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’ and where the story would otherwise be over 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.
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.
Damon Knight, in his collection of essays, ‘In Search of Wonder’ (1956), attributes the first use of the term to science fiction author and critic James Blish. 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.’
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.’