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Idiot Plots and other storytelling fallacies

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Split off from the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire thread.

Roger Ebert coined the term "Idiot Plot" to describe a story that wrings feature-length (or novel-length) complications from a situation that at any time could be easily resolved, but is not, not for any obvious or persuasive character-based or plot-level reason, but solely because then there would be no story.

One sub-variation on the Idiot Plot is what could be called the Rube Goldberg Plot fallacy, in which a character conceives a labyrinthine plot (long, involved, complex and with any number of opportunities for failure) to achieve an end that could be achieved much more simply, surely and directly, again without any obvious or persuasive character-based or plot-level reason, but solely to drive the action of a long story.

The evil plot in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire strikes me as a persuasive example of the Rube Goldberg plot fallacy. As I pointed out earlier:

...you've got a confederate inside Hogwarts, you have the ability to make a Portkey and transport Harry anywhere you want. Who says the Portkey has to be an object that Harry will only touch (if at all) after an incredibly complex gauntlet with any number of opportunities for things to go wrong (and even if they go right the whole wizarding world is onto you instantly)?

Why don't we have Harry walking down the corridor in, like, chapter three or so, and

Professor Moody

sticks his head out of his office door and says, "Harry, can you come here a second? I want to show you something?" And Harry picks up a quill pen or something and boom, no more Harry, and it's hours or days before anyone suspects foul play.

Harris-Stone proposes a possible patch in response to this objection:

In Harry Potter, Harry is being watched more closely than the reader...who is viewing everything through Harry's mind...might realize. If the

fake Moody

tried to kidnap Harry that way, I suspect BOTH Dumbledore and Snape would have been on him like a bat out of hell. Magic leaves traces and can be detected. It's just not that easy. And Voldemort doesn't initiate the whole Triwizard tournament. Like the Joker in Batman he just "spins" it to his advantage, using it to misdirect those guarding Harry so they aren't looking the right way when the attack comes. So to me anyway, it remains very plausable within the context of the world that's built.

I'm not convinced. First of all,

the fake Moody

was caught anyway, and I'm not sure there was any reason to think he wouldn't be. I'm not sure Voldemort would care about that anyway.

The bottom line, for me, is this. The villains' essential challenge was to get Harry to touch an object that was secretly a Portkey. There is just no way that making the object the Goblet of Fire, and then engineering Harry's entry into the Tri-Wizard Tournament and his eventual victory (not to mention survival), would strike anyone attempting to think practically about the problem as anything like a reasonable way of tackling that goal.

OTOH, I don't think that any and every story is equally susceptible to this sort of debunking. Specifically, I don't think that The Lord of the Rings is really seriously challenged by the oft-repeated objection that the Council of Elrond could simply have recruited the Eagles to fly the Ring into Mordor and drop it into the Mountain of Fire.

In this case the objection is easily and obviously answered: Gandalf could not fly the eagles over Mordor because the Eye of Sauron could hardly fail to notice such a violation of his airspace, nor the power of Sauron permit such trespass. He would pull out all the stops, send out the flying Nazgul and any number of other defenses, and the mission would simply fail.

This is a logical conclusion that is entirely consistent with the way that Aragorn and company mount a diversionary attack on Black Gate in order to allow the hobbits to pass unnoticed across the blasted Mordor landscape. If even a couple of unobtrusive hobbits -- quieter and less conspicuous even than Dwarfs -- need a diversion to make their way across the face of Mordor, a fortiori a company of giant Eagles could never fly in plain sight over the mountains of Ephel Duath or Ered Lithui and make their way to the Mountain of Fire. Possibly no diversion in the world would be enough to distract Sauron from that gambit.

To me it seems that Rowling simply didn't think through The Goblet of Fire from Voldemort's point of view. The plot is driven by the dramatic need to supply Harry with adventure and intrigue, not by the plot-level needs of Voldemort. By contrast, obviously Tolkien did think through The Lord of the Rings from the Council's point of view, and contrived a suitably compelling reason for the Council to choose as they did.

That's not to say that the Goblet of Fire problem couldn't be patched. Any number of patches could be devised out of thin air: Perhaps the Portkey has to be the Goblet of Fire because the magic of the Goblet just happens to be uniquely of a sort to mask a Portkey spell, and any other Portkey object on Hogwarts ground would be detected by Dumbledore ... or perhaps the rite to restore Voldemort requires the blood of an enemy that is also a champion who has just won a great victory, even if he was more or less forced into it ... etc., etc.). But the story itself doesn't appear to provide any obvious support to such a theory, the way that Tolkien's story does provide support to the objection to the Eagle plan.

And really, couldn't you play this game pretty successfully with any book or film?

I don't think so. A well-crafted story should hold up to scrutiny. Little holes can be easily forgiven; large holes -- the kind where the whole story blows up, even within the rules of the world, if the audience asks one question -- should be patched. If not, they constitute a more or less serious narrative problem.

I think it just is a matter at where one draws the line of suspension of disbelief... man is Batsuit fights crime-okay. Invinicble man from another planet who can fly and punch stuff really hard-a little tougher for some... and so on. :)

I disagree. Suspension of disbelief properly applies to the premise or rules of the sub-created world -- not to the decisions characters make within that world. The whole point of a sub-created world in which men wear batsuits and bullets bounce off aliens is to say "Suppose you had a world like this -- what then?"

The "Suppose" part is where the storyteller has the right to ask for suspension of disbelief; the "What then?" part is where the audience has the right to ask to be persuaded by convincing, consistent thinking-through of implications.

That's why I noted in my Fantastic Four 2 review that I can accept cosmic ray super powers, but not four celebrity superheroes getting bumped to coach on an overbooked flight. The former is merely impossible; the latter is ridiculous. It's like how Chesterton's Father Brown commented in "The Curse of the Golden Cross" that he could more readily accept a story about Gladstone in the last hours of his life being haunted by the ghost of Parnell than a story about Gladstone wearing his hat to meet the Queen of England, slapping her on the back and offering her a cigar. The improbability of the latter is a more serious objection than the mere impossibility of the former.

Other examples of Idiot Plots or Rube Goldberg Plots? Other thoughts?

Edited by SDG

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There's always Hamlet.

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There's always Hamlet.

Can you clarify? You're not talking about the essential device of Hamlet's inaction, are you? Like you wouldn't have a story if Hamlet just acted?

I think most people would agree that's a character-based reason -- ie, the whole premise of Hamlet, what the story is essentially about, is a guy whose character results in agonizing instead of action.

By contrast, Harry Potter is not essentially about a villain whose character requires him to take incredibly labyrinthine approaches to problem-solving.

Edited by SDG

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Ah, I see what you're driving at. Yes, I was thinking of Hamlet's near-endless vacillation.

Well, doesn't just about every Bond villain have the same problem as Voldemort? I mean, I haven't seen the film of Dr. No, but in the novel the good doctor devises a hellish obstacle course for Bond that involves crawling through an increasingly hot metal pipe, dueling a giant squid, and enduring an entire Frankie & Annette film festival, the object being to see just how far Bond can go before he succumbs. Obviously the doctor could've saved a lot of time & expense by just emptying a Smith & Wesson into Bond when they first met. Would you say that's a character-based or a plot-based flaw?

I am thinking now of Season 5 of 24, which I mentioned over in the 24 thread. Around Episode 16, Jack Bauer comes into possession of a digital recording that incriminates the president in the terrorist plot du jour. Instead of popping the memory card into his government-issued PDA and uploading it to his cronies at CTU, Jack spends several fruitless episodes trying to deliver the recording personally, for no apparent reason.

Edited by mrmando

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Well, doesn't just about every Bond villain have the same problem as Voldemort? I mean, I haven't seen the film of Dr. No, but in the novel the good doctor devises a hellish obstacle course for Bond that involves crawling through an increasingly hot metal pipe, dueling a giant squid, and enduring an entire Frankie & Annette film festival, the object being to see just how far Bond can go before he succumbs. Obviously the doctor could've saved a lot of time & expense by just emptying a Smith & Wesson into Bond when they first met. Would you say that's a character-based or a plot-based flaw?
Funny you mention Bond. Immediately after watching Quantum of Solace, I thought to myself, "His evil scheme is to monopolize the water resources of Bolivia by re-routing their aquifers?" THAT is an idiot plot.

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Collateral - why not just kill Foxx?

(See COllateral Thread for the other 69 reasons why this film had an idiot plot)

Matt

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Ah, I see what you're driving at. Yes, I was thinking of Hamlet's near-endless vacillation.

Right. But Hamlet's not vacillating because he's an idiot, he's vacillating because that's his character. An idiot plot is one where the characters have to be idiots in order to avoid solving their problems (but the story isn't a story specifically and deliberately about idiots -- that's different).

Well, doesn't just about every Bond villain have the same problem as Voldemort? I mean, I haven't seen the film of Dr. No, but in the novel the good doctor devises a hellish obstacle course for Bond that involves crawling through an increasingly hot metal pipe, dueling a giant squid, and enduring an entire Frankie & Annette film festival, the object being to see just how far Bond can go before he succumbs. Obviously the doctor could've saved a lot of time & expense by just emptying a Smith & Wesson into Bond when they first met. Would you say that's a character-based or a plot-based flaw?

It's a grey area, but I'd be inclined to give that one the benefit of the doubt. The key issue here is not so much the rationality or non-rationality of the end for which the villain chooses to act, but the rationality or non-rationality of how that end is related to the chosen means. So a sane villain might just kill Bond, but given a crazy one curiously fixated on discovering "how far Bond can go," I'm willing to spot him his torturous gauntlet of metal pipes, giant squids and all. OTOH, give me a villain whose stated goal is not, say, to psych out the hero with head games related to the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but merely to kidnap him by arranging for him to touch a designated enchanted object -- and then have him act toward that end by arbitrarily choosing an object that will unnecessarily require incredibly labyrinthine contrivances to get the hero to touch it, not for any reason that has anything to do with anything we're told or can guess about the villain's psychology, but simply because it makes a better story, and I find that ... unpersuasive.

I am thinking now of Season 5 of 24, which I mentioned over in the 24 thread. Around Episode 16, Jack Bauer comes into possession of a digital recording that incriminates the president in the terrorist plot du jour. Instead of popping the memory card into his government-issued PDA and uploading it to his cronies at CTU, Jack spends several fruitless episodes trying to deliver the recording personally, for no apparent reason.

Yep, that sounds like it fits the bill. On a related note, though it's only an idiot plot twist rather than an idiot plot, I remember an episode of Lois & Clark in which Superman had to fly a 3.5" floppy disc to various locations to install crucial software on certain computers, because -- they specifically told us -- the program on it couldn't be transmitted electronically. Riiight. It's a MAGIC 3.5" floppy! But that's only stupid plotting, not the same as a bona fide Idiot Plot.

