Avoiding the Idiot Plot: in which characters behave like idiots. Logic and good sense go AWOL. Along with the reader’s patience.
Typically, Idiot Plots derive from non-communication and mis-communication amongst the characters. Often, in the Idiot Plot, one sentence could wrap up the entire thing before the end of Act One.
An idiot plot is one which is “kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot.”
The term is attributed by science fiction writer and critic Damon Knight (In Search of Wonder, 1956), to fellow author James Blish. Extended by film critic Roger Ebert, “the idiot plot is any narrative that works only because everyone in it is an idiot.”
Normally rational, sane and intellectually capable characters with critical faculties, valuable skills and life experience, suddenly throw out or willfully ignore it all, remaining in jeopardy for as long as it takes to reach a required plot point.
Oscar Wilde indulges in the Idiot plot where misunderstandings are entirely based on device of characters who refuse to communicate like sensible adults. For example; Lady Windemere’s Fan. Witty and touching, Wilde exploits and glosses over the very artifice of it, as most comedies and satires do. Shakespeare’s early career makes a virtue of it; Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors.
Others not so much.
Characteristics of the Idiot Plot
Idiot plots include
- mistaken identity which could be cleared up by a simple question (‘who exactly are you?’)
- mistaken love triangles (similarly ‘are you in love with X?’)
- unexpected betrayals, when the clues to the traitor were in plain sight all along
- unsolvable puzzles/escapes requiring outside intervention for no good reason other than a cliff-hanger, plot point or turning point
- unexpectedly falling into traps that a ‘fit and reasonable person’ wouldn’t go near
- a failure of one character to pass on vital information to another
- negligently, incompetently or willfully ignoring “the bleedin’ obvious” (Monty Python). Actually noticing something amiss would shorten the plot by several hundred pages
You Shall Not Pass
Plots in which the characters are genuinely idiots from the get-go (Dr Strangelove, Being There) get a free pass. Idiot Plots have intelligent, rational and skilled characters deliberately drop their IQ to single digits while the reader throws up their hands in disbelief. Especially if the reader spots the question/clue/tool or calls the villain several chapters ahead of the protagonist, based on the same information the characters have.
Idiot Plots frequently have the protagonist abandon all agency, free will and decision-making until the climactic show-down when they pull a Deus Ex Machina out of the hat. Often the very solution the reader has been shouting at the book since chapter two.
Idiot plots in which characters stumble from one crisis to another are acceptable when the protagonist happens to be an inexperienced child. Or perhaps a fish-out-of-water, uncertain how to behave in an unfamiliar environment. Early Potter and Winx: The Fate Saga spring to mind. Later in those series, when the ground rules are established and the protagonists have saved the day multiple times already, ongoing idiocy becomes a problem.
When the reader is constantly asks “what were they thinking?” or “why didn’t they just…” then it’s probably an idiot plot. When a character asks “what could possibly go wrong?” and nobody produces and expansive list, it’s probably an Idiot Plot.
Not an Idiot Plot
A true Idiot Plot isn’t a matter of a single stupid mistake or decision on the part of one or two main characters. An Idiot Plot depends on a whole string of stupid decisions, bad judgments, or serial mistakes by main characters. Characters mostly presented as intelligent and competent.
The well-planned heist that goes awry, demanding edge-of-the-seat improvisation by skilled professionals, fulfills the plot promises of the heist genre. Failure to account for basic threats such as security cameras, guard dogs, bad disguises or the ability of the genius-level antagonist to anticipate intruders, points to an Idiot Plot.
Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) relies on two character flaws: Darcy’s pride and Lizzie’s prejudice. Wickham is a plausible con-man while Darcy protects his friend Bingley from the ‘gold-digging’ Bennett girls and their mother. Thanks, Ma Bennett. Both protagonists act entirely in character according to their principles. They act in their best efforts to avert disasters, not rush headlong into them.
Engineering Excellence – or Not
Idiot Plots are (badly) engineered at the expense of character. How many chillingly thorough detectives suddenly throw an emotional fit, confronting the antagonist against all experience, procedure and advice? When all they have to do is follow the leads and keep up surveillance a few more days? Why? Because the Idiot Plot takes charge over character;
- artificially raising the tension and/or stakes
- speeding up the timeline to get to the climax faster
- relieving the author of the need to plan, outline or rationalise the half-baked plot they can’t be bothered to write in full.
Damon Knight went on to define the Second-order Idiot Plot. This is a narrative “in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn’t happen”. In other words, the society itself only exists as presented because everyone in it is an idiot.
Divergent assumes everyone in new Chicago believes in a faction system defined by some pseudo-scientific, blood-magic mumbo-jumbo. Whereas Harry Potter had an actual Sorting Hat. Totalitarian states such as 1984 and The Hunger Games don’t count, as everyone is genuinely too terrified to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.
Avoiding the Idiot Plot
So what is the solution?
- Outline your plot. Yes, really. The Idiot Moments will jump out at you.
- Ask the difficult ‘what-if’ questions to come up with alternative scenarios. “Because I need it for the plot” is not sufficient justification for idiocy.
- Cross-examine your characters’ behaviours and ask if they are really so stupid as to walk through yet another plate-glass window? Do their decisions reflect their knowledge, skills and life experience? It’s a common complaint in Fantasy.
- Keep in mind Romance and Crime genres do not require that every character is a complete Doofus in service of poor plotting.
- Get Beta readers to challenge your plotting; they are likely to see the gaping holes, character breaks and artificial bear-traps that you miss.