However, real cat poop smells, and it feels a lot different than plastic.
  • In The Three-Legged Cat by Margaret Mahy, a man puts a sleeping cat on his head, mistaking him for his hat. Even if the cat didn't wake up, a real person would be able to feel it breathing and the fact that it was warm. Also, the average housecat is much heavier than the average hat.
  • Thursday Next retreats to a fictional world for a while in the The Well of Lost Plots, and notices several things, like wallpaper, underwear, and breakfast, are missing because they're not usually mentioned in stories. She also finds that she is one of the only people with a sense of smell.
    • And a sense of hearing, at least as we understand it. Although Bookworlders aren't deaf, they can only hear what's explicitly stated in the text. For example, they can't distinguish voices unless something like "Thursday said" appears after the quote.
    • Inverted in One Of Our Thursdays is Missing, when a fictionalized version of Thursday comes to the real world and discovers how insanely complex the act of "walking through a crowd" actually *is*, since in her world you simply did it with no details or difficulty, while in the real world you have to do things like "Avoid multiple people travelling in various directions at various speeds and guess which way they will dodge depending upon visual clues never described in books".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Cold Case relies primarily on witness testimony for the investigations, considering all the physical evidence is either gone or already examined, which is depicted as flashbacks rather than just showing the detectives talking to the witnesses. The detectives always respond as if they've seen the exact same flashback, meaning they can only get the same information the audience did. This leads to situations like a witness apparently describing "a blonde girl" looking in the window and later clarifying her identity, rather than describing "my former student Lea" looking in the window and later clarifying her appearance, since the audience hasn't been introduced to Lea yet and wouldn't be able to identify her.
  • In a CSI arson investigation, Greg must compare a used match from the crime scene to a large pile of matchbooks taken from a suspect's home. In through-the-microscope views of him holding the torn match end to the matchbooks, the used match's cardboard shaft is dark in color, while the books' matches are light. This makes it more obvious to viewers that they aren't a match for one another but begs the question of why Greg bothered comparing those samples microscopically at all, when their colors are so visibly different.
  • Doctor Who uses this combined with Rule of Scary in "Blink". The Weeping Angels cannot move if they are being looked at, which means on camera specifically. The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You.
  • Heroes:
    • When Matt Parkman reads someone's mind, the audience usually hears a jumble of sounds, with an occasional clear sentence bubbling through the chaos.
    • Parkman usually tilts his head when reading minds. Lampshaded in an episode where all powers were lost but Parkman wasn't immediately aware of it. He tried to read someone's mind, but the target simply said "why do you keep tilting your head?"
    • Many of the other powers in Heroes take this to an almost absurd degree. Peter and Ted's hands glow when they are emitting radiation. Elle's electricity is in the form of blue sparks. Sylar's lie-detection skill is indicated with a shake of the camera (and usually his saying "You're lying!" directly afterwards).
    • In the earlier seasons, Hiro's powers require intense concentration, AKA screwing his face up.
  • How I Met Your Mother frequently uses this and it became a hallmark for the show. They constantly play with the use of narration in how the story unfolds and how the characters perceive a situation. One notable example was "Three Days of Snow" where Ted explains, "This is a three day story" and we see three different plots going on simultaneously, only for a twist in that each story takes place on a different day. Another episode "No Tomorrow" has Ted believes himself to be experimenting with an unusually lucky night he was having at the bar. But Marshall shows him an accidental audio recording of Ted's evening where Ted's dialogue is the same but changed from curious and honest to sleazy.
  • A Law & Order episode had the detective miss a dead body directly in their line of sight until the camera could see it.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Despite stationing for 80 years in the Southlands, and watching over the inhabitants from the watchtower of Ostirith —which is located on a mountain— somehow, the Elves completely missed the Orcs kidnaping people, digging caves and destroying the environment for who knows how long. One would assume they should have seen signs like deforested forests and fires caused by Orc from their watchtower.
  • In "The Pine Bluff Variant" of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully's conversation is bugged with a laser beam against the window of Mulder's apartment. The laser is bright red (so we know it's there), instead of infrared, which would be a lot more discreet.

  • In the music industry, if you're not in the public eye people assume you're not doing anything, or have "Fallen Off". Usually happens when an artist isn't properly promoted, or ignored by media outlets.
  • Good luck hearing The Beatles' catalogue the same way after reading and listening to some of the examples here.
  • Bone Thugs-n-Harmony hit this trope in the 2000's, They would release mainstream albums and people would still say "I thought they broke up?", Or "I didn't know they had a new album out". Despite having previous albums people seem to have short attention spans thanks to the Fleeting Demographic Rule.

    Video Games 
  • In Arknights, Dusk's painting works on this. If someone sees her paint something, it is as real as anything else, but if they close their eyes before she starts painting, the creation isn't real and has no effect on them. No one really knows precisely how Dusk's painting works, and even she can't really articulate it either.
  • The Eve's Garden strip club in Bioshock probably qualifies; the sign includes the anachronism "XXX", which would not come into use in Real Life until the 1970s. But players instantly recognize the shorthand.
  • In The Elder Scrolls, this is one of the reasons In-Universe as to why Peryite is considered the weakest Daedric Prince. Peryite's spheres involve natural disease, pestilence, and decay, as well as the ordering of the lesser realms of Oblivion. Since these are things that are easy to maintain or just wouldn't be visible to the mortals inhabiting Nirn, most people think he isn't very powerful, especially compared with Princes who have far more obvious and visible activity. Despite this, Peryite is just as powerful and dangerous as any other Prince, and inflicted the worst plague in Nirn's history.
  • This is likely the only explanation as to why everyone keeps mistaking Shadow for Sonic in Sonic Adventure 2 despite several cameras getting close-ups of his very different face from Sonic's. The player has to know that the hedgehog going around wreaking havoc is different from Sonic.
  • Played With in Stick It To The Man. The hand you use to interact with the world is invisible to most characters.
  • In the Super Mario Bros. series, any pipe with a Piranha Plant will only hurt you if you can see the plant. If the Plant is currently inside the pipe, you can go inside the pipe without taking damage.
  • Any Visual Novel with multiple routes, and the challenges facing the heroine in her route are assumed to occur regardless of whether or not the main character is involved with her. Potential Nightmare Fuel without this trope, especially if the heroine will meet a horrible fate without the intervention of the main character. Does not apply if intervention by the main character causes her suffering circumstantially or directly.

  • The Cartoon Chronicles Of Conroy Cat naturally toys with this one now and again. The "off panel" aspect of this trope is one that Conroy picks up on incredibly quickly during his 'toon training, to Doggy's irritation.
  • Deathclaw Desu Ga has a pervasive element of non-human characters depicted as anthropomorphic, with intermittent reveals of their true appearances, usually when someone else observes them. The main protagonist, Peabody, is almost always shown as a cute monster girl of slightly below-average height wearing a vault suit and speaking normal english, when in reality she is a huge hunched-over lizard in a very stretched-out and torn vault suit who, although intelligent, communicates through growling. She genuinely visualizes herself as the former, and doesn't understand why regular clothes keep getting ruined when she tries them on. Likewise, the radroaches are seen as pretty boys and girls by themselves, and the black radqueen sees the goldfish as a handsome hispanic man in a golden suit.
  • In The Order of the Stick, whenever Elan plays his bard song, green musical notes fill the air. As part of the strip's general Medium Awareness, one (green) character notices that they are the same color as she is.

    Web Original 
  • In Noob, Tenshirock's avatar seems to exist for interaction with players, NPCs and in-game objects. However, erasing it is treated as the same thing as keeping him from doing anything to the game and the effects of his hacking only seem to ever happen a short distance away from him.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Robositter", Shake and Frylock get jobs at a mall restaurant called Slurp-a-Lunch, which sells liquified meat. Shake proceeds to drink half a pitcher of a liquified meat called fried chickwit, but doesn't realize what he's drinking until after Frylock points it out to him.
    Shake: (after vomiting up the drink) There was ham in that pitcher?!
    Frylock: (annoyed) No, that was fried chickwit.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, Airbending can be seen as visible gusts. Given how people normally can't see air, this is done to give scenes a little extra flair. And to avoid having a character look like a dork throwing their arms around without some sort of visual to show that they are doing something.
  • Martha Speaks: "The Case of the Shattered Vase" has an example that could be justified as it's in a story Martha is telling. In the story, she, Danny, Helen, and Truman mistake the tail, body, ear, and trunk of Jeffy the elephant as a rope, wall, banana leaf, and palm tree respectively due to feeling in the dark. Since elephants are mammals, however, Jeffy would feel warm, and they'd likely be able to hear him breathing. In addition, Martha is a dog, so even if Jeffy was clean, she at least would be able to smell him.
  • Milly, Molly: In "Marmalade and the Birds", Milly's father mistakes some spilled water for cat pee. Cat pee in real life, however, has a strong smell, so the lack of smell would be a dead giveaway.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In the second season premiere, Discord corrupts Twilight Sparkle's friends one by one. When the ponies turn into jerks, they also become sepia-toned and later turn gray. Spike and Pinkie Pie are the only ones to note the color change, and both characters are among the only ones to have openly broken the fourth wall before.
    • More generally, the colored auras that show up around unicorns' horns or levitated objects are purely for the benefit of the audience, as they have never been commented on in-universe.
    • "A Royal Problem" Has Princess Celestia swap cutie marks with Princess Luna. Despite a prior episode showing the black patches were part of Luna's natural coloration as opposed to her mark, the black is swapped along with the white moon cutie mark for no clear reason save that it would be blend into Celestia's white coat otherwise.
  • Star Wars Rebels:
    • When Darth Vader's mask is cracked to reveal his eye, he has a visible eyebrow identical to Anakin's. While this contradicts other depictions that show his eyebrows were permanently singed off, as they were digitally edited out in the updated cut of Return of the Jedi by the time Revenge of the Sith was released, here it serves the dual purpose of better defining his character model and clearly indicating his identity to Ahsoka.
    • Thrawn, despite normally being depicted with Monochromatic Eyes (although even that was Depending on the Artist), has pupils and an iris slightly lighter than his sclera. This was done because it was difficult to show line of sight without them.
    • In "Jedi Night", Kanan's eyes clearing right before he dies was meant as a visual representation of him being so close to the Force that sight didn't matter, not his disability magically curing itself.

    Real Life 
  • "Object Permanence" is the mind's ability to avert this trope, understanding that objects still exist when they can't be perceived. Some animals lack this trait, as do human infants under a certain age (this is why the game peek-a-boo works on them; they can't recognize you without seeing your face).
  • In his classic essay "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen", the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat argues that many destructive government policies arise from tendency of people to only focus on what is obviously visible.
  • Inverted in quantum theory, since observing a quantum phenomenon actually changes the output of the quantum effect.
  • The idiom "out of sight, out of mind" invokes this trope.