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Plots being derailed by the unexpected in literature.

  • Caesar from Matthew Reilly's Area 7 puts a microwave transmitter on the president's heart, so that he can set explosives to blow up half of America the moment he dies. He also puts one on his own heart to prevent the heroes killing him if his plan fails. He didn't anticipate that the heroes could fake the signal using the black box from an AWACS plane allowing Schofield to just shoot him.
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  • Bas-Lag Cycle: In The Scar, Silas Fennec succumbs to this trope when he overlooks Armada's tugboats and their potential as explosive ramships. His oversight directly leads to the utter decimation of the New Crobuzon fleet.
  • Pretty much the reaction of the Malwa Empire and Link every time their carefully-made plans encounter the titular Byzantine general of the Belisarius Series. A prime example was when he walked into an enemy-held city as a nameless "prisoner" of a unit of Kushans who'd changed sides that the enemy had no idea existed; the men were believed to have been wiped out with the rest of another Malwan force that had been obliterated.
  • In Beowulf's Children, the sequel to The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes, Aaron Tragon's (the Magnificent Bastard of the novel) schemes to colonize the mainland of the planet and becoming the new leader of the colonists is derailed by a rather spectacular Unknown Unknown. After shooting Little Chaka and Cadmann to keep them from warning everyone of the imminent continent sweeping attack of the recently discovered huge flesh-eating "bees" with Super Speed, all in order to keep everyone from leaving, he goes back to the colony and tells everyone a story of how they were devoured by grendels. He puts on a very convincing act of grief and shame, while preparing to take the reins of leadership left behind by Cadmann. All of a sudden, the intelligent grendel protagonist approaches the colony, having saved Little Chaka, who proceeds to blow the whole scheme out of the water by telling everyone of Aaron's betrayal. The only reason Aaron avoids execution on the spot is the untimely arrival of the aforementioned flesh-eating "bees" with superspeed.
  • Callahan's Lady has a couple of doozies in its final story. The Professor, the World's Greatest Conman, bought $50,000 in counterfeit ten-dollar bills from Tony Donuts. After the money had been disposed of, Tony demanded the bogus bills back, so the Professor was forced to rob a bank, to pass real money to Tony for his fakes. Unfortunately, after bringing Tony the nice, neatly bound sequential bills, Tony realizes the money isn't his counterfeit cash, because he'd never figured out how to work the serial number increment mechanism on his press, and thus all his counterfeit money had the same exact serial number.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The villains of The Last Battle; Shift, Ginger, and the Calormene warlord Rishdan, all meet a nasty end due to one horrifying Unknown Unknown: the demon Tash is real. And pissed.
  • Codex Alera: In Princeps' Fury, it happens to to Gaius Sextus during the fall of Alera Imperia.
    Gaius: Crows. Didn't even look at them twice.
  • Iain M. Banks' The Culture: Excession starts with the titular Excession showing up out of nowhere, throwing most of the galaxy's careful plans into chaos. Just as they've started properly planning for how to handle the Excession, it turns out that the Sleeper Service isn't Eccentric after all... when it converts its entire internal capacity into engine space (letting it clock speeds of 230,000 times light speed) and then pulls out the fully-fledged war fleet it's been building while pretending to be Eccentric.
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  • Discworld: Lord Vetinari subverts the trope by accounting for Didn't See That Coming. Instead of planning, he waits until the unexpected (or the expected—he has a very firm grasp of human nature) happens, then drives the situation to his advantage from there. Even when it seems like he's miscalculated, people prove every bit as stupid or clever, dogged or unmotivated, loyal or treacherous as he expects. He is a master at Xanatos Speed Chess. This doesn't mean he has never been caught off-guard, however. For example, seeing his double in The Truth caught him off-guard just long enough for his attackers to overcome and subdue him. Or, more humorously, him getting blindsided by Rincewind's explanation why he doesn't wish to volunteer, or what A.E. Pessimal did during the riot.
