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So Much for Stealth
It is a restful chapter in any book ... when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm [everyone] for two hundred yards around. Every time a person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one.

In a situation where a character is trying to sneak around unnoticed, their attempt at stealth will suddenly be threatened by them stepping on a dry twig, sneezing, knocking something over, setting off an alarm, blowing their cover, or otherwise alerting others to their presence. If no one notices, they might be okay - in the worst case, they might be captured, or have to face the enemy in a full-blown battle. Either way, heads will turn suddenly.

Note that this trope often applies in situations where it would make no sense in real life for guards to be so super-sensitive, given the likelihood of the most startling noises being a Cat Scare. When considering what the hero is doing there in the first place, this falls Right Under Their Noses.

As a result, Genre Savvy sneaker-uppers will toss a stonenote  so that it lands with a "plunk" in the direction opposite their position to make the guards go investigate — see Throwing the Distraction. The guards, even seasoned Border Patrol, will always go for this old chestnut. If nobody notices when they really should have, see It's Probably Nothing and The Guards Must Be Crazy. If the attempt at stealth is laughably inept, see With Catlike Tread. If their attempt is good but they're still caught, they're dealing with The Anticipator.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Stepping on a stick is how young Soujirou attracts the attention of Shishio in Rurouni Kenshin.
  • Case Closed: While in a supposedly haunted house, Conan accidentally knocks a broom over; he manages to keep it from making noise by catching it with his foot, but not the bucket that fell along with it.
  • In One Piece, this happens thanks to a rooster... Sort of. Usopp, the one doing the sneaking, fully expects the rooster to crow and wake up the enemy, a government assassin capable of killing a hundred men single-handedly. Instead, the rooster quietly chirps, causing Usopp to scream in shock, "ROOSTERS DON'T MAKE THAT KIND OF SOUND!"
    • This is a minor Running Gag, considering Luffy's utter lack of stealth. When Nico Robin is convincing the Straw Hats to let her stay on their crew, she mentions that she has considerable experience with stealth missions, only to be informed that they're never stealthy.
  • Happens to several characters in an episode of Hayate the Combat Butler, by stepping on game controllers of all things.
  • In Soul Eater, while Maka and Soul are trying to acquire the soul of Blair, they both hide behind a tree. Unfortunately, Soul's rear end is sticking out, and from there, Hilarity Ensues.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, Touma tries to sneak up on the Skill-Out gang that has kidnapped Misuzu. Right before he can reach them, Misuzu herself sees him and gives him away. Touma screams, "Is she stupid!?" before he is forced to fight off the Skill-Out thugs.
  • In episode 4 of Girls und Panzer', the Stug III team have decorated their tank destroyer in eyecatching red and yellow, complete with sashimono (war banners). They hide in an alley an ambush a Matilda tank, then back up and sneak away, gleefully congratulating themselves on how the Stug's low profile allows it to hide behind house fences... except that their war banners are taller than the fences, and give away their position. The Matilda's partner tank uses that to nail them.
  • A variant in Death Note. L at one point starts going on a lecture of how important stealth and discretion will be in the investigation, and under no circumstances must they reveal themselves. At the exact same time, Matsuda has sneaked into the suspects' headquarters and is caught just outside their meeting room, and manages to covertly send a distress signal to Watari. You can practically see this trope's name running through L's mind when he is informed.
    L: Forget everything I just said. We're going to need a new strategy. Matsuda, you idiot!
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Devo's attempt to ambush Polnareff goes awry when Polnareff succeeds on a very easy spot check.
    Devo: How did you know I was in the fridge?
    Polnareff: Are you stupid? You took everything out of the fridge and left it in plain sight!

    Comic Books 
  • In the Tintin book The Secret Of The Unicorn, Tintin is trying to escape the Bird brothers in their antique-filled basement. When he knocks over a big vase, he manages to stop it from falling, but the lid falls on a drum.
  • Exiles: The team is face to face with a hyper-irradiated Bannerless Hulk. Blink cautions them not to make any sudden moves, and the Hulk seems to stay relatively calm. Then a chicken steps on a twig.

