The idiot plot: When the character has to be an idiot for the plot to work.
This is not a real example. It’s something I made up, but it’s based on an example in an actual book I just read: The character’s driving along. His check engine light’s been on for awhile, but he ignores it, because haven’t we all done that at some point? Sure enough, the car breaks down — in the creepy abandoned town where a hundred people died in a suspicious mining accident twenty years ago. Or something. Pretty scary, right? The character is now stranded, and things look bad.
Now what if I told you the character’s an auto mechanic?
If you’re like me, you yell at the book, “You stupid idiot, you should have known better! You can fix this! Why do you keep doing stupid things that a real auto mechanic would never do?!”
I was thrown completely out of the story, because I could no longer trust the character, who had failed utterly in something he really should know better about.
This is the same reason I despised the movie Sunshine. The plot cascade happened because one of the astronauts “just forgot” to adjust the heat shield when the ship changed course. I sat there in the theater biting my tongue so I wouldn’t yell, “You idiot! This is why NASA has thousand-point checklists, so nobody ‘just forgets’ something that can kill you all!” Then everyone got all emo and started fighting and crap, and nothing they did after that could convince me that they were real astronauts. I couldn’t believe anything that happened in the entire story.
So you’ve got this plot, in which your character needs to get stuck in this scary abandoned town. And you also need your character to be an auto mechanic for some other plot reason. How to make it work? Find another reason than the car breaking down for the character to get stuck. Or make the car break down in a way that an expert can’t figure out, and make that part of the plot. The highly competent character’s specialized knowledge doesn’t help — now that’s scary.
Some warning signs of an idiot plot:
- If you find yourself thinking, “Oh, surely a reader won’t notice that.” Because readers will notice.
- You find yourself writing long, convoluted explanations as to why your character has done something illogical and out of character, trying to justify it. This kind of padding doesn’t really work.
- The characters have to be ignorant of something basic that the readers know — or that any human being living in their society would know — for the plot to work.
- The readers figure things out long before the characters do. Or the characters ignore basic clues in order so that the story can trundle on along longer than it probably needs to.
If you read over your work and find any of these things happening, you may need to rethink the plot, or the character, so the two match up better.