  • The Doctor Who short story collection "Short Trips and Side Steps" featured a story called 'The Android Maker of Calderon IV'. The title character has meticulously engineered a plan to get revenge on the Third Doctor (who thwarted his plan to set up a technocracy) and assassinate the planet's government by building an android in the form of the Doctor responsible as a suicide bomber. Then he activates the return beacon the Doctor left behind...and the Fourth Doctor steps out, giving us a demonstration of the Unknown Unknown, and a marvellous quote for anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of this trope:
  • Dragaera: In Yendi, a perfectly good plan to install Sethra the Younger as Warlord was foiled because Aliera and Morrolan were standing in the wrong places and then Aliera revived Norathar and Cawti.
  • The Dresden Files is absolutely full of this:
    • Just about any strategy of Harry's relies on him knowing something that the Big Bad doesn't, or him doing something the Big Bad couldn't have expected.
      Wile E. Coyote. Suuuuuper genius.
    • In general, Harry has a lot of street smarts and fights really dirty. Regularly averting the Squishy Wizard trope, Harry is physically fit, somewhat trained in martial arts, has years of brawling experience, and almost invariably packs a gun. On one occasion some wannabe Practioners tried to challenge Harry to a magical duel, so he pulled out his revolver.
      Hag: I've taken your staff! I've taken your rod!
      [Bang Bang BANG!]
      Harry: You should have taken my gun.
    • Summer Knight: How Harry killed Aurora, the Summer Lady deserves special mention. Nobody ever thinks of the Little Folk, allowing Harry to smuggle them and some box cutters into the most pitched battle he could find. Just when he seemed spent... he opened the equivalent of a bag of poisonous bees in her face.
    • Turn Coat: Harry, the famed wizard detective, hired a muggle detective. He subcontracted.
    • Despite the number of times that Harry gets thrown into situations that he knows less about than he should, he continues to wisecrack his way through. Very occasionally, the baddies bring something so far out of left field that even Harry is rendered speechless. Demeter, Lara Raith, and Nicodemus all had their moments.
    • Kringle, aka Santa Claus, has another name. Odin. Boy did he love dropping that bombshell on Harry.
    • The Big Bad's plan in Cold Days is brilliant, comes out of left field, and is the only fitting successor to the plan from Summer Knight we've seen so far.
      • And said Big Bad also Didn't See That Coming, in that Maeve had assumed Mab would be powerless to have her killed, lest the Winter Lady's mantle pass to one of Maeve's own followers, or else some random fey who'd be completely unprepared for the job. But she didn't realize that Lea, on Mab's behalf, had been secretly preparing Molly Carpenter as precisely such an emergency-backup successor...
    • Harry performed this on himself with a supernatural hitman and a memory wipe.
    • In Harry's duel with He Who Walks Behind, the latter corners Harry at a gas station. Guess what happens. Guess.
    • In the climactic duel in White Night, a Big Bad is taken by surprise when the ground he's running on suddenly turns into frictionless dust.
    • Now that Harry is buddies with the Genius Loci of Demonreach, he gets to regularly pull these off on the island when he's fighting people only running on mortal senses. Even immortal sense aren't as good as intellectus.
    • No one, not even Uriel, really expected that Waldo Butters would become a Knight of the Cross, much less reforge the Sword of Faith into a lightsaber.
  • The appendix of Dune (the first Dune book) argues that the Bene Gesserit order should have foreseen that the Kwisatz Haderach they were trying to create would not serve the order.
    • They were also making it easy for their members to fake being messiahs in case of emergency, so they underestimated the real thing.
  • In the fourth Earth's Children book, Plains of Passage, Attaroa tries to kill Ayla to show her tribe what happen to those who resist her, only to be killed by Wolf, who has been hiding in the woods. Since Wolf is the world's first domesticated wolf, there really wasn't any way Attaroa could have even suspected that he exists.
  • In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series:
  • Halo's The Forerunner Saga: When the Forerunners declared war on the Precursors for forsaking them, the latter are so shocked that anyone would try to attack them that they basically do nothing as the former all but wipe them out. Almost ten million years later, the Forerunners themselves get a big shock when they discover that the Precursors (whom they now all but worship as gods) are back, as the Flood.
