Idiot Plots

by wjw on May 26, 2010

Let’s say you’re a cop. You’re in pursuit of a serial killer. The killer knows you’re after him and has already trashed your house and tried to murder a member of your family. What do you do?

A. Surround your family with guards.
B. Get your family out of town and to an undisclosed location where the killer can’t find them.
C. A and B both.
D. Let your family go about their ordinary lives.

The option you pick is, of course, D. Though as you do this, perhaps there’s a little whisper in your brain that says, Too bad you’re caught in an idiot plot.

Let’s say you’re writing a space opera. Your heroes are fighting a bunch of runamuck robots who have killed 99% of humanity and are now either trying to kill the remainder or are trying to have sex with them. (Remember, they “have a plan.”)

From a previous incarnation of your show you’ve inherited a scenario in which your heroes are looking for a lost colony which they hope will somehow save them. The problem, you realize as you try to bring this about, is twofold:

A. Either the colony is primitive with obsolete technology, in which case the robots will wipe them out, along with your heroes if they stay and fight, or;

B. The colony has super-advanced technology that will wipe out the robots, which is fine except then THEY then become your heroes instead of the characters you’ve been following all along.

How do you solve this dilemma?

A. Throw in a bunch of mystic stuff and prophecy so that you can justify whatever ending that out of total desperation you finally come up with.

B. Everybody gets to be either an angel or a robot.

C. Have the characters throw away all their technology and trust that God will sort it out.

D. All of the above.

Of course you pick D. Oh dear, you’ve created an idiot plot!

Let’s say you’re an actor on a TV series. You play a castaway on an island where weird and mysterious things keep happening. Strangely enough, your character also exists on some kind of parallel world where none of this occurred. Throughout the series, the producers have insisted that they know exactly where the story is going, that they worked it all out in advance, and that nobody has to worry because it will all make sense in the end.

Then you get the script for the final episode, in which you discover that your character HAS BEEN DEAD ALL ALONG and is JUST BEEN EXISTING IN SOME FORM OF PURGATORY and that the whole point of your island is that “YOU REMEMBER, AND THEN LET GO.”

This explanation, you recall, was suggested by some fans during the first season, but the creators explicitly denied that it was true, and besides everyone thought the idea was stupid.

Suddenly you realize that the creators were clueless and didn’t have any idea where this was going, that for the last episode they just pulled this stuff out of their ass, and that this is the worst plot development in TV history since JR’s death turned out to be a dream.


And you’re an actor on this show. What the hell . . . ? You have to go before the cameras and pretend that this isn’t a complete idiot plot.

The term “idiot plot” is usually credited to the film critic Roger Ebert, but Ebert himself— who edited a science fiction fanzine back in the day— surely knew the term was invented by James Blish, who defined it as a “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot.” (Or maybe just the protagonist is an idiot. Or the writers. Or the protagonist is competent and intelligent right up till the end, when he turns into an idiot so that something dramatic can happen.)

Blish’s fellow Futurian Damon Knight came up with the idea of the “second-order idiot plot, in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn’t happen.”

I don’t know how the rest of you feel about idiot plots, but they make me insane. (Okay, not all of them. If it’s obvious from the beginning that this is an idiot plot, as for instance Mesa of Lost Women [1953], I don’t have a lot invested in the story anyway, so I don’t much care.) But when there’s something that has some intelligence and gravitas behind it, when the writer has talent or the actors are good or a lot of the scripts display smarts, and then the creator just pisses it all away with some idiot development, I start to foam at the mouth.

But how do you, as a creator, prevent me and other members of your audience from foaming?

Firstly, think about your ending before you even start. A cop letting his family wander around on their own when he knows someone’s out to kill them is just dumb on its surface. How about have the cop hide his family, but the bad guy is clever enough to find them anyway? It’s sort of predictable, but it’s better than what you’ve got.

What happens when your guys finally find Earth? Instead of the lame mystic crap, how about the Earth people turn out to be super-competent at kicking robot ass, but they’re so smug and totalitarian that our heroes can’t stand them? Or maybe the Earth people have their own fighting robots, and we all have to worry whether the baddie robots will subvert them?

Gee, I could go on and on. Pity the screenwriters never talked to me.

And as for our castaways on the island– well, y’know, I can’t help you there. The whole freakin’ setup is impossible. I could probably come up with a better idea than “they’re all dead,” but it wouldn’t be better by much.

So Rule #1 is think about your ending and make sure it doesn’t insult your fans’ intelligence. I mean, you’re supposed to be creative and all, go and do something creative! Earn your fucking money, is what I’m saying.

Rule #2 is get rid of the mystic stuff, unless of course your whole program is about mysticism, in which case nothing makes sense anyway and it’s all okay. Banish from your mind the following ideas: “This is how God wants it.” “This is how it’s meant to be.” “We must leave logic behind and follow our feelings.” “It’s all about Balance.” “We have been in this place before.” “That course of action is Forbidden.” “We must learn Acceptance.”

Rule #3. When all else fails, ask yourself the following question: “What would a real cop/astronaut/whatever do?” I mean, fictional characters are doing unreal stuff all the time, throwing in a little piece of realism might shake up the audience.

