Follow TV Tropes

Following

Impossibly Mundane Explanation

Go To

Bob is acting unusually. Maybe he knows something he shouldn't or is spouting highly advanced facts about nuclear physics in Latin. The leading theory is extraordinary maybe he's possessed, or maybe his Evil Twin has taken his place. Someone will propose a mundane alternative like, "He read a book about it". Everyone rejects it out of hand because it would be out of character for Bob, and they return to the extraordinary theory.

This mostly occurs in Speculative Fiction. It serves to reinforce our characters' comfort with the extraordinary while simultaneously reinforcing characterization. The rejection will frequently be nonverbal, consisting instead of "Are you crazy?" looks.

Bonus points if said mundane explanation actually is the explanation.

Note that not every case of characters choosing an extraordinary explanation over a mundane one is this trope. This is only if the mundane explanation is rejected out of hand because it would be completely out of character for said person.

Related to Arkham's Razor, which is where the weirdest solution is most likely to be the true one.

See also Grail in the Garbage, where the valuable and/or powerful object was found in a ridiculously mundane place because no-one thought to look there.

Compare Stating the Simple Solution, Mundane Solution, and Sherlock Can Read.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Fan Works 
  • The Dark Below: Aizawa and Recovery Girl brush off explanations for Izuku's reactions and injuries, even ones given by the boy himself, and insist he's being abused by his mother. For example, Aizawa disregards Izuku's insistence that his black eye is from tripping while jogging, citing that a trained martial artist like Izuku shouldn't trip so easily. In reality, Izuku really did trip because he spaced out while jogging.
  • A Darker Path: While investigating Sophia Hess's murder, Battery puts forth the idea she was killed by someone she was bullying, having found considerable evidence on Sophia's phone she was bullying someone. Specifically, Battery figures that Sophia was planning on beating her victim, only to get beaten in turn and died because they happened to kick her in the chest at just the right time to stop her heart. Alternately, that her victim hired someone to kill Sophia. Instead, she and Armsmaster come up with a complicated scenario where Othala can grant Changer or Stranger powers but never revealed it, and gave them to Cricket who came to Winslow, transformed into Sophia and killed her, then left and the Empire 88 simply never claimed credit. In reality, Taylor did it using her Thinker powers, and the identical clothing Armsmaster noticed was because Taylor stole Sophia's spare sneakers and jeans since her own clothing had been ruined by the locker incident.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: Harry paraphrases Dirk Gently (seen below in Literature) with the explanation that the flatly impossible often has an integrity which the wildly improbable frequently lacks: an impossible thing only requires one thing you "know" to be wrong, but a desperately improbable speculation requires many things to happen in order. The example in question: The Weasley twins, on a budget of only forty galleons, somehow manage to fake a massive amount of evidence to convince Rita Skeeter that Harry is engaged to Ginny, then get rid of all the evidence after Rita publishes her article, in order to discredit her. No one can figure out how they did it, and everyone comes up with utterly bizarre explanations. As it turns out, they got Quirrell to false-memory charm Rita into thinking she saw the evidence, then had their own memories wiped. Quirrell certainly isn't telling. This solution is so simple and straightforward that nobody realizes it even after the fact.
  • Maria Campbell of the Astral Clocktower: When Prince Alan finally witnesses Maria's incredible fighting skills, he goes to speak to his father the king about it. They can't figure out how such an impossibly skilled sword fighter could appear out of nowhere; she has no history of training and no one in her home village reported her practicing with the sword growing up. They come up with all sorts of theories about her being a reincarnate from an older age or even summoned from another world... and then Alan admits that it's also possible that Maria just trained quietly in her home her entire life and never told anyone. It says a lot about Maria that either theory is viable. The audience, of course, knows that it's a combination: Maria is a reincarnate, but while she kept her memories of her sword skills she did have to train her body up to be able to use them again. And she trained secretly because she didn't want to bother her mother.
  • The New Recruit: How is it that Matt Garetty hasn't heard of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, a living legend and someone that all of SHIELD's agents (including Coulson) geek out over? Because Matt was never that interested in history (being a fairly average student) and either didn't study Cap and his commandos or didn't remember doing it.

    Literature 
  • In H. P. Lovecraft's "The Alchemist", men of the narrator's family all die at the age of 32, supposedly due to a curse laid on the family by the son of an alchemist one of his ancestors killed 600 years ago. While researching the curse, he dismisses the possibility that his ancestors were assassinated by descendants of the alchemist, but it turns out that the alchemist's son has, in fact, been murdering them by assorted means over the centuries. This entails him having invented an elixir of immortality so that he could stick around and see the job done, so it's not an entirely mundane solution.
  • Dirk Gently:
    • Dirk does this to some extent in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. When he hears about a girl who constantly recites the previous day's stock quotes (in real time, just with a 24-hour delay), he rejects the assumption that she's just memorizing them somehow (after all, the information is out there!) in favor of some more mystical explanation, because nobody would ever go to that much trouble when she isn't getting any kind of obvious benefit out of the whole arrangement. It's a little different since he's arguing on the basis of general human nature, not the specific character, but the principle is the same. Dirk sums this up by reversing Sherlock Holmes' usual maxim: Eliminate the improbable (that this girl has masterminded an elaborate plot to make everything think she's receiving the prices out of thin air by having someone discreetly provide the information to her), and whatever remains, however impossible (that she actually is receiving this information out of nothing), must be the truth.
    • It's also how Dirk figures out the "riddle" of the history professor somehow hiding a surprise in an ancient artifact for a girl. All his colleagues assume he faked the whole thing somehow because he does this sort of thing all the time, but it keeps bugging Dirk because of how unspeakably improbable the whole event is. He asks a random kid on the street (in order to help himself think), and the kid points out the obvious answer: The professor is a time traveler. He went back in time, had the artifact commissioned with the surprise inside, and dug it up centuries later.
  • At the climax of Cold Days, Harry Dresden faces off against another hero, Fix, set on him by one of The Fair Folk, who told Fix that Harry was the villain. After getting his butt thoroughly kicked, Harry sums up the situation thusly: Either a being who Cannot Tell a Lie has, or Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is an evil mastermind. Faced with the evidence, Fix realizes he's been used.
    Harry: Maybe you're giving me way more credit for cunning than I'm due. You know how I work. How often do I get to a neat, elegant solution that ties everything up? Can you look at me right now and honestly say to yourself, 'Dresden, that wily genius! This must be a part of his master plan'?
    I spread my hands and looked up at him expectantly. Fix looked at me, dirty, naked, shivering, burned, bruised, covered in soot and ash.
    Fix: Fuck.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Stargate SG-1 episode "Window of Opportunity", Jack has prior knowledge of a briefing Carter is giving, and claims that he's remembering things from the future. Carter suggests, "Maybe you read my report?". Daniel gives her a look and repeats, "Maybe he read your report?" as if it was the more ludicrous suggestion. Everyone else (O'Neill included) seems to agree. Even Carter's tone as she says it suggests she thinks it's highly unlikely.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • The gang is attempting to contact Buffy:
      Xander: Well, she didn't go home. I let the phone ring a few hundred times before I remembered her mom is out of town.
      Giles: Well, maybe Buffy unplugged the phone.
      Xander: No, it's a statistical impossibility for a 16-year-old girl to unplug her phone.
      Willow: [nods]
    • There's also "The Pack", in which Xander is possessed by a hyena. Buffy quickly figures out that he's possessed while Giles believes that he is just being a teenage boy. Knowing Giles' teen years, this assumption makes a bit more sense.
  • Played with in Dexter, when Astor asks what Lumen is doing in Dexter's house. Dexter claims they're not dating, and she's just a tenant. While she's much more than that, Dexter never lied. They aren't dating at this point.
  • An episode of NYPD Blue had the detectives come across a murder scene with multiple victims, all of whom were naked prior to being killed. The detectives offer increasingly bizarre theories as to why all of the victims were naked, with most of the theories being sexual. They eventually question a person who had escaped the scene before the murders, and she explained that the people were packing drugs for a local gang, and they were naked because "No pockets" ie, so the people doing the packing could not steal any of the drugs for themselves. All of the detectives are chagrined by this obvious (and non-sexual) explanation.
  • On Two and a Half Men, Evelyn Harper steps in to fund her grandson Jake's college expenses. Jake's dad, Alan, finds himself losing his drive, first losing interest in his job, and then expressing a very real fear that he may commit suicide. This provides the "Eureka!" Moment for Alan's brother Charlie, who had been trying to figure out why Evelyn is behaving uncharacteristically. Alan briefly refuses to believe this, until:
    Charlie: Okay, let's look at the alternate explanation. For the first time in her life, our mother is being totally selfless and thinking about someone else's well-being.
    Alan: Dear God, my own mother's trying to kill me.
  • Smallville does this with Clark's glasses. Everyone has always assumed that Clark Kent wore glasses as part of his disguise. The truth is that he received an injury that made him far-sighted: he actually needs them to read!

    Visual Novels 

    Web Animation 

    Webcomics 
  • Freefall has some fun with this. Helix reasons that since Florence is pale, is sleeping during the day, needs blood and has fangs, apparently Florence is a vampire. Either that, or it's because she's an uplifted wolf who's lost blood due to an injury and needs rest to rebuild her blood supply and heal.
  • In The Order of the Stick, there are five Gates keeping an Eldritch Abomination called "the Snarl" contained. The paladins of the Sapphire Order are responsible for guarding one of them. However (due to disagreements on behalf of the people who established them), they all swore an oath not to look into the status or even location of the others. The villains find this difficult to believe, to say the least.
    Redcloak: I find it far more probable that you are somehow resisting my magic. This "Soon's Oath" story is just that — a cover story designed by your leaders. [...]
    O'chul: You find the idea that I have some sort of secret knowledge implanted in my brain by the elders of the Sapphire Guard that has been so deeply suppressed that no magical effect can unearth it to be simpler...than the idea that I just don't know anything?
    [Beat]
    Redcloak: I liked the way I phrased it better.
    O'chul: No doubt.
  • In El Goonish Shive, the group are trying to figure out why the griffin Andrea hasn't found the location to return to her homeworld. Ashley wonders if maybe Andrea has a bad sense of direction. She's in the middle of second-guessing herself when Andrea's partner Tara admits, "That... sounds exactly like Andrea."

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series: Batman has many high-tech or skilled means of locating criminals or discovering secret identities. But his Sherlock Scan ability, high position in society/the business world, and reputation as a ditzy billionaire playboy sometimes allow him to find answers by simply walking up to someone he suspects and talking to them.
  • Phineas and Ferb:
    • Some of Perry's means of escape from Doofenschmirtz's traps defy the laws of physics and explanation. Others however, are completely mundane (and kind of obvious). In "Toy To the World", Doof rapidly builds a tiny brick box around Perry, supposedly trapping him. Perry simply pushes the bricks aside because Doof didn't use cement or anything to keep the bricks from moving.
    • Phineas and Ferb do/build so many impossible things in a day that any suggestion that they would do something mundane is often met with disbelief. The few times they've actually done something mundane/semi-mundane nearly drove Candace crazy as she couldn't believe that they wouldn't do something impossible and drove herself to hysterics looking for their non-existent project.

Top