Writing smell: the idiot plot

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Idiot plotting is one of the main smells of a story that makes me stop watching certain TV shows, and reading certain books. Not just because it makes the plot bad, but an idiot plot also ruins the characters. Let me explain why and how.

What is an idiot plot?

An idiot plot is a plot hinging on a character (or multiple characters) doing something out-of-character to steer a plot somewhere the writer wants it to go. A character who has been evil throughout a story suddenly decides to have a change of heart. Or the protagonist executes a very complicated plan to get a message to somebody while she has a mobile phone in her pocket.

The cause, I believe, is that the writer doesn’t set up character decisions properly. Writers usually work backward from an ending and build the story to get there – at least I and a lot of others do. This make it easy to fall into the trap of having a character make a certain choice to get to that ending, even if it doesn’t make sense for that character at that point.

Idiot plotting falls into two categories: the character acts against their nature (as defined by the rest of the story), or the character does something difficult to overcome a problem when there is an obvious solution that they don’t see.

In short, the writer is making the character into an idiot in order steer the plot. For me that ruins both the plot and the character.

Some examples

There will be spoilers for Star Wars episode 3 and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in here, so be warned.

The Star Wars prequels are rife with examples. The movies were written with a very specific end point: the situation at the start of episode 4. That has resulted in some very weird character decisions.

In the third movie, the Emperor reveals himself as a Sith. The Jedi Knights Yoda and Obi Wan are in a position to attack him, but, for they decide to split up. Yoda gets defeated – well, sort of, he doesn’t look that hurt when he flees – and he and Obi Wan meet up and decide to throw in the towel. Idiots! There is no reason for this, except it is the way it has to happen for episode 4 to occur.

Anakin Skywalker is just as bad. During episode 3, he turns to the dark side because he had a vision of his wife dying and the emperor says together they can prevent that because the emperor has the secret to immortality through the Force. About five seconds after Anakin becomes Darth Vader, it turns out the emperor can’t deliver. Strangely, Anakin decides that he might as well stick to the dark side and proceeds to kill a bunch of children and then tries to kill the wife he has turned to the dark side for. Idiot!

As a third example, look at Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this book, Harry is stuck at Hogwarts with a very mean new head-mistress called Umbridge. He needs to get in touch with his godfather, Sirius Black. To do this, he hatches a complicated scheme that requires him to enter Umbridge’s office. So far, so good. What is stupid about this, is that Harry has a mirror in his possession that can directly contact Sirius. A magical mobile phone of sorts. It was a birthday present from his favourite relative, which he immediately tossed aside and forgot about, even when it was exactly what he needed and he should know it. Idiot!

If you want more Star Wars Episode 3 examples, have a look at The Other Revenge of the Sith, where I’ve satirized the movie in part by highlighting just how idiotic the characters are acting. And yes, that was a shameless plug.

How to fix it

There are two ways to fix the problem: change the set-up, or change the events.

If Harry had received any other present for his birthday, it would have worked better. Something to help him study, for instance, would have been much more logical for him to toss aside as well. Then the rest of the plot would work just as well as before. A small change in the set up is all that’s required.

In Star Wars Episode 3, the same could be done. Half of the movie already sets up a different reason for him to betray the Jedi: he feels left out and wants to take short-cuts to power. The Emperor could have seduced him with the power alone, slowly dragging him into the darkness. By setting it up that way, the whole wife-dying-vision crap could have been left out.

Another option is changing the offending events. The fight between Yoda and the Emperor? The Emperor has outlawed the Jedi and is crowning himself sole ruler of the universe. It would have made a lot of sense for him to lock down the planet. If Obi Wan and Yoda had not even been able to reach the Coruscant surface any more, except to fight through an army, well. Jedi are powerful, but they have limits. Limits the Emperor well knew. There was no reason to have events the way they were, except to add a meaningless action sequence that actually weakened the story.

Conclusion

Now you know how to recognize an idiot plot, if you didn’t already.

I can guarantee the knowledge will ruin movies, books, and television shows for you It does for me.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands