Follow TV Tropes


Deception Non-Compliance

Go To

This is when characters have no choice but to participate in some sort of deception, but deliberately make mistakes or leave clues so as to tip people off about it. Something's preventing them from being honest, so they do their best to reveal the truth less directly.

The method of self-sabotage can vary considerably. (Often, they're an invoked version of things that also happen accidentally.) To manage it, you can:

Reasons that characters can't just come out and reveal the deception can vary: direct threats; hostages; blackmail; technological or magical compulsion (with the victim Fighting from the Inside); a promise which they now regret; a legal duty. In some cases, they will have to be very careful that the person coercing them doesn't notice, but in others, they can be as blatant as they like provided they don't break the letter of the restriction on them.

This may be part of a Failure Gambit. If someone who tries to fail at deception doesn't actually manage to do so, it's a case of Springtime for Hitler. Contrast Covert Distress Code, which skips the need for this by pre-arranging direct signals that something's wrong. Also contrast Criminal Mind Games, where someone leaves clues against themselves to test or taunt people.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Gunsmith Cats: Rally knows something's wrong when Becky (who is being held at gunpoint) doesn't end the call by reminding Rally she still owes her for past information or pointing out that Rally accidentally wired her too little money for the "tip" she just gave her.

    Comic Books 
  • In an issue of Fantastic Four, Reed Richards is going along seemingly willingly with a Skrull Sue imposter. When he passes by the robot secretary the FF used at the time, he tells her to "tell it to the Marines," which she looks up in an idiom database and discovers it means he's lying.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1:
    • When taken captive by a WWIII conspirator and forced to lie to Steve Trevor that she's going with the woman willingly Diana Prince taps her foot, in Morse code letting Steve know what's really happening so that he can follow the women to the conspiracy group's headquarters and mount a rescue.
    • When Diana is taken captive and forced at gunpoint to write a letter that will send the USAAF on a wild goose chase she sends it to Steve and includes in it their secret code letting him know who the real threat is and their real target.
  • Green Manor: A mild-mannered club waiter named George is forced to name someone who will then be murdered (otherwise the coercer will chose the name for him). He asks for a few moments alone and returns with a piece of paper with the name of the club member who'd berated him earlier that day. Then when the coercer is discovered dead with an expression of surprised horror, we go to George in a confessional, explaining that he dabbles in chemistry, knowing how to make disappearing and reappearing inks, and begging the priest to tell him if it's a sin to turn a murderer's own weapon against him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the fourth Dirty Harry film, Sudden Impact, the diner Harry Callahan goes into is being robbed, and the robbers force everybody to act normally while Callahan is there. Callahan has been getting coffee there for ten years and never has sugar, but this time, the waitress adds a ton of it. The robbers don't see anything unusual, but Callahan goes straight back in after his first sip.
  • In Serenity, Inara's conversation with Mal probably looked quite natural to the person forcing her to have it, but Mal correctly concludes that since there wasn't any fighting, it was actually intended to lure him into a trap.
  • In Quiz Show, Van Doren (who is being given answers in advance by the producers of the titular show) invokes a Suspiciously Specific Denial to ensure that the scheme comes to a halt. He wasn't personally accused at the time, so Goodwin realizes that there's no reason for him to have made a point of denying things unless he was trying to get investigated.
    Goodwin: I said to myself, "Why would he do this? He knows I'll come after him." And then it occurred to me: He knows I'll come after him.
  • In It Could Happen to You, Charlie realizes his local store is being robbed when the owner claims that his wife is home sick (it's stated that she'd "be at work if she was dead") and gives him coffee on the house. It's not entirely clear whether the owner was deliberately trying to tip him off, or just trying to get rid of Charlie so the robbers would leave without things becoming violent.
  • The Exception: Brandt must go along with an SS deception that Hitler will allow Wilhelm to return to the throne. It's all a ruse to weed out monarchists in the Reich. He passes information about it to Mieke however, his lover who's in the Dutch resistance, while it appears that he's carrying out his duties to hunt her down.

