Scotty: Inform them of what!? A new weapon that is invisible? "Raving lunatics", that's what they'll call us! They'll say that we're so desperate to exonerate the captain that we'll say anything.
Spock: And they would be correct. We have no evidence. Only a theory, which happens to fit the facts.
This is a common plot device often used to kickstart a story, or get it into high gear.
Basically, the heroes discover that some bad guy is up to no good. The problem is that for whatever reason, the hero has trouble getting people to believe him. Maybe because the hero is a kid, because the bad guys are respected authority figures, or because their scheme sounds outlandish. They may have tried to deliver a warning without getting evidence first and been dismissed out of hand. Maybe they've lied in the past and the authorities are sceptical. Or maybe the authorities do believe them, but can't act without evidence. Either way, the heroes need proof of what the bad guys are doing in order to get anyone to believe them, and the ensuing adventure becomes essentially about that. Of course, this plot isn't quite able to catch up in this day and age of hand-held phone recorders/cameras/camcorders in cell phones; because that would get in the way of the drama of trying to acquire evidence. Often they'll come up with different ways of recording information that's complicated enough for the plot.
This is also a way to get otherwise reluctant heroes involved in the plot. If for no other reason than the fact that since they can't convince anyone else, it's all up to them to solve the problem.
This can also affect the genre, and is the catalyst of many an Amateur Sleuth and Snooping Little Kid story. If the bad guy taunts the heroes that they can't prove anything, that's Proof Dare. If the heroes resort to fabricating the evidence, it's Framing the Guilty Party. If someone needs to collect evidence of their own achievement(s), they're Bringing Back Proof. Compare Clear My Name.
- The main obstacle for L of Death Note is not in deducing Kira's identity, but in finding proof beyond a shadow of a doubt to support his deduction. Not unreasonable, given that Kira is using a magic killer notebook to commit his crimes. Without proof, who would believe that?
- What Tenma of Monster occasionally tries to do about Johann. The rest of the time he's attempting to kill him.
- A large part of Red River (1995): Kail and his group know that Queen Nakia is behind about 90% of the bad things that happen in the story, but she is very good at covering her tracks, and you don't accuse the second-most-powerful person in the Empire of serious crimes without some serious proof to back it up.
- A recurring hassle for Mickey in the Mickey Mouse Comic Universe before he can put a stop to whatever scheme he's gotten on the track of. Subverted in "The Mystery of the Robot Army!", where the police believed Mickey without further question but Mickey ruined things by taking a piece of evidence with him, which the villains discovered and took as cue that it was time to clear out before the police arrived. Lampshaded in "The Mystery at Hidden River" when Mickey discovers Pete's presence at the crime site early in the story:
Mickey: Well, I don't have to be clairvoyant to know who's the villain in this mystery! The trick is to get the goods on him!
- This serves as the reason why Minato hasn't taken down Danzo yet in Catch Your Breath, despite knowing about his actions.
Minato: If I had any solid evidence to link Shimura directly to anything, I'd have ordered the seizure of all of his assets within the village and put him under seal-enforced house arrest until we could have a trial.
- In Delenda Est, Harry might know what the dark lord is doing, but he can't tell Orion and Cygnus about it until he's got proof.
- Dreaming of Sunshine: One of the reasons Shikako doesn't run around changing things willy-nilly is because no one would ever believe her. Instead, she painstakingly begins investigating events of interest such as the Uchiha massacre, especially after being subjected to Tsukuyomi, and Akatsuki. This even makes sense, since she KNOWS the information is there and will thus notice things someone else would dismiss.
- Blue Diamond and Jasper do this on behalf of Hema in The Harvester when they are put on trial for being accused of a crime punishable by death, by bringing out Emerald as proof that they were framed.
- Tom says this almost verbatim about how they're going to clear Skinner's name in the fourth volume of The Private Diary of Elizabeth Quatermain.
- Robb Returns:
- Benjen Stark travels beyond the Wall in order to gather proof that the Others and the wights are real.
- Tywin runs into this issue as well: many of his nobles didn't hear the Call, or deny the fact they heard it, insisting it was all a trick. Thus, Tywin needs solid evidence that the Others exist before he can rally everyone against the threat they pose.