    Film 
  • Han Solo steps on a stick when he tries sneaking up on a Scout trooper in Return of the Jedi.
  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith:
    • Brad Pitt knocks over a stack of cans in the department store, almost immediately drawing fire from his enemies, and a dirty look from his wife.
    • Similarly, where both of them are trying to bomb each other out in their house, John accidentally knocks over a China pot, catching the pot but not on the end with the lid, which falls to the ground (cue John's Oh, Crap face) and reveals where he is to his wife.
  • Ace Ventura: Ace sneaks into the mental hospital's storage room and accidentally steps on bubble wrap (but doesn't get caught).
  • Mocked in the "Fistful Of Yen" sketch of The Kentucky Fried Movie when the protagonist is sneaking in a dark room around the guard while knocking over various shelves, glass objects, and so on. The guard barely notices, sometimes looking as if he might have heard a curious sound.
  • In The Terminator, Sarah and Kyle are trying to escape the Terminator in a factory as Sarah accidentally presses a button, attracting the Terminator's attention.
  • On Toy Story 2, Woody tries to get his arm from Al, who is asleep on the couch. The first step he takes, he steps on a cheese puff, one of many strewn on the floor. Al doesn't wake up, so Woody goes ahead more carefully now, but then he hears another crunch, this time from Bullseye, who was following him. Again, Al doesn't wake up. Woody is about to get his arm when suddenly the TV turns on, waking up Al. Later we find out the TV was turned on on purpose by Stinky Pete, who places the remote in front of Jesse to frame her.
    • In the first Toy Story, Woody and Buzz's attempt to sneak out of Sid's house is ruined when Woody's pull cord gets snagged and one of his recorded phrases wakes Angry Guard Dog Scud.
  • Cats Don't Dance: Danny and Pudge are secretly preparing things for the big number at the end of Darla's movie premiere. They accidentally bump into a drum set, but luckly they don't make that much noise and no one appears to notice. Then Pudge snaps his bowtie... and that is what alerts Battle Butler Max.
  • In the Rifftrax for Star Wars Episodes I and II, the riffers note that this really should happen to Qui-Gon ("How can you sneak around when you're six foot six?") and Anakin ("Hey, who's that up on the cliff? He's just bending over slightly." "Yeah, hi, we can see you!") - but naturally, it doesn't, since logic doesn't exist in these movies.
  • In Monsters, Inc., Mike's foot accidentally slips into a toilet when they're hiding from Randall. Subverted, in that Mike, Sully, and Boo barely avoid being seen.
  • The Matrix series
    • In The Matrix, as the team is attempting to escape from the building by climbing down the wet-wall, one member accidentally kicks dust into Cypher's face, which causes him to sneeze, attracting the attention of a SWAT guy in the adjacent room. As Cypher is The Mole he then sneezes deliberately a second time, confirming the SWAT guys' suspicions.
    • The Matrix Revolutions. The Zion ship Hammer tries to sneak past the army of Sentinels by reducing its power output. Unfortunately this causes the ship to drop dangerously low in the tunnel and it scrapes against some wreckage, alerting the Sentinels and sending them in pursuit.
  • Played wonderfully straight in the opening scene of Sleepy Hollow (1999), where we see the Hessian who later becomes the Headless Horseman escaping through the woods from Revolutionary War soldiers. He encounters two children gathering firewood and cautions them to silence with a finger to his lips. Without changing expression one of the girls deliberately snaps the stick she's holding, drawing the soldiers in their direction.
  • The same trick is used in the Action Prologue of From Russia with Love. Professional Killer Red Grant picks up a stick and breaks it, to get the man he's stalking (who's also trying to kill him) moving in the right direction.
  • Mission: Impossible. The famous "Mission: Impossible" Cable Drop is completed successfully only for Franz Krieger to drop his knife — it miraculously misses the alarmed floor and jams in the desk, dumbfounding the computer clerk when he returns to the room.
  • The Mechanic (2011). The two Professional Killers infiltrate the penthouse of a cult leader and Make It Look Like an Accident. Unfortunately someone enters the room and finds the body before they've had time to resecure the mirror they unscrewed to crawl through – a nut drops to the floor, rolls along (they have their hands full holding up the mirror) and drops out a vent. A bodyguard goes to investigate and things get violent very quickly.
  • The titular character in Mitchell is attempting to break into the house of a suspect. Other than how completely conspicuous he looks trying to haul his large frame over the fence, the producers obviously didn't block the surrounding streets off, and car noises and headlights can be seen going by in the shot. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 version gleefully points this out.
  • Hot Shots! Part Deux. Attempts to retrieve a keyring with a broom handle results in loud grinding of fan blades, knocking pepper into a sleeping guard's face, poking the broom handle up the guard's nose, and a radio switching on to loud music. The loud thump of the keys hitting the floor didn't wake the guard either. What did? A mouse, sneezing from the pepper, rouses him instantly.
  • Puss in Boots. Puss and Kitty manage to infiltrate a moving carriage well enough, then realise there's a whole litter of sleeping piglets in there. All goes well until Puss steps on a tail. So much for them boots...
  • We Were Soldiers: North Vietnamese troops are trying to find the American Platoon that they pinned down in the jungle, and don't realize they are standing in the middle of the American troops' hiding place. Then Sergeant Savage flips his fire selector from "Safe" to "Auto", which tips the NVA troops off just before the shooting starts.
  • Mrs. Doubtfire: Daniel tries to sneak through the hall behind the home inspector when he loses his face mask for his Mrs Doubtfire persona. One step made noise and he immediately enters the kitchen and makes tea for her.
  • In [REC], when the reporter and her cameraman try to evade the creepy girl in the dark ... BANG ... they knock something over give and their location away.
  • In The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, as the team is sneaking into the Red Lectroid nest, one of the guys watch alarm starts chiming, alerting the Lectroids that they're there.
  • Several instances in World War Z, as the zombies are dormant until they hear a sound, then they swarm towards it. In South Korea, the protagonists use bicycles to ride onto the tarmac to their aircraft, but then a satellite phone goes off. Later they're trying to sneak into a ward with over 80 dormant zombies, but keep making inadvertent sounds (kicking a soda can, stepping on broken glass, and a very creaky door) before one of them finally bumps into a filing cabinet with a loud clang! That brings 'em.
  • In the 1930 film The Big House some convicts preparing for a Great Escape are passing guns and ammunition to each other while intoning the Lord's Prayer in the prison chapel. As the prayer comes to an end, one of them drops a bullet on the stone floor, causing them all to tense up.
  • In the film version of The Lord of the Rings, when the group stops at Balin's tomb, Pippin goes to investigate a dessicated, cobweb-covered corpse that happens to be perched on the rim of a well. This causes the corpse's head to break of, and go clattering and banging down the well. This is followed shortly thereafter by the entire rest of the body, making much more noise. Just to put the icing on the cake, the body gets hung in the chain for the well's bucket on the way down, dragging both chain and bucket down with it to add to the ruckus. Gandalf's reaction is lifted directly from the book (see below).
    Gandalf: "Fool of a Took! Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity!"
  • Red Heat. Ivan Danko is trying to sneak up behind Viktor Rosta when his watch alarm (set to tell him when to feed his pet bird back in Moscow) goes off.