  • Harry Potter: "Nobody will ever guess that I've made Soul Jars, and even if they do they will never find them. What? They did and they did? FUUUUUUUUUUUUU-"
    • Voldy has one as well before the series takes place. He seriously did not expect a mother's love to cause his curse to backfire like it did. He later admits his mistake...but he doesn't learn from it.
    • The legacy of the Elder Wand, which Voldemort so desired in Deathly Hallows, was supposed to die with Dumbledore, by having Snape kill him by his command. However, unexpected and unbeknown to everyone till the very end, Draco Malfoy had already inadvertently gained the wand's allegiance at the end of The Half-Blood Prince by Disarming Dumbledore (thus defeating him) beforehand. Then a few months later, Harry overpowers Malfoy at the Malfoy Manor, which subsequently transfers the Elder Wand's ownership to him. According to wand lore, one only has to defeat the Elder Wand's current master to win over its ownership; whether the previous master was in possession of the wand does not matter. Thus, even though Voldemort is in possession of the Elder Wand in the final battle, he cannot unleash its full power, nor can he harm Harry with it, as the wand has already sworn allegiance to Harry, making him its true master.
      • Also counts as an unknown known: Voldemort believes that Snape is the true owner because he killed its previous owner. Its previous owner was Dumbledore, who got it from Grindelwald, who was killed by Voldemort. Oops.
    • The Big Good Dumbledore gets his own moment. He's a supremely intelligent wizard, completely in control of himself, plans years and years in advance and all his guesses, intuitions and plans come exactly as he wishes. The one mistake he makes? When hunting for Voldemort's horcruxes, he's unprepared for the fact that the chosen object was in fact a lost artifact in its own right, the Resurrection Stone - The Remnant of a quest Dumbledore abandoned nearly 80 years ago, which cost him the life of his sister and his relationship to his brother. Confronted with a single opportunity to meet his sister and beg for her forgiveness, Dumbledore let his guard slip and fiddled with the object despite it being cursed (which he knew fully well). This resulted in him getting a curse that makes him Secretly Dying for the better part of a year. What makes Dumbledore so awesome is that he's able to capitalize on his own mistake and have it adjust into a pitch perfect end-game.
      "I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being—forgive me—rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger."
  • Honor Harrington:
    • In The Short Victorious War, the People's Republic of Haven opens the war by covertly preying on Manticoran shipping, ambushing convoys with superior forces. One such raid goes pear-shaped when, instead of the lightly defended convoy they expected, Battlecruiser Divisions 141 and 142 drop out of hyper within energy range of the dreadnought HMS Bellerophon, which by a complete fluke was passing through the system while rotating home. The Peeps even manage to get off the first shot, but cause only minor structural damage before the dreadnought's return fire pastes them. And the best part? It was the night shift, and Bellerophon's officer of the watch was a communications officer who won by reading down a list.
    • Mission of Honor: Manticore was on alert and ready for trouble, but Oyster Bay still succeeded because the Mesans were not using impellers, which the Manties knew to look out for, but their new spider drives, which were a completely new technology.
    • The Solarians have been screwed multiple times by the Unknown Known of Manticoran and Havenite technology being well ahead of theirs. It's not as if they didn't consider the possibility; they just rejected it out of hand.
    • The Mesan Alignment, an Ancient Conspiracy which is the series' true Big Bad, has had their plans affected by this trope repeatedly.
      • The discovery of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction (which no one could have predicted) disrupted the Alignment's plans, forcing them to bring about the Manticoran-Solarian conflict ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, this is at least part of what led Queen Elizabeth to make peace with Haven. If it hadn't been for the Solarian threat, she probably would have simply forced Haven into submission. They also didn't anticipate Herlander Simões' defection, which led to the Manticorans and Havenites learning about the Alignment and forming a military alliance. On the one hand, this will help bring about the downfall of the Solarian League even sooner. On the other hand, the fact that the Grand Alliance doesn't know about the Renaissance Factor or where the Alignment's base is is the only thing keeping them alive.