- Many 1950s horror films used this plot device, specifically applied to teenagers (i.e. those who paid to see drive-in movies) who found out some horror or other, but the adults wouldn't believe them.
- In the 2017 film Bad Match, Harris spends the last third of the film trying to find evidence of the person who hacked his Twitter account and downloaded child porn onto his computer, as while his acquaintances believe that he isn’t responsible the investigators need evidence of who did it instead. Unfortunately Harris fixates on the wrong suspect as the one responsible for his problems, with the result that he beats an innocent woman to death before his lawyer identifies the person responsible.
- Nope: The cusp of the story revolves around the Haywood siblings trying to prove that a UFO is haunting the area around their ranch by getting definitive footage of it (which they dub "the Oprah shot"). This is complicated by the fact the UFO in question causes electronics to turn off as it passes over and absolutely hates being looked at. It takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but Emerald is finally able to get the Oprah shot at the very end using the old-timey well camera at Jupiter's Claim, which does not use electricity.
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has this in the plot aboard the Enterprise in the middle acts of the movie. In the aftermath of the attack on the Klingon Chancellor's transport to Earth, subsequent masked Starfleet boarders assassinating him, curious external readings right before it all went down, and a suspicious discrepancy between magazine inventory and event logs concerning torpedo weapons fire, the crew of the Enterprise deduce that another ship must have fired on the Chancellor's ship; one of the Klingon's own with a new cloaking device that can enable torpedo fire while cloaked. All they have is circumstantial theories, as Scotty is quick to point out and Spock is quick to concur on. It sets them on the task to find the evidence: specifically, the gravity boots that the assassins must have worn to board the crippled klingon diplomatic ship that was deprived of gravity.
- This becomes the main challenge in Zodiac once the heroes become convinced that Leigh is the Zodiac. Despite mountains of evidence — the windbreakers, the gloves, the wing-walker boots, the knives, the guns, The Most Dangerous Game, the watch — it could all be dismissed in court as circumstantial.
- This happens in a few of the Alvin Fernald books by Clifford B. Hicks.
- Animorphs starts off with the kids trying to expose the Yeerks' silent invasion to the world, in hopes that once the world knows what's going on, they'll be able to fight back. This plan becomes less significant as the series progresses, in favor of simple guerrilla war, but ultimately succeeds near the end.
- A major plot thread in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince involves the titular character being certain that Goldfish Poop Gang leader Draco Malfoy is up to something, and trying (without success) to prove it. Of course, this is in large part due to the fact that the primary responsible authority figures (Dumbledore and Snape) already know he's up to something and want Harry to have as little to do with it as possible.
- Jennifer-the-Jerk Is Missing starts out this way, as Malcolm needs her babysitter, Amy, to believe that he did indeed witness a kidnapping. They then try to prove it to the adults, which doesn't work.
- My Teacher Is an Alien starts off with Susan Simmons finding out that, well, look at the title. She knows full well no-one will believe her, and her efforts to try to get evidence are what set the story in motion.
- Aiden and Meg of On the Run race to prove their parents' innocence when they happen to be arrested for a crime they didn't commit.
- A Spy in the Neighborhood is about three boys who think a certain neighbor may be a spy. They want to get the cops on her case, but in order to do that, they need to find proof of some sort, so they basically spy on her.
- In 2, Gus must prove that Booth, his Evil Twin, exists in order to prove his innocence.
- One Adam-12 episode involved a woman who was desperate to get the drug dealer who killed her boyfriend. Malloy had to keep reminding her they needed proof. She had a record and wouldn't be seen as a reliable witness, so she couldn't testify. When she bought drugs from the guy, it still wasn't enough because though she wrote down the serial number on the money, the dealer could say he got it in change. Eventually, the police stakeout pays off and they get what they need to arrest him.
- In Babylon 5, several episodes involved a search for evidence to prove that President Santiago's death was an assassination engineered by his successor, not an accident.
