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Third-Act Misunderstanding

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If there are zombies involved, it ends with the man eating the woman's face.

"I'm torn, because on one hand, I want to share something important that happened to me while we were apart... But on the other hand, bardic tradition demands that I withhold it all so that at some later point, you can accidentally learn an incomplete version and jump to all the wrong conclusions—thus leading to entertaining dramatic conflict later in our relationship."

Bob is keeping a secret, perhaps even a hidden agenda, from Alicenote  and their True Companions. He may benignly want to befriend or romance her, or less scrupulously steal something from her, or gain her trust as The Mole and betray her. Regardless, he's holding back key facts about his background which would make her doubt his honesty or outright hate him. But before long he genuinely develops feelings for her, and may find he's Becoming the Mask.

This being drama, his secret comes out in the third act and Alice and Co. reject him utterly. For extra pathos, it'll be at an important event like their wedding or after winning some award. Protests to the contrary are chalked up to "more of your lies!" Of course, this revelation comes just as Bob needs Alice to believe him. The Reveal can come in the form of a friend or enemy from their past life who doesn't want to let go or forgive, a randomly found memento or internet search.

To solve this, Bob will have to make a large, impressive and risky act of "contrition" to prove he's not the original liar anymore. Alternately, a third character (let's say Charlie) reveal to Alice that Bob really is a different person and likes her, and she runs to the airport to forgive him before she leaves.

Often, Bob could have avoided this situation if he'd thought things out and revealed his secret earlier when it wouldn't be as damaging. On the plus side, this is one narrative circumstance in which it is all but guaranteed that The Reveal Prompts Romance.

Romantic comedy, as a genre, abuses this trope. Most Chick Flicks need to have the characters break up without losing audience sympathy, so some sort of misunderstanding usually drives the third act. This might even come through a Not What It Looks Like moment.

