Idiot plot

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In literary criticism, an idiot plot is one which is "kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot,"[1]: 26  and where the story would quickly end, or possibly not even happen, if this were not the case.[2] 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, says that the term may have originated with author James Blish.[1]: 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."[1]: 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."[3] 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."[4]


  • Roger Ebert describes the 1935 film Top Hat as an idiot plot, depending as it does on "a misunderstanding that is all but impossible", relying on the fact that Ginger Rogers' character has somehow never met her best friend's husband, and is able to mistake a complete stranger (played by Fred Astaire) for him, and for that misunderstanding to continue without being questioned. Ebert notes that the situation "could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue", yet the writers deliberately avoid doing so to keep the plot in motion.[5]
  • In the climax of Jules Verne's seminal novel Around the World in Eighty Days traveller Phileas Fogg arrives in London despairing he is one day late and has lost his bet. Only in the last minute does he become aware that he has crossed the date line on his travels and so has arrived one day earlier than thought, and thus just in time.[a] In Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, John Sutherland points out that Fogg and company would have to be "deaf, dumb and blind" not to notice how busy the streets were on an apparent "Sunday", with the Sunday Observance Act 1780 still in effect. Using public transport all the time, they would also have hardly missed the differing timetables for weekdays and Sundays, or have failed to note dates on newspapers.[6]
  • 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.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Though there was no international date line as such in 1873, the USA and the United Kingdom used the same date with differing time zones.


  1. ^ a b c Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent. ISBN 978-0-911682-31-1.
  2. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Movie glossary: Idiot plot". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 10 February 2011.
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Movie reviews: Prime". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 10 February 2011.
  4. ^ 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". Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Top Hat movie review & film summary (1935)". Retrieved 16 April 2021.
  6. ^ Sutherland, John; Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature John (March 21, 1999). Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192838841 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Gross, Edward; Altman, Mark A.: Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, Little Brown & Co (1995), ISBN 978-0316329576

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