- Breaking Bad:
- Hank finds some clues linking Gus to Gale's drug-related murder, and suspects that Gus is actually a drug kingpin running the biggest meth empire in the American Southwest. He only has circumstantial evidence and nobody else in the DEA believes him, so he starts a one-man quest to find proof. His brother-in-law, Walter (and the audience), knows that Hank is 100% correct (because he is Gus's meth cook), and realizes they'll all be in big trouble if Hank actually finds proof and does his best to secretly sabotage his efforts.
- Later, Hank discovers that Walter is actually the mysterious meth baron "Heisenberg" he's been hunting for so long. Looking back at the DEA case files for the past year, he finds tons of circumstantial links, but no definitive physical proof (because Walt did a very good job destroying it all). He's finally able to get this proof by teaming up with Jesse and employing a Trick-and-Follow Ploy, getting Walt to confess to his crimes and lead them to his hidden caches of drug money.
- A common occurrence on CSI and its spinoffs. Often occurs on cases where the evidence isn't yielding as many leads as the CSIs need to make the case.
- The Fugitive combines this with Stern Chase, as a wrongfully-accused man flees from the law as he tries to find the evidence to prove who the real killer was.
- In the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, the Night's Watch and their allies undertake a dangerous mission to capture a wight to prove to Cersei that the White Walker threat is real. This results in the deaths of Thoros, Benjen, and Viserion (who is then reanimated as a Dracolich, which the Night King uses to destroy the Wall at the end of the season). And it turns out it was probably All for Nothing since Cersei agrees to a temporary alliance against the White Walkers...and then, unsurprisingly, doesn't send any help at all.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: When Bronwyn is trying to warn the people of Tirharad that there is a looming danger, Waldreg asks her to bring first a proof before asking everyone to just abandon their homes. Which she does, she fights an Orc that attacked her son and brings his beheaded head to Waldreg.
- About halfway through every episode of Monk, the titular detective will figure out who did it. Without exception, the person he accuses will have an airtight alibi (once, the guy was in space at the time of the murder), and Monk will have to find the one thing that doesn't fit.
- On Saving Grace, Rhetta is a forensic investigator and does all kinds of tests on any items that Earl gives Grace to prove his angelic existence. Boy, does she find proof.
- Subverted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. When Sisko sets out to find proof that the Dominion is going to attack the Romulans, resident spy-in-exile Garak tells him the best way to find it will be to manufacture it themselves.
- Happens a lot in White Collar. The criminals are often known right away; the trick is gathering enough evidence to allow the FBI to do anything about it.
- The X-Files. If Scully had a catch phrase, "We need scientific proof!" would be it.
- The unaired Wonder Woman (2011 pilot) features this in a plotline. The police can't do anything to Veronica Cale without proof. Wonder Woman goes about this by stabbing a guy in the neck and hospitalizing him, getting negative results, torturing him in a bed, and then getting this confession thrown out because police can't use information gained from coerced testimony. Surely, the world's greatest detective.
- Hunter: The Vigil's Network Zero has proof of nearly goddamn anything. The problem is getting people to take it seriously.
- Not helping is that the same high-tech world they're relying on to break the news has some strict limits. Posting footage of a werewolf mauling someone on YouTube breaks its content guidelines.
- In Baldur's Gate II you're required to find overwhelming evidence of the younger Roenall's wrongdoings, as all complaints about him have to go through...him. So you need something very convincing to convince his superior to break protocol and get rid of him.
- In Beyond Good & Evil, this is basically the entire plot: to prove the Alpha Sections are secretly associated with the Domz they're supposed to protect against.
- In the NES Dick Tracy game, as Dick is a by-the-book cop, you have to follow the trail and find a LOT of evidence before you can arrest any of the big villains, even though you can confront them directly at any time. Arresting them prematurely earns you a stern talking to from your boss. (Much to the chagrin of The Angry Video Game Nerd.)
- In Fallout, after saving the mayor of a little town from an assassination attempt, he asks you to gather evidence on the person (a local crime boss casino owner) he knows is behind it. You can either side with the crime boss, pretend to be an assassin available for work to make him do an Engineered Public Confession thanks to a tape recorder the mayor gave you, or just plain bugging his room.
