Idiot plots and unlikely twists

“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’.

Photo: Yaroslav Кorshikov on Unsplash

12 thoughts on “Idiot plots and unlikely twists

  1. Nice to have a name for those sorts of plots. You’re right–there are a lot more than there used to be.

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    1. I guess there are simply a lot more books and a big jostling for ‘twists’…

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  2. I agree idiot plotlines probably only ever work within the pages of Rom-coms and ‘tongue in cheek’ horror genres.

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    1. I have a certain fondness for the tongue-in-cheek horror, sci-fi too. Nothing like the old tropes! For me, ‘Galaxy Quest’ was just perfection in nailing the cliches.

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  3. I’m not sure that Flowers in the Attic fits the bill of ‘Idiot Plot’ because it was written in 1979. Even if there were social services in big cities, they weren’t in the rural areas (or not many). Even in modern times, people are being found who are locked up, confined or treated inhumanely – right under the noses of neighbours.
    During my time as a foster carer, the toughest issue I found was in taking what was normal to the kid previously and trying to find a way for them to normalise into real community. It’s not easy. Once kids have an idea of what normal is to them, that’s often too hard and too late to change it.
    People who appear normal on the outside can be far from it. And a lot of these abusers know how to fool ‘the system’ even if someone does have the guts to call the authorities (and information about where and how to get help was harder then than it is now).

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    1. Fair point. In the first book of the series, the children had their trust and love abused and were ‘boiling frogs’ when it came to the situaiton they were in. And I think it was set in the ’60s (?) when children were, broadly speaking, perhaps less likely to be believed. For me it was more in the later books in the series, such as the household that took the kids in and the behaviour of other adults on ‘the outside’ that became a bizarre.

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  4. James Blish now? 🙂 A classic SF writer. Died too young. I still found a book of his on my shelves. Moved it to the immediate re-reading night table… 🙂
    I didn’t know about the “idiot plot” concept. Seems to apply perfectly to today’s world politics… 🙂
    Cheers Libre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I confess to not having read Blish, not being much of sci-fi fan. I am up for some intelligent sci-fi, though, e.g. of the Ursula le Guin variety, so I’ll look him up. Believe he also coined the term ‘gas giant ‘?

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      1. I didn’t know that Blish had coined the term. 🙂
        Intelligent Sci-Fi? You must read Frank Herbert’s Dune… An absolute must.

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  5. Never heard this expression “idiot plot”…about that crime book – this is what job doing with our family life lol

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  6. Loved your explanations of Idiot Plot – bever heard that before, so it was a refreshing read

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  7. So “idiot plots” is a thing, huh?
    I can be known to get upset when movies/books have an idiot plot. However, sometimes, I am able to overlook it. I’m not yet sure when that happens… Maybe I just invested in the story.

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