Compare with Third Act Stupidity, Liar Revealed, Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure, Honesty Aesop, and Second Act Break Up.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dr Koto Shinryojo (Doctor Koto's Clinic), both in the manga and in the drama (although that's even more egregious in the drama): the hero is at first rejected, but after spending countless hours helping the villagers, he eventually become appreciated. And then a grudge-holding man with a dead little sister arrive and reveals that the eponymous Dr Koto made a mistake in the past. The villagers immediately turn against him, even though he saved the life of almost everyone on the island. He never was actually a jerk (although he thinks he was one when he made the aforementioned mistake), but it nevertheless creates a "something from the past come back, friends abandon the character" situation.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Bolt, the titular dog arrives back at the studio, only to find that he's been replaced with another dog, who Penny is telling their special phrase. Bolt runs off unseen, missing Penny turning away to cry moments later because she does miss him.
  • The Emperor's New Groove: Pacha tries to warn Kuzco about Yzma and Kronk trying to kill him, only for Kuzco to blow him off, believing they were there to bring him back to the palace. He then orders Pacha to go away, believing he's the one trying to keep him from getting home. Only when Kuzco overhears Yzma and Kronk talking about killing him does he realize he sent his only friend away for nothing.
  • A Goofy Movie combines this with Secret Test of Character: Goofy's son Max discreetly changes the road map so that it goes to Los Angeles instead of Lake Destiny, Idaho. He tells Pete's son PJ about it, and Pete overhears and tells Goofy about it. Goofy at first refuses to believe it, telling Pete he trusts his son, but then, lo and behold, he's discovers that the map has indeed been changed. He is utterly traumatized. When they get on the road the next day, they come upon a junction, with one route going to California (where Max wants to go) and the other to Idaho (where Goofy wants to go). Goofy gives Max a chance to redeem himself and pick which way to go, but at the last possible second, Max opts to go left. Having discovered that Max failed his test of character, Goofy becomes uncharacteristically, but understandably, upset at his son. As Max tries to explain himself, he accidentally sends the car rolling down the hill, which Goofy blames Max for, even though it was locked on his side. Only now does Goofy finally come clean about the real reason they went on vacation in the first place.
    Max: You should've let me stay at home!
    Goofy: Why?! So you'd end up in prison?!
    Max: Prison?! What are you talking about?!
    Goofy: Your principal called me!
    Max: It's not what you think!
    Goofy: You even lied to me!
    Max: I had to, you were ruining my life!
    Goofy: I was only trying to take my boy fishin', okay?!
    Max: I am not your little boy anymore, Dad! I've grown up! I have my own life now!
    Goofy: I know that! I just wanted to be part of it! (calms down) You're my son, Max. No matter how big you get, you'll always be my son.
  • In Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, this occurs when after the London show the Zoosters are discovered for not being circus animals (courtesy of a flyer DuBois brought with her). It was very heartbreaking.
  • Towards the end of Mulan, Mulan's true sex is revealed. Fortunately, Shang's life debt to her saves her life; but when she tries to tell her friends that there are Huns still alive and heading for the city, they disbelieve her both on account of her deception and her sex. Only when it's almost too late, when the Huns actually make their presence known and take the Emperor hostage, do her friends change their tune (literally, in fact, with a reprise of "I'll Make a Man Out of You").
  • The first Shrek movie has the eponymous ogre overhearing a conversation between Princess Fiona and Donkey about "who could ever love something so hideous." She's talking about herself, as she turns into an ogre at nightfall, and changes back in the morning. Shrek, however, thinks she's talking about him, and he creates his own misunderstanding after telling Fiona he heard everything, even though he hadn't. This makes Fiona believe that Shrek won't accept her for what she is, and she accepts Lord Farquaad's marriage proposal. It takes Donkey's unwanted return to the swamp to set things straight.
    Donkey: You're so wrapped up in layers, onion boy, you're afraid of your own feelings!
    Shrek: (hiding from him in the outhouse) Go away!
    Donkey: See? There you are, doing it again, just like you did to Fiona! All she ever did was like you, maybe even love you!
    Shrek: Love me?! She said I was ugly! A hideous creature! I heard the two of you talking!
    Donkey: She wasn't talking about you, okay? She was talking about... (hesitates slightly) someone else.
  • In Strange Magic, enemies Bog and Marianne form a tentative truce while trying to find an antidote to a love potion that's making her sister obsessed with him, and then her ex attacks Bog's home and Bog thinks Marianne was in on it.
  • In Toy Story, Woody is trapped in Sid's house and trying to escape. He manages to recontact his friends and convince them to toss him a line to climb back, but his broken ruse with Buzz's detached arm causes them to think he murdered him. He was already in trouble with Andy's toys for inadvertently knocking Buzz out the window, refusing to believe him when he insists it was an accident, but now it is clear they want nothing to do with him at all — at least not until they discover for themselves that Buzz is alive and well.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, Dave writes a heated letter explaining why he wants the chipmunks to leave, which he immediately throws out because he realizes he cares too much for them, but many weeks later, they find the crumpled piece of paper and assume that Dave is pretending to enjoy their company — just when they had been getting along — so they decide to leave him, join forces with Dave's former boss, and go on their contractually-obligated worldwide concert tour.
  • In Avatar, The Mole is revealed at the point where he's already past Becoming the Mask, and he tries to explain to his teammates that he's on their side now, but they don't believe him.
  • This trope is invoked by a seemingly jealous Sidney Bliss in Carry On Loving. His long-time job partner Sophie goes to meet up with Percival Snooper in his house, hoping that he will ask for her hand in marriage. Sidney is furious and seeks out his address to gatecrash on the date, with the help of Esme Crowfoot, who he's had eyes on for months. Esme storms into the house and pretends to be a vulgar ex-girlfriend who wants Mr. Snooper back and jumps on him just as Sophie marches into the room. Before they all know it, Gripper Burke, an angry wrestler (and Esme Crowfoot's estranged fiancé) arrives at the front door after receiving a phone call from Sidney about his girlfriend, aiming to beat the living daylights out of Mr. Snooper. Sophie storms away in annoyance, while Mr. Snooper's madly-in-love Kindly Housekeeper Miss Dempsey takes down Gripper and throws him out of the window.
  • In Daddy's Little Girls, Monty is in a hearing for custody of his kids when the mother's lawyer brings up his prior conviction for raping a minor. That pretty much ends the hearing, and Monty's lawyer goes bananas - as his lawyer she's furious that he didn't tell her about this "surprise"; as his Love Interest, well, Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil. She refuses to hear his explanations and simply asks "Did you go to jail for rape?" to which he can only answer "yes." Shortly thereafter, Monty winds up on the local news, and the anchor almost casually mentions that viewers might remember him as a former high-school teacher who had been falsely accused of raping a student. Such a high-profile local case and subsequent exoneration seems like something that legal professionals, say, lawyers and judges, should already be aware of.
  • Gleahan and the Knaves of Industry: Defied. Once things start to get hairy between Mark and Gleahan, they step aside and have a much-needed argument, opening up to each other about their true backstories and motives. Because of this talk, they finally become True Companions.
  • Played straight as an arrow in It Happened One Night, almost to the point of deconstruction. After Ellie confesses love to Peter, he leaves without telling her to make arrangements for them to get married (including trying to gather enough money to have her marriage annulled). Ellie misunderstands the situation, thinking he abandoned her and went to collect the reward money, and goes off to have a proper wedding with King Westley. Meanwhile, the newspaper headlines have Peter believe Ellie changed her mind about him and thus he refrains from making an effort to explain the situation and win her back. Fortunately, Ellie's father comes to save the day, even though Ellie brushes him off the first time he tries to set things right.
  • The third act of Hitch has Sara discover that Hitch is the Date Doctor she thought was responsible for breaking her friends heart, so she runs a scathing report that reveals his identity and destroys both his business and the burgeoning relationship of his latest client... all because of a misunderstanding of the independent actions of someone who Hitch refused to work with because he was a sleaze. Strangely zig-zagged when Sara goes to apologize to Hitch and ask for a second chance in the reversal of the usual roles. Hitch rebuffs her, but then for some reason ends up chasing her down and apologizing to her.
  • Legally Blonde, when Vivian sees Callahan hitting on Elle, and Vivian assumes she's using her looks to get ahead.
  • Madea Goes to Jail had this when the male main character's fiancé is exposed (and left) on the altar after he finds out that she's been padding cases with other crimes to bolster her conviction rating.
  • Mr. Deeds, the Adam Sandler remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, features Deeds learning that his love interest Pam, to whom he's about to propose, is actually a reporter named Babe Bennett whose network was smearing his name. Babe initially wanted to help smear Deeds, but found he was so nice to her and generous with his money, she fell in love with him. She goes to try and explain... just as a report about the whole story is broadcast on TV. Not only does a heartbroken Deeds leave New York City, he signs away his $40 billion dollar fortune.
  • Parodied in Not Another Teen Movie where the guy revealing the truth goes into almost excessive detail.
  • Two misunderstandings in Notting Hill: the first being Anna belief that William had betrayed her by going to the press and the second being William overhearing comments Anna made while filming.
  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu has an Inverted case. When Tim and Pikachu see memories of Mewtwo supposedly causing Harry Goodman's car to crash, Pikachu (Harry's Pokémon partner) feels like he himself is to blame for letting Mewtwo loose and causing Harry's "death" (it's later shown that Howard Clifford sent Greninja to attack Harry's car, and Mewtwo was the one saving Harry). Tim feels that there's more to the story, but Pikachu refuses to listen, sadly saying that he might betray someone else, shocking Tim a bit to warn him away before leaving. Pikachu does return to help Tim, however, once he discovers the truth.
  • In Safe Haven, the protagonist's love interest finds himself under the impression that she is a murderer. Rather than stop and explain that she is not, she decides to try and run away from town while declaring she doesn't blame him for hating her.
  • She's All That and 10 Things I Hate About You both use a variant where a bet is placed and after The Hero ends the bet or stops following it, the Love Interest only then finds out and rejects him.
  • Star Wars: Subverted in The Force Awakens when Finn, a former First Order stormtrooper who pulls a Mook–Face Turn, lies to Rey that he is an important member of The Resistance. After Han warns him that Rey will learn the truth eventually, Finn comes clean to her without it causing any conflict.
  • Another Adam Sandler example: In The Wedding Singer, after angering Julia by pointing out that she's only interested in Glenn because of his wealth, Robbie sees her play-acting different marriage introductions as either his or Glenn's wife through her bedroom window. He mistakes this for play-acting her marriage to Glenn and, out of devastation, gets drunk and temporarily returns to his previous love interest Linda.