- In the first Gabriel Knight game, Mosely demands that Gabriel prove that the murders were committed by an actual Voodoo cult and that said cult is a threat to the public before he'll help Gabriel fight it.
- Kingdom Hearts: In Wonderland, Sora and company must clear Alice's name regarding an assassination attempt at the Queen and find evidence against the Heartless.
- The early plot of Mass Effect revolves around the protagonist uncovering evidence to prove that the villain is actually the villain to the not-so-omniscient council of very visible politicians.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda: A quest late in the game has Ryder investigating whether someone high-up in the salarian Ark's leadership sold them out. As it turns out, when they thought they were gathering evidence they were actually erasing it. Whoops. Fortunately, they manage to catch one of the conspirators anyway.
- Your first mission in Phantasy Star II is to recover a recorder from the Bio Systems laboratory in order to find out why the lab started making monsters. This is but the first step in proving that the Mother Brain is not as benevolent as she appears to be...
- The first step in many of the Reincarnation (2008) games is to discover evidence proving that the Reincarny has relapsed back into sinful ways and therefore should be sent back to Hell; whether it'd be overhearing a man beat his wife over what she served him for dinner or discovering a drugged altar boy in a priest's bedroom.
- According to his introduction blurb, this is one of Kouji Tagawa's goals in investigating the mysteries of Shiokawa in World of Horror:
A picture is worth a thousand words. The government won't sweep this one under a rug.
- The Deputy Dawg cartoon "Diamonds In The Rough" has the deputy tasked with finding a diamond smuggler, but the sheriff tells him not to make an arrest without evidence. A haphazard golfer swings by, and Deputy Dawg deduces that the golfer is the smuggler and the diamonds are in the golf balls. After he accidentally swallows some golf balls, Deputy Dawg is at the doctor with the golfer, and the X-ray shows the diamond-laden golf balls in DD's stomach.
- In the series Dragons: Riders of Berk, a series continuation of the movie How to Train Your Dragon, The Hero Hiccup knows the old man named Mildew not only destroyed the village's supply of weapons to defend the village and framed the dragons, he even saw the framing objects in Mildew's hut. But after Mildew destroys the evidence, Stoick explains to his son that while he really does believe, he can't punish Mildew for treason without hard evidence.
- Gravity Falls: In the series premire "Tourist Trapped", Dipper worries that his sister Mabel is dating a zombie. Soos tells Dipper that unless he gets solid evidence, no one will believe his claims, leading to a montage of Dipper following "Norman" and Mabel on their dates. Dipper apparently gets his proof when he catches Norman's hand falling off and reattaching, goes to warn Mabel... And then it turns out that Norman is in fact a bunch of gnomes stacked up.
- Zim of Invader Zim is a Devil in Plain Sight whose Paper-Thin Disguise shouldn't need any proof to expose, but the earth is largely populated by idiots so Dib is continually after "proof" (generally, a shot of Zim not in disguise) — he's managed to get it on more than one occasion, but since Failure Is the Only Option, he always loses it even if he otherwise thwarts Zim's latest Zany-but-Evil Scheme.
- A common occurrence for Candace in Phineas and Ferb, despite the guys not being evil (at least not to us). Their inventions are always in plain sight, but their sister goes through great ordeals to actually get their mom to see it, resulting in this trope several times by using cameras etc.
- In an episode of Stōked called "To Catch a Reef", Reef's accused of stealing various things from guests and staff from around the hotel after he starts having way more money than he usually does. Johnny's the only one to believe that Reef isn't the thief (mostly because he feels that Reef isn't smart enough to pull off something like this). After looking through some hotel security footage, Johnny and Reef discover that the thief is apparently just a seagull—later, while trying to catch the bird, Reef questions Johnny on why they can't just tell the others about it, and Johnny explains that they need to get more definitive proof since they all the evidence they have is circumstantial at best. In the end, Reef's proven innocent and it turns out that all the extra money he had was the result of someone in the hotel's accounting department accidentally adding Wipeout's pay to Reef's—Bummer (Reef, Johnny and Wipeout's boss) rectifies this by making Reef wear the Wipeout-costume for a week without pay to make up for all the money Reef got by mistake.