“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)

Kevin Paul Tracy
at
Kevin Paul Tracy, writer, philosopher, and all 'round raconteur, has traversed half the globe and both sides of the equator. He has SCUBA dived under ice and snow, and flooded craters hidden deep under ground, and he has done just about every odd occupation you can think of, from cave spelunking guide to wildlife photographer to interstate courier.

Kevin's fiction tends to deal with themes of bravery and fortitude in the face of extreme adversity, most often featuring very ordinary men and women forced into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to plumb the hidden strengths and resourcefulness they never knew they had.

Don't miss Kevin's latest twisted thriller "Presence of Malice", as well as his other books, the startling and engrossing Kathryn Desmarais Gothic Mysteries "Bloodflow" and "Bloodtrail" and the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, "Rogue Agenda."

He currently lives in Colorado with two very charismatic St. Bernards. More about Kevin on his website and on Amazon.

4 thoughts on ““The Idiot Plot”

  1. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I just love idiot plotting. My protagonists aren’t very smart. I think it might be a reflection on the author, but that’s a post for another time. Thanks for this.

Leave a Reply