What’s an Idiot Plot?

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I was trying to find what would be the opposite of ‘Plot Armor’ when I came across this term.  It is:

Idiot Plot–  The story is only able to continue because everyone involved is an idiot.  This means that they either cannot recognize the easy solution or are unable to gain the knowledge needed to get to that conclusion.

Pretty sure all of us can think of a movie, show, or book where we thought the characters were idiots for not seeing the clear answer.  This happens a lot in horror movies, but fantasy and science fiction get it too.  These genres are filled with characters who aren’t that bright or their IQ drops at the worst possible moment.  I think that second option irks me the most because it’s so blunt.  At least with people who are idiots from the beginning, you expect them to screw up.

Funny thing is how realistic the ‘Idiot Plot’ is, but we still get annoyed.  It’s frustrating to see an answer that the characters don’t notice, which causes the story to keep going.  Yet, we run into situations where people make decisions that we see as clear mistakes.  Then, disaster occurs and we’re left steaming over feeling like the only ones in the room who know what they’re doing.  In this way, I think the ‘Idiot Plot’ is more believable than ‘Plot Armor’.

Even with the realism, authors can get crucified for using this concept, especially since we don’t always realize it’s there.  In our minds, we see a perfectly good reason for the characters to make certain decisions.  Maybe we couldn’t find a way for them to get all of the information that they need or it’s simply in their personality.  Either way, the ‘Idiot Plot’ is camouflaged until a reader gets into the story.  They add their own experiences, knowledge, and personality to the scenarios, which shows them the obvious answer that the characters miss.  Gets hard for some readers to continue following heroes who seem to be their own worst enemies.

My methods for injecting the ‘Idiot Plot’ into a story have been simple, but they still kind of backfire:

  1. I make it so that the character’s personality drives him or her to making a bad decision that keeps the story going.  Luke Callindor is a great example.  He’s impulsive and reckless, so he’s prone to creating messes or deviating a story.  He utilizes the ‘Idiot Plot’ to keep going because that’s his nature.  Readers still complain about him not seeing the obvious.
  2. I create situations where the characters don’t have time to think.  People make mistakes when rushed, especially with delicate problems.  If it’s clear that they can’t step back and think then a reader can see that they will jump to an idea that isn’t the real solution.  Again, some readers will ignore the time constraint and complain about the blunder.

It’s a fairly simple concept, which might be why it can come under fire.  Have a character make a mistake and watch the story continue.  Heck, the biggest one that I just thought of is the infamous ‘why doesn’t the villain just shoot the hero?’.  I genuinely wonder if people who ask this realize that this would end the story so quickly that it isn’t worth paying attention to.  Unless it leads into a revenge tale, but that needs to be established earlier too or saved for a sequel that will be met with a similar question.  Really is an endless cycle that requires stupidity in there to make it interesting.  Think that’s why I really like this term and using the technique at times.

Have you ever used the ‘Idiot Plot’?  What do you think of it?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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13 Responses to What’s an Idiot Plot?

  1. Another great post. These things always make me think. One point to consider might be desires. The hero might make a dumb decision if something they desire could be the result. Grandma’s missing locket could be in that creepy basement. That kind of thing.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    I agree about this being a great post! I sometimes find the idiot plot very frustrating, especially when a character jumps to a conclusion that a five-minute conversation would have solved or if the decision goes against the way the character is just for the sake of the plot. But many times, I haven’t minded the character making a dumb decision, because I have made some dumb ones and can relate. Your methods for using this plot sound very plausible.

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    • I agree that a character changing personalities just to make the bad decision is the wrong way to go. That’s very contrived. Funny thing about the conversation one is that I’ve seen such mistakes happen in real life. People rush and forget to talk things out or think beyond the immediate issue. It’s only afterwards that one sees that they should have talked. Always in retrospect.

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  3. I generally don’t like idiot plots. I feel a little cheated when I come across one that comes out of nowhere. I have read some stuff where the idiot plot was well set up and the idiots well known as such in advance. This was okay with me. I have not used idiot plots before.

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    • The thing is that an idiot plot isn’t always done by an established idiot. It’s simply when a character makes a bad decision, which can keep the story going. Once I realized that this doesn’t really mean that the character in question is stupid, I noticed how realistic it is. So many events have been caused by a person making a bad decision. At times, I wonder if idiot plots are what built civilization.

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  4. I prefer to have the characters try that obvious solution, but have it be stymied somehow. They’re supposed to try and fail and things get worse, right? Or if the villain’s identity is too obvious, it pushes me to make the conflict more complicated so there are accomplices or someone else pulling strings that is not so obvious.

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  5. My personal pet peeve is when there’s an idiot plot but the author doesn’t seem to realize that it’s an idiot plot. Like, say, when a character does something stupid and it pays off, and gets it to doing the stupid thing, rather than to dumb luck. So, for example, there often a good reason for detectives to “go by the book.” It means that they don’t skip steps, are covered if they make a mistake, and don’t let their personal prejudices get in the way. When people follow their gut instincts and ignore reason and common sense, it usually ends badly. Like, for example, the blackmailer tells you not to tell anyone and come alone. Following their instructions would be a dumb thing to do, but in books and TV shows people keep doing it anyway — and it always works out for them. I can see from the standpoint of story telling, there’s more tension if the protagonist jumps in without looking or planning ahead or being sensible. If they let the police handle things, then there’s no book!

    But that doesn’t mean that their stupidity has to pay off. You can have them deal with consequences for doing the stupid thing, learn from it, and not do the stupid thing next time. I get frustrated with protagonist who do dumb stuff, but it works out, and they keep doing dumb stuff. Unless they’re meant to be dumb and its played for humor value.

    When I review books, and the protagonist does something stupid, or mean, and it works out, and the author is writing it straight — as if they approve or the stupid or mean thing — then I stop reading.

    There are exceptions. For example, if the main character — or the other characters around them — are aware that the protagonist is doing dumb things and it’s causing them problems — then that undoes some of the damage. For example, if the main character is struggling with a drinking problem or a gambling addition. Or if they don’t have the level of skill or ability that they need to accomplish something, but keep trying anyway.

    Another exception is if the story is meant to be over the top. For example, in the James Bond books and movies, stupidity and dumb luck is the main plot engine for every single character. But the stories are so over-the-top that it comes across as cartoonish. The author isn’t actually suggesting that it’s a good idea to risk your life on a roll of the dice, or jump from one airplane to another, or whatever.

    So I guess those would be my three main exceptions — humor, over-the-top, and self-awareness.

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    • That’s the big issue with the kidnapper scenario. In reality, it’s a situation where there shouldn’t be much action, but that makes it terrible for stories. If the characters don’t tell the cops and just do what they’re told then it could go nowhere. The alternative is that the hostage (and maybe the person who went alone) is killed anyway and then the cops turn up. People will look at going along with the demands as an ‘idiot plot’ because it resulted in the worst case scenario. Actually, I just researched the question about listening to kidnappers to see what people do and found a legal expert site. It’s rare that kidnappers will make that request outside of political situations. Not bringing police in is the real idiot plot because it’s rare for situations to end on a good note without them.

      I think idiot plots are designed to cause trouble because they keep the story going. They can’t be the way to end something unless it’s been set up that dumb luck is the only way the heroes can win. I’m okay with dumb luck coming from a wild guess saving the day if it fits the character since I’ve seen that in real-world action. This is probably where I deviate from most. I know so many people who rolled the dice and came out on top solely on courage and luck instead of brains and skill. So, I do this with a few of my characters. For example, one of the main heroes of my first series is a skilled warrior who depends a lot on luck. He takes risks all the time, which does get him hurt, but it helps him succeed. This is because the other characters expect everyone to act with common sense and logic, but he’s impulsive. This can help in an action story since unpredictability can throw plans off for both villains and heroes. Probably falls into a James Bond thing though.

      That third paragraph has me thinking. I’m about to start writing a book with a protagonist whose entire strategy is doing stupid stuff, but he isn’t aware that he’s doing stupid things. Due to how his mind works, he follows really odd paths of logic to solve problems. Your average person will see him as an idiot and think he depends entirely on luck. For example, a situation I had with him involved a door with a lightning trap. He had a glove of lightning that he took off a destruction god priest. In his mind, a god would never give his followers something that would hurt them, so he thought the glove would let him grab the doorknob. The door exploded and he barely survived getting shot down the hallway. He got the door open and survived entirely on dumb luck (and rolls), so he achieved what he wanted. This is how I want him to operate because it’s so different from the smart and wise heroes I’ve been writing. Yet, it feels like people might hate him because he’s not that bright.

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