So to sum up, my final piece of advice is one of the following.

A. Don’t be an idiot.
B. Don’t assume your audience are idiots.
C. All of the above.

What is the correct answer?

john_appel May 27, 2010 at 12:45 am

You've hit upon what has become a hot-button for me about most TV SF: "Ok, given whatever whacked-out situation or universe the characters find themselves in, do the characters act in a fashion which is believable given their setting?"

Dollhouse lost me when two people somehow made their way out of the bowels of a secure underground facility past platoons of guards and more surveillance gear than the entire TSA owns. While one of them was handcuffed to a chair.

gjacoby May 27, 2010 at 12:55 am

They weren't dead all along. "Everything that happened, happened," we're told. Some characters died over the course of the series, as we saw; some escaped the island at the end and lived out the rest of their lives until they died of whatever it was they died of, and two remained on the island as guardians, until they eventually died too.

The flashsideways plot in the sixth season WAS some sort of purgatory or waiting area, where the characters' souls had all gathered until they could all cross over together. Temporally though it's completely disconnected from anything else that ever happened on the show. It's a season-long epilogue–you can ignore it completely if you like and it affects the earlier plot not one bit.

It's certainly mystic, but quite a lot of human art is mystic in some way or another. Since Lost continually asked whether Reason or Faith was better–and whether it itself was science fiction or fantasy–it's not unfair for it to lean on the Faith side at the end.

There are certainly issues that Lost should have resolved but didn't, and I don't think the purgatory twist was necessary, but I don't see it as an idiot plot either.

dubjay May 27, 2010 at 3:04 am

It's perfectly possible that I've misinterpreted the final LOST episode, since I'm reacting only to what others have written about it.

I gave up on the series halfway through Season Three, when I realized I was spending more time shouting angrily at the screen than I was sitting and watching the program.

Mathew May 27, 2010 at 4:49 am

So I take it that you didn't like the "Lost" Finale?
Whenever I'm disappointed with T.V. writing, I always think about that David Mamet post that you were so kind to put up awhile ago detailing the process of dramatic writing.
I apply the rules of drama and exposition that Mr Mamet lays out to said show, then find something else to watch when it fails 🙂
That is what happened to me when I tried to watch the first episode of "Lost"…

Michael Grosberg May 27, 2010 at 6:56 am

Oh Walter, you should know better than comment on a series finale for a show you did not watch!

The castaways were alive, but 50% of the last season was devoted to their imaginary world – purgatory that according to some character they "made for themselves" somehow. Now it's OK when six feet under takes 20 minutes of the very last episode to show a montage of the rest of each character's life but that was 8 hours worth of epilogue, way too much!

Dave Bishop May 27, 2010 at 8:23 am

I have a sense that what is wrong with so much popular fiction these days is that it tends to be 'made up' as the author goes along – the author then tends to write him/herself into a corner. The art of careful plotting seems to have been lost in many quarters. I read a thriller recently in which the leading protagonist was the narrator … until the author killed him off three quarters of the way through the book! The staggering lack of competence on display here – not to mention the obvious fact that the narrative completely stalled and the lame way in which the author attempted to retrieve the situation – made me vow never to touch any more of that author's work with a barge-pole (and to wonder how he got published in the first place).
I also think that this syndrome is particularly acute in the SF/Fantasy field – because many contemporary authors of this stuff appear to be labouring under the misapprehension that SF/Fantasy is supposed to be made up as you go along. I think that this attitude can be traced back to TV and Film 'SciFi' where the creators have plundered the SF field for tropes and 'ideas' with no understanding or appreciation whatsoever and stuck them onto their creations like a psychotic magpie decorating its nest.

Ralf the Dog May 27, 2010 at 8:26 am

Dude, You know that guy who you sent to guard your family, guess what? He is the killer. You have 20 minutes to get to the lake house before he kills them (He is a member of a cult. They must kill at 12:17 AM).

The thing that bothers me is my favorite show. Dr. Who. You keep building this guy up as the ultimate genius, but he can't see the giant neon sign pointing out that the little girl is the alien bug monster. If the guy is smart, he should figure things out before the audience.

PS. I did like the ending of Lost. I was hoping Jacob turned out to be Prometheus and the Smoke Monster Hades.

Ralf the Dog May 27, 2010 at 8:33 am

Dave Bishop said,

"…because many contemporary authors of this stuff appear to be labouring under the misapprehension that SF/Fantasy is supposed to be made up as you go along."

Many contemporary authors of this stuff appear to be laboring under the misapprehension that you don't need to understand science to write science fiction.

I have no knowledge of horses. I would not write a book about horse people unless I had good horse people to guide me along (and then under extreme protest).

Mark May 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

I dropped "Lost" halfway through the first season.

The writing was good, but it became obvious to me that the show was going to be more about Inexplicable New Stuff of the Week than the people involved.

I feel the same way about "The X-files." Individual eps were spooky and fantastic, but the longer story arc? Spare me, please.

