"Oh, what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive!"
— Sir Walter Scott
A lie or deception that takes on a life of its own, spiraling out of the control of the ones who started it and often mutating in the process. What distinguishes a Snowball Lie from a Fawlty Towers Plot lie is that it attracts other characters to keep it alive and expand it, either by explicitly furthering the deception for their own purposes or by sincerely buying into it and carrying it on in the honest belief that it is real — or to avoid being embarrassed by their "ignorance" or "inexperience".
Usually a Snowball Lie will eventually grow to a point where it will collapse, either under the weight of its internal contradictions or after some insightful person Pulls The Thread on it. Sometimes, though, a perfect Snowball Lie will show no signs of ever stopping, and its creators will find themselves forced to kill it — with varying degrees of success, and varying degrees of repercussions to themselves. In particularly ironic situations, the Snowball Lie can become an unstoppable juggernaut that displaces the truth and becomes a new "truth" in its own right.
An Invented Individual is a Snowball Lie based around a fictional person.
Compare Gossip Evolution and Seamless Spontaneous Lie.
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Anime and Manga
When Hokuto arrives at Cromartie and finds out his dad doesn't actually run the place, he claims that said dad is in fact the shadow emperor of Japan. So what's Hokuto doing here? Um... his goal is to fight that evil emperor, of course. So he's planning to fight his own father? Um... yes! The lie snowballs at incredible speed, mostly because Kamiyama and Hayashida believe everything they're told.
Death Note: The entire series is based on Light Yagami's elaborate, psychopathic plots to deceive police and detective forces that he is not a serial killer... until it all blows up in his face, his cover is blown, and he dies.
Princess Celestia Hates Tea: Celestia lied to Luna that she enjoyed the Tea Brewer she gifted her with, in order to spare her feelings. The problem? That was a few thousand years ago, and as an immortal Physical God, Celestia has had millenia to continue drinking all the tea her loving subjects have been giving her, even though she still can't stand the stuff. It's safe to say it causes an avalanche instead of a snowball when she reveals she does not, in fact, enjoy tea.
In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, the main character runs into trouble when enemies of the US mistake him for the fake person created by the CIA to throw their attention off the trail of the real CIA agents.
The plot of the great movie Picture Perfect revolved around this. No, the otherPicture Perfect.
In the obscure 2005 Robin Williams film The Big White, he plays a man in Alaska with a mentally ill wife and they're on the brink of bankruptcy. He finds a corpse in a dumpster and passes it off as his long-lost brother to get an insurance claim. But he's hounded by an investigator who knows something's up, and he has to pile on lie upon lie. And just when he thinks he's gotten away with it, the two men who dumped the corpse want it back, and the real long-lost brother shows up.
Rather a nasty example in Gossip, a guy sees a girl pass out at party when alone with her boyfriend. The boyfriend leaves her to sleep. But the guy suggests to his friends that they should spread the rumor that the boyfriend had sex with her while she was unconscious, to see how far the rumor goes. The rumor goes far enough that she has the boyfriend arrested for rape. Viewers might wonder if the girl couldn't tell the difference, turns out she could, and the guy starting the rumor was in fact covering up his rape. She was also extremely sensitive to the whole plan because she had been date-raped before, by the guy who started the rumor and raped her again.
In the Italian comedy Notte prima degli esami (The Night Before the Exams), the main characters straight up invent some final exam questions to sell because they need some quick cash. Later, when they try to buy the actual test questions from some shady characters...if you need me to explain what happens next, then you obviously haven't read the trope description.
In Ghostbusters Walter Peck accuses the Ghostbusters of using hazardous wastes, and later on claims them to be snowball artists. Ironically he himself is a snowball liar even blaming them for the explosion he caused at their headquarters.
Technically, he blames their faulty equipment. That's like saying "The reason that the house burned down is because the sprinkler system didn't work!" after you went and shut off the main water valve. He truly and firmly believed that the Ghostbusters were con artists, and the fact that all their work dried up between the movies (since they wiped out the thing that was riling all the ghosts up) got everyone else to believe it too...despite the gigantic marshmallow man that had been stomping around downtown.