      • The Alignment also got shafted by Oversteegen kicking their ass at Tiberian, the entire clusterfuck in Crown of Slaves that resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Torch, and HMS Hexapuma catching a Jessyk freighter using a false transponder, and that one only happened because Aikawa Kagiyama was bored and decided to do a detailed analysis of a random ship for fun. In fact, they've been having a major problem in this department for some time, starting with Manticore managing to stand up to Haven in the first place.
  • In Hurog, a villain is killed by someone he would never have suspected to be able to betray him. More precisely, Jakoven is killed by Garranon, whom he used as a Sex Slave ever since Garranon was fifteen. Jakoven thought he had Garranon thoroughly manipulated and brainwashed. While Garranon fights him, he mentions that the sex was so good, certainly Garranon must have liked him? Garranon replies that it was just sex, and he despises Jakoven. Then he kills him.
  • The Lord of the Rings
    • Sauron knows the Ring can be destroyed, but he would never think that anyone would try to destroy the Ring instead of taking it for themselves. The twist is that Sauron was right not to worry because no one actually can summon enough willpower to destroy the Ring, not even Frodo. What ultimately causes his destruction is an unknown known for the heroes as well as Sauron: Gollum. Neither the good guys nor Sauron could have predicted that Gollum would finally get the Ring back in the one place where celebrating a bit too much would mean its destruction.
    • The Witch-King knew no man could kill him. He didn't expect the army of men he was fighting to have a woman and a hobbit with a long-lost dagger designed specifically to mortally wound the Witch King.note 
  • In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet novel Invincible, Desjani warns that her great plan is also a terrible plan because they know so little about the aliens that it relies on some assumptions that could easily be thrown off. They go with it anyway, though.
  • This trope is what blows up the Big Bad Storm King's Evil Plan in Tad Williams' fantasy epic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Specifically, he didn't care who showed up for the final ritual to unite the Three Swords and reverse time so he could return to Osten Ard, but one of those people turned out to have been primed to figure out his weakness at the very last second, and another happened to be carrying the Chekhov's Gun necessary to defeat him afterwards.
  • In the backstory of the Mercy Thompson series, a trophy wife kills her husband with a pair of gardening shears, and pins the blame on the gardener. How was she to know he was a fey, who can't touch iron without being burned? And even if she somehow knew that, how was she to know the Grey Lords had chosen this moment to break the masquerade?
  • Prince Vladimir, The Chessmaster in the Nightfall (Series), has developed elaborate plans for Myra and the Resistance. Everything goes smoothly, she falls into all of his traps, until she escapes. He has never considered that Armida, his lover, has plans of her own, and Myra comes up with a way to use them.
  • Nuklear Age's Dr. Menace encounters one every few seconds, as one after another of her plots fail in Deus ex Machina style. Her first kidnapping plot failed when a just-introduced supporting character happened to catapult into her abandoned warehouse base, destroying the building, her orbital death ray failed when Nuklear Man decided to show off by firing a Plazma Beam into the sky, her plan to convince Nuklear Man to turn evil via telepathy failed when Dr. Genius happened to contact him telepathically soon afterward and he mentioned it in passing, her plan to capture her alien visitor failed when the alien happened to be an nigh-omnipotent god... Her plans not only failed, but failed in the most frustrating style possible. It is mentioned several times that she was finding it more and more difficult not to start screaming.
  • Early in the Relativity series, Michael has discovered Sara's superhero identity but hasn't yet told her he knows. His father has forbidden him from telling her until he can figure out the best way to handle it. What neither Michael nor his father planned on was Sara telling Michael her secret.
    • Fortunately, he realizes what she's building up to and manages to convince her that anything important she has to say can wait until later.
      • Which backfires spectacularly when she finds out anyway.
    • This trope is played for laughs in "Rune Returns... Again". Rune has captured all of the superheroes. Suddenly, Sara's husband shows up.
      Rune: (pulls a bunch of papers out of his tunic and begins flipping through them) Nope, nope, nope. Not in the program.
