Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

I’m reposting “Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations” from two years ago as I get ready for my cover reveal and pre-order promotion for “A Shadow on the Snow” on October 15. I can’t believe I wrote that! When I tell people I’m a writer and they ask what do I write, I can now say, “Novels.” Seems like it’s still a dream. Keep watching for more details as October 15. approaches!

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.


My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy 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.


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 use it to steal one 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 PastKirk 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.

For more advice on plot, click here. For a different view on plotting, check out this article “Puzzling Away at Plotting” from the site Seekerville.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

What’s the Plot Behind This Face?

The county fair wrapped up recently in my part of the Buckeye State, so when I scrolled onto this photo, I was intrigued. The young man is upset and thinking something over. What’s the plot behind this face?

The music blaring from the speakers on the midway grows faint as I watch them. Tyler is almost a coat for Addie. He’s hanging all over her. She seems to like it. I think.

She sets aside the BB gun, and smiling, moves away from the game, weaving through a group of middle school kids.

Tyler drapes his thick arm across her thin shoulders. Addie giggles.

But is it because she likes it or because she doesn’t? How can a guy tell?

They stroll behind the Ferris wheel.

“Andy.” My little sister tugs on my arm. “We want more money for tickets.”

“Here.” I pull every bill from my wallet. “When you and Mark are done, wait by the bumper cars for me.”

“Where are you going?” asks Mark.

I point at the Ferris wheel and head for it, breaking into a jog.

For more plot prompts to inspire your writing, click here. Over at Writer’s Digest, find 25 plot twists and prompts.

Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot

Author Anne Clare is back with a new novel, releasing Nov. 1, set during the WWII Italian campaign. So happy to have her guest blog, “Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot”. Take it away, Anne!

Thank you so much for inviting me to stop by, and for the opportunity to write on the theme of plot. It was good for me to take a step back and think about how I formulate mine! 

I write fiction set during World War II, and I find that my research tends to drive the formation of my stories. While a good plot is much more than a series of events, the true events from history often direct the paths my stories take. 

Perhaps the easiest way to describe this is to use my upcoming release’s plot as an example. 

I knew that I wanted to write a story set in WWII Italy. I also thought that I’d like to set it on or around the Allied beachhead on Anzio. For those of you unfamiliar with the Anzio campaign, in brief, the Allied advance up Italy had stalled, so Allied planners decided to send a force by sea up behind the German lines to land near the town of Anzio. The idea was that with the beach landings from behind and an assault from the main force in the south, the Allies would break through and march on to Rome. It didn’t work. The 70,000 or so troops and personnel who landed on Anzio were stuck on the beachhead from January until May, taking punishing German fire from the heights.

 I hadn’t really gotten beyond planning the setting when I came across an off-hand comment in one of my research sources. As the Germans and Allied lines were so close on the Anzio beachhead, it was not uncommon for soldiers on both sides to be taken prisoner, escape, and just walk back to their own lines. 

This caught my attention and imagination. What would this look like? Surely the escapes wouldn’t be quite as easy as these couple of sentences made them sound. 

Now I had a setting and the start of a plot—the story would deal with a POW escape. I’d most likely need to include a capture which might be a good place to put the story’s “hook.” Imprisonment and an escape with some obstacles would fit naturally during the “rising action.” I still had to decide how the climax of the story would look, and if the escape plans would be successful—but sharing more of that would include spoilers! 

Now, while my imagination took over, filling in the characters and details, I still needed to study the history to make sure that my fledgling plot would be plausible. (While my books are fictional, I try my utmost to make certain that the events could have happened.) A couple of other real events were major influences on my writing.

In mid-February, about a month into the Anzio campaign, the Germans launched a major offensive which cut deeply into the Allied beachhead and threatened to push them back into the sea. The offensive lasted for almost a week. It occurred to me that this would be a prime time for taking prisoners. And what if, with the offensive keeping the German man-power busy, some of the prisoners couldn’t be transported further back to POW camps immediately but were temporarily held closer to their lines. That could work…

Another piece of the plot fell into place. 

Characters also influence the plot, and history provides a wide and varied selection of fascinating characters. Some of the names associated with the Anzio area that might be familiar are Audie Murphy, (the most highly decorated American soldier of WWII) cartoonist Bill Mauldin, and the Tuskegee Airmen.  

Not all of the people serving on Anzio were involved in combat. Generally, the chain of evacuation for wounded soldiers was quite long with the field hospitals far behind the front line. On Anzio, the beachhead was so narrow that the front line was only about ten miles from the sea. Huddled together by the coast at Nettuno, just south of Anzio, the hospital area was well within German firing range. Unfortunately, although the hospital tents were marked with large red crosses in white circles and off-limits to attack according to the Geneva Convention, the area was hit often and badly to earn the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre.” Six nurses and many other medical staff and recovering patients lost their lives there. While their names might not be as familiar as some, their service and sacrifice must be remembered. 

While I do not include real people in my fiction except in off-hand references, learning about the real people who served and sacrificed in these areas helped direct my story and enrich my characters. 

For a final example of history influencing plot, one—somewhat lighter—story about the nurses’ experiences caught my eye as I was reading Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee and Evelyn M. Monohan’s fantastic book, And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II. (On a side note, I’d highly recommend this book to people interested in this era. The stories of the courage of the women who served in often appalling conditions are inspiring.)

The anecdote went something like this: When some of the first nurses landed on the beachhead, they were to be transported to their hospital area to set up. However, their driver must have gotten turned around and the further he went, the more anxious he became, especially as German shells began falling. Finally, he stopped the vehicle, told the nurses to get out, and drove away, promising that someone would come for them. 