    Literature 
  • Fenimore Cooper was uncommonly fond of having characters step on dry twigs in his books in his The Leatherstocking Tales, as pointed out by Mark Twain.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Wandering around the Mines of Moria, Pippin drops a stone down a well, alerting the enemy that someone is there.
    Gandalf: "Fool of a Took! Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity!"
  • Subverted in Magicians of Gor: Tarl throws a stone and the guy he's trying to draw away from his position turns towards him - he's Genre Savvy too.
  • In Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, John Carter is slipping stealthily through a room full of sleeping Tharks when his weapons harness makes a small noise. For a moment it seems like nothing will happen, until a green warrior jumps to his feet and mayhem ensues.
  • In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000 Ultramarines novel Dead Sky, Black Sun, discussions of what to do in the Iron Warriors' fortress are rendered moot when the Nameless arrive and opt for immediate and noisy damage.
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero in Hell, Miranda realizes she is not alone when someone steps on a twig.
  • Happens in every other Honor Harrington battle. The usual line of dialogue is "That's torn it."
  • In the Dresden Files book Changes, Dresden's strike force was attempting to make a stealthy approach to Chichen Itza by way of the jungle. There's enough going on out there on a normal night that guards wouldn't automatically go ballistic at a twig, but then an escaped prisoner and a pursuing Red Court vampire run right into them. Things go downhill from there.
  • In Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, the northener Dogman is renowned for his gift at stealth and infiltration. Despite this, there's an almost-Running Gag made of his habit of tripping or stumbling over things when he needs quiet the most.
  • In volume one of the Outlander Leander series, Flute of the Wind Queen, the first chapter has the main character sneaking into a theater only to have a piece of wood break under him. He subsequently falls and makes a bunch of noise on the way down.
  • Despite weeks of practice, The Wise Man's Fear has one of Kvothe's companions bumble about and nearly reveal them to their target.