  • Catherine Anderson is a bit too fond of this trope. She does avert it in a few of her later novels, however, where the climax of the story is something else entirely and driven by the antagonist. If it's not a Coulter or Harrigan novel, though, watch out, because this trope will probably be in play.
  • Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw has one of these when Mara, originally hired as a spy (twice, once by each side), becomes sympathetic to (and has fallen in love with) one side, at which point she is promptly found out by that side and the critical information she bears them is treated as suspect.
  • November 9: After five years, it seems that Ben and Fallon have finally overcome all the issues keeping them apart and are going to start a proper relationship. But then Fallon reads Ben's manuscript and learns that he is responsible for the fire she barely escaped from and that he's known this all along. Fallon storms off and vows never to see Ben again, refusing to listen to his attempts to explain. A year later Ben finally persuades Fallon to read more of the manuscript and she learns that while Ben did deliberately start the fire, he didn't intend for anyone to be hurt and that earlier that same day, his mother had died in a traumatic way, so he wasn't in his right mind. Fallon feels that Ben has also suffered greatly and realises she still loves him, so they kiss and make up.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Friends was very prone to this trope.
    • In the season two episode "TOW The List", Ross decides to dump Julie for Rachel after (under Chandler's advice) making a list of the two women's positive/negative traits. He (actually Joey) announces to Rachel that he broke up with Julie, and they officially hook up. Only for Rachel to notice the list on Chandler's computer, read it and misinterpret it as a list of reasons why Ross doesn't want to be with her, even though he just told her he left Julie to be with her. She refuses to hear what the list was really about, and the episode ends with Ross and Rachel moping in their respective apartments. Yes, it's every bit as contrived as it sounds.
    • In "TOW Ross And Rachel Take A Break", after Rachel decides that she and Ross should take a break from their relationship, Mark invites himself over to her apartment to console her. While he's over, Ross calls to reconcile with her, only to abruptly hang up when he hears Mark's voice in the background - not even giving Rachel a chance to explain what's going on. This is particularly jarring when you consider that the fight leading up to this contrived misunderstanding was actually very realistic and expertly written.
      • The reason that Ross immediately hung up after hearing Mark's voice was that he was convinced that Mark was interested in Rachel, and feared that she was developing feelings for him. It was a large part of the argument that led to Rachel suggesting a break. Hearing that Mark was there, not six hours after Rachel had suggested a break, seemed to confirm all of Ross' fears.
    • They even discussed and lampshaded it in one episode where Phoebe asks Chandler which episode of Three's Company he's watching. He says it's the one where they have a big misunderstanding and she says that means she's seen it already.
  • Series 1 of Gavin & Stacey, when the fact that Stacey has already been engaged six times, which has been kept a secret, is revealed when one of Stacey's ex-fiances runs into Gavin on his makeshift second stag night. Unusual in that we never see the two lovers settle the ensuing argument; the episode ends with them possibly breaking off their relationship, the next episode begins by simply stating they've made up.
  • The Sky One adaptation of Going Postal adds one. While in the book, Moist cheerfully admits to Miss Dearheart that he forged Reacher Gilt's signature to get a table at a fancy restaurant, to her approval given how much she despises him, the miniseries has her learn that Gilt supposedly signed for it, and instantly leap to the conclusion that they're working together. Overall, Adora Belle has a much more rom-com Tsunderey relationship with Moist than her cynical amusement in the book, but that's probably the worst example.

  • French playwright Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) on of the most prominent comedy writer of the 1600's, second only to Creator/Moliere, sums up his writing technique:
    "In my comedies, I almost always establish two lovers happy together. I then set up some deceitful situation that allows them to turn against each other, and finally reunite them by dispelling the very situation that was keeping them apart."
  • In Legally Blonde:
    • Much like in the movie, Warner and Vivienne see their boss, Callahan, kissing Elle. Warner assumes that Elle is seducing Callahan in exchange for a promotion, while Vivienne watches long enough to see Elle slap Callahan in response, clearly indicating she wasn't a willing participant.
    • In contrast, Elle makes absolutely no attempt to hide what happened from her ultimate Love Interest Emmett, who believes her immediately and swears to fight for her; their only conflict is that she leaves because at this point any sense of self-worth she has is gone, and neither of them have any anger at all toward the other.
  • In Philoctetes, Neoptolemus is persuaded by Odysseus to lie to Philoctetes in order to force him to come to Troy. Once he meets Philoctetes, he begins to feel genuine sympathy for him. As Neoptolemus begins to contemplate doing the right thing, Odysseus shows up, the lies are revealed and Philoctetes becomes very bitter and angry towards Neoptolemus. Neoptolemus does make it up to him in the end, even at the risk of The Trojan War ending in failure for the Greeks.

