In literary criticism, an idiot plot is "a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot,":26 and where the story would otherwise be over, or possibly not even happen, if this were not the case. It is a narrative where its conflict comes from characters not recognizing, or not being told, key information that would resolve the conflict, often because of plot contrivance. The only thing that prevents the conflict's resolution is the character's constant avoidance or obliviousness of it throughout the plot, even if it was already obvious to the viewer, so the characters are all "idiots" in that they are too obtuse to simply resolve the conflict immediately.
Science fiction writer and critic Damon Knight, in his 1956 collection In Search of Wonder, attributes the first use of the term to author James Blish.:26 Knight went on to coin the term 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.":195
Reviewing Prime in 2005, critic Roger Ebert said "I can forgive and even embrace an Idiot Plot in its proper place (consider Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat). But when the characters have depth and their decisions have consequences, I grow restless when their misunderstandings could be ended by words that the screenplay refuses to allow them to utter." Alternate formulations describe only the protagonist as being an idiot.
Writing in 2013, author David Brin explored one variation of the idiot plot. In most adventure films and novels, the writers and directors have an imperative to keep their protagonists in jeopardy. This becomes difficult if they are surrounded by skilled professionals, paid to intervene and help if called. Hence, storytellers feel compelled to separate their characters from meaningful help, so that any assistance they receive is either late or else below the level of danger offered by the antagonists. The more powerful the villains, the more competent that help is allowed to be. "But for the most part, institutions and your neighbors are portrayed as sheep, so that only the hero's actions truly matter."
- Back to the Future Part II has been described as being based on an idiot plot. In the beginning, Doc Brown arrives and urges Marty and Jennifer to come along with him completely unprepared to 2015, to prevent their future children from mischief. There is no reason why Doc takes Jennifer along, as he paralyses her quickly after their arrival in 2015 anyway, and he could have easily looked for an opportunity to take Marty alone. Even more so, in the coming 30 years Marty and Jennifer should have plenty of opportunities to influence their kids' upbringing on the advice of Doc, even without hazardous time travel.
- Writer Dennis Russell Bailey commented about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Samaritan Snare that "none of the plot could have happened if all of the characters hadn't suddenly became morons that week," ignoring the advice of expert officers and disregarding elementary security procedures.
- Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent. ISBN 978-0-911682-31-1.
- Ebert, Roger. "Movie glossary: Idiot plot". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 10 February 2011.
- Ebert, Roger. "Movie reviews: Prime". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 10 February 2011.
- Brin, David (20 January 2013). "Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or, Why Films and Novels Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools". Locusmag.com. Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
- Kelly, Jeff (4 April 2017). "Movies that would be over in minutes if the characters weren't complete idiots". Grunge.com. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
- Gross, Edward; Altman, Mark A.: Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, Little Brown & Co (1995), ISBN 978-0316329576
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