So Joe Suspect is explaining to the cops where he was last night. As he speaks, we get a Flash Back showing us the events.
But wait a minute! What we're seeing on screen doesn't fit what the voice-over is saying. While Joe tells the cops he had to work late, we see him in a bar. And when he admits he went to see the murder victim, but they came to an amicable agreement, the flashback shows them screaming at each other, and then him storming out. The visuals are understood as depicting the truth, and not just a potentially inaccurate version of the events (in contrast to Self-Serving Memory, where the visuals depict a false version of the events).
Can be used as a way of helping the viewers solve the Whodunnit without being a genius detective (because they learn the Big Secret directly), as a way of showing what sort of character we're dealing with, or just to ramp up the irony level of a story. Sometimes the description is accurate, but not entirely honest; or the visuals might reveal additional information that changes the nature of the story.
It can also be used for humorous purposes, to show that the character is not as gifted as they claim they are - they relate the events in a way that makes them seem particularly clever or talented, while we see they are actually ridiculously incompetent. However this can lead to continuity errors - if the writer forgets that the audience knows the truth but the listeners do not, the audience can be left wondering how somebody knows something they weren't told.
Related to "Rashomon"-Style, except that instead of someone else's version of events clashing, it's the cold, unvarnished truth. Unlike Unreliable Narrator, we're led to believe that the visuals tell us what really happened. Unless there's a Mind Screw going on.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
There's something of an example of this (and a Crowning Moment of Funny) in one of the late first season episodes of Darker than Black. Mao (a Body Snatcher Contractor in a cat's body) is trapped with several series antagonists and is narrating the beginning of the episode. While he narrates in a calm voice, talking about being a Contractor and thus rational enough to overcome fear, you see the cat shaking in terror, and when Mao talks about making a clever, rational choice, he... meows. Apparently his brilliant idea was to pretend to be a normal cat and hope Amber had grabbed him out of Cuteness Proximity, and hadn't heard him talk.
In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, when Yoki encounters the Elrics again, he gives this whole account of how things have went downhill for him ever since he met them, and it's all presented in silent movie style. While he tells of being a good leader who was unjustifiably tricked, and tells of his investments failing, we see him abusing his power and his "investments" are more along the lines of him conning people and gambling away the rest of his money. The funniest part is his narration about "borrowing money" from a noble family- it's actually a scene of him burglarizing the Armstrong home, and in a Mythology Gag referencing a manga omake, he gets a piano dropped on him by the moe and harmless-looking Katherine Armstrong.
This is one of the major tricks of the anime version of Suzumiya Haruhi, where Kyon's on-screen actions often contradict his narration. So, for example, in the first chronological episode, Kyon tells us he's not interested in Haruhi, after having just spent several scenes very obviously checking her out.
Beelzebubstarts with one of these courtesy of our protagonists Oga: "Long long ago, in a certain place, there was a very handsome, cool, well-respected, entirely angelic young man..." When explaining the circumstances that led to him being declared surrogate dad to a demon for his friend, he talks about entirely innocent things while we see him beating on other delinquents and yakuza and making the former bow down to him while laughing manically.
Batman: Year One features a corrupt detective talking about how he was busting some drug-dealers when the seven-foot bat creature attacked him for no reason, but he managed to fight it off. The art shows Batman breaking in on the detective taking his cut from the criminals the detective alleges he was apprehending. Batman does not approve.
A similar sequence occurs in The Dark Knight Returns, when a businessman describes the harrowing ordeals he went through during Gotham's blackout. The panel-images make it clear that his own every-man-for-himself callousness caused much of the violence he's complaining about.
A really horrific example is in the first issue of Vertigo's House of Mystery series. The narration is a rather uneventful story about a girl who moves back to her hometown after her parents died, becomes a wife and mother, but doesn't love her children. None of this is actually untrue, but the art fills in minor gaps like the fact that the other residents of the city are all Big Creepy-Crawlies, and her children were loads of maggots that left a huge hole in her back that she still has.
Also used more humorously in the rather mundane tale a young man tells about his almost being late for work. And it IS mundane...to him. He's so used to his world being overrun by supernatural creatures ranging from giant spiders to vampire cats (not a typo) that he doesn't even think the constant peril he has to deal with is worth mentioning.
Used in Cerebus to introduce Astoria and her relationship to Moon Roach. Oddly subverted when, much later, another character tells a version of the story which doesn't match the art or narration of the first one.
Played with in the Batman oneshot that introduced Harley Quinn. When Harley summarizes her time with the Joker, at first the art shows the Joker being a lot less enthusiastic about her than her account would have you think... but as the narration progresses, the images begin to match up with what she's saying.
The Thunderbolts's first annual (1997) works like this in comic book form. Citizen V is telling the story of how the heroic Thunderbolts were formed to their newest member, Jolt. As the Bolts are actually villains in disguise (and Jolt is not in on the secret), his narration shows the cover story while the actual pictures and dialog reflects what really happened.