    Live Action TV 
  • In one of the season 3 episodes of Chuck, Chuck gets through a Laser Hallway, but then gets distracted and manages to bump into the system on the other side.
  • In one episode of Benson, Benson discovers a crime in progress. He happens to have a camera with him, so he takes a photo through a window. Unfortunately, the flash is on.
    Benson: So much for the element of surprise.
  • Cohen in the episode 'The Family Ties' of The O.C.. Ryan and he are trying to quietly enter the Cohen house - and fail at the car. Pretty much because of the fact, that Cohen is wasted. Stealth fails.
  • On a Top Gear episode that focused on finding the best car for a 17-year-old, one challenge was to see whose car could approach a house late at night with the least amount of noise (to avoid waking the parents). James May's car had a remote for the stereo and horn. Jeremy somehow got hold of it ...
  • Power Rangers Wild Force, "Forever Red" - On Earth's moon, Andros is spying on the last of the Machine Empire, who are busy unearthing Serpentera. Seeing that they've almost finished digging it out, he turns to leave - and dislodges some rocks, sending them tumbling down the slope he was watching from. The robots give chase... on horses. Robots. Riding horses. On the moon.
  • One episode of Flashpoint the team intended to approach a home where a family was being held at gunpoint silently. Then a patrol cop pulls up, siren blaring. Parker takes the officer aside for a few words about that.
  • On How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily are in pause so they can have sex after being apart for a week, but will start the fight after. Marshall succeeds in putting Lily to sleep but as he tries sneaking back into the hotel room, he steps on the toy he brought from Ted's house which loudly says, "I wuv you, Mommy!". Unpause!!
  • Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined). Helo and Sharon are hiding in a store while a Cylon patrol goes by. Unfortunately a few minutes before they decided to make toast, which pops up at just that moment. Also counts as a Visual Pun as the derogatory nickname for Cylons is "toasters".
  • In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be", Dean warns Wishverse!Sam to keep quiet, but Sam can't help gasping in horror when he sees the djinn drinking blood and almost reveals their hiding place.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Parodied in a Far Side strip, in which some Indians are waiting in ambush, only for one of them to step on a bikehorn which someone left lying around.
    • "And you call yourself an Indian."

    Tabletop Games 
  • In many roleplaying groups, the standard answer to "Do we try and sneak in or start shooting?" is "Try and sneak, then start shooting once we trip an alarm."
  • The latest Orcs and Goblins army book for Warhammer Fantasy includes a tale of a particularly cunnin' boss that got his warband to paint themselves and their equipment black so they could launch surprise night raids. It worked out great until his Orcs decided to start hollering "You's can't see us!" at the enemy.
    • Warhammer 40K's ork Kommandos operate on similar logic, going around invisibly setting explosives and backstabbing sentries so they can enjoy the looks of terror on their victims... at least until the first one can't take it anymore and charges yelling WAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!
      • Back when Madboys were still in the fluff, there was mention of how they were a liability in the best of cases, like deciding the best time to have a shouting match is in the middle of a night raid.

    Video Games 
  • The Genesis game Toe Jam & Earl: when you tiptoe past a sleeping enemy you would occasionally sneeze and awaken it.
  • Team Fortress 2: Happens all the time playing Spy, unless you're really good, and even then you occasionally just bump into a pyro...
  • Can happen in the Metal Gear games, if you're not careful, from the singing sand in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake to twigs on the ground in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - notably, a lot of cases of this are deliberate traps on the part of the group you're infiltrating.
  • Kya: Dark Lineage is not as much about as "what breaks your stealth" but more as in "do I kick their ass if they spot me, run the f*ck away or get my ass hand to me". Of course at one point you have to stealth and platform through a tight room with Wolfen guards, spikes, insta-kill floor, and what-not. What breaks your cover? You open the gate to the next level, locking down any deadly traps.
  • Uncharted forces you to do this at some point - you'll always be spotted when you enter an area with the enemies unaware.
  • Eternal Darkness has an enemy example. In one chapter you are being stalked by an invisible "vampire". While you can make it visible by casting a simple spell, if you don't have time you can tell where it is when it knocks some things over (particularly in the basement when you destroy it's source of power and kill it for real).
  • Said word-for-word by Barney Calhoun in Half-Life 2. He announces that your group will have to sneak through a building - then, as soon as he opens a door, a camera spots you.
  • In the Thief series, you can be given away if you move across surfaces made of metal, stone or anything else which makes a noise when you walk on it. It isn't an instant giveaway though: one sound may make a guard suspicious, two will make him start looking around. Remain hidden and quiet and the guard will eventually conclude "Just rats." and return to patrol.
  • Can happen in Heavy Rain when Shelby's trying to sneak up on a robber. If you fail a Quick Time Event, Shelby will step on some potato chips and alert the robber.
  • In the Mass Effect 2 Kasumi DLC, you can accidentally set off the alarm clock while searching Hock's bedroom for DNA. The guards come running, but only if you snuck in instead of faking security clearance.
  • Happens so often to Faith in Mirror's Edge that sneaking is more like waiting to be spotted.
  • In the Pokémon games, Zorua and Zoroark have the ability to take on the appearance of other Pokémon in your party. And it can really work when battling another person... Until you use an attack that the Pokémon they're disguised as can't learn. The illusion also fades the moment they're hit by an enemy.
  • Scorch of Star Wars: Republic Commando will occasionally say this after an explosive charge is detonated.
  • Really can happen in any Stealth-Based Game. If a guard notices you, or you trigger an alarm, it's usually time to either Save Scum or go guns blazing.
  • In World of Warcraft to prevent stealth runs (a party consisting entirely of druids and rogues using stealth to avoid all enemies but the bosses) certain enemies are fairly arbitrarily given the ability to see through stealth.
  • In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, guards are often overly sensitive to sounds you make, even when the situation doesn't call for it. If there are footstep sounds from the bathroom, somehow they immediately know it's you and not a civilian worker or another guard tending to their business. It seems even more glaring given that they don't notice many things which are highly suspicious, like huge crates mysteriously moving around while they're not looking and their colleagues not showing up on their patrol.
    • Even worse in the original Deus Ex, really. Make audible metallic clunks as you sneak through vents? Okay. Drop a cardboard pack of cigarettes from a crouching postion two rooms away? "What was that noise?"
  • A similar problem to the above example is Alpha Protocol. Brutally beat a guard into unconsciousness with your bare hands? No problem for the guys in the next room. Walk around at the same speed and path as the guard you just knocked out? They'll all come running.
  • Worms has an invisibility gadget that cloaks your entire team—but once a worm attacks, its position is revealed. Using Invisibility, then attacking, wastes the item.
  • In Halo 2 in the mission Uprising, after you have just taken out a few Brutes and met with some more Elites, several drop pods crash into the ground giving the Arbiter reinforcements, one of your more Genre savvy comrades remarks, "So much for a stealthy advance".
  • In The Hobbit for the PS2, when Bilbo has to sneak past the trolls to save the dwarves, stepping on dry twigs alerts the trolls to his presence.

    Webcomics 
  • Spoofed in an early instalment of The Order of the Stick, where one of the heroes fails his Move Silently roll while the group is trying to sneak invisibly past a room full of guards. Each of them states the roll they made, and the noise that attracts the guards' attention is the sound of Elan yelling "I GOT A FOUR! DID YOU HEAR ME? I GOT-!"
    • In a later strip, the group is trying to sneak into a bandit camp to save Elan (who rolled that 4), Belkar gets bored while someone else is trying to devise an effect stealth plan and just starts a fire instead, drawing the attention of every guard in the camp and getting the group caught.
    • Inverted in one of the first strips, when the entire group fails both spot and listen checks and ends up surrounded by goblin ninjas.
  • In Strays, how Meela notices Feral again.
  • In Goblin Hollow, one character botches a Move Silently roll, and his character trips. The guard turns out to be deaf as a post.
  • In The Specialists, what gives Hartmann away. Then again, he did want to make contact with them.
  • Happens to Rory in Demon Fist when he's trying to infiltrate Duprant's mansion. Giving a Big "Shut Up!" to the arguing demons in your arm will do that.

    Western Animation 
  • In Sponge Bob Square Pants SpongeBob is sneaking through Patrick's house, but every step he makes a very loud (and unrelated) noise. Fortunately even after he causes a ruckus Patrick is still asleep... until SpongeBob comments on what a heavy sleeper he must be.
  • In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "New Kids in Town", young Clark Kent is attempting to sneak around Brainiac, who's travelled back in time to kill him, however he knocks a rake over, attracting Brainiac's attention.
  • Family Guy parodies the above-mentioned Return of the Jedi example with Peter/Han stepping on a twig, a sheet of bubble wrap, a bike horn, a dog's tail and finally a radio.
  • Dr. Venture of The Venture Bros. has a moment like this when he accidently drops a lightbulb his bodyguard Brock Sampson asked him to unscrew for total darkness, thus alerting the nearby guards. After saying the trope name, Brock replies with an alternative plan: Throwing the Doctor into the group of incoming guards. Surprisingly, it works.
  • X-Men: Evolution: The X-Men and Mystique in an Enemy Mine situation sneak into where X-Men and Brotherhood captives are being held. Iceman ice-bridges over the Laser Hallway's sensors, uses the key they'd stolen to open something... and then, as he's confidently spinning the key on his finger as he quips to Kitty, the key flies off, and to the floor, triggering the alarms.
  • Harley and Ivy from Batman: The Animated Series meet at the Gotham Museum, each stealing some from it at the same time. Harley snuck into the museum in a way that would impress Catwoman, and was partway through cutting open the display case of a large diamond when the alarms went off anyway. She turns around to see Ivy running past, so Harley says "to Heck with it", smashes the case, grabs the diamond, and runs.
  • Yellow Submarine: The Beatles are trying to get through a minefield of sleeping Blue Meanies on tiptoe. They would have gotten away, too, had Ringo not accidentally stepped on a bagpipe.

    Other 
  • Evil Overlord List #139: If I'm sitting in my camp, hear a twig snap, start to investigate, then encounter a small woodland creature, I will send out some scouts anyway just to be on the safe side. (If they disappear into the foliage, I will not send out another patrol; I will break out the napalm.)
  • Not really a Truth in Television. Most people (when they're acting as guard or something similar) won't react to the odd sound unless it's something that indicates a person is present (such as vocal sounds or the rhythm generated by footsteps). As a result, the sound of a snapping twig won't give someone away unless they're trying to avoid someone who's being very alert, or already knows that they're there.
  • This video clip about an astronaut who avoids confrontation with a monster ... NOT!

Okay, guys, I think we managed that all right, now let's just sneak our way out of here and...

*crack*

... Dangit!
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