I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.
These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.
Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.
Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.
Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.
Glinda the Good Witch Contrivance
My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.
Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.
This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.
Rube Goldberg Method of Plotting
Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.
Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.
Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and steal at least missile.
They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.
But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots
People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.
In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.
In 1947 film noir Out of the Past, Kirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.
The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.
Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman, who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.
What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”