Cable & Deadpool: during a quiet moment in between story arcs, Cable and Deadpool swap stories of their respective childhoods. However, what we see happening in the flashbacks is subtly different from what they tell each other in narrative captions, and Cable and Deadpool know each other well enough not to take the stories at face value.
In Jack of Fables, Jack's highly unreliable Marty Stu narration captions are placed right on panels showing exactly what really happened, and just how grossly Jack is exaggerating.
One Future Shocks strip had a man in a bar telling his life story to a stranger. The teller told of how he was a loving husband and father whose family were abducted by a warlord, and so he took revenge by entering the warlord's services as a blacksmith and making shoddy weapons, then running off on the eve of a major battle. The panels show that he was actually a cruel miser whose wife ran away, taking her kids with her. He beat his son to death, and the weapons he made were of substandard quality due to incompetence rather than design. The strip ends with him lying in an alley in a pool of blood, the stranger standing over him with a knife.
The first strip in The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the Dead Left in His Wake) uses this is bit. The narrator says he heard that Ichabod's introduction to killing was when he killed 20 horsemen, but we see him killing one man in a duel. Later, the narrator relates a story about how Ichabod had a secret love who was able to calm his insane rage and dismisses it as nonsense, but the images show that that's exactly the case.
In a Marvel UK Transformers Generation 1 story, Octane tells Ratbat about how he bravely stood up to the vast Autobot onslaught only to be pushed back by overwhelming numbers. The images show him running like a coward from just two Autobots.
52 manages to sneak it in under the radar, only obvious to those who pay close attention. When The Question surprises Renee Montoya on Day Three of Week Two, she panics, grabs her gun and begins firing. However, he vanishes without a trace. The next morning Renee is trying to figure out what the hell happened, especially since "I know I hit him dead center," but he left without trouble. However, if you look back at the previous panel, there are two "blam" effects to indicate gunshots and two holes in his jacket...next to his body. She might "know" she hit him dead center, but we can see that she just plain missed him completely.
The 2010 Iron Man annual features The Mandarin describing his life story to the director he's forcing to adapt it. The captions are what the Mandarin claims happened while the images are what really transpired and they paint the Mandarin in a considerably lessflattering light.
One of the most striking uses of the unreliable voiceover is in Terence Malik's Badlands, where Holly, naive and infatuated with Kit, overlooks some kinda-sorta evil murderous duplicitous tendencies of his...
The naive Forrest in Forrest Gump plays this trope straight. Played for humor (and sometimes for drama), you'll see Forrest describing the upstart Apple Computers as a fruit company; Charlie, the codename for the Vietcong, as some guy the Army was looking for; and in one scene, he describes Jenny's father as a "loving man, always kissing and touching his daughters." The line pretty much sums up the real truth of Jenny's situation.
Don's narrative on how he became a Hollywood star in Singin' in the Rain. His words paint his journey as a smooth, refined and comfortable one. The series of flashbacks that accompanies them show that it was actually an arduous and often undignified struggle to the top.
"Dignity, always dignity!"
The Mission: Impossible movie. Tom Cruise pretends to believe Jon Voight's story, but is imagining the way it really happened.
This was used early in the movie Cube 2: Hypercube. One of the characters said he was a management consultant, but his flashbacks showed he was actually a private detective. The other ones don't so much directly lie as leave out the fact that they're all connected to the hypercube's creators or know more than they let on. For instance, one of them is actually a freelance superhacker who designed the thing and another is an operative working for the organization behind it.
Agent Smecker does this the other direction during the scene that leads up to the Il Duce shootout in The Boondock Saints- he's an investigator and not a suspect, and describes what he concludes happens as we watch what really happens such as the moment when he pegs Rocco as a "real sicko" who wanted his victim to suffer — and he's on the floor getting choked out by the "victim" and begging for his life. He also gets wrong how many guys are present during the Il Duce shootout based on the number of guns at the scene, which it turns out were all used by one guy.
The Princess Bride: "Fezzik took great care in reviving Inigo." Said over a scene of Fezzik repeatedly dunking the drunken Inigo into buckets of water.
In Superbad, this is used when one of the lead characters describes their previous evening to their love interest. While they describe going to a elegant club, the audience sees them trying to gain admission to a seedy strip club. Similarly, their account of celebrating with a drink is matched by them vomiting violently from cheap booze.
The obscure comedy Sorority Boys used this when one of the characters is describing how he discovered a plot-important hidden camera, leading to a VCR in a lockbox. He fudges the details of the discovery to cover his invasion of his roommate's privacy as if everything was already in the open, while it shows him actually stumbling drunkenly into the hidden camera, yanking on cables, and finally shooting open the lockbox with a revolver.
In the case of the short story the film was based on, the trope applies, as the majority of it was from Ennis' point of view. A reoccurring theme for Ennis is what his dad made him witness when he was young, and something in Lureen's voice makes him think "So it was the tire iron."
In the Mexican comedy movie Matando Cabos, the father of a girl narrates how he walked in on his daughter and her boyfriend holding hands and kissing (while we see them screwing like animals), asked the boyfriend to stop (gave him a swirly), saw the boyfriend get rude and belligerent (raise his hands in terror), and politely asked him to leave (beat him senseless and threw him out of the house).
A variation in Her Alibi, when Tom Selleck's character, a writer, voices over his ongoing spy novel inspired by the on-screen reality.
Beowulf: Beowulf claims a bunch of sea monsters attacked him during the race with Breca. We do see him fighting said sea monsters, but when he claims another sea monster dragged him down under the water, it's actually a beautiful mermaid that he ends up "plunging his blade into."
The Usual Suspects primarily uses Unreliable Narrator, but the flashbacks are slightly closer to reality than the narration. Eg, his story involves a man named "Kobayashi", but the flashbacks show an obviously non-Japanese man in that role.
Walker, details the 1856 conquest of Nicaragua by an American soldier sponsored by a cadre of industrialists (most prominent of whom is Cornelius Vanderbilt), and the protagonist's narrations—which sound a lot like quotes from an official log or report—are blatantly contradicted by the action of the scenes they introduce.
In One True Thing, the main character, Ellen, is shown discussing her mother's death with a detective. Her voice-over narration seems at first to match up with what is shown on the screen, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that she is not giving the detective the full story, and has glossed over her family's problems.
Happens throughout Surf's Up, as Cody is being interviewed for a surfing documentary, including descriptions by him of how he was a natural surfer, only for the actual shots to show him constantly falling off his board. Slightly justified, as he wants to look his best on film.
In the 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, as Salome Otterbourne is saying "I was talking to one of the crew, who was showing me a most intriguing sight, a buffalo and a cow yoked together tilling the soil", a flashback is shown in which she is in fact secretly buying alcohol from said crew member.
Stanley Kubrick considered doing his film adaptation this way, but eventually decided to play it straight with an Omniscient Narrator, as he felt this trope would be too comical.
Or is Kubrick's narrator actually prejudiced against the lead character? Several times the Narrator explains Lyndon's behavior in a manner which makes no sense other than to cast his actions in a bad light whereas what we're seeing on screen might be viewed as positive or even noble - his refusal to spy on the Irish ambassador for the Prussians, for example. Similarly, the Narrator claims that Lyndon only married for money, despite our seeing plenty of visual evidence of a loving relationship.
George MacDonald Fraser would seem to have borrowed the above technique in the Flashman book Flashman's Lady. The novel contains extracts from the diary of Flashman's wife, Elspeth, a Brainless Beauty who he suspects is a serial adulteress throughout the series. These extracts, which are written in a melodromatic "female novelist" style (think a bad version of Jane Eyre) are edited by Elspeth's sister who doesn't think Elspeth is quite as innocent as she presents herself.
Played for Laughs in Tricky Business, where the news station is trying to make out the storm hitting Miami as the Big One, but fail miserably, like when the reporter is telling the camera that people should stay out of the water as two dude jog up behind her, wave at the camera, and then go for a swim. The storm did cause a few deaths, however... but they were all from the news station.
Live Action TV
Used extensively in the new Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and The Wasp", when the suspects are giving their alibis. A Genre Savvy viewer can spot that the culprit is the one person who isn't shown doing something shady in flashback.
Also used in the Doctor Who episode "The Runaway Bride", when the titular bride is describing how she and her fiance met and fell in love.
How I Met Your Mother uses this with a twist: in some cases, the voiceover is unreliable. However, so are the images shown, even if we know the image not to be true. For instance, when Ted recalls a night in college when he smoked a joint, he called it "eating a sandwich", and we see him, Marshall and Lily sharing a very large sandwich (and acting high).
Sometimes played straight though, such as when he claims he and Victoria spent their last day together going all over the city and going to fabulous places, but we see that they actually spent the whole day having sex.
The Last Detective uses this on ocassion, as suspects will give accounts of happenings to Dangerous and co. In one episode, dealing with a murder at a college reunion, one character describes the interaction between the chief suspect and the eventual victim as heated but not really violent, but the audience sees a very vindictive interaction on the brink of coming to blows.
Used for comedic effect in the TV series Police Squad!, where the show would open with a Quinn Martin Police Procedural style title card: "Tonight's Episode," followed by the title, which always completely different from the one given by the narrator.
Trivial and mildly amusing instance in Flash Forward: Wedeck (the FBI boss) claims his vision of the future had him in a meeting (at 10pm?), while the visual was an overhead shot of him sitting in a restroom stall, pants down, reading the newspaper (apparently the sports section, from later dialogue). He later confessed the real story to Benford, adding that he'd emerged from his blackout to find another agent drowning in the urinal and in need of resuscitation (which Wedeck found embarrassing to admit having done).
A favorite comic device on Top Gear: Jeremy Clarkson's narration frequently contradicts events on screen, usually to deny responsibility for what he did or to claim responsibility for what he didn't do.
In a variation, unreliable subtitles are used in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. The aunt of two young girls found alone in their apartment comes into the interrogation room and asks the girls what happened in Chinese. The subtitles reflect what the girls actually said but the aunt lies to the detectives. Fortunately, Dr. Huang was there to call her out on it.
Spike's flashbacks and narration in a season five episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are wildly different. Also any flashback narrated by Andrew is a chance for him to exercise his cloudcuckoolander tendencies to the fullest.
Tom the Dancing Bug does this in one Billy Dare strip. The narration obviously does not match what we see in each comic panel. At the end, Billy Dare murders the narrator.
In On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Daisy Gamble makes her past life in eighteenth-century England sound so very refined. When she says that her in-laws "ate as if food was a sin," for instance, what the audience sees is them rushing to the table and pigging out.
That or she had considerably different standards on what constituted niceness.
In The Wotch, Jason recounts his reaction to the Mythos virus turning him into a satyr girl.
The Nostalgia Critic starts his review of Ferngully 2 by fondly recounting that The Nostalgia Chick volunteered to help him review the first movie, while the video shows her repeatedly smashing his head into his desk during their fight over it.
Ultra Fast Pony: In "For Glorious Mother Equestria", the Lemony Narrator tries to spin the events of the episode as political propaganda, so most of his descriptions are directly contradicted by what happens on-screen. No one is fooled.
Narrator: But wait! The evil dragon has lured ponies into his lair. What evil plans does he have for them? Spike the dragon: I'm glad I'm able to spend my birthday with all of my friends! I'm so happy and full of love!
Batman: The Animated Series episode "P.O.V." plays out this way. One of the best episodes of the series, it starts with Officers Willkes and Renee Montoya driving to meet Detective Harvey Bullock for a planned sting against a local crime lord. When they arrive at the location, however, Bullock is unconscious outside and the building is on fire. With most members of the gang escaping, along with the two million dollars that the police department had planted as part of the sting, Internal Affairs believes that the three cops were either grossly incompetent or in cahoots with the criminals. The three officers then each explain what they did during the lead-up to and aftermath of the botched sting. Officer Willkes is honest, but being new to the force he had never before seen Batman and he misunderstood many of the feats he saw Batman perform, ascribing him superhuman powers. Detective Bullock is perfectly aware of what happened, but deliberately alters his rendition to cover up his own mistakes. Of the three, only Renee Montoya gives an accurate and honest retelling of the night. During each of their stories, flashbacks show what really happened, along with where the narration differs from the actual events.
Samurai Jack used this in the episode where he posed as a gangster. Jack describes how he set up the hit and blew up the target's house, while visuals show him quietly evacuating the inhabitants.
Before that, when on trial, he lied about his reaction to a tell-all book about him also containing various things about Dr. Girlfriend, claiming he reacted calmly, forgave the henchman that wrote it, and amicably broke up with Dr. Girlfriend. He really was in inconsolable rage, killed the one blamed for writing the book in an incredibly over the top manner ("Lower the giant hair dryer!"), and kicked Dr. Girlfiend out loudly right before crying into his pillow.
As indicated by the page quote, Kuzco in The Emperor's New Groove tends to wander obnoxiously off the rails while narrating, to the point that the sadder-but-wiser Kuzco-on-screen finally tells Kuzco-as-narrator to shut up.
On King of the Hill, Lucky is telling the guys about buried treasure in a forest, and how his grandfather left it there in his youth. He talks about how his grandfather, a pastor found the treasure while on a church trip and "went on to be with the Lord" before he could recover it. The flashbacks show that his grandfather was a criminal who found the treasure while fleeing from Working on the Chain Gang and was executed in the electric chair. Unlike many examples, the implication isn't that Lucky is lying but that this is the version of the story he was told himself.
Waspinator explains how he left the Earth for Cybertron, tearing himself away from his prehistoric worshippers. The video footage shows the contrary.
Superjail! has a bizarre example, where Ash says he's gotten a fear of all movies because his father left him waiting at a movie theater, neglecting to mention how his father's negligence set the room he was waiting in on fire.
Season 2 of Family Guy had Adam West tell the story of Miles Musket, the settler who allegedly founded Quahog with the help of a magic talking clam. West states that Musket was thrown overboard for "speaking his mind", while the flashback shows that Musket was an incredibly grating blabbermouth who the other settlers threw overboard just to preserve their own sanity.