The nurses took shelter in a small chicken house, and eventually saw men crawling toward them from two directions. Recognizing them as British and American soldiers, they approached. The soldiers were astonished to see the women and informed them, “We’re the front line, and you’re in front of us. That puts you in no-man’s land.” (Page 252.) 

Eventually, the nurses did make it to their hospital. I’m not sure what happened to the driver. And the incident solidified some ideas I’d already had for where my work of fiction might go. 

Writers, what real things influence your stories and their plots? Incidents from history? Things that happened in your own lives? 

Readers, do you enjoy reading stories with plots based in real events? Are there eras or places that you find particularly compelling? 

Again, many thanks to JPC Allen for hosting me today, and to you for stopping by! 

Thank you for explaining how you use mixing in history to thicken the plot. Best wishes with your latest release!

If you’d like to read Anne’s previous guest blogs, click here.


Wonderful cover!

When she had signed up, she’d thought she was ready. Ready for a combat zone. Ready to prove that she could be brave. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, stronger and longer lasting than any bout of seasickness, foreboded that maybe she had been wrong.


Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common.

They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.

They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.

And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.

Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.

Anne Clare is a native of Minnesota’s cornfields and dairy country. She graduated with a BS in Education in 2005 and set out to teach in the gorgeous green Pacific Northwest, where she and her husband still live. She also serves as a church musician, singing in and occasionally directing choirs, playing piano, organ, and coronet (the last only occasionally, when she forgets how bad she is at it.) After the birth of her second child, she became a stay-at-home mom, and after the birth of the third she became reconciled to the fact that her house would never be clean again, which allowed her to find time to pursue her passion for history and writing while the little people napped. Although she’s back to teaching part-time, she continues to write historical fiction and to blog about WWII history, writing, and other odds and ends at You can also follow her on her FB page.

What’s the Plot for This SciFi Scene?

What’s the plot for this scifi scene? There’s so much going on. Here’s my inspiration.

“No, no, no!” shouted Commander Zaeron. “We’ve entered the atmosphere, Cadet!” He shoved Cadet Plsae out of the pilot’s seat.

With the cadet screaming as the land rushed toward them on the main view screen, Commander Zaeron slapped at touch panels. The starboard side of the ship plowed into the field, showering the landscape with boulders and dirt, the metal skin grinding through layers of sediments. Zaeron flew out of the seat.

Then the ship went quiet, except for the gasping of Cadet Plsae.

Zaeron pulled himself up to the bank of touch panels, half of them black, the other half almost vibrating with warning alarms.

But the main screen still worked. A small figure, possibly female, stood in the field, looking directly at the ship.

Zaeron gulped, every story he’d ever heard or read about Earthlings colliding together in his mind.

For more prompts to inspire plots, click here.

Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly

Last week, I gave some examples from movies and books of what I considered plotting elegantly. This week, I list six tips for plotting elegantly–three for how to recognize when you’re not plotting elegantly and three for how to fix the problems.

Three Clues to When You Aren’t Plotting Elegantly

Too Much Explanation. If I find myself writing pages and pages, trying to explain a plot point, something is wrong. This is a particular pitfall for mystery writers. We have to explain the mystery at the end, but we should be as concise as possible. After sending the manuscript for A Shadow on the Snow to my publisher, I didn’t look at it for several weeks. When I went back to work on the edits I received, I was shocked at how chatty my characters were in the last chapter, over-explaining the solution to the mystery.

Your Guts Say No, But Your Brain Says Yes. When it comes to my writing, I go with my gut. If I reread something and my gut gets sick. I know something is wrong. When I reread the climax for Shadow, I cringed . Nothing technically wrong with it, except that I’d seen or read something like it about a thousand times before. And it felt mean. I could do better, write something original that flowed elegantly from the traits of the characters.

No One Will Notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a section, toward the end of an editing session, and thought, “This isn’t great, but no one will notice.” I’m tired of editing, my creativity is ebbing, and so I want to skip the mediocre section. It’s much better to flag it, let it sit awhile, and come back to it when I’m fresh.

Three Tips to Help You Plot Elegantly

Let Your Characters Act Naturally. If you know your characters like you know your relatives, they can help you when the plotting turns clunky. Often when my plot limps along, I realize I’m forcing my characters to act contrary to the way I’ve designed them. If I’m forcing an introverted character to act extroverted, and haven’t given any reason for this change in behavior, I’m in trouble. If a certain behavior is essential to the plot, I need to find the character most suitable for it.

Examine Your Setting. In a previous post, I write about how to “Maximize a Setting”. Are you taking advantage of everything a particular setting has to offer? My main character Rae Riley works as a check-out clerk in a library. One advantage of this setting is that it’s public, so I can have just about any character walk through the doors. It’s also a place where Rae learns to conduct research because she interacts with librarians. This fact gives my nineteen-year-old MC a plausible reason for knowing what a microfim machine is and how to use it to look up old newspaper article.

What Would the Reader Like? Until I tackled Shadow, I didn’t understand how critical keeping future readers in mind is. In the middle of my novel, Rae has a personal breakthrough. I got all warm and fuzzy writing it. After polishing it, I realized I couldn’t let all these cuddly emotions continue. Readers might overdose on the sweetness or grow bored. I had to let something bad happen. Even mean. I forced myself to give my main character a major setback. That setback led to more clues and hugely helped the plotting of the mystery.

Writers, what do you do when your plot starts to sputter and clank? Readers, what’s one of your favorite plot?

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