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Yep, that sounds like it fits the bill. On a related note, though it's only an idiot plot twist rather than an idiot plot, I remember an episode of Lois & Clark in which Superman had to fly a 3.5" floppy disc to various locations to install crucial software on certain computers, because -- they specifically told us -- the program on it couldn't be transmitted electronically. Riiight. It's a MAGIC 3.5" floppy! But that's only stupid plotting, not the same as a bona fide Idiot Plot.

They should've said the computers in question had modems that maxed out at 9600 baud, and thus it was actually faster for Superman to fly the disk around than to wait for the software to upload over the Internet.

Edited by mrmando

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As for the Harry Potter plot, it's much simpler than that.

In the scene near the end of the film where Voldemort rises from his sickly form back to his former glory, he uses Harry's blood for the necessary mixture to gain his strength, as Harry is the alleged "Enemy" from whom blood is "forcibly taken". Voldemort was setting up Harry to be sent to the graveyard for that specific purpose; if the fake Moody had killed Harry in the story preceding that scene, it would have ruined the whole thing. Voldemort was supposed to kill Harry after gaining his form and strength, but Harry escaped; so naturally, the fake Moody felt it necessary to kill him when he returned (which, of course, he failed to do).

As for why

Harry is allowed to live in other stories, it's mostly in regard to Voldemort's ego. He wants to be the one to kill Harry, and it would basically be treason for any of his underlings to take away his greatest desire.

That's my best estimation, and I think it explains it pretty well.

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No, Joel, SDG's objection is not that

the fake Moody doesn't kill Harry

, but that

there are much simpler ways of getting him to the graveyard

.

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One can consider many Westerns and action films would have turned out differently if the bad guys could aim a gun properly, or if a six-shooter pistol was unable to shoot more than six bullets.

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No, Joel, SDG's objection is not that

the fake Moody doesn't kill Harry

, but that

there are much simpler ways of getting him to the graveyard

.

There are at least two ways to object to the plot of the story. One is aesthetic. For example there are plenty of people with good literary taste who simply don't like The Lord of the Rings. (I'm not one of them.) They try to read it because they've heard its good and bog down somewhere. The other is what we're talking about in this thread, that the plot doesn't make sense within its own suppositions. This is a different and more severe criticism.

I believe a close reading of the Harry Potter series argues against Goblet of Fire having an idiotic plot. If one possess no aesthetic objection to a baroque story line, it makes sense. To argue this, we need to look closely at the story. In particular, we need to see it the way the character Voldemort does, since he is the one accussed of excess, "idiotic" action within the plot.

Why doesn't Voldemort order the fake Moody, his "loyal servant" at Hogwarts, to simply kidnap Harry to the graveyard using a portkey without the fuss of the tournament?

To answer this, we must begin with some facts about the Wizarding World, the world of magic.

1) The nature of portkeys. Once the object has been turned into a portkey, it can either go at a particular time or can be set to go when ANYONE touches it. Moody cannot "hand" the portkey to Harry, because as soon as he picked it up, it would take HIM. Harry has to find it. This creates a big risk. What if the wrong person touches the portkey instead? One way around this is to use a Portkey set to go at a particular time. But this is still problematic. If Harry for some reason doesn't hold the portkey and keep holding it before it goes, if he puts it down for any reason, it will go by itself.

2) the nature of distance and communication in the Wizard world. Because of apparating, distance is meaningless. If Harry is taken to the graveyard and Dumbledore has any inkling where Harry he is, he and the order of the Phoneix can arrive there almost within seconds. This is in fact what happens in the next book.

3) the nature of magic. Dark and complex magic is dangerous and unpredictable. One cannot always be assured of the results one expects. One must be prepared for the unexpected. Voldemort cannot feel confident that returning himself to a body will be trivial or easy. He requires complete control over his surroundings if he's going to succeed.

4) The Triwizard Tournament -- once a contestant is entered, they cannot back out. Nor can anyone take them out. Putting ones name in the Goblet of Fire constitutes a binding magical agreement. Once Harry is in the tournament, Dumbledore cannot keep him from participating in the events. It places Harry beyond Dumbledore's control.

4) Dumbledore. The most powerful wizard in the world probably. The only wizard Voldemort fears. What Dumbledore can and cannot do is unknown. Which is probably partly why Voldemort fears him. It is worth noting the Voldemort does not succeed in killing Dumbledore himself and when he "does," he uses an intermediary.

5) Harry Potter -- unknown to Harry and the reader, but revealed eventually in the series -- is very closely guarded by Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. He is not easy, even for someone at Hogwarts, to get at undetected. Witness what happens in book III when Sirius Black, who believes Harry is in danger, tries to get into Harry's dorm.

With all of the above in mind, let's not step into the shoes of Voldemort at the beginning of Goblet of Fire.

a. He's extremely weak and vulnerable. He barely has a body. He has to be carried like a baby from place to place. If Dumbledore or the Ministry found out where he was, he would be in terrible danger. Therefore, he is very, very afraid. But being Voldemort, he doesn't show it.

b. He prefers to operate in secrecy, keeping his thoughts to himself, when possible working through intermediaries. This has been his modus operendi since boyhood.

c. He is in disgrace, having been defeated by a baby. He needs to prove himself strong... the Dark Lord who knows to regain the shattered allegiance of his followers.

d. He isn't completely sure which followers are still with him.

e. Because of the nature of distance in the wizarding world, the unpredicatability of magic, the unknown but potent powers of Dumbledore, and his own terrible weakness, Voldemort must get Harry to the graveyard with no one realizing he's gone. This is the only secure way to be sure his plan to regain his body, power and followers will work as he intends. This is essential.

So at this point, if you are Voldemort, knowing how closely Harry is being watched, knowing the problems you've already had with him when you yourself were actually in Hogwarts (Book 1). You will not see getting Harry to the graveyard as simple. Nor will you be content ordering a straightforward abduction. Dependent on secrecy as you are, as obssessed with it as your are, you will want to be absolutely sure to bring Harry to you undetected. How can you do this?

The answer is misdirection. Make the circumstances when Harry disappears point to something other than what is actually happening. Confuse your enemy. Make him think you're trying to kill Harry at Hogwarts, when what you're really trying to do is get him away.

Given all of this, the Triwizard tournament perfectly suits Voldemort's purposes.

1) Once Harry is entered, Voldemort can know exactly where Harry will be during the events. Dumbledore cannot protect him as usual, because that would violate the binding magical rules of the tournament.

2) There is every reason, given the danger of the tournament, to believe someone wants to kill Harry. There is no reason to believe someone is using it to spirit Harry away. So the real purpose is concealed, something Voldemort must find most attractive.

3) In the final event, due to its nature, no one knows Harry is gone. So Voldemort can have him without worrying whether the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore at the fore, will come blasting in at any moment.

4) Given the need to protect Harry from whoever is trying to get him via the Tournament, actually gives Moody the latitude to cover his real intentions while trying to set Harry up. By helping Harry, he wins Harry's trust and Dumbledore's so when the time comes, no one including Dumbledore suspects a thing.

A key point is that Voldemort has nothing to do with the Tournament happening. He doesn't go to the length of creating a diversion himself. Rather more elegantly, he takes advantage of the circumstances he finds at hand.

Given the nature of portkeys, ensuring that Harry and only Harry touch one that is lying around somewhere, being certain no one is aware of his absence or suspects Moody's role in it, would be quite difficult. I also suspect Voldemort likes twisting the tournament to his own purposes simply because its one more way to assert that its all about him, to convince himself he is the greatest wizard who ever lived by making a time honored tradition uniquely his own. It appeals to him astheticallly.

I do not see, given the supposition that the Tournament in happening anyway, how Voldemort could find an easy or more elegant way to carry out his objectives. For me, this plot is far from idiotic. Though others are of course free to disagree.

Edited by Harris-Stone

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Brilliant, Harris-Stone. Absolutely brilliant.

It doesn't affect my own criticisms of the book, of course. But that's another subject altogether. :)

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Brilliant, Harris-Stone. Absolutely brilliant.

It doesn't affect my own criticisms of the book, of course. But that's another subject altogether. :)

Thanks Peter.

I think it's fair to point out that all of the detail I mentioned was setup by the author for her purposes. Aesthetically, this won't be everyone's cup of tea. But it certainly suits her desire to entertain, and many readers desire to be entertained, to have Harry go through the whole triwizard thing. It's dramatic and even comic when someone who is basically just a high school student trying to get on with being a high school student gets dragged into something way over his head and manages to succeed in spite of his own inabilities amd shortsightedness. Certainly not a traditional hero, but a traditional type of hero. In the Authurinan stories, Percival is the ignorant bumbler who succeeds in getting the Grail, where others, more noble, have failed. He succeeds because of his innocence. A more modern version, who is "innocent" only in being singularly selfish and egotistical, is Inspector Clouseau. Another would be "The Dude" in the Big Lebowski. Where JKR turns things on their head, is that Harry really does turn out to be a more traditional hero by the end of the series. His ignorance and bumbling are because he's still really just a relatively ordinary child, a kind of everyman, albeit one at the center of a huge struggle through no fault or desire of his own. I suppose what JKR has done with Harry, is to synthesize several different traditional types of characters into one role. He becomes a hero; he's a Percival type bumbler, rather selfish, who gets away with it in spite of himself, and he's an Everyman, one without superiour qualitities of intellect or strength who we relate to.

Goblet pushes this contrast to the fore. In that I think JKR does something unique. In the previous novels, Harry is more conventionally heroic, sparing Wormtongue, saving Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, etc. In Goblet he's Percival, forced into situations over his head and abilities where, until the graveyard, he mostly fails to rise to the occasion. (In the lake, he does try to save everyone, to his own detriment, which is heroic.) In the graveyard, Harry the hero fully returns, choosing to fight and defy Voldemort, instead of beg for his life, in spite of being absolutely outmatched. And in the end of the book, in a piece of brillant writing, Harry is saved by grace.

I think the biggest plot hole in the series is why Dumbledore, who after all knows how important Harry is, who is watching him closely, allows Harry time after time to get himself in so much danger. The worst being in the first book, when he faces Voldemort directly. It's possible Harry evades Dumbledore's watchers and surprises Dumbledore himself with his actions. At any rate, I don't envy the man. Also, I believe JKR has Dumbledore himself address this at some point. The answer being that Harry needs to be allowed to grow if he is to do what he must and become who he must. Smothering him in protection won't accomplish that. As a parent, I can relate to this dilemma!)