In Easy A, Emma Stone's character lies to her best friend that she has a date to get out of spending the weekend with the latter's nudist parents. The friend immediately assumes sex was involved, and the conversation is overheard by an uber-Christian girl who makes it her mission to turn everyone in school righteous. Instead of stopping the rumors, the protagonist chooses to perpetuate them, as it makes her insanely popular in school... at first.
The Georgette Heyer novel Arabella is centred around one of these. The eponymous Arabella claims to be a rich heiress (she's actually the daughter of a vicar, who while not poor is certainly not wealthy) to a pair of men who were making fun of her. Unfortunately, one of them spreads it around London and Arabella is forced to keep up the pretence in order to save her reputation. Luckily, her love interest is rich enough to cover up the fact that she isn't.
The Lie by T.C. Boyle starts with a guy who just wants a day off work. By the end, he's told everyone that his baby daughter is dead (not even remotely true) and the fallout from that leads to him abandoning his family and his job.
Nothing But the Truth by Avi is a YA novel consisting entirely of this trope (although part of the point is that the whole thing originates from truth-stretching and self-serving bias, not an outright lie).
George Orwell's 1984 runs on this trope. Most of recorded history has been replaced by a vast and intricate institutionalized network of Snowball Lies, and there's no way to tell which parts of the record are true and which are entirely made up. What's more, the government changes the records at will to whatever suits their current purposes. And of course, everybody just goes along with it except for the protagonist.
Orwell used it again in Animal Farm, where the ruling class of the titular farm were pigs. One, Napoleon, had his followers turn on his rival. He then proceeded to sell blatantly false and ever-expanding stories of his rival's duplicity and treachery in order to secure more and more power for himself and his cronies. His rival? Snowball. Any similarities to real persons in certain socialist revolutions is entirely intentional.
In The Warrior's Apprentice, to help a pilot with some financial troubles Miles Vorkosigan starts a Snowball Lie by pretending to be his benefactor. A few months later, Miles is several dozen light-years away, the pilot's spaceship is damaged beyond repair, Miles is an admiral commanding nineteen starships and three thousand space mercenaries, and his government has issued him an arrest warrant for high treason. This happens fairly often with the plans Miles comes up with.
In Dread Empire's Fall, a cell of 4 terrorists is trying to look like an entire underground army, so they attribute each of their actions to a different fake unit. Soon enough they see in the news about new attacks by these units — copycats have started to make up the units involved. After months of this, they actually do have an army.
At the beginning of one story, Ephraim Kishon and his wife just want to escape from a boring party. But the host of the party is very helpful and offers to escort them to the place where Kishon supposedly has Serious Business to do. At the end, he ends up owning 30% of a new factory for washing machines. It Makes Sense in Context.
The entire premise behind the Robert A. Heinlein book Double Star. An actor is hired to impersonate a very well-known political figure who has been kidnapped. The reason for this is that the man is about to partake in a very important Martian adoption ritual. Due to Orange And Blue Morality, the Martians wouldn't accept anything short of the man's death as being a valid excuse for not appearing on time, and the repercussions for non-attendance could escalate into outright war. In each chapter, the lies pile up, forcing the actor, the politician's staff, and eventually even the politician himself to help maintain the lie. Unlike other examples, in this case the lie is never revealed, despite the actor almost getting caught out once in public, and actually being caught out by the Emperor himself. The book ends with the actor talking about how he's been playing the part for twenty years now.
In the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies a gossip columnist writes about the exploits of a socialite named Imogen Quest. Soon, all the most fashionable people in London claim to be her closest friend. The trouble is that she is actually a figment of the columnist's imagination.
The final trilogy in The Sword of Truth series is centered around a spell created to maintain a single lie - that a certain person never existed. The problem is; the amount of lies sustaining each other will sooner or later lead to not just these lies crashing, but the entire reality along with them.
