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Critical Hesitation Blunder

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He had imagined that his heart had grown as hard as iron through the arduous procession of more than two centuries, but he had overlooked something hidden in the deepest part of his soul, and had hesitated before making the final decision. He tried to restrain the trembling of his heart, and it was that last moment's softness that killed him and everyone on board Natural Selection. After the month-long face-off in the darkness, he was just a few seconds slower than the other ship was.

A victory in a fight is decided by one character's hesitation (be it sentimental reason or shock) and the other capitalizing on it. Sub-trope to Diabolus ex Machina. Often goes hand-in-hand with "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight. Usually exploited to deadly advantage by Combat Pragmatists and particularly ruthless villains. Compare Deer in the Headlights for examples based more on fear, and Conveniently Timed Distraction for similar examples regarding distractions.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Attack on Titan, Eren is fighting the Female Titan in the Forest of Giant Trees when he realizes that it's Annie, by looking at her fighting style and promptly gets his Titan form decapitated while he was gawking.
  • In the finale of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), Envy shapeshifts into his true form while taking a beating from Ed, a form that reveals that they are effectively half-brothers. This revelation causes Ed to halt for a moment, a moment Envy is quick to seize in order to impale Ed, killing him.
  • In Naruto, Lee seems all but victorious when his Primary Lotus lands, but in his brief twinge of pain when preparing the attack, his opponent escapes.

    Fan Works 
  • Professor Arc: After Neo warns him to run, Jaune has the opportunity to escape, but winds up losing too much time when he stops to comfort a scared Pyrrha. As a result, Ironwood and Winter catch up and arrest him.

    Film - Animated 
  • Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade: During a raid, Fuse hesitates to shoot a girl who's carrying a packaged bomb. This nearly gets him killed, and the bomb causes a blackout across the city, making the riots worse. Fuse is haunted by this failure throughout the film.
  • Kung Fu Panda: When Tai Lung goes on his initial rebellious rampage to take the Dragon Scroll, Shifu, who'd trained Tai Lung in Kung Fu since he was small, prepares to fight him but suddenly sees Tai Lung as a young cub and can't bring himself to do it, which allows Tail Lung to knock him aside. Master Oogway steps in at the last second and quickly disables Tai Lung.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • Star Trek: Insurrection: When Picard and Ru'afo confront each other for the last time, while surrounded by flammable gas, Picard asks if Ru'afo's really willing to risk firing phasers there. When Ru'afo hesitates, Picard fires directly into the gas, knocking Ru'afo off.
  • After Palmer is revealed to be a Thing in The Thing (1982), Windows has the opportunity to Kill It with Fire using his flamethrower, but hesitates on getting a good look at the Thing's malformed features. At which point the Palmer-Thing's head splits open and turns into a giant mouth, before mauling the hell of out Windows, infecting him and forcing MacReady to burn them both with his own flamethrower.
  • This kicks off the plot of WarGames: when the Pentagon conducts a Secret Test of the nation's nuclear arsenal, a worrisome number of silos failed to initiate a launch. This leads to the Pentagon passing launch control to their A.I. Is a Crapshoot warfare simulation computer. This computer gets hacked by The Hero because Everything Is Online, triggering a Doomsday countdown.

  • The Dark Forest: Toward the end of the book, Zhang Beihai realizes that Starship Earth lacks the supplies needed to reach another star system, and that the five ships in the fleet (including his own, Natural Selection) are inevitably going to attack each other for their provisions. He prepares to fire on the others to get the drop on them, but his conscience causes him to hesitates, and in those few seconds, Ultimate Law fires first, killing him and his crew.
  • Death Star retroactively adds one to A New Hope, explaining the Just in Time destruction of the Death Star as a result of the hesitation of the gunner in control of the ship's cannon (without which, at best, both the Death Star and Yavin IV would have been destroyed). Said gunner had had a massive Heel Realization and was filled with horror and self-loathing but knew if he refused Tarkin would just stick someone else in his chair, and stalled wishing something could be done so he wouldn't have to push the button, so he probably would have been glad that he and the Death Star died first.
  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Wormtail hesitates for a brief moment after he's reminded that Harry saved his life in a previous book. Unfortunately for him, the Big Bad saw that hesitation as betrayal and he was immediately killed for it.
  • One of Christopher Anvil's Interstellar Patrol stories opens with Colonel Sanders (the protagonists' commanding officer) losing a simulated wargame, because he wasted a 'precious fraction of a second' congratulating himself on his performance.
  • Redwall: In "The Long Patrol", Damug's brother suffers this when he gapes at his sabotaged weapon long enough for Damug to bash his head in.
  • Lampshaded in A Song of Ice and Fire where the old knight who instructs Brienne of Tarth in how to fight mentions a promising would-be knight who was killed in his first battle because he hesitated to Finish Him! and was killed instead. To prevent this, he makes Brienne kill animals at a slaughter-yard until she overcomes any 'womanly qualms' about killing.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • A subversion in the second pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before". Captain Kirk is fighting Gary Mitchell while Mitchell's psionic powers are temporarily suppressed. As Kirk is about to smash in Mitchell's head with a rock, he hesitates for a moment as he says "Gary, forgive me." Because of the delay Mitchell regains his powers and Kirk loses his chance to kill him. A few seconds later Kirk gets lucky and manages to kill Mitchell anyway.
    • The episode "Obsession" has the crew dealing with a mysterious cloud entity that preys on organic lifeforms. When he first saw it as a young lieutenant, Kirk hesitated before attacking, and the creature went on to slaughter most of the crew. Eleven years later, Enterprise crewman Ensign Garrovick also hesitates before attacking it, and it goes on to kill a number of Enterprise crew. Kirk comes down on the ensign pretty harshly for this. Later subverted when it becomes apparent their phasers wouldn't have done anything to it anyway. Still, when finally a plan is hatched to destroy the creature, Kirk and Garrovick take the most dangerous position, to get some closure.
  • Star Trek: Picard: In "Nepenthe", Elnor is surprised when Narissa points a knife at him because their Qowat Milat-Zhat Vash Duel to the Death is supposed to be unarmed as custom dictates, and she takes advantage of his hesitation to throw a second knife at Hugh's neck, which kills him.
  • Timeless: Flynn has been re-writing historical events and has arranged for General Ulysses S. Grant to accompany Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theater the day of the assassination. Since John Wilkes Booth's sense of drama begins to get in the way of the job, Flynn decides to do the deed himself, but when he sees Lucy in the theater box, he pauses in surprise. He gets over it in time to put two bullets in Lincoln's head, but Lucy is able to stop him from shooting Grant.

  • Hamilton has one by the title character, resulting in his death by the hands of Aaron Burr. This inverts the usual dynamic between the two characters; Hamilton made a name for himself with his non-stop attempts to assert his political opinions while Burr waited things out and refused to pick sides until the victor's identity was clear. In the final duel, Burr rushes to shoot while Hamilton hesitates before firing his gun towards the sky, just in time for Burr to regret firing.

  • In the BIONICLE Alternate Universe of "The Kingdom", Matoro hesitated a second too long, and was trapped outside Karda Nui just as Mata Nui died, unable to use the Mask of Life to revive him. This resulted in the Matoran Universe becoming uninhabitable and everyone evacuating to build a new society on the surface, where Matoro is ignored at best and reviled at worst.

    Video Games 
  • At the end of NieR: Automata, specifically in Ending D, A2 outfights 9S and maneuvers into a position to kill him until she remembers 2B's Dying Wish to take care of 9S. This gives 9S the small window he needs to kill A2 although, in doing so, he accidentally impales himself on her sword when they fall over.
  • Overwatch:
    • In the Alive short, Tracer has Widowmaker pinned, but instead of killing her, the former asks "Why?" (likely because Tracer knew Amelie Lacroix) allowing Widow to make a clean escape.
    • Another example involving Widowmaker in one of the comics; Ana was surprised to see that Amelie was still alive and working with Talon, giving the latter enough time to retaliate and shoot Ana in the eye. This event is what forced Amari to fake her death for a couple of years.
  • Resident Evil 3 (Remake) reveals that this is how Marvin Branagh got infected. He was about to put down the zombified Brad Vickers when Brad had a brief moment of lucidity, causing Marvin to hesitate long enough for Brad to lunge and bite him.

    Visual Novels 
  • Fate/stay night: this is what does Gilgamesh in at the conclusion of the Unlimited Blade Works route. Gilgamesh is utterly disdainful of Shirou, believing him to be lower than dirt and not worth his time in fighting. However, when Shirou surprises him and manages to get an upper hand in battle, Gilgamesh finally catches on that he might have to take this seriously. He has one weapon, Ea, that Shirou has no defense against and he would absolutely win if he used it, but he's so disgusted at having to use Ea against an "unworthy" opponent like Shirou that he hesitates for just a second in pulling it out. This momentary lapse gives Shirou the opportunity to strike a finishing blow.

    Web Original 
  • In the finale of RWBY Volume 7, Team JNPR faces off against Neo, a Master of Illusion who at one point uses her powers to disguise herself as Nora in order to steal the Relic of Knowledge off Oscar when he lets his guard down. As she escapes, Ren tries to strike her down, only for Neo to switch her Technicolor Eyes to Nora's light blue while flashing Ren a look of fear. Ren and Nora are close Childhood Friends who also received a Relationship Upgrade a few episodes before this, so it's not surprising when Ren freezes up with a horrified expression, giving Neo enough time to take him down and easily retreat. While it's only a moment of shock, the mere notion of hurting Nora is enough to bring Ren to tears.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Darkwing Duck episode "Time and Punishment", Dark Warrior Duck (a Bad Future version of Darkwing who went Knight Templar) approaches Gosalyn, ranting about her "delinquent" tendencies, and aims a gun at her. However, he can't bring himself to shoot his beloved daughter, and while he's frozen in position, Launchpad sneaks up on him and knocks him out with a frying pan, thus keeping him from preventing her from returning to the past.