Trama Idiota

by wjw on January 13, 2015

So how often have you seen, or read, this?

Your stalwart detective protagonist is on the trail of the bad guys, who are maybe serial killers, or anyway are known to kidnap and torture people.  The bad guys then threaten not the detective, who is of course too stalwart to pay attention to such threats, but the detective’s spouse and/or children.  The detective pays no attention to the threat, because he’s stalwart I guess, and maybe doesn’t even warn his family about the threat because . . . because something, we don’t know what.

And then of course the bad guys kidnap the detective’s wife and/or children, so there can be a thrilling rescue scene when the detective charges to the rescue.

This is what is known as an “idiot plot,” because it only works when everyone in the story is an idiot.

I just finished reading a novel with this plot, and it made me crazy.  The craziness was exacerbated by the fact that the novel was otherwise very, very good, with well-drawn characters, taut writing, and a vivid sense of place and time.  And I know the author isn’t an idiot, because I’ve read other books by the same person, and they were pretty good.

But the idiocy just took me right out, and here I was shouting at the characters in the book.  “You deserve to die!” I’d shout.  “You’re a complete moron!”  And, “Two and two make four.  Ya dipshit!

(If you’re an author, you probably don’t want someone shouting at your book that way.)

So the stoic detective learns that his wife and daughter have been threatened by a homicidal sociopath who seems to have a kink for torturing and murdering women.  Now any real husband or father would either get his wife and kid out of town, or put guard on them, or both.  But no, our guy does nothing, at least for several days, and then he mentions the threat to his wife and suggests that maybe she and the daughter should leave.

“We’re not going anywhere!” the wife proclaims, because responding rationally to threats means Osama wins, or something, and the detective just sort of shrugs and gets on with his life, which is all the more unbelievable because the character has already lost a family member to a killer.  He doesn’t even warn his own daughter.  Now here’s what I would have said:

“Okay, you can stay.  But when you’re down in the cellar tied into the fetal position with barbed wire, and you’re watching our daughter being raped by a guy who’s cutting her nipples off with garden shears, I want you to just keep repeating that.  ‘We’re not going anywhere.  We’re not going anywhere.’  Because by then it will be true.”

Okay, so maybe most parents wouldn’t be that graphic.  But if my spouse continued to be stubborn, I would have sapped her behind the ear with a blackjack, stuffed her in a trunk, and paid some bush pilot to fly her to the middle of the Everglades for a week, along with my daughter.  Better to eat gator than to sleep with the fishes, I always say.

And then the big action finale was so confusing that I still can’t quite work not not what happened, but why it happened the way it did.

I dunno, maybe the writer was up against a deadline and couldn’t think of anything smart for his character to do.  But it’s sad when someone with a lot of talent lets you so completely down.

Which is why I work really hard on my endings, trying to make sure that they are exciting and surprising and true to the characters and action-packed (assuming action is appropriate, which it sometimes isn’t).  I’m not the best judge of my work– well actually I am— but I’m willing to admit that my judgment might be flawed along with my finales, but I really do work on them, and I almost always know how the work is going to end before I start writing, so that I can build to it as I go along.

So jeez, lazy writers, work a little harder, will ya?  I never want to see this lazy, cliche ending ever again.  Capisci?

(And by the way, I had to look up “capisci” to make sure I had it in the informal second person, not “capisce,” the way lazy writers have it.  So, lazy writers, fix that too, while you’re at it.)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

TRX January 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm

My favorite TV/movie scene: the bad guy grabs the woman, pulls her in front of himself as a very inadequate shield, puts his gun to her head, and instructs the good guy to put down his gun. Which he almost invariably does, requiring some deus ex machina to save the situation.

My delightful wife will be sitting beside me chanting “shoot! shoot! shoot! She’s toast anyway, you loser!”