    Video Games 
  • Brütal Legend plays this straight - the entire third act with the Drowning Doom could have been avoided had Ophelia just told Eddie that he was Succhoria (or rather Succhoria's son) and not her. Or if Eddie, having promised to trust her no matter what, had trusted her no matter what.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Daughter for Dessert, thanks to the protagonist’s silence on the matter and Cecilia’s manipulations, Amanda thinks her father let Lainie die so he could use her treatment money to start the diner. The protagonist has to break into Cecilia’s hotel room to allow Amanda to see the truth: that Lainie, who’d been cut off by her father, used an illness that she never told him about to convince her family to give her that money.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender Has an example in the form of Prince Zuko. During his travels, he happens upon a village that is being menaced by earthbenders who are using the war his father started as an excuse to go around demanding food and supplies from people. He stays with a family in the village and befriends their young son, even going so far as to give him the knife Iroh gifted him as a child before heading off. Not long after, Zuko is stopped by the boy's mother who explains that the earthbenders returned and kidnapped him. Zuko tries to fight the earthbenders without the use of firebending but ends up having to do so anyway. Though the earthbenders are defeated, the bystanders are shocked to learn that Zuko is a firebender. One of them steps forward and reveals that Zuko is also the Firelord's son. The village rejects him immediately. Undaunted by their reaction, he tries to give the knife to the small boy once again prompting him to retort "No. I hate you!"
  • DuckTales (2017): The penultimate episode of season one, "The Last Crash of the Sun Chaster!" hits this hard. Stuck on the damaged eponymous aircraft, Scrooge finally reveals what happened to Della Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie's mother, and the Spear of Selene: as it turns out, the Spear of Selene was actually a spacecraft and Della took it without permission just before the triplets were due to hatch, and it had tragic results. Scrooge attempted to get Della back, but was literally dragged away by his executives after a decade of such efforts because it was draining his businesses towards bankruptcy. However, Scrooge is too proud to admit the incident affected him so heavily, leading everyone to assume that he didn't even try searching for her whatsoever, and thus abandoning Scrooge and leaving him alone just as Magica DeSpell prepares for her grand return.
  • Subverted in "Filli Vanilli" of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic when it's revealed Big Macintosh's singing was actually Fluttershy lip-synching. Applejack confronts him and we get this legendary exchange:
    Applejack: Big Mac, you got some 'splainin' to do! Turkey call?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Trash your voice?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Zecora remedy?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Not quick enough?
    Big Macintosh: Nnope.
    Applejack: Needed a deep voice?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Poison joke?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Flutterguy?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Better now?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: And that shy filly was livin' her dream in the shadows because she couldn't bring herself to come into the spotlight?
    Big Macintosh: Eeyup.
    Applejack: Well, for corn's sake! Let's go!
  • The penultimate episode of Steven Universe's second season, "Message Received". Immediately after the previous episode, Steven confronts Peridot about a device she stole from an abandoned Gem communications tower on the Moon. After some prodding, Peridot reveals that it is a direct communication line to the leaders on Homeworld, and that she intends to contact her leader, Yellow Diamond. Peridot's rant about the failure of the Crystal Gem's emotional approach to problems is interpreted as her betraying them, leading to the rest of the episode having Peridot fight with the rest of the group for control of the device. Once its activated, it's revealed that Peridot's intent was to convince her leader not to destroy the Earth, using a logic-based appeal on the value of the planet. Naturally this doesn't work, but the attempt and Peridot's subsequent insulting of Yellow Diamond's intelligence leads to regained trust and cements Peridot as a member of the Crystal Gems.
  • Teen Titans had Terra experience this in the aptly named "Betrayal". Just as she's about to confess to Beast Boy, Slade shows up and reveals it instead, taunting and baiting him with the news that not only was Terra working for him as The Mole, but his robots were attacking Titans Tower at that very moment, while BB was distracted by their date. Naturally BB rejects Terra, which only pushes her closer to Slade.
  • Defied in the 25th episode of Young Justice: Throughout the entire season, several members of the team were shown to have secrets that they wanted no one to know about. Superboy has been getting power upgrades from Lex Luthor and actually has some of his DNA. Artemis's father is the Sportsmaster, an enemy, and her sister is Cheshire, another assassin. Miss Martian is really a White Martian, and her true form averts Cute Monster Girl hard. The villains had confronted each hero about those secrets in previous episodes, and now attempt to directly coerce them to betray the team. The three seem like they'll go along with the blackmail... only for a flashback to reveal they'd willingly revealed their secrets beforehand and the team accepted them, because they've proven themselves for the entire season. The meeting was really a trap for the villains. Though Robin and Batman did know of Artemis's secret, and Superboy learned Ms. Martian's when they mind melded.