Edited by Harris-Stone

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I still don't buy it, Harris-Stone.

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Dumbledore trusts "Moody". That's the key point on which all objections to the plot as it stands must turn. If Rowling had structured it in such a way that Dumbledore never left Harry alone with Moody, then the Triwizard Tournament would become instantly much more sensical, in my view.

All Moody really needs to do is to get Harry alone for an hour or two, say by arranging an excuse to give him detention or a personal lesson of some kind, and then arranging for the whatever-it-is to involve touching the Portkey. Away he goes, Voldemort has time to do his thing, and Dumbledore is none the wiser! I personally would have no trouble believing that the Order of the Phoenix would not figure this scheme out fast enough to save Harry, especially since no one would know where the heck he went. (Like SDG said, Rowling could also work in objections to this, such as letting us know that you can "track" a Portkey using magic and thereby follow it to its destination, etc. But we don't have any such justficiation, AFAIR.)

Edited by David Smedberg

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Brilliant, Harris-Stone. Absolutely brilliant.

Wow--seconded, heh.

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I should probably note that none of this has ever occurred to me before... that's just part of my personality: I tend to immerse myself so deeply in the fantasy world of the book that possible objections to either its rules or to the ways its characters behave within them don't surface unless others bring them to light. Goblet of Fire remains my favorite book in the series, largely because of the twist. I received it when I read it as possibly the most perfect piece of popular fiction I had read since Speaker for the Dead; and that's high praise, from me.

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I agree with Peter that Harris-Stone's reading is, indeed, ingenious, but I'm also with David S. in remaining unconvinced. I won't contest the point further at this time, though. :)

One can consider many Westerns and action films would have turned out differently if the bad guys could aim a gun properly, or if a six-shooter pistol was unable to shoot more than six bullets.

This is a different phenomenon. Good guys shooting better than bad guys can be considered either deus ex machina or genre convention, whichever you like. Either way, it's not the same sort of issue as a plot structure that depends for its complications on obvious solutions being gratuitously ignored (by characters whose inability to see/choose the obvious solution is not otherwise rooted in their essential characterization and motivations or in integral plot/world rules, but only in the writer's convenience). (E.g., no one would say, "Why don't the villains just solve the problem by shooting better?" Obviously they're shooting the best they can.)

I should probably note that none of this has ever occurred to me before... that's just part of my personality: I tend to immerse myself so deeply in the fantasy world of the book that possible objections to either its rules or to the ways its characters behave within them don't surface unless others bring them to light.

That is my tendency too, but I have a critic friend who pushes me to think through the story from everyone's point of view and ask "Cui bono?" (who benefits?) regarding plot devices that commend themselves more on the basis of storytelling coolness than plausible character choices. (Why does the giant guard the bridge and challenge all comers? Obviously we all want the hero to have a challenge, but what's in it for the giant?)

FWIW, in the case of the Goblet of Fire objection, it was actually my brother who made the argument and convinced me of its persuasiveness. (I've emailed HS's exhaustive analysis to him ... I'm curious to see what he'll say. :) )

Edited by SDG

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I still don't buy it, Harris-Stone.

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Dumbledore trusts "Moody". That's the key point on which all objections to the plot as it stands must turn. If Rowling had structured it in such a way that Dumbledore never left Harry alone with Moody, then the Triwizard Tournament would become instantly much more sensical, in my view.

All Moody really needs to do is to get Harry alone for an hour or two, say by arranging an excuse to give him detention or a personal lesson of some kind, and then arranging for the whatever-it-is to involve touching the Portkey. Away he goes, Voldemort has time to do his thing, and Dumbledore is none the wiser! I personally would have no trouble believing that the Order of the Phoenix would not figure this scheme out fast enough to save Harry, especially since no one would know where the heck he went. (Like SDG said, Rowling could also work in objections to this, such as letting us know that you can "track" a Portkey using magic and thereby follow it to its destination, etc. But we don't have any such justficiation, AFAIR.)

A very good point. I'm also like you and SDG, when I'm reading I sink into the story. As an aspiring writer myself though, I also tend to look at from a technical point of view as well, just to see what I can learn about writing, etc. In this case, SDG's objections inspired me to look closer.

In response as to why VOLDEMORT doesn't do what you've rightly pointed out he could do...

Show hidden text
1. Voldemort doesn't trust "Moody." Not completely. He doesn't trust anybody completely, prefering to work alone as much as possible and prefering to maintain as much CONTROL as he can.

2. The plan of having "Moody" lure Harry into a room simply isn't as secure as the plan that's used. In such a case, "Moody" cannot be certain he isn't going to be interrupted. Hmm. Well actually he could be sure once he has the Marauder's Map. However, I don't think he ever tells Voldemort about the map, and its Voldemort who is giving the orders here and "Moody," who worships Voldemort, who follows them.

3. Voldemort would lose the whole element of misdirection. Harry isn't in the contest. No one believes someone is trying to kill him.

4. As the reader, we know that Dumbledore trusts Moody. But Voldemort doesn't know Dumbledore. Not that well. And Voldemort himself would never trust anybody the way Dumbledore does. So I don't think this advantage occurs to him. We have to remember Voldemort is weak and terrified of Dumbledore. He doesn't know what Dumbledore is capable of and will want to do everything he can to make sure Dumbledore is out of the picture. That's where the tornament helps. It puts Harry out of Dumbledore's reach during events.

5. Belaboring the point a bit here...but a portkey is tricky. ANYONE touching it gets transported. To do what your suggesting, "Moody" would have to make the portkey and then leave it in his office while he went and got Harry. What if a house elf came in to tidy up? Imagine the humilitation. Voldemort and Wormtongue come down to the graveyard and a house elf or someone else is there! Of couse he could send somebody else to get Harry, but then that somebody else would know Moody was the last person to see Harry. It's simply not as watertight as making something Harry is trying to touch on his own into the portkey.

In short, I don't believe such a plan would appeal to Voldermort. It leaves too much of a very, vital action that his entire future hangs on, in the hands of a subordinate and takes away the glory from Voldemort of being the one to engineer Harry's kidnap. Remember, this is the dude who made 7 horocruxes when 1 well hidden horcrux would have done the job. He has no objection to an elaborate approach, though we might.

SDG, I'm interested what your brother says. I certainly, in spite of this obssessive analysis I've done, could be wrong!

FWIW, my wife feels the following plot point from Order of the Phoenix, the next book, isn't believable.

Show hidden text
Why does Harry forget about the mirror Sirius gives him. OK, a lot of time passes from when he gets it at Christmas to when he needs it at the end of term. But still, is he really so dense that something given him by his beloved godfather ends up completely ignored?

That is my tendency too, but I have a critic friend who pushes me to think through the story from everyone's point of view and ask "Cui bono?" (who benefits?) regarding plot devices that commend themselves more on the basis of storytelling coolness than plausible character choices. (Why does the giant guard the bridge and challenge all comers? Obviously we all want the hero to have a challenge, but what's in it for the giant?)

That's a great question and analytical tool! :)

Edited by Harris-Stone

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That's why I noted in my Fantastic Four 2 review that I can accept cosmic ray super powers, but not four celebrity superheroes getting bumped to coach on an overbooked flight. The former is merely impossible; the latter is ridiculous. It's like how Chesterton's Father Brown commented in "The Curse of the Golden Cross" that he could more readily accept a story about Gladstone in the last hours of his life being haunted by the ghost of Parnell than a story about Gladstone wearing his hat to meet the Queen of England, slapping her on the back and offering her a cigar. The improbability of the latter is a more serious objection than the mere impossibility of the former.

The Brown example is clever writing but poor statistics. Something impossible is always less likely to occur than something improbable. Gladstone's child could have been kidnapped and he had been told that if he ever wanted to see his child again he had to...yada yada yada. Likewise, getting bumped to coach? Easy. There's always people who hate celebrities, even superheroes. All it needs is for the bump decision maker to be one of them.

(but the story isn't a story specifically and deliberately about idiots -- that's different).

...or else von Trier's "The Idiots" would be a shoo-in.

Well, doesn't just about every Bond villain have the same problem as Voldemort? I mean, I haven't seen the film of Dr. No, but in the novel the good doctor devises a hellish obstacle course for Bond that involves crawling through an increasingly hot metal pipe, dueling a giant squid, and enduring an entire Frankie & Annette film festival, the object being to see just how far Bond can go before he succumbs. Obviously the doctor could've saved a lot of time & expense by just emptying a Smith & Wesson into Bond when they first met. Would you say that's a character-based or a plot-based flaw?

This is why "Collateral

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I've been wracking my brain for the last couple of days over an idiot plot device that I recently saw (within the last 2 weeks), and commented on while watching the film. Couldn't think of it to save my life, until this morning, when I walked half-asleep down the dark hallway to the kitchen to make coffee, and my cat burst out from her hiding spot and scared the bejeezus out of me.

A L I E N

Let's be honest... Jones the cat exists in this movie for no other purpose than to GET PEOPLE KILLED!! In an otherwise great movie, the device of the cat is used to eliminate four people out of the five who die (Ash is not counted here). Other than Kane - Brett, Dallas, Parker and Lambert all die as a result of having a cat aboard a Company spaceship - probably smuggled onboard, 'cause I do not believe that Company regulations would allow having an animal of any kind. Just look at how many places this cat gets into - how long before it bumps into the wrong cable or switch that sends the ship into irreversible disaster?

So, we all know the alien gets onboard (admittedly, not the cats' doing). But after Kane's last supper, Jones the cat pretty much sets up all the deaths that follow.

Jones the cat attributable death #1: Brett - While with Parker and Ripley (armed with flamethrower and tracking device), Brett separates himself from the group to go in search of Jones, who has been left to wander about the ship. Of course, Jones happens to wander right into the trackers' detector field, requiring that Jones needs to be isolated. After chasing him into the bowels of the ship, Brett finally corners Jones, only to become the first victim of the alien. Notice how Jones hisses at the first appearance of the alien, but then notice Jones' calm, almost satisfied reaction as the alien carries Brett away to an unknown fate (revealed in the later director's cut).

Jones the cat attributable death #2: Dallas - But wait, you say. Jones was nowhere near Dallas when he died. True. But had Jones not contributed to Brett's death, then the question arises of whether Parker, Ripley and Brett could have destroyed the alien in their initial search. That's something we'll never know. As a result, Dallas has to take on the task of climbing through the ships' airshafts to try and corner the alien into the ships' airlock. A valiant effort on Dallas' part (and about the only time Dallas showed any leadership qualities), but doomed to failure.

Jones the cat attributable deaths #3 and #4: Parker and Lambert - Once again, there are three people working together for their survival, prepping the ship to self destruct, and making their escape in the lifepod. Once again, Jones the cat causes the disintegration of the group. Just as the ship goes into self-destruct mode, and after being a self sufficient animal for two thirds of the film, suddenly Jones lets out one of those "help, I'm stuck in a tree!" kind of meows that moves Ripley to action... the absolute wrong action. While spending her time retrieving the cat (and taking one of the two flame throwers with her), Parker and Lambert are left to confront the alien. Now, what if Ripley had been in the same room with these two, with the extra flame thrower. Is it possible she would have had a clearer shot at the alien, a better shot than Parker had? Well, we don't know, do we? 'Cause Jones the cat needed attention.

So, four deaths. Nearly five, if you count the fact that Ripley barely gets the two of them off ship. And the cat is a little suspect, in my mind. Why does the alien let the cat survive in their face to face moment near the end of the film? The dog in Alien3 didn't get the same consideration.

Ultimately, could the writers have found another way of setting up these deaths, rather than resorting to "the cat device"? There is absolutely no other need for Jones in this film.

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Ultimately, could the writers have found another way of setting up these deaths, rather than resorting to "the cat device"? There is absolutely no other need for Jones in this film.

Well, maybe. But FWIW this is not what Ebert or I mean by an Idiot Plot.

An Idiot Plot is not simply something that causes you to roll your eyes at the writers' choices. It is a plot that hinges upon (narratively gratuitous and inexplicable) obtuseness on the part of the characters in order not to solve plot problems in short order, thereby prematurely ending the story (or the act).

An Idiot Plot wrings disproportionate narrative time and energy from what would be a pseudo-problem that would get resolved in ten minutes in any story in which characters behaved with a reasonable level of insight and common sense. (Again, the exception would be if for dramatic or aesthetic reasons the characters were specifically meant to be idiots, or otherwise incapable of seeing/implementing the obvious solution.)

Ebert's usual description stipulates that ALL the characters in the story must behave like idiots in order not to wrap up the story in ten minutes, but the same principle applies to any dramatic conflict that could easily be prematurely solved by any one character not acting like an idiot (or with gratuitous obtuseness.

Okay, here is an example: Race to Witch Mountain. The whole movie assumes that Seth and Sara are constantly in grave danger from the alien assassin, yet then it turns out that Seth is capable of phasing through solid objects as well as assuming diamond-like hardness and invulnerability, not only for himself but also for anyone he touches. So why is he EVER in any danger at all? Why doesn't he just phase himself and Sara through the alien's attacks, or deflect them with diamond-like invulnerability? Duh.

Okay, so it's not hard to patch if we want to: We can stipulate that the alien has tech capable of hitting you even in phase mode, or hurting you even at diamond hardness. But the movie doesn't gesture in that direction, plus, there are other times where the kids have to be idiots for us for the suspense to work. Why doesn't Sara break out her car-bomb trick during the first big vehicular chase?

Maybe poor use of super powers isn't the best possible example, but it's what I've got at the moment.

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Ebert's usual description stipulates that ALL the characters in the story must behave like idiots in order not to wrap up the story in ten minutes, but the same principle applies to any dramatic conflict that could easily be prematurely solved by any one character not acting like an idiot (or with gratuitous obtuseness.

Ahh, but this is where Ebert's multiple definitions over the years for the idiot plot causes problems. Ebert seems to have an idiot plot definition for multiple genres, not all of which match. True, his original definition stipulates ALL characters being idiots, which he seems to have first written back in 1966 for the western The Ugly Ones, a film he absolutely loathed.

However, after that initial definition, Ebert has gone on to write several other secondary definitions, some of which seem to be used by Ebert as an out for films that he enjoys, but knows have inherent problems. For his review of Wait Until Dark, a film that earned 3 1/2 stars, Ebert rewrites his definition of the idiot plot.

... an idiot plot depends upon one or more (note not ALL) characters being idiots. They get trapped in a situation that they could easily get out of with common sense. But they don't, being idiots. If they did, they'd solve the problem and the movie would be over.

This fits the second half of the definition given above, but this definition allows a movie to slip into its idiot plot late in the film, which apparently to Ebert implies that sometimes the idiot plot can then be forgivable if the movie has been good to that point. As Ebert wrote in his review of Wait Until Dark...

Idiot plots usually turn up in bad movies, but occasionally they creep into superior films like this one, causing unhappy distractions. "Wait Until Dark" is about a blind girl (Audrey Hepburn) whose husband accidentally gets possession of a doll containing heroin. After she is left alone in her apartment, three men terrorize her in an attempt to find the doll.

They stage an elaborate act in which one plays a cop, one plays an old college chum of her husband and the third plays -- but never mind. The important thing is, these three guys walk in and out of her apartment with complete freedom. The door is unlocked. First one guy comes in. Then he leaves and someone else turns up. Finally the girl realizes she's in danger.

So far, so good. We can swallow the first hour of the movie, even though It's rather unlikely, simply because we like to be entertained and want to be convinced. But after the girl wakes up to the danger she's in, why doesn't she LOCK THAT DOOR?

She's left alone. The guys are gone for a moment. There's a little girl living upstairs, and Audrey sends her to the bus terminal to wait for her husband's bus. (Another idiot plot slip-up. Why not send the girl to the police?) Then she's alone again. The door is unlocked. But she can lock it. She doesn't.

The bad guys come in and out of the apartment like finalists in a revolving door sweepstakes. In the dark privacy of the 19th row, made all the more suspenseful because the lights in the theater are turned out for the last scenes, am I frightened? On the edge of my chair? No, I'm asking myself why she doesn't lock the door.

For the horror genre, Ebert has added to his idiot plot definition, using this definition to debunk an endless series of teen horror flicks, especially the ones from the 80's...

...victims often continue to split up even after many in their group turn up dead, run into blind alleys, make noises that allow the killer to find them while in hiding, refrain from arming themselves as a group, etc.

ALIEN may not fall into Ebert's original definition of the idiot plot, but it easily falls into his revised horror genre definition. Characters split up more than once. Characters allow themselves to go down blind alleys (airducts). Characters don't arm themselves as a group. And a cat, which really seems out of place in this environment, takes on more importance than it should (don't go off on me, I'm a cat lover). BUT, it's a superior horror film - just one that can't completely escape Ebert's "horror genre" definition of the idiot plot. However, like Wait Until Dark, ALIEN is technically superior over films like Friday the 13th, contains characters that are not the interchangeable cookie-cutter types that usually populate horror films, and is paced with extreme care to maximize its payoffs. And because of this, ALIEN can be forgiven its idiot elements as we are watching it, even though they may give us a moments pause after the whole thing is over.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah

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I don't know if this counts, but here's a thing that has always bothered me about Terminator 2: Judgment Day:

We are told that the T-1000 can imitate everything it samples by physical contact. We also know that Terminators of all stripes are very good at, well, terminating. They're pretty ruthless and efficient, really.

So why, when the T-1000 finally gets close enough to Sarah Connor to stab her through the shoulder, does he not kill her and take her place right there and then!? (I will forgive, for now, the fact that the T-1000 had ALREADY sampled her by physical contact when it slashed her back in the elevator at the sanitorium.) Why does the T-1000 keep her pinned in place and say "Call to John"? She's obviously not obeying him. And the pain coursing through her body would presumably make her voice sound a little, I dunno, different if she did call out for John. Wouldn't it be much easier for the T-1000 to just kill her right then and there, and then assume her form so that he could get close to John?

The problematic fact that he DOESN'T do this is underscored shortly afterwards, when the T-1000 DOES do something like this ... except, because he hadn't killed Sarah, she is free to enter the scene too, and thus there are two Sarahs, which completely blows whatever stealth the T-1000 could have hoped to gain by assuming Sarah's form.

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Ahh, but this is where Ebert's multiple definitions over the years for the idiot plot causes problems.

Yes, he hasn't stuck to precisely one definition, though I didn't know that he had ever explicitly allowed that "an idiot plot depends upon one or more (note not ALL) characters being idiots." His usual formula is "all the characters." I prefer the less restrictive definition.

And yeah, in Wait Until Dark he distinguishes between the Idiot Plot movie per se, and a mere idiot plot twist, in which idiot plot-ism takes over a particular stage of the movie's conflict without taking over the conflict as a whole.

For the horror genre, Ebert has added to his idiot plot definition, using this definition to debunk an endless series of teen horror flicks, especially the ones from the 80's...
...victims often continue to split up even after many in their group turn up dead, run into blind alleys, make noises that allow the killer to find them while in hiding, refrain from arming themselves as a group, etc.

Is that a quotation from Ebert? I can't find it in his writings.

I agree that this sort of thing can function as idiot plot-ism if the danger to the characters continues only because the characters behave like idiots, and if they took sensible precautions that anyone would take there would be no danger.

Whether Alien fits this description or not I don't know. I don't remember being struck by the characters' frustrating idiocy; I'd have to watch it again to be sure.

Here is an instance of that sort of thriller-movie idiot-plot-ism that caused me, watching in the theater, to lose all ability to care about a film:

Jurassic Park II.

Julianne Moore's character is

  1. a scientist who
  2. gets baby T-rex blood on her jacket while carrying the baby T-rex,
  3. specifically comments that it is baby T-rex blood (not her own blood),
  4. specifically comments (at another point) that T-rexes have excellent olfactory capacity, and
  5. knows that the mama T-rex is around looking for her baby.
At that point, every intelligent 10-year-old in the theater knows what she should do: Ditch the jacket. (Or at least make some effort to wash out or otherwise mask the smell. Something. Anything. At least freaking recognize the obvious issue.)

But noooo. What does she do that night? She hangs the blood-spattered jacket from the roof of her tent, wafting in the breeze over her head. And then acts like it's some sort of shock when a massive T-rex snout pokes between the tent flaps and takes a terrific whiff.

That doesn't make the whole movie an Idiot Plot movie, but it's a whopper of an idiot plot device.

I don't know if this counts, but here's a thing that has always bothered me about Terminator 2: Judgment Day:

We are told that the T-1000 can imitate everything it samples by physical contact. We also know that Terminators of all stripes are very good at, well, terminating. They're pretty ruthless and efficient, really.

So why, when the T-1000 finally gets close enough to Sarah Connor to stab her through the shoulder, does he not kill her and take her place right there and then!? (I will forgive, for now, the fact that the T-1000 had ALREADY sampled her by physical contact when it slashed her back in the elevator at the sanitorium.) Why does the T-1000 keep her pinned in place and say "Call to John"? She's obviously not obeying him. And the pain coursing through her body would presumably make her voice sound a little, I dunno, different if she did call out for John. Wouldn't it be much easier for the T-1000 to just kill her right then