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Idiot Plot

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"The Idiot Plot, of course, is any plot that would be resolved in five minutes if everyone in the story were not an idiot."
Roger Ebert in his review of Narrow Margin (1990)

Originated by SF author James Blish and popularized by film critic Roger Ebert during his review of the remake of Narrow Margin, this trope is a term for a Plot that hangs together only because the main characters behave like idiots. A single intelligent move or question by any of the characters, and all problems would be resolved. It's not so bad if the characters are supposed to be acting like idiots, but it's very bad if the Idiot Plot depends on intelligent characters picking up the Idiot Ball for the plot to work.


Even worse than that is the "Second-Order Idiot Plot", in which the plot can only function if the world population suddenly loses about 50 IQ points. In fact, author Damon Knight originally coined the term "second-order idiot plot" to refer to a science fiction story that features a fictional society that can only exist if everyone living there is an idiot.

Idiot plots can often be avoided with a simple wave of the hand. If the audience would have spent the entire story wondering why the hero didn't try some obvious tactic, a hand wave at the beginning of the story as to why that wouldn't work would prevent an idiot plot, regardless of how contrived the excuse was. However, if the hand wave is bad, it may actually create a new obvious solution just as bad as the original.

It is important to note that this is not always a bad thing, and is sometimes the entire point of the story. Part of what can make a drama so dramatic or a tragedy so tragic is that the characters truly could have avoided it if they had acted rationally instead of irrationally. (If the characters come to realize this In-Universe, by the way, that's a "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot.) Likewise, this is frequently Played for Laughs in a comedy or satire, either to laugh at the antics of the idiots or make a point about the idiocy in society. This is also very justifiable if most of the cast is not in a position where they can make rational or informed decisions, such as if they're young, poorly educated, or under stress. And sometimes it's just a case of Reality Is Unrealistic; many real-world problems, viewed from a distance with plenty of hindsight and no time pressure to solve the issue now, can seem like Idiot Plots themselves, but the rub is that people at the center of the problem may not have those advantages. That said, calling real life people idiots is easy Flame Bait so No Real Life Examples, Please!


Compare Just Eat Gilligan for when everyone's guilty of the single idiocy of ignoring something that could resolve the plot. See also Fourth Wall Myopia - when the audience fails to recognise the difference between themselves and the characters. You may have seen the Obviously Evil person twirling their mustache at the camera, but the characters who get fooled did not.

Example subpages:


Other examples:

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    Asian Animation 
  • Episode 49 of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Joys of Seasons, about Wolffy inventing a sewing robot and using it to help him capture the goats, has its plot started by Wolffy carrying Wolnie's laundry on a bamboo stick that's too long to fit through a doorway when held vertically with ends of the stick on the left and right. Instead of orienting the bamboo stick so that it can fit through the doorway, he rips it in half and destroys Wolnie's outfit in the process, leading to him inventing the aforementioned robot to sew it back together.
  • The Simple Samosa episode "Doctor D" has Dhokla so excited about his first visit to a foreign country, namely France, that he messages Samosa, Jalebi, and Vada on it on social media to the point of spamming them. The three decide to handle the situation by... blocking Dhokla, a very idiotic and out-of-character idea since they're best friends with him. As a result, Dhokla comes back as a celebrity named Doctor D and completely ignores Samosa and the others, a driving plot point of the episode. Thankfully, Samosa, Jalebi, and Vada find Dhokla at one of his concerts as Doctor D and they apologize to each other for being so ignorant, but sheesh.

    Comic Strips 
  • Newspaper comic Watch Your Head has a long-running subplot about Handsome Lech Quincy's impending marriage to his pregnant girlfriend Erika. Whenever Quincy is in focus, we hear about preparations and get evidence that the less-than-brilliant Quincy sees no reason to give up his womanizing ways. After about a year of this, the entire thing comes crashing down at the altar when local Jerkass Omar points out that the bride has been allegedly pregnant for over a year and has not even gained an ounce of weight in that time!
  • 9 Chickweed Lane is only able to work as well as it does because all the major players are imbeciles; we start with the incompetent fool OSS colonel who set everyone up to fail and end with the idiots who kowtow to his deception, bullying and idiocy.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Original 
  • Reportedly, one of the reasons the author of SCP Foundation entry SCP-3333 has some Creator Backlash issues with it is that so much of the story occurs because the Foundation researchers present seem to be very bad at noticing the obvious signs that their agents are being compromised. The key point is in the second expedition, where a five-man task force is sent up to investigate the place, then proceed to split up into three groups (do the math, that means one of them lacked a partner). Then all of them have their cameras and microphones shut off at various points while suspicious noises are heard, with four of them being off at one point simultaneously, and when they check back in, they're using the wrong callsigns and describing something that isn't showing up on-camera. None of this arouses any real suspicion in the staff that the task force can no longer be relied on—rather than put the task force through some tests to make sure they haven't been compromised in some fashion, they go so far as to let the force's leader watch the third expedition.

"Well, that's our story. Yes, they are all idiots, aren't they?"
The Narrator, SpongeBob SquarePants, "Nasty Patty"


Video Example(s):


So Friggin' Incompetent

Learning that Discord had betrayed Equestria to join with Tirek, Celestias' new plan to deal with the Centaur involves giving Twilight all of the Princesses Magic and sending her off into hiding with the intent on not being found since Tirek doesn't know that Twilight even exists... however Celestia fails yet again to take into account that DISCORD KNOWS!

How well does it match the trope?

4.67 (12 votes)

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Main / IdiotPlot

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