  • Emilio Salgari, author of Sandokan and a number of other series, has a habit of dropping these on his characters (all sides). Here's a brief and incomplete list of the ones that surprised the characters the most:
    • In The Tigers of Mompracem Sandokan and two prahos (a Small malayan sailing ship) worth of pirates are fighting a British frigate. Knowing how badly outgunned they are, the pirates close in to try and board... At which point the readers are informed it's a steam frigate in the context of the frigate moving away to avoid the boarding. The narration adds that the pirates screamed obscenities at the Brits for this;
    • After finally boarding the frigate and getting nearly killed in the fight (as by the time he succeeded the frigate had killed most of the pirates, who were in fact trying to run away when the frigate noticed them), Sandokan was saved and healed by British nobleman and former naval officer lord Guillonk, who had absolutely no idea the most dreaded pirate of the Indian Ocean would be healed in his own house. Or that he and his beloved niece Marianna would fall in love (not that Sandokan and Marianna themselves had seen it coming). Nor Sandokan expected to have his identity revealed when the captain of the frigate went at lord Guillonk's home for dinner (the captain took a while because he too could not believe it was Sandokan until after he killed a tiger in a knife fight];
    • In The King of the Sea Yanez and some of Sandokan's former pirates are in trouble, with their ship about to be overran by Dayak head hunters... Then the Dayaks are sunk by an improbable newcomer: an American-built ironclad that had been ordered and paid in advance by the Sultan of Shemmerindan but had been refused by his successor and was passing by because the builder wanted her solf off. Also, the crew of the ship didn't expect that the white man they had just saved would buy the ship at twice of the best price they expected to sell her for;
    • The crowner comes in the final novel, Yanez's Revenge, when Sandokan comes to help Yanez, who by that time had become the maharajah of Assam with twelve elephants, two hundred Dayak head hunters armed with repeating carbines, twelve Maxim machine guns, and a biologist specialized in biological warfare complete of cholera vibrios and shots to immunize Sandokan and Yanez's men.
  • Septimus Heap - Magyk: This is DomDaniels reaction when Marcia reveals that the Apprentice the Heaps have just saved is actually him.
  • Somewhither: In A Tale of the Unwithering Realm, the Dark Tower has perfected astrology to the point where they can very accurately predict the future years in advance. On one hand, this makes them nearly undefeatable... but on the other hand, they rely on their predictions so much that, in the very rare case that something unforeseen happens, it tends to toss one hell of a wrench in their plans. An example is Abby, an unique "foreverborn" whose actions cannot be predicted by astrology, so pretty much every single thing she does in the book (starting with freeing Ilya from his prison cell) ends up highly inconvenient for the Tower.
  • Usually what causes any of The Chessmasters in A Song of Ice and Fire to finally slip up.
    • Tyrion is left badly injured after a battle, and while he's comatose, every single one of the men on his side is either turned to Cersei's side or replaced. Given the circumstances, he manages a spectacular recovery, which is promptly destroyed when Joffrey is murdered and Tyrion is framed for it.
    • Cersei resurrects the Swords and Stars and has them charge her rival with treason; unfortunately, the Swords and Stars decide to torture the man she sent to testify against Maergery, and, trying to save himself, he tells them everything, including Cersei's own crimes. Then, just to rub salt in the wound, her actions towards Jaime come back to bite her in the ass when he refuses to champion for her and instead continues on his own campaign.
    • Robb, Catelyn, and most of the Stark campaign gets screwed by Robb marrying the wrong woman and pissing off House Frey, leading to The Red Wedding. Readers should see this one coming, though.
    • The entire country of Westeros got screwed when Eddard Stark met Joffrey Baratheon. Instead of allowing Lord Stark to live in exchange for a false confession, the newly-crowned Joffrey has him executed, and thus the War of the Five Kings is kicked off with a bang.
    • Tywin Lannister certainly didn't expect a vengeful Tyrion shooting him in the bowels with a crossbow while he was in the privy. Of course, most people don't expect they will die on the toilet.
  • Star Wars Legends: Grand Admiral Thrawn was playing a very effective game of Xanatos Speed Chess, until bitten by two or three Unknown Knowns. Specifically, Niles Ferrier botching his plan for the fringe, causing a group of independent smugglers to join the New Republic in battle; C'baoth killing the ysalamiri and escaping his imprisonment; and his secret cloning facility being discovered, all at the same time. All of this he might have been able to deal with. But the one thread that came loose in his plan, and led to his eventual demise, was all caused by one single Unknown Unknown, or, as Timothy Zahn put it, a bit of information he didn't know and didn't know he didn't know: that Leia was Darth Vader's daughter.note  At the very least, he didn't know that the Noghri could detect that fact simply from Leia's scent.
  • The Stormlight Archive: Book 2, Words of Radiance: The first we hear of Parshendi spies among the Parshmen slaves is in Navani's journal (which was written after the book), where she notes they really should have expected it.
    Rlain: We choose a form based on what we need, the job required of us. Dullform, one of those forms, looks a lot like a parshman. Hiding among them is easy.
    Navani: We account our parshmen with precision.
    Rlain: Yes, and we are noticed—but rarely questioned. Who questions when you find an extra sphere lying on the ground? It's not something suspicious. It's merely fortune.
  • The Big Bad of Tantalize (a Twilight knockoff), had a pretty good plan and executed it well, but got well and truly screwed by something he never anticipated: three of his followers were secretly werepeople who betrayed him, killing his fourth and last ally in the process. To be fair, the readers didn't see it coming, either.
    • Also, he didn't expect that Quincie would abandon him for Kieran after all, though that might more accurately be Hubris.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • In Cain's Last Stand, Varan didn't know that Cain's aide, Jurgen, was a blank, so when he met up with Cain to discuss the terms of surrender, the psychic ability that allowed him to instantly convert people to his cause wouldn't work. Cain ends up kicking his ass off a cliff. Literally.
      "Well, that was unexpected..."
      Chaos Warmaster Varan the Undefeatable, last words
      • In the actual scene his last words are "That was unexpected, wasn't it?" and were meant as a taunt. The slight rewording is something Cain wrote in-universe to mock him.
    • Archmagos Khobotov in Soul Drinkers discovers a few problems with his plan for stealing the Soulspear and back-engineering it - one Unknown Unknown and two Unknown Knowns.
    • Space Marine Battles has one case of Known Unknowns and another of Unknown Knowns.
      • Known Unknown: The Legion of the Damned comes out of the left field for the Chaos warband which is just about to destroy the opposing force completely. To be honest, this is their entire schtick.
      • Unknown Known: This one line from Death of Antagonis, showing just how much someone was underestimated:
        That pretty-faced traitor is no captain of mine.
    • In Ben Counter's Horus Heresy novel Galaxy in Flames, when Angron attacks the survivors of their treacherous attack, Horus is enraged — with himself.
      "Angron is a killer!" snapped Horus, rounding on his Mournival son. "He solves every problem with raw violence. He attacks first and thinks latter, if he thinks at all. And yet I never saw this!"
    • Later on, Lion El'Jonson, one of the deadliest combat primarchs, utterly destroys the favored Daemon of the God of Fate, impaling it through the heart as it gives him a fancy speech about how omniscient it and its master are:
  • The Wheel of Time: In The Gathering Storm, Rand pretends to begin playing Graendal's game of manipulation and subterfuge, then obliterates the palace she's in with a column of balefire.
    How do I outthink someone smarter than I am?
    • The following book subverts this. Apparently, one way to handle Unknown Unknowns is to spy on your enemy until the last possible second, and have someone around that can serve as a body double...
  • In the Garrett, P.I. series, nobody except the Dead Man expected Glory Mooncalled to turn against his Karentine employers, and even he didn't expect the mercenary leader to declare the Cantard an independent republic. On top of that, even Mooncalled never anticipated that Karenta would turn the tables and wipe out both the republic's forces and the Venageti, by hiring a bunch of squabbling MorCartha as auxiliary flying scouts just so they'd leave TunFaire and quit robbing and pestering its citizens.


Example of: