How To Write Badly: The Idiot Plot Device


Aliens, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Dutch version of The Vanishing, Firefly — just because something is a genre story doesn’t mean it can’t be great storytelling. But as someone who loves genre work – sci-fi, fantasy, police procedurals, film noir, yaoi, you name it — I’ve often noticed that there seems to be this general, unspoken acceptance of lazy technique, of bad writing. The opinion seems to be “Hey, it’s just a sci-fi story, what do you expect?”

Well, I say “No more!” There are enough examples of quality writing in genre work that there is no excuse for writing stories that can’t stand toe-to-toe with more “mainstream” work. And I believe the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Thus this series of posts on “How To Write Badly” – because knowing is half the battle.

The first shameful technique we’ll discuss is something I like to call “The Idiot Plot Device”.


What Is It?

Especially common in horror films, The Idiot Plot device is when a character or characters do something incredibly stupid merely (or mostly) to further the plot. Bobby and Susie know there’s a killer in the woods but decide to sneak out for a little heavy petting between the pines anyway – thus allowing the killer to claim his next victims and allowing the story to move forward.

How To Tell It’s In Play

If you’re watching a character about to do something and you find yourself mouthing the words “Oh, my God – what a dumbass!” that’s a pretty good sign.

But it’s not enough in itself. Good creators write about all aspects of the human condition — even those moments when people are not being very bright and even about folks who are just downright dumb. No, for it to be The Idiot Plot Device, the idiocy has to be necessary to further the plot: meaning when it’s clear that if Bobby and Susie just did the smart thing, stayed inside and saved their heavy petting for a day when they aren’t being stalked by a maniacal killer, the plot wouldn’t move forward and the writer would be stuck. (Or, at least, the writer would have to be a bit clever to figure out how to put the characters into danger again.)

In addition, The Idiot Plot Device usually requires a character to act in a way that stretches credibility – the action is just so dumb, so incompetent, so inappropriate based on everything the character’s seen that the only possible explanation is that the writer had painted themselves into a corner and didn’t know (or couldn’t be bothered to find) any other way to amp up the tension or move things forward.

A variation of The Idiot Plot Device is the I’m So Upset/Freaked Out/Scared I’m Going To Act Like An Idiot Plot Device where characters under duress do something incredibly stupid (such as when Lambert just stands in front of the monster in Alien doing nothing, thus getting herself and the character trying to rescue her killed.) More sympathetic to an audience than The Idiot Plot Device — after all, we’ve all had moments when we’ve been overwhelmed and made bad choices — this technique still suffers from the same problems as its Idiot brother, namely that it uses lazy writing to move the plot forward.

Some Examples From The Wild

Keeping with our Alien references, the first time I ever truly noticed this cop-out was while watching the movie Alien 3 when a character, working with buckets of explosive accelerant he and his buddies were using to trap the monster, chooses to carry a bucket of the accelerant and a flare at the same time (!) which, of course, soon causes an explosion that blows their entire plan (and several cast members) all to hell. If he hadn’t done that, the plan would have succeeded and the movie would have been over some 45 minutes early.

Another example from the world of sci-fi comes from the popular series Battlestar Galactica (a frequent offender) where much-maligned Vice President Baltar chooses to secretly hand over a nuclear bomb to an abused Cylon as a “token of his good will” which then soon after leads to her blowing up several ships, thousands of people and alerting the rest of the enemy Cylons to the few surviving humans’ location. Yes, he was feeling a bit insulted at that moment by the President of the Colonies, yes “Head 6” encouraged him to give her the device, but willingly handing over a nuclear bomb to an angry enemy of the human race? Really? Really? Yes, really — otherwise Season 3 would not have been possible.

(And yes, temporary insanity definitely falls under The Idiot Plot Device, in case you think Head 6’s encouragement offers that excuse…)

Why It’s Bad Writing

It’s bad writing because it breaks audience identification with the characters, it breaks realism but mostly, it’s just incredibly lazy.

It creates distance between the audience and your work

The best stories are the ones where you can put yourself in the character’s shoes, where you get to experience their successes and failures right along with them. The character doesn’t have to be exactly like you — in fact, it’s even better when you get a chance to identify with a character you would ordinarily think of as an “other” — but the character should exhibit enough universal and compelling elements so you can really feel that, if you were in the same situation, you’d be making at least some of the same choices. You’re immersed and engaged because it could just as easily be you in the situation the creator is portraying.

But The Idiot Plot Device breaks that. The character is taking an action so stupid, so inappropriate, all you can do is sit there and shake your head. In that moment, you aren’t identifying with the character — you are standing apart in judgment, thus creating distance between you and the work.

It’s not very realistic

In addition, your suspension of disbelief is also put into question. Sure, we all do stupid things, but for almost all of us, the self-preservation instinct is very strong. When characters act against that — or against their own interests in general — there needs to be a very good reason, otherwise audience members wind up consoling themselves with “Well, it’s a just a movie (TV show, book, etc.), it’s not supposed to be realistic.” And woe be to any writer who wants their audience thinking that while experiencing their story.

It’s just downright lazy

Mostly, though, The Idiot Plot Device is just lazy writing. It’s relying on the darker, more cynical parts of human nature to hide an author’s lack of imagination. As a writer, you know that at least some of your audience will give you a free pass for such shortcuts, with apologies like “Well, in ‘real life’, people do lots of stupid things when the shit hits the fan, so I guess they might do this too.”

But it really takes no intelligence at all to move the plot forward this way. It’s easy to have someone do something dumb that creates trouble — it’s a much tougher assignment to have everyone be smart, act smart, make good decisions and still keep your story from getting resolved right away. In order to pull that off, you need to be at least as smart as the characters you’re writing and probably a lot smarter.

This becomes clearest when a writer has created (or is including) a really smart, capable hero, like Ripley from the Alien series. She’s fought dozens of these aliens before, she’s tough and decisive and she’s smart. Left to her own devices, she should be able to handily destroy the alien in Alien 3 in the first act. But that would make for an awfully short movie so the author has a choice — make the alien as smart as (or smarter than) Ripley foiling her brilliant plans with equally brilliant countermoves…. or have her surrounded by idiots who won’t help her despite overwhelming evidence that she’s credible and then actively foil her plans against their own interest through their own stupidity.

Which choice do you think requires more effort, more skill, more creative thinking, thus increasing the odds for a more satisfying story?

A major reason that The Idiot Plot Device is so unsatisfying is that it is a form of cheating, of stalling — if people were making smart choices, the story would resolve quickly. But the author has to fill 90 minutes of screen time (or 44 minutes of TV time, 24 pages of comics, whatever…), so they keep their characters in jeopardy through a series of stupid choices and bonehead moves.

Yes, some people might find those stupid choices believable — but satisfying, engaging? Not likely.

How To Transcend

The fact that this technique is used so often, though, gives a special advantage to the writer who’s willing to put in a little more effort. Audiences have been trained to accept this form of laziness, so when you subvert that expectation, you earn strong credibility in their eyes. Have your character actually be smarter, more rational, more capable than your audience might expect and suddenly things get a lot more interesting!

One of the best examples of this again comes from the Alien series, this time from the second movie, Aliens.

Here’s the scene: the marines have just gotten their asses handed to them by the aliens. They are demoralized and at a loss of what to do — how do they fight these seemingly unstoppable monsters? Well, Ripley suggests dropping a whole lot of nuclear bombs on the critters from orbit. (Which in itself puts this movie in a special category — I don’t care how badass a monster is, no beastie of flesh and blood is going to stand up against an H-Bomb and this was something that scif-fi movies, particularly from the 70s and 80s, would always seem to conveniently forget…)

So, there we have it, problem solved! Ah, but the “company man” nixes the idea — there’s lots of expensive equipment on the planet, you see — “This installation has a substantial dollar value” — and he forbids the use of nuclear weapons. And, at this point, we in the audience are prepared to accept this — it seems at least somewhat plausible and really, how else is the writer going to keep everyone in jeopardy? Thank you for remembering that nukes exist, filmmakers, but even though these monsters have just taken out 80% of their platoon and every adult man and woman in the colony, we’ll accept that those puppies are not an option!

But then, Ripley says the words you and I would actually say if we were in that situation. She looks that company man right in the eye with an incredulous sneer and exclaims ‘They can BILL me!” And then manages to convince the Marines to overrule the company man and nuke the entire site from orbit.

Now we as the audience don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next! The movie’s not even half done and our heroes are going to do exactly what we would do with their technology and in their situation — fly the heck out of there and nuke the monsters from the safety of space! How is the writer going to keep things going from here? He’s just painted himself in a corner, right?! We’re now completely engaged — and in no small part because, despite not knowing how things are going to continue, we’re convinced that this creator isn’t going to foist lazy cop outs on us. It turns out we’re watching a movie where characters are going to make smart choices yet still get in trouble because the monsters are just as smart and so, once the shit hits the fan again, our own brains start to work in overdrive to try to figure a way out — as if we were there ourselves.

We’re engaged. We trust the creator. We know we’re in good hands and in for a good ride. And that’s exactly how you want your audience to feel.

Suffer No Fools!

Sure, you can get away with lazy writing techniques like The Idiot Plot Device, but if you choose the harder path, you will create a far better experience for your audience… and a far more memorable work. Make things hard for yourself — have all your characters, both heroes and villains, consistently make smart, self-interested choices — for every move, take the time to think of a brilliant countermove; for every strategy, think of a really smart way for the other side to foil it!

If you can do that, you will find your work being remembered not for its genre, but rather for what an awesome, compelling story was told.

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  1. I’m not sure anything in movies piss me off so bad as this kind of plot device. It’s a good bit of the reason I won’t even watch most horror movies. In nigh on every single one, all it would take is a modicum of sense, or more often, the simple idea to RUN!!! to save half the people in the movie. I don’t like feeling smarter than every character in a book or movie. Definitely one of the quickest ways to lose my interest.

    This is a very interesting post, definitely looking forward to the next few (:

  2. This was a really insightful look into a big flaw used, quite frankly, far too often in mainstream media. I love the challenge of outsmarting my own characters, and working with the character’s own personal opinions and priorities is what really builds a story up for me.

    The problem I get is that my stories spin out of control with so much happening it looks to end up five times longer than I intended and becomes rather daunting. Fortunately I’ve been getting much better at dealing with this recently though.

    1. Yes, that can definitely happen. 🙂

      It’s interesting. When I was younger, I was practically allergic to outlining out my stories before starting. But now with every thing I write, I’m outlining more and more. Definitely helps me with the spinning out of control issue. With an outline, you can see early on that a very simple plot can actually carry you a long way…

      1. Exactly. When I was younger I would have a vague idea for a plot and then just run with it… and I ended up with a very random and fragmented story with seemingly important developments disappearing into thin air and all sorts of new and pointless information flying in from everywhere. They are rather amusing (and somewhat embarrassing) to read now. Haha.

        I like to write a story’s outline in stages and then note key events that happen within those stages so I can add and take away what I want. It also helps me stick to the plot without going off on tangents. I’m sure I could handle it a better way but I suppose you develop your own strategies.

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