Live Action TV
In the 1980s TV Show Its Your Move, Matt, a junior-high school student, is supposed to arrange for a band for his school, only his not-too-bright friend Ely not only loses the ATM card with the money, he posts the pin number on a bulletin board asking for anyone to return the card. Since the money they would have had to pay the band is gone, and the kids at school would tear the two of them apart if no band was present, him and his friend set up a fake punk-rock band called The Dregs of Humanity consisting of a bunch of skeletons on wires on a darkened stage and a recording he created. This works, a reporter gets an interview with the group (not knowing that he's actually talking to a kid doing the voices of skeletons manipulated by wires) that he sells to a magazine, and it ends up that other groups want to book the now famous band into multiple locations, and pay them huge booking fees. This sounds great until various groups threaten suit, claiming that The Dregs of Humanity had committed various acts of mopery and dopery including plagiarizing songs, trashing hotel rooms around the country, and getting a girl pregnant.
In the Frasier 4th season episode "The Two Mrs. Cranes", Daphne lies to an old boyfriend who wants to get back with her by pretending to be married to Niles. Things spiral from there, so Frasier ends up being divorced from 'Maris', whom Roz takes the role of when she happens to stop by the apartment. And then Daphne decides that the old boyfriend isn't so bad after all, but Niles isn't keen to give up playing the doting husband, and Roz has also taken a shine to him, which means that the two women spend most of the evening making up ever more ludicrously horrible stories about each other to put the boyfriend off, until Roz ends up being an alcoholic anorexic and Daphne is pregnant. And then to really complicate things, Martin gets involved and to really piss everyone off starts spinning yarns about how he used to be an astronaut. And the boyfriend believes every single word they tell him, no matter how ludicrous, and ends up shooting down Roz and Daphne because he believes them to be utterly horrible women who are stupid enough to shamelessly flirt with him in front of their 'husbands'. And then it's capped with the perfect line from Frasier:
Daphne: Really, we're not the awful people you think we are!
Frasier: No, the truth is we've been lying to you all night!
One other classic moment occurs at the height of this Snowball Lie: when Martin's dog comes into the room and the boyfriend asks what the dog's name is, the characters all look at each other nervously for a few seconds before realizing there's no reason to lie about his name, and say "Eddie" in unison.
Can't forget when Martin wants to get out of a date with the mother of a woman that Frasier met when they were at the opera together, and tells the mother that he's gay. She tells her daughter, and the daughter sets Martin up with her gay uncle, also at the opera that night. It takes Martin a long time to realize it, but when he does he goes to great lengths to get out of dating the other man, including introducing Niles as his boyfriend. One of the best moments happens when Niles gets fed up with being forced into the lie and stages a break-up so over-the-top and hilarious that it seems implausible even compared to one of Frasier's typical break-ups.
Jeff's wooden leg, among oh so many others (usually involving the same character), in Coupling.
In one Three's Company episode, Teri doesn't want to have an important man over for dinner, believing that he's sexually interested in her. Jack suggests that she tell him the "little white lie" that she's married. But when that doesn't deter the guy, the "white lie" quickly expands, leading to Jack having to pose as her husband with a broken leg and Janet and Larry pretending to be French people who don't understand a word of English. And then Jack's Girl of the Week shows up and he explains it to the man's wife by claiming that his marriage with Teri is on the rocks...
In the M*A*S*H episode "Bombshells", Hawkeye and Winchester start a lie which soon has the entire army thinking Marilyn Monroe is paying the 4077th a visit.
Played with in the Season 5 premiere. Radar gets word that they're bugging out for practice, and despite his cautioning Klinger not to say anything, a dozen embellishments are added and the whole camp believes it. Potter eventually calls a general who's a friend of his, confirms that they're not bugging out, and just as he's trying to dispel the rumor, he gets the official order to bug out. It's not for practice, though — the Chinese are actually coming.
The Wire in its final season featured one of these, specifically, the lie about the homeless killer became so big and involved so many people that any evidence therein needed to be covered up, ruining several careers, and escalating a few others.
Better Off Ted: Linda sees a commercial about Veridian's goal to become more environmentally friendly, and she asks Ted to put her on the committee working on that project. Ted knows there's no such project, but he moves some money around to let her work on the rooftop garden she wants to make. When Veronica wants to know where the money went, Ted tells her it's for the "Jabberwocky project". One thing leads to another, and suddenly everyone in the company is desperate to get on the Jabberwocky project. This culminates in Ted and Veronica making a big, flashy, presentation that makes Jabberwocky sound like the next big thing without ever mentioning what it actually is.
In a story from The Book of Pooh called "The Rumor Millstone," Rabbit tried to stop Tigger bouncing his vegetables by telling him that he was growing a squash that could sap his bouncing powers. The lie snowballed until several of the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, including Rabbit, believe that a scary monster is after them.
Just about every series on Disney Channel in the last five years has had at least one episode that revolves around this.
An episode of The Big Bang Theory did this. A later episode subverts it. Sheldon, hiding from his girl/friend, asks Leonard to lie about where he is, with increasing specifications for the amount of detail needed to make the lie convincing. Leonard circumvents the entire plot with, "Sheldon isn't here", which was all the detail needed.
Any time Sheldon is involved in a lie; not because maintaining the lie actually requires this, but because Sheldon becomes neurotic and thinks it does. On one memorable occasion, he even brought in someone to stay in their apartment acting as Leonard's Invented Individual junkie cousin because he thought his original plot — that they were trying to get him into rehab — was implausible.
A convicted child molester on Breakout Kings is revealed to be a victim of this. Only one victim was actually assaulted, and the guilty party was her own father. She was forced into blaming her teacher. The other "victims" were kids caught up in the hysteria.
This is a regular feature of As Time Goes By, particularly in any episode where Jean is trying to avoid becoming the target of her officious and patronising sister-in-law's pity (or intervene in Judith, Sandy and/or Alistair's love lives...). Lionel invariably protests and tries to avoid participation, but if it's a Penny (sister-in-law) Lies Snowball, he will never quite manage to get free of it.
In the Fraggle Rock episode "Boober's Quiet Day", Boober hopes to have a nice quiet day. When his friend Tosh asks him for a favor that would ruin his quiet day, he lies that he is going on a trip. Then he has to actually go on that trip when Mokey asks him to bring something back for her... The lie keeps growing and growing until eventually Boober is forced to pretend to be an Old Gypsy Lady. When the web of lies finally collapses, and the other Fraggles ask Boober why he lied so much, he says "BECAUSE I WANTED TO HAVE A NICE QUIET DAY!" To which Gobo replies... "Why didn't you just ask?"
In the Off Centre episode "Can You Spare A Ski Trip?" Euan wants to take Mike along on a ski trip to Canada but Mike can't afford it and he doesn't want Euan to pay for it. So Euan lies that his company is looking for someone to write press releases for them part time while they look for a replacement full time PR rep so he can "pay" Mike to go with him without the latter knowing. However, Mike later announces that he quit his former job so he can get the "full time position". Euan then further lies that Mike was "fired" which causes Mike to get completely drunk, break up with Liz and assault Euan's boss with a broken bottle. Subverted immediately after the latter when it's revealed Mike figured it out almost right away and decided to act out the rest with the help of Euan's boss and coworkers as a prank.
In Coronation Street, this happened with John Stape. A former teacher, John had an unshakeable desire to teach, but he had a criminal record which prevented him from doing so. He found out that one of his colleagues, Colin Fishwick, was leaving the profession and moving to Canada. John ended up stealing Colin's identity and began to teach again. However, things quickly started spinning out of control. John was discovered by his colleague, Charlotte Hoyle. She agreed to keep his secret and soon began to get off on the lies, deceit, and danger of it, as well as develop a crush on John, who was married to Fiz. Things escalated when Colin returned months later and confronted John before dying from a brain hemorrhage in front of him and Charlotte. In a panic, John buried the body in a nearby construction site and had to further compound the lie when Colin's mother got involved. All this resulted in the accidental death of Colin's mother and the murder of Charlotte, when the latter attacked John with a hammer and threatened to tell Fiz everything after John rebuffed her one too many times. That was on the night of the tram crash in December 2010, so John claimed that she had been killed by the falling tram, and he had to lie further about everything that had happened.
The "crop circles" hoax was a Snowball Lie that grew so big that even when its authors (two old men from England) tried to kill it, ufologists and other enthusiasts refused to believe them. Of course, they were also imitated by dozens of copycats, hence the excuse that "Well, you might have done some of them, but what about these ones?"
The same goes for things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Just like the crop circles, when people came forward to announce that they were involved in the hoaxing, believers accused them of lying to cover up the real creatures.
There's also H.L. Mencken's "bathtub hoax", where his bogus history of the bathtub, "A Neglected Anniversary", was believed as truth for decades after it was published in 1917.
You know that one person in your life who insists on topping every story brought up with something even more outlandish that happened to her? If your car just got towed, hers rolled off a cliff. If your sister just had twins, her cousin just had triplets, plus another set of triplets two years earlier. And let's not get started on the stories she comes up with when you mention that your back hurts (her various conditions include sickle-cell anemia, scoliosis, ADD, chimera-twin syndrome, and the inability to go out in full sun). Miss Manners says that when you have to deal with someone like this, the most useful thing to do is to play along, earnestly asking for details that may eventually show her story to be a Snowball Lie. Even if you don't believe her, at least now you're both entertained.
Perhaps one of the most tragic and best-known cases of this were the Salem witch trials in colonial America. The witch hunt was started by three girls who claimed to be possessed by demons, and who went into "fits" because of it. When they later confessed to lying about it, however, the trend was so huge and so many people were caught up in such a panicky situation that the people simply refused to believe them, choosing instead to believe that it was the demons within them who were making them "confess" their lies.
In a similar fashion, the so called "Gävle Boy", Johan Johansson Grijs, who was one of the most infamous children involved in the Swedish witch trials. After he had accused his own mother of witchcraft and gotten her executed in his hometown Gävle, he was sent to relatives in Stockholm, where he continued to accuse people and got other children to do the same. This went on for quite some time, until someone realised that he knew a bit too much about witchcraft for being a victim, and he himself was sentenced to death. He panicked and confessed to lying, but was executed for that instead.
The claim that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. Doubleday, a military hero, never claimed to have invented baseball, and there's no evidence he'd ever even visited Cooperstown. In fact, the first printed reference to baseball in America was in 1791. In 1908, 15 years after Doubleday died, a commission whose open aim was to prove that baseball was strictly American in origin announced their findings that Doubleday was the inventor. This claim was based the testimony of just one person, an elderly mentally ill man, who would have have been a young boy in 1839. The report was forgotten until the 1930s. Then Major League Baseball kicked of a massive campaign to celebrate the supposed centennial of baseball in 1939, culminating in the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Various child abuse scandals, especially those with supposed Satanic cult connections and multiple alleged perpetrators, result from this: one suspicious parent, teacher, or social worker questions a child (who may or may not be an actual abuse victim) and soon worried parents are questioning their kids and the number of "victims" and "abusers" starts expanding dramatically.
Neil Simon's Rumors features a lie that gets confused and destroyed not once, not twice, but three times, first when the main couple are letting the other couples in and need to explain what Charlie and Myra are doing, second when the police officers first show up, and third, in a dramatic monologue about what allegedly really happened it actually did to get the cops off their back for the last time.
The Norwegian comedy Rett i Lomma (Right in The Pocket, referring to easily obtained money) is built on this trope. It is about a man who lost his job, and the money he gets from renting out apartments on the side in his house isn't enough to keep it going. The very same day, however, he gets a welfare check from the bank to "Mr. Thomason", who had recently moved to Canada. He decided to use it for himself instead of forwarding it. Then he finds out that by inventing a few fake occupants with various family and illnesses, the government would keep sending him money to support them. Cue the actual start of the play, where he decides that it has gone on for long enough and that he will have to "kill them off". Unfortunately, this only makes things worse because of the payout for funeral, etc. And then, an inspector knocks on the door and wants to look through all his paperwork for the last two years. It ends up with him having to not only play the part of Thomason, but also having to drag in his only real occupant as he walks in on a conversation and starts asking questions. Then an agent from the funeral service and his assistant arrives, as well as his uncle, his friend's girlfriend and his own wife. The network of different lies and explanations soon expand and start conflicting, and the two friends also have to make up lies while separate from each other. Therefore you get such situations as the apparently deaf Normann answering the phone, the wife having to be "accidentally" locked into their bedroom because she became too annoying, and the inspector being served tea and wine until he's drunk. It finally collapses upon them as the inspector's much more level-headed boss arrives, and the main character is given a new job as inspector because he "knows every trick in the book". While hard to follow, at least the convoluted thing was damned funny and had a happy ending.
The Persona 2 rumor systems can work on the Snowball lie in the same fashion as the Planescape example.
In Final Fantasy XIII, Vanille cannot bear to tell the truth to Fang about their Focus, fearing the latter's reaction to becoming Ragnarok. Because of this, the two of them end up attacking the Bodhum Fal'Cie in an effort to trigger their memories, which leads to Serah and Dajh becoming l'Cie.
Fortunately, Sting (the singer, not the wrestler) was willing to help in the effort to dig Bart out. Because Sting is just that awesome.
Sting: Not while one of my fans needs me!
Marge: Actually, I don't think I've ever heard Bart play any of your albums...
Homer: Shh! Ma-arge, he's a good digger!
Another episode of The Simpsons revolved around several students discovering Ms. Krabappel and Principal Skinner kissing in a janitor's closet. The rumors about what happened get more and more explicit, until Ralph Wiggum utters the immortal line:
"I saw Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel in the closet and they were making babies and I saw one of the babies and the baby looked at me."
An episode of Dilbert had the usual team creating a record of a new employee for the purpose of taking the ownership of a cubicle or some such, even making a picture of his face by amalgamating their own. By the end of the episode, everyone thought he was real.
Not everyone. Catbert did not believe in Todd.
The Pepper Ann episode "Crush + Burn" is all about this trope. Milo asks Pepper Ann to cover him by making up a lie so he can have an excuse to reject Gwen's romantic interest on him. Every time Gwen discovers an inconsistency in the story, Pepper Ann tries to cover it up with more and more lies until it gets out of control and everyone gets tangled up in it.
Pepper Ann: I wanted to tell Gwen Mezzrow the truth, but you said "cover".
Milo: I said "cover", not "create an alternative universe"!
To avoid going to the school dance with Connie, Doug says that he has to take care of his fictional sick cousin Melvin. This has an immediate backfire (Connie immediately tells Doug's crush Patty about Melvin), but also turns into a Snowball Lie when the girls show up to help Doug take care of "Melvin", Doug's sister Judy is asked to play the part, and Judy suddenly arbitrarily decides that "Melvin" has a miraculous recovery, ultimately resulting in "Melvin" being Patty's date to the dance. This lasts until a horse at the dance (It Makes Sense in Context) eats Judy's wig.
The Powerpuff Girls takes this on twice. In "A Very Special Blossom," our red-headed heroine steals a quite pricey set of golf clubs to give the Professor as a Father's Day gift. Not only does she lie about how she got them but she tries to frame Mojo Jojo for the theft. "Lying Around The House" has the girls causing an entity to keep growing each time they tell a lie (doing their chores, eating their dinner, etc.) until it grows to an uncontrollable monster size. They are only able to defeat it by telling the truth, thus causing the monster to shrink until it disappears. (Similarly done an an earlier comic book story, issue #21's "Big Fish Story.")
Well, they don't really TRY anything else before magically deducing that the monster is based around lying.
On Family Guy, Meg tells a lie about Stewie being her child so she could get a job so she can earn money for a Prada bag. She also lies about Stewie being a crack-addicted baby. All goes well until the Social Services take Stewie away and puts him in a foster home. Meg is then forced to trade her purse to get Stewie back.
On the Halloween episode of Kim Possible, Kim tells a lie about her going trick or treating with Ron, but really, she goes to Monique's party. She was wearing a project on her wrist and it grew every time she lied. In order to undo the damage she did, she has to tell the truth.
In Disney's "Brave Little Tailor", Mickey's misadventures start when he brags about killing seven flies with one swipe, but the time the King hears about it, it has become "killing seven giants in one stroke".