TRX January 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Oh, and if you need something to clean your brain after reading that book, snag a copy of Donald Hamilton’s “Death of A Citizen” from 1959. It’s about a modestly successful New Mexico writer whose three year old daughter is kidnapped. And thus a major KGB operation goes horribly wrong…

The book is short, well plotted, and tightly written. You’ll recognize the protagonist’s name; for a while, New York and Hollywood tried to make Hamilton America’s answer to Ian Fleming. Forget all that; it has as much to do with this book as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” has to do with Mary Shelley’s book.

Geoff January 14, 2015 at 3:35 am

The two that bug me are the guilty suspect who never asks for a lawyer (I suppose some small percentage of the population would want to try and bluff their way through an interrogation, but everyone?) and the police detective who never calls/waits for backup (in a world where police departments use flashbang grenades on grandmothers selling beer without a permit (, paragraph 18) are hotshot detectives really barging into the serial killer’s warehouse by themselves?)

TRX January 14, 2015 at 12:33 pm

A certain amount of handwaving is acceptable in fiction. For example, a crime site might be taped off for days before investigators get around to it, and any collected samples sent to the crime lab have to wait their turn, which might run from weeks to a month or more. And unless the FBI’s fingerprint database got a whole lot faster since I last looked, it might take two or three days before results come back.

A police procedural generally ignores that sort of thing. Someone punches at a keyboard and voila! In reality investigators deal with a dozen or more cases simultaneously, each of which moves forward in discrete increments. Unless it’s some high-profile case of political importance you’re not going to have much investigation other than deposing witnesses and questioning suspects, if any. New cases come in every day; old ones that aren’t moving get shuffled to the back of the queue with the rest of the unsolveds.

> barging into the serial killer’s warehouse by themselves?)

Of course! And instead of simply driving up to the door, they probably parked half a block away so we could get a drama shot of them running. Preferably in flappy coats, even in midsummer. Flappy coats are very dramatic, apparently.

Geoff January 14, 2015 at 2:25 pm

> And unless the FBI’s fingerprint database got a whole lot faster since I last looked, it might take two or three days before results come back.

This is very true. Q: How much time does it take in a crime show for DNA results to come back? A: However much time is needed for the rest of the plot to catch up to it.

Cal Godot January 15, 2015 at 5:53 pm

Yet a story where everyone is a rational actor is another form of “idiot plot.” Everyone is not a rational actor. There have been many women with reason to fear their abusive ex-husbands who now lie in a grave because they let him in one night “just to talk,” and far fewer who simply shot the bastard through the front door.

On the rare occasion that the family of a LEO is in danger, they rarely if ever stay put. If directly threatened they can even qualify for FBI protection. The private dick or regular joe won’t have access to such amenities, but I imagine they only stay put under threat if they have absolutely nowhere else to go, and no means of getting away. Even then, they would be well-armed, or at least vigilant. Not watching TV while the prowler creeps up to the window.

BIG thanks for getting “capisci” right. I once nearly punched a copyeditor for “correcting” it. Said copyeditor had previously “corrected” a David Banner reference to “David Brenner” and further encouraged my wrath by arguing about the Oxford comma.

wjw January 16, 2015 at 5:31 am

While not everyone in fiction has to be smart, it’s reasonable to ask for them to be competent in their own particular area of specialization. When a person competent in detection and violence has his family threatened by a psychopath, I find it incomprehensible that he would not react as someone whose family has been threatened by a psychopath.

I really can’t imagine a parent being indifferent to a credible threat to his child. At least not without something weird and unwholesome going on in the family.

As for the Oxford comma, there is no greater argument for its necessity than in TNH’s classic example, “Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Foxessa January 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

That’s one of the things I like about James Lee Burke and Dave Robichaux’s women — they don’t act that way, except on occasion, his daughter did. Once. Because she’d never yet been up against True EviLe. She learned. Fortunately Dave saved her.

OTOH, being Dave’s wife, no matter how smart and competent you are, means a short life span. How many times has a Dave wife gotten killed by the True EviLe?

Love, C.

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