  • In the Choose Your Own Adventure novel Spaceship Traveler, you (the captain of the titular ship) can at one point get captured by aliens, who make a clone of you so they can steal your ship. If you succeed on a willpower roll during the cloning process, you manage to imprint two things into the clone — an urge to always be truthful, and the knowledge of a certain infamous prison planet. When the clone then tries to get the ship crew to beam down, it says the planet " as pleasant as [prison planet]", which clues them in that something's up. When they then ask the clone what's really going on, it has no choice but tell everything.

  • In Five Hundred Years After, Aerich is duty-bound not to inform Khaavren what his other friends are up to. Realizing Khaavren really ought to know, he sends Tazendra to converse with Khaavren about something else, knowing she's incapable of keeping a secret.
  • Discworld:
    • In Thud!, a deliberately Revealing Cover-Up is used for this purpose. Helmclever can't stop or expose the villains' operation himself, so he deliberately goes too far in trying to keep their secret, ensuring that as many people as possible receive strict instructions against cooperating with the Watch. In fact, he knows perfectly well that the Watch will see such conspicuous silence as all the more reason to investigate — and that Commander Vimes will be personally angered by it.
    • Averted in Wyrd Sisters, where the evil Duke Felmet hires a playwright to write a play that shows him as being in the right, with his predecessor as an evil king and the machinations of the Lancre witches. He sends his jester (who knows the truth, as he saw Felmet murder the king) out to tell the playwright how it happened. While people note he talks with extreme reluctance and has a facial tic as if he's saying something he knows to be wrong, the play is written as demanded anyway.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • In the novel White Night, Thomas Raith is forbidden to tell Harry about the White Court's plans. Therefore he deliberately acts secretive and leaves obvious evidence in his apartment.
    • Inverted in another book, where Harry has a meeting with Lilly and Fix when trying to get a fix on a pretty convoluted situation. Fix and Lilly are under a Geas that prevents them from informing Harry about what's going on with Summer's side of things, leaving Harry to puzzle it out himself, but they are able to tell him when he's on the wrong track.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: In the third book, Aunt Josephine is forced by Count Olaf to pretend to commit suicide and turn over custody of the kids to "Captain Sham" (who is Olaf in disguise). She forges a suicide note, but deliberately fills it with misspellings so the kids pick up on the secret code she wrote for them, since they know their aunt is utterly pedantic about proper spelling.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Firefly, this is how Simon knew that River was in trouble at her academy.
    "Finally I got a letter that made no sense, she – she talked about things that never happened, jokes that… that we never… It was a code. It just said… 'They're hurting us. Get me out.'"
  • The Wild Wild West episode "The Night of the Death-Maker". A group of monks at the Santa Paula Monastery make and sell wine. When their monastery is taken over by the villains, they subtly change the taste of their wine as an S.O.S. signal.
  • In Dark Angel, Original Cindy is being used as bait by a villain, and gives warning of this by talking about her supposed new boyfriend despite Max knowing that she's only interested in women.
  • In JAG, Admiral Chegwidden subtly informs people that he's being held at gunpoint by referring to a file which relates to another hostage-taking case.
  • An example of the misinformation kind of sabotage is an episode of Charmed, where Piper is possessed by a demon without other people being aware that she isn't herself. She warns the demon that her boyfriend "Tom" will see right through it, causing the demon to address said boyfriend as Tom — which isn't his name.
  • There was an episode of Psych in which Shawn and Gus were discussing a case via webcam. The murderer (standing off-screen) forced Shawn to give Gus a false lead, which Shawn did while speaking very plainly and seriously. Gus realized something was wrong, knowing that Shawn wouldn't normally talk without over-exaggerating or making a joke.
  • Doctor Who: In "Day of the Daleks", the Doctor is held prisoner and then required to reassure the Brigadier that all is well over the telephone. He finds a subtle way to secretly call for help, by using a piece of slang that his captors won't recognize: tell it to the marines.
    The Doctor: I assure you, Brigadier, there's nothing to worry about. Tell Styles that. Tell the Prime Minister. And, Brigadier, be particularly sure to tell it to the Marines.
  • In iCarly in the episode "iPsycho", Carly, Sam, and Freddie send a birthday message to their friend Gibby to alert them that they have been kidnapped by their fan Nora by telling him to listen to every third word.
  • Criminal Minds: After being kidnapped and tortured by an UnSub into choosing a colleague of his who will die, Spencer Reid chooses his boss and gives among his many faults which lead to this choice narcissism and pride, even quoting the bible with an appropriate verse... except the team are watching and Hotch realizes almost immediately that Reid is giving the team a clue where he is, since Hotch's legitimate faults don't include narcissism, and Reid misidentified the verse which is practically impossible with his eidetic memory.

    Video Games 
  • In Season of Mystery: The Cherry Blossom Murders, the artist Tsukumo is forced (by way of kidnapping his daughter) to make counterfeit art objects. However, he deliberately does flawed, traceable work in the hope that someone more expert than the villains will notice and bust the operation.

    Web Comics 
  • In The Order of the Stick, since Durkon's become a vampire, he's been trying to do this to the spirit impersonating him by being vague with the memories he lets him see (with little success, since it can review them almost instantly).
  • In Darths & Droids, when R2-D2 (as played by Pete) is secretly being controlled by Nute Gunray, Pete tries to let other people know it as much as possible. This involves swapping the Ls and Rs of his beeping sounds (as the comic does to satirise the accent given to the character in the film) and acting out of character. Unfortunately, most of the other players never pay attention to the beeps, and Pete’s idea of acting off isn’t seen as very out of character.
    Pete: I was subtly trying to indicate that something was wrong with me! I tried to abandon the party back on Hoth, remember? I was totally acting out of character! Don't tell me none of you noticed?

    Real Life 
  • There are numerous accounts of prisoners of war or hostages doing this.
    • Operation Bernhard was a Nazi plan to destroy the British economy by forging banknotes and airdropping them in to devalue the pound sterling. Some of the prisoners who were forced to make the counterfeits claim to have deliberately put mistakes in them to invoke this trope.
    • POWs, when forced to pose for publicity photos or write a letter of confession, have sometimes given some secret sign to let viewers or readers know how they really feel. Notably, there's an account of the crew of the USS Pueblo captured by the North Koreans.
    • POWs have also been asked to write letters home to prove that they're being treated well; many use an encryption scheme to tell matters more truthfully.
    • There is also an Urban Legend from various wars about a POW writing home and saying he's being treated well, and asking to steam the stamp off to save for "little Billy", who is a stamp collector. There is no person named anything like "little Billy" in the immediate family/friendship circle. They steam off the stamp to find in small letters underneath "they have cut out my tongue." False because, if nothing else, POWs don't have the opportunity to put their own stamps on their mail.
    • Jeremiah Denton, a Navy pilot who was shot down during The Vietnam War and spent 8 years as a POW, was forced by the North Vietnamese to take part in a TV interview. During the interview, he blinked his eyes in Morse Code to spell out "t-o-r-t-u-r-e" (when the unusual eye movement was noticed by his captors, he blamed it on the bright studio lights). The interview was aired and served as the first confirmation for the United States that American prisoners were being tortured.
    • One of the purposes of having a Covert Distress Code, so refer to that page for more examples.
  • One of the problems when "turning" someone into a double agent is that it is hard to be sure. They may have been given a way to signal they are under enemy control. This could be something as simple as a "mistake" or a particular piece of punctuation when passing a message.
  • In December 1949, the Czechoslovak Catholic priest Josef Toufar was arrested by the Communist secret police after the cross on the high altar in his church apparently moved during the Sunday mass, leading many worshippers to believe a miracle had happened. Toufar was tortured into confessing that he had installed a secret mechanism to move the cross. He was also forced to appear in a propaganda film allegedly uncovering his treachorous plot. In the film, Toufar shows how he hid the secret mechanism behind vases of flowers on the altar. By doing so, he sent the viewers a coded message that the film was a hoax, because his parishioners as well as other practising Catholics would know (unlike the Communist authorities) that no flowers were displayed in the church on that Sunday since it was in the Advent season. Toufar was later beaten to death in prison without being formally charged with any misdemeanour.