Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
— Walter Scott, Marmion (Canto VI. Stanza 17)
A suspicious character, thinking a friend or loved one is lying, goes along with the lie, forcing the liar to expand upon the cover story in a grossly outlandish fashion. Named for "pull the thread, and watch the sweater unravel."
In a comedy series, this can result in a Fawlty Towers Plot
situation. In a drama, it results in the catastrophic collapse of a villain's house-of-cards scheme. May result from Spotting the Thread
. Not to be confused with All Cloth Unravels
, when literally pulling a single loose thread on a piece of clothing causes the whole piece of clothing to come undone.
Contrast Seamless Spontaneous Lie
. Compare and contrast Conviction by Contradiction
, which skips the "pull the thread" step and jumps straight from catching a lie or mistake to assuming guilt of some greater crime.
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Anime and Manga
- Used with Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men. Tom Cruise's character continues to question Jessup until he catches Jessup in a contradiction: Jessup had ordered that Santiago was not to be harmed, and assured the court that his orders were always followed, to the letter. Thus, the Armor-Piercing Question from Cruise says that if that were true, there would be no reason to transfer Sanitago off the base, as Jessup did, because Santiago shouldn't have been in any danger if Jessup's orders are always followed. It's the slight Oh, Crap moment from Jessup which follows that begins to unravel his entire testimony.
- The film Shattered Glass has editor Charles Lane asking reporter Stephen Glass to retrace a sequence of events reported in one of the latter's (completely made-up) news articles. Glass picks a building and a restaurant more or less at random, then has the spectacularly bad luck of discovering both were closed at the time the events in his article supposedly took place. The trope is eventually subverted because no matter how many blatant lies Lane catches him in, Glass never capitulates and continues to spin how it could have happened (supposedly it happened this way in real life as well).
- The ending of the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham 123 has the last remaining hijacker accidentally giving away his identity with his recognizable sneeze.
- Recall the elegant subversion in To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus successfully pulls many threads in the Ewells' story of how Tom raped Mayella, particularly in the disparity of Mayella's bruise and Tom's handicap but the all-white jury ends up finding him guilty anyway.
- In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga novel The Warrior's Apprentice, Miles invents the "Dendarii Free Mercenaries" out of whole cloth as a quick cover story. Then the new "provisonal members" start to inadvertently Pull the Thread , so he adds more detail. By the end of the novel there actually IS a Dendarii Free Mercenaries, uniform, field manual, hidden government backing, and all. The majority of it essentially made up on the spot by 3 terribly overworked people.
Live Action TV
- This is one of the rules of the storytelling game The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One player starts to tell the most outlandish story about his adventures (Such as the time a pair of Frenchmen took credit for his invention of the hot air balloon), and the other players repeatedly interrupt him with additional questions. The storyteller has to either incorporate them into the story or pass the turn to the next player.
- Oh, Oedipus, you just had to pull the thread yourself.
- Episode 1 of The Wolf Among Us features Bigby going to Toad's apartment with the place clearly ransacked, while Toad insists that he kept hurting himself trying to get into his apartment last night. Bigby can, if the player chooses, continue to call out the contradictions in Toad's story, until Toad reveals he was covering it up under threat of assault.
- During the Clear My Name quest of Neverwinter Nights, Chapter 2 you come across a "witness" who is obviously falsifying his story. Only by pulling the thread of his story can you get him to admit he was nowhere near the scene of the murder.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, there is more than one way to reveal the fake Weylon. One, you just get too near a certain door and refuse to leave. The other is tricking him, intimidating him and forcing him to expand on his story while picking out all the mistakes he makes until he finally merely gets irritated and attacks.
- In the 1st Degree goes into this trope when it comes to questioning the witnesses: Why were you seen searching the body after the shooting? You were just trying to do CPR? Why would you do CPR if the victim is dying from a bleeding neck wound?
- Pulling the thread is an integral concept in the Ace Attorney series. In most cases, it's not a matter of playing along with the lie, but of catching the lie and then forcing the person you're questioning into making up a lie to cover up the lie ("No, wait! I was mistaken!"). In at least one case (Mr. Kudo), this actually comes back to bite Phoenix, when he really should have convinced the court to listen to the person he just completely discredited.
- This is essentially the point of the "press" option: if you can't see anything contradictory in the witnesses' current statement, you can ask them to elaborate, which quite often leads to them saying something that is contradictory, which you can then call them on.
- Subverted or even double subverted in Trials & Tribulations with Luke Atmey who deliberately makes the details of his major lie contradictive, so that he is found guilty of a heist, he didn't commit, once Phoenix pulls the thread and exposes the lies, and then use his "Guilty" verdict as an alibi in the murder, he actually did commit. Which is still exposed in the end by, again, further pulling the thread.
- In CLANNAD, pulling the thread on one of Sunohara's lies leads from how Sunohara's parents will get worried if they're out too late to the invention of an illegitimate adult son for the 23 year old Sagara Misae. Said son is named Sagara Missile. And to make things worse, Sunohara then nicknames Tomoya Apache and Tomoyo The Ultimate Weapon. But it works out okay because they still go and do what he wanted.
- In My Forged Wedding, Takao asks the Player Character to pose as his fiancee, because his grandmother's health is failing and it would make her happy to know that Takao found someone to marry. Then his grandmother's health takes an unexpected turn for the better, and she begins making plans for the wedding. Only after they've held a wedding ceremony does she admit that she figured out the truth early on and kept stringing them along mostly in the hopes that they'd fall in love for real.
- Dr. Irie in Kiss Of Revenge rarely confronts the protagonist directly over her suspicious behavior, and even when he does he never reveals everything he knows. His preferred modus operandi is to play along, hinting just enough of his suspicions to put her on edge, occasionally dangling some bait in front of her to see what she'll do, and generally giving her rope to find out whether or not she'll hang herself with it.
- Turned up in an episode of Cyberchase; The Hacker is running for president of Cyberspace, on the platform of "I'll cure Motherboard of that nasty virus I gave her" and mentions that doing so involves a triangle, which can be made with any three lines. When the Power Trio proves that not all lines can form (closed) triangles, everyone immediately stops believing Hacker and agrees with the kids.
- Miss Manners actually recommended this tactic for dealing with a woman who always has to top whatever story you tell. If you say your wife just had a baby and she brings up a relative who just had triplets, Miss Manners advocates playing along with fervor: "Oh, how wonderful! When were they born? What are their names? How big were they? Did they have any medical problems? I hear triplets can be low birth-weight and need a respirator for a few weeks..." etc. Until she runs out of ammo, or realizes what you're doing, at least you're having as much fun with it as she is.
- This is a common cross-examination technique. In most Western legal systems, lawyers aren't allowed to directly accuse a witness of lying as a challenge. The solution is to pull the thread until an inconsistency, either with evidence or prior statements, comes out. This can then be waved about, usually discrediting the witness in the eyes of the jury.
Also a common police interrogation technique. Many confessions have come after the interrogator first gets the suspect to admit to a small lie ("Yeah, okay, I did know him") and then going from there.
- Unfortunately, it's just as easy to get an innocent person to confess with this method as it is a guilty person, which is why Americans are advised to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and ask for their lawyers even if they are innocent.
- Socrates did this with style and to some people he probably shouldn't have screwed with, although in his opinion it was his duty to do so, and he insisted that he really just wanted to learn instead of just being a dick. The Socratic method owes its name to his rhetoric. It should be noted that Socrates wasn't uncovering lies per se, but hypocrisies. And that he ended up highly dead.
- Louis CK's stand-up routine about kids asking "why?" and how you should understand when their parents tell them to shut up, because "they just keep coming, more questions, why, why, why, until you don't even now who the fuck you are anymore at the end of the conversation!"
"Papa, why can't we go outside?"
"'Cause it's raining."
"Well, water's coming out of the sky."
"'Cause it was in a cloud."
"Well, clouds form... when there's... vapor."
"...I don't know! I don't know. I don't know any more things. Those are all the things I know."
"'Cause I'm stupid. Okay? I'm stupid."
"Well, 'cause I didn't pay attention in school, okay? I went to school but I didn't listen in class."
"'Cause I was high all the time! I smoked too much pot!"
"'Cause my parents gave me no guidance! They didn't give a shit!"
"'Cause they fucked in a car and had me, and they resented me for taking their youth!"
"Because they had bad morals! They had no compass!"
"'Cause they had shitty parents! It just keeps going back like that!"
"'Cause, fuck it, we're alone in the universe!..."
- In mathematics and logic, there is proof by contradiction—one way of proving something is to assume the opposite is true, and follow the consequent trail of reasoning until you arrive at an obvious fallacy. For instance, one can reason that 1 = 2, but only if somewhere along the way they divide by zero. Since you end up with a contradiction, this shows that the original premise (that the opposite of what you wanted to prove was true) was actually false, and hence what you wanted to prove is true.
- Debunkers of phoney psychics sometimes exploit this approach, "giving away" fake hints to their identity and then watching as self-proclaimed fortune-tellers talk themselves into a corner, building upon such bogus leads.
- Works well when you suspect that your spouse or significant other might be cheating on you. Watch for changing stories and half-truths, commonly known as "trickle truth."