Plot Rant

by wjw on January 13, 2022

I just finished listening to an audio book, a mystery/thriller thingie with an interesting, somewhat science-fictiony premise. The writing was on the high end of competent, and the characters held my interest, and the novel’s milieu was interesting and fresh, at least to me.

What finally broke my patience was the author’s method of building suspense, which was to have one of his characters do something bone-stupid in order to get into jeopardy.

We see this on TV all the time, where police routinely charge into villain-rich environments without calling for backup, or people poke sleeping monsters with sticks, or go into a dark cave in search of treasure and/or a kidnap victim. It makes me crazy when I see it on television, too.

As I’ve pointed out here, fictional characters are allowed to plausibly misunderstand the situation, or do the wrong thing out of stubbornness or loyalty or on account of some (plausibly foreshadowed) character flaw, but having the protagonist repeatedly violate established character, or routine procedure in the character’s profession, is something guaranteed to throw me out of the story.

One of the book’s protagonists was an academic, so it’s not surprising that she might panic or otherwise behave irrationally when involved in a deadly situation for which she was not prepared. But two others were law enforcement professionals, both of whom chose to ignore warnings that they were going to be stalked and killed. And then they (and the academic) chose to enter a spooky old house, complete with serial killer, without either calling for backup or even telling anyone where they were. And then they made even more bad decisions once they got inside the spooky old house.

Meanwhile I was muttering to myself, “You all have cell phones. Why aren’t you calling for help? Call for help! Call for help!” I muttered this for several chapters before I decided to regard the book as inept slapstick rather than a suspense novel.

(Jack Reacher gets into these situations all the time, but then he’s a drifter who doesn’t own a cellphone, or a gun, or a computer, or have law enforcement powers. That somehow makes it more plausible.)

I’m bored and frustrated by this sort of lazy plotting. I’m not demanding that protagonists be flawless superheroes, but they should at least do something intelligent once in a while. If you need suspense, have your protagonists do something smart, but have the bad guy do something smarter. Or the bad guy gets lucky. Or the bad guy reroutes his sinister plan around the obstacle and carries on.

See? Your book is probably better already.

Jane Lindskold January 14, 2022 at 10:32 am

I am with you all the way on this… There’s a very popular series that I couldn’t get into because of the enormous number of stupid things the main character did in the first chapter. I’ve mentioned these to fans of the series, and they just look at me like “so”?

On-going refrain here when I’m frustrated w/the stupids in a book is: My gamers would never do that! (Since you’ve been one of my gamers, you can take your share of the praise.)

TeacherinTejas January 16, 2022 at 5:14 pm

I have had a particular version of this in mind for years, which I call the BDIK (Brain-dead Idiot Kid) where they have a child character do something so monumentally stupid, just to advance a plot point. As a rule I HATE kids in adult stuff, they are either too mature or too infantile. This has shown up in the tv shows “The Strain” and “The Walking Dead.!” The “Lost in Space” reboot had me until they pulled it at the end of the first season, where the Will character turned into the BDIK, and it was even more egregious that the action went against the competence he had shown up to that point.

Mark Robbins January 16, 2022 at 5:21 pm

I don’t do that. I’m still on the New York Times Best non-seller list!

Victor Erimita January 16, 2022 at 5:22 pm

I agree. This sort of thing is only one not h better than having a cat knock over a bunch of tin cans to startle a movie audience.

It happens too often in thrillers featuring supposedly impeccable assassins/killers/operatives. Guy flawlessly takes out several deadly opponents but fails to notice someone who somehow appears behind him and knocks him out…but of course doesn’t just kill him. I recently read a series featuring yet another former special forces quasi super hero to whom this happened in virtually every book. “And then a brick wall hit me and everything went black. Since the plots in each book were set only a couple weeks or months apart, this character was getting a major concussion mabe 6 times a year?

Lazy plot device.

AKM January 16, 2022 at 5:28 pm

On the other hand gamers do have their own special brand of stupid sometimes.

David P. January 16, 2022 at 5:28 pm

In his book on the making of Star Trek, David Gerrold made the observation that if the landing party was going to get in trouble the script had to include a reason why Captain Kirk couldn’t simply whip out his communicator and shout, “Scotty, save my ass!”. He had to have lost it, or have had it taken away, or maybe the problem was one that couldn’t be solved by calling for help; but that was something the scriptwriter had to factor in. Same thing is true for cellphones.
“Being too dense to remember how to use your iPhone” sounds like a copout.

Ross January 16, 2022 at 5:58 pm

Possible spoiler alert about Big Sky TV series.

I am watching Big Sky currently. It is enjoyable enough popcorn. I specially like that they have a trans character who happens to be transgender, but they have not made a big deal of it so far. She is just a good person.

But, the main and support characters continue to do dumb and/or illegal things. Spoiler alert. The US Marshal goes into a house where he suspects foul play might have occurred. He did not call for backup, secure the area, out particularly bother hurry as he searches the basement.

Meanwhile, the killer leaves the house taking the body with him and leaves a message on the agent’s car. That is just one example.

