“A plot which works because all the characters involved are idiots.” A definition of the so-called ‘idiot plot’, a term attributed to the science and fantasy fiction writer James Blish (May 1921 –1975). The main characters may not, in actual fact be idiots as such, but they do behave stupidly or irrationally, whether throughout the story or temporarily at some crucial point. Or, in other words, they behave in ways that suit the author’s convenience for furthering the plot rather than in rationally.
The late movie critic Roger Ebert applied the term to film, noting: “The Idiot Plot, of course, is any plot that would be resolved in five minutes if everyone in the story were not an idiot.” So if you’ve ever wanted to yell out whilst reading or viewing: ‘Why doesn’t someone just phone the police!?’ or ‘Just look inside the trunk!’ you may have encountered an idiot plot.
There may be a time and a place for the idiot plot, in certain genres, for example. In a horror, perhaps, when one of the hapless youngsters goes swimming in the forest at midnight with a serial killer on the loose (apart from this creating an excuse for a young woman to undress in front of a lingering camera), or when everyone goes creeping down to the cellar during a power cut ‘to investigate’. Or in romance, because love can make us stupid and do idiotic things, like failing simply to sit down and talk to one another.
Then there are books that are written with such outrageous panache that we have gone beyond rationality. As an adolescent, for instance, I read breathlessly—and a little uncomfortably, even back then—through the V.C. Andrews Dollanganger / Flowers in the Attic series. It was a world where either law enforcement, social services, or any sort of regulatory body whatsoever conveniently did not exist, or one where everyone was so senseless that the idea of such community intervention did not occur to them. Yet the plots were so thrillingly preposterous, going places a daytime soap opera would not dare, that they were way beyond the introduction of such levelheadedness.
For all that though, I feel I have encountered too many idiot plots recently. This may be the fault of the fashion for ‘twisty’ psychological thrillers and suspense. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good stuff—many with great hooks, compelling characters, persuasive misdirection, unexpected pay-offs… However, there seem to be too many that depend on the cast or the hitherto sane and plausible main character being deserted by every single brain cell.
Like the book featuring the shrewd and clever criminal psychologist, which I wanted to throw across the room the other day. Following many examples of this good woman’s observation skills and rational judgement, the reader was invited to accept she had entirely failed to notice being married to a sociopath for over ten years. Or maybe the book was, after all, meant to be a romance, and we were to bear in mind that, as Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous quote had it, ‘love is blind’.