A. Surround your family with guards.
B. Get your family out of town and to an undisclosed location where the killer can't find them.
C. A and B both.
D. Let your family go about their ordinary lives.
The option you pick is, of course, D. Though as you do this, perhaps there's a little whisper in your brain that says, Too bad you're caught in an idiot plot.
Let's say you're writing a space opera. Your heroes are fighting a bunch of runamuck robots who have killed 99% of humanity and are now either trying to kill the remainder or are trying to have sex with them. (Remember, they "have a plan.")
From a previous incarnation of your show you've inherited a scenario in which your heroes are looking for a lost colony which they hope will somehow save them. The problem, you realize as you try to bring this about, is twofold:
A. Either the colony is primitive with obsolete technology, in which case the robots will wipe them out, along with your heroes if they stay and fight, or;
B. The colony has super-advanced technology that will wipe out the robots, which is fine except then THEY then become your heroes instead of the characters you've been following all along.
How do you solve this dilemma?
A. Throw in a bunch of mystic stuff and prophecy so that you can justify whatever ending that out of total desperation you finally come up with.
B. Everybody gets to be either an angel or a robot.
C. Have the characters throw away all their technology and trust that God will sort it out.
D. All of the above.
Of course you pick D. Oh dear, you've created an idiot plot!
Let's say you're an actor on a TV series. You play a castaway on an island where weird and mysterious things keep happening. Strangely enough, your character also exists on some kind of parallel world where none of this occurred. Throughout the series, the producers have insisted that they know exactly where the story is going, that they worked it all out in advance, and that nobody has to worry because it will all make sense in the end.
Then you get the script for the final episode, in which you discover that your character HAS BEEN DEAD ALL ALONG and is JUST BEEN EXISTING IN SOME FORM OF PURGATORY and that the whole point of your island is that "YOU REMEMBER, AND THEN LET GO."
This explanation, you recall, was suggested by some fans during the first season, but the creators explicitly denied that it was true, and besides everyone thought the idea was stupid.
Suddenly you realize that the creators were clueless and didn't have any idea where this was going, that for the last episode they just pulled this stuff out of their ass, and that this is the worst plot development in TV history since JR's death turned out to be a dream.
THE PRODUCERS HAVE JUST PISSED ALL OVER THEIR AUDIENCE. THEY TREATED THEIR MOST LOYAL FANS WITH UTTER CONTEMPT. THEIR ENDING IS BRAINLESS, WITLESS, AND USELESS. ALL SIX SEASONS OF THE PROGRAM ARE JUST SOME AIMLESS SHAGGY DOG STORY.
And you're an actor on this show. What the hell . . . ? You have to go before the cameras and pretend that this isn't a complete idiot plot.
The term "idiot plot" is usually credited to the film critic Roger Ebert, but Ebert himself--- who edited a science fiction fanzine back in the day--- surely knew the term was invented by James Blish, who defined it as a "a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot." (Or maybe just the protagonist is an idiot. Or the writers. Or the protagonist is competent and intelligent right up till the end, when he turns into an idiot so that something dramatic can happen.)
Blish's fellow Futurian Damon Knight came up with the idea of the "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."
I don't know how the rest of you feel about idiot plots, but they make me insane. (Okay, not all of them. If it's obvious from the beginning that this is an idiot plot, as for instance Mesa of Lost Women , I don't have a lot invested in the story anyway, so I don't much care.) But when there's something that has some intelligence and gravitas behind it, when the writer has talent or the actors are good or a lot of the scripts display smarts, and then the creator just pisses it all away with some idiot development, I start to foam at the mouth.
But how do you, as a creator, prevent me and other members of your audience from foaming?
Firstly, think about your ending before you even start. A cop letting his family wander around on their own when he knows someone's out to kill them is just dumb on its surface. How about have the cop hide his family, but the bad guy is clever enough to find them anyway? It's sort of predictable, but it's better than what you've got.
What happens when your guys finally find Earth? Instead of the lame mystic crap, how about the Earth people turn out to be super-competent at kicking robot ass, but they're so smug and totalitarian that our heroes can't stand them? Or maybe the Earth people have their own fighting robots, and we all have to worry whether the baddie robots will subvert them?
Gee, I could go on and on. Pity the screenwriters never talked to me.
And as for our castaways on the island-- well, y'know, I can't help you there. The whole freakin' setup is impossible. I could probably come up with a better idea than "they're all dead," but it wouldn't be better by much.
So Rule #1 is think about your ending and make sure it doesn't insult your fans' intelligence. I mean, you're supposed to be creative and all, go and do something creative! Earn your fucking money, is what I'm saying.
Rule #2 is get rid of the mystic stuff, unless of course your whole program is about mysticism, in which case nothing makes sense anyway and it's all okay. Banish from your mind the following ideas: "This is how God wants it." "This is how it's meant to be." "We must leave logic behind and follow our feelings." "It's all about Balance." "We have been in this place before." "That course of action is Forbidden." "We must learn Acceptance."
Rule #3. When all else fails, ask yourself the following question: "What would a real cop/astronaut/whatever do?" I mean, fictional characters are doing unreal stuff all the time, throwing in a little piece of realism might shake up the audience.
So to sum up, my final piece of advice is one of the following.
A. Don't be an idiot.
B. Don't assume your audience are idiots.
C. All of the above.
What is the correct answer?
Labels: idiot plots