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Exploring "idiot plot", a term popularised by Roger Ebert

The term “idiot plot” has long been one of the most confounding things in film, television, and literature. It’s something that we’re all familiar with, even if we’ve never heard the phrase before. In the realm of literary criticism, an “idiot plot” is defined by the great Roger Ebert as one that is “kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot”. 

Adding to this definition, the narrative device is also explained as one where the story would come to an end quickly or even not come to fruition if idiots were not in the driving seat. With regards to cinema, it is an umbrella term that accounts for some of the greatest and most infuriating farces we’ve ever witnessed, even though these days, it is nowhere near as common as it used to be, as, for a time, you could have gone as far as to regard it as ubiquitous. 

An “idiot plot” can largely be described as a story where the main source of conflict derives from the main characters not recognising or being told the key information needed to resolve it, something that is as named plot contrivance.

The characters constantly avoid or are oblivious to the resolution, which is immediately obvious to the viewer, meaning that they are best described as idiots, as they cannot see the obvious antidote or are too dense to resolve it themselves. Do not be fooled into thinking this narrative device is only used in comedy, we see it across the genres, from sports films to horrors.

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Famously, science fiction author and esteemed critic Damon Knight wrote in his 1956 collection In Search of Wonder that the term might have its origins with the writer James Blish, but it’s a point that is contested. More importantly, though, Knight went on to coin the term “second-order idiot plot”, which accounts for another style of narrative we are all too familiar with. He explained it as a story “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.”

Roger Ebert fingered the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat as the prime example of an “idiot plot”, basing his assertions on the fact that it depends on “a misunderstanding that is all but impossible.”

The story is so farcical because it relies on the point that Rogers’ character has never met her best friend’s husband and is thus able to mistake Astaire’s complete stranger for him, and so the misunderstanding plods on without it ever being challenged, despite being entirely improbable. Ebert maintains that the situation “could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue”, but the writers purposefully avoid this in order to keep the plot going, a strange sort of irony.

Clarifying his position on the “idiot plot”, in 2005, Ebert wrote that there is space for this type of narrative, but only in certain circumstances: “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.”

There are other alternate configurations of the “idiot” plot that describe only the protagonist as being an idiot, which is something else we’re all too familiar with, typified by the Mr. Bean films. Elsewhere, some of the most iconic titles in history fit under the umbrella of the general “idiot plot” such as Home AloneAlienFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Scooby-Doo, and even to a lesser extent, The Matrix.

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