Sean Craven May 27, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I watched all of Lost because the missus regards time spent watching TV as 'us' time.

Let me be honest; I stopped trying to understand the show sometime during the second season, when it became clear that the writer's were never going to deal with the plot elements with which they started out.

Instead, every time the show experienced a narrative logjam, they just threw in more wacky plot elements. It was obvious that they had no idea where they were going.

I'll disagree with David Bishop that the 'make it up as you go along' method is to be scorned — given that the first draft is going to be a monstrosity, and the work will require about a million times more revision than a plotted work.

With a TV show? The first draft is all they get. They have no opportunity for revision. So the 'make it up as you go along' method is a sure-fire recipe for disaster in TV.

For all that went into it, Lost is a mess. If you try and pick it up, it falls apart in your hands. It consists of ninety-per-cent dropped plots by weight. Oh, well…

Laurent May 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Logic in plot is somehow a requierement, and people assume it.
The first one is really a supid plot because there is no hint that the plot may not be logical.

On BSG, as much as I hated the ending, I have to admit it works if you accept the logic of their mythology. The bad thing is that viewers have hard time to accept the mythology, we say "the characters are a bit crazy, they all see that in their heads, cool, let's watch!", and creators are always lying saying "no it's all going to be explained at the end, keep watching" while it won't.
LOST, very similar to BSG.
In the general, the journey is more important than the reason to do it. LOST pace was too slow for me, I stopped watching, but BSG pacing was OK.

If you like "rational" shows like I do, you should watch The Shield because it's the best 7 seasons arcs you can find, driven by very strong characters and a very logical (perception wise) universe.

Nice article, and nice way to present it 🙂

Lance Larka May 28, 2010 at 12:04 am

I didn't watch a single episode of Lost. Just my two cents. 🙂

Kenneth May 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm

In the fullness of time I've come to consider the BSG finale the worst dramatic finale in the history of series television. Not only was it bad as a two hour TV presentation, but nit subverted everything that had ever made the show good (before the plot started getting idiotic, in the ways you pointed out, over pretty much the whole second half of the series). What made the show innovative and interesting early on was its realism and naturalism. Space pilots and naval personnel and civilians were humans with greed and vanity and frivolity and alcohol fueled rage, not mystical heroes. The "everyone is an angel or robot" feature you expose crept slowly into the show until the finale delivered the coup de grace bullet to the head. These people get to a primitive world and suddenly, by consensus, decide to give up their technology (and essentially commit individual and collective suicide). When much of the series, and all of what was good in the series, was built on the fact that these people couldn't reach a consensus on ANYTHING. Labor unrest, student riots, mutiny, stolen elections, military coups, all should have ensued at this outrageous decision, but instead, everyone just kumbayas and walks out onto the plains of Africa, most likely to starve to death or be raped and enslaved by the local Cro-Magnons. Pathetic.

dubjay May 29, 2010 at 8:39 pm

"…because many contemporary authors of this stuff appear to be labouring under the misapprehension that SF/Fantasy is supposed to be made up as you go along."

That's how some people do it. They just sit at their keyboard and whatever happens, happens.

I've startled any number of professional authors by telling them that I plan ahead.

With some folks, planning a book never occurs to them. With others, it's all about Art. "My Muse must run free! Following an outline would be like putting my Muse in a straightjacket!"

It's perfectly okay to write this way, but it seems guaranteed to lead you into a lot of blind alleys, resulting in your having to toss out many pages of drafts that didn't work out, and maybe missing your deadlines.

As a reader, though, I'm awfully bored with writers and editors who insist that these blind alleys and stabs in the dark stay on the page, clogging up the narrative and keeping me from reading the story that the author has promised to deliver.

dubjay May 29, 2010 at 8:49 pm

It occurs to me also that there is a huge counterexample to all these runamuck TV series: BABYLON FIVE. It ran for five seasons, and Straczynski went on to tell the story he'd intended all along.

This despite airing on a network that disappeared, prominent cast members leaving the show, and a low budget. All because Straczynski had so much detail worked out ahead of time, and even planned exits for actors who left the series.

Tori May 31, 2010 at 3:38 am

Thank you. Idiot plots drive me crazy too because I will suspend disbelief from here to next Tuesday with stupid non-science like a flu virus growing into a foot-long slug (though my eyes may roll so hard that they roll right out of my head) but once people stop acting like people… Then you've lost me.

Also, I <3 Babylon 5. Planned story arcs? What a novel concept! It's one of the reasons why BBC has made some of my favorite genre television.

halojones-fan June 4, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Part of the problem–maybe most of the problem–is that shows go on forever until they ended yesterday.

That is, the contemporary American TV plan is that the show doesn't have an end–it keeps on going until it gets cancelled, and when it gets cancelled it's gone. Maybe if you're lucky they let you finish out the season.

On the other hand, BSG was in its "last season" for more than two years, and the ending STILL sucked, so there you are I guess.

Anonymous June 6, 2010 at 1:08 am

Same thing happened with Twin Peaks. I have a friend who thinks that when the series was extended past the first season, the writers (who had a nice way of wrapping it up if it got canceled) became completely lost

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