Another spoiler: the last episode I watched had one of the main characters trespass into am area they wanted to show had illegal activities being committed. They take their time and of course the bad guys eventually show up. Two of the characters take off running. One runs down the middle of the road instead of through the wooded area. The village who lives in the ranch where she was chasing her is pursuing her in his truck. She finally stops, on the road, turns around, and shoots him. A wound from which he eventually dies. As a viewer, I know that he was likely trying to run her down. If I was a LEO or juror and a trespasser stood in the middle on the road on private property and shot the person legally entitled to be there, I would believe a murder had occurred and that she belonged in prison. (Perhaps these facts will be addressed, but I don’t it.)

These types of things keep occurring in the show. But, my girlfriend enjoys it and she is pretty terrific so I will endure.

James Archer January 16, 2022 at 6:00 pm

My special fingers on the sanding disk moments are when an author decides to break continuity to have a character deliver a rant on the woke topic of the day. I’m rolling along with the story, working past the plot twists, maintaining contact and one character has a 3 page speech on global warming. BZZZZT, delete book from Kindle.
Seriously I was reading a book set over 1000 years in the future with a military law theme and step one, the military was 1/2 women who all are oppressed by the patriarchy. How low does ones IQ level need to be to complete such works of genius.
Much of this is my fault as I speed read and buy lots of cheap books so as to keep the cost per day within budget. With books, as everything else, often you get what you pay for.

David January 16, 2022 at 6:45 pm

Name names. Why critique the book and the author’s approach without reporting the title and the author? Commenter Lindskold also can’t condescend to tell us what “very popular series” she is referring to.

Celia Hayes January 16, 2022 at 7:00 pm

It’s called an “Idiot Plot” – where it only makes sense if all involved are idiots…
I kind of like how Sue Grafton got around a lot of that, by stubbornly setting her Kinsey Millhone series in the 1980s, which was contemporary when she started, but became historical by the end… no cellphones, or internet.
Because a lot of mystery problems would have been instantly solved.

James Lindgren January 16, 2022 at 7:22 pm


Season 1 of BROADCHURCH was a huge hit among elites with justly deserved praise for the characters, dialogue, and acting. And it gets high ratings from expert reviewers and the ordinary public.

A child was found dead at the beginning of Episode 1 and the show focused for 8 episodes on the cops figuring out who killed him.

So what happened? The killer just turned himself in. The cops didn’t catch him, or figure out the crime, or do anything clever to induce the killer to give himself up. The killer just gave up on his own.

So much for detectives SOLVING mysteries!

And it’s not as if the show depicted the cops as dumb or lucky. If they were making a post-modern point, it was well buried. Rather, despite their significant emotional problems, the cops were depicted as otherwise smart and committed.

Alex DeWynter January 16, 2022 at 7:24 pm

I encounter this far too often. I think the most egregious occurrence was a sci-fi novel in which an elite LEO, after successfully countering an attempt to lure her out alone by calling for backup, reacted to the villains’ exact. same. ploy. by not only charging in solo, in but not even /leaving a message/ where she’d gone. She survived, because protagonist, but more than one innocent bystander died as a direct result of her stupidity.

I get the desire for MCs to be badass, but ffs.

roadgeek January 16, 2022 at 7:27 pm

Name and author of the book or it didn’t happen.

werewife January 16, 2022 at 8:05 pm

To James Archer:
This is why they invented the public library. And more recently, it’s why public libraries have acquired immense e-book lending collections via apps like Overdrive, Hoopla, and Cloud Library. Have fun!

A. C. January 17, 2022 at 12:26 am

Even a company like Geico understands how stupid this is and satirized it in one of their ads:

Stephen J. January 17, 2022 at 9:04 am

My wife is a horror writer and sometimes has to defend the opposite position by simply pointing out that the characters don’t know they’re in a horror story, and aren’t going to do what seems obvious to an audience safe in their armchair or theatre seat. (Horror fans in particular seem prone to this reaction; the supposedly competent protagonists of thrillers or suspense stories may have to be held to higher standards.)

Stephen J. January 17, 2022 at 9:08 am

For TV, of course, there are also production reasons. Every time your star calls for backup and gets it, you’re adding a bunch of extras and possibly speaking parts to your budget for one scene that now isn’t going to be nearly as tense or engaging.

wjw January 17, 2022 at 6:29 pm

Backup can always arrive too late or get sent to the wrong address.

Stephen, maybe characters in a horror story don’t know at the start they’re in a horror story, but if they haven’t figured it out halfway into the book, then they’re missing half theirs wits.

BourbonChicken January 18, 2022 at 6:06 am

Don’t name the offending book or author. Negative attention is still good attention.

Stephen J. January 18, 2022 at 11:31 am

“…then they’re missing half their wits.”

Or have been scared or driven out of them. It’s horror, after all.

There’s also the psychological element: one of the vital character transitions in a lot of horror is to have to admit one was wrong — about what’s possible, about what’s real, about how much power and effectiveness one actually has, etc. — and that is something a lot of very competent people still have a lot of trouble doing; indeed, they can be even worse at it the more competent and effective they’re normally accustomed to being.

Even in thrillers and suspense stories, it’s the people with long expertise in a procedure who most often think themselves competent to judge when they can afford to slack off and cut corners on it — and it’s a rule of drama that a character should always make his biggest mistake precisely when it’s going to have the worst possible effect.

wjw January 18, 2022 at 3:00 pm

No, I’m not going to name the book, the title of which has already faded from my memory.

If I go making unnecessary enemies, I won’t have time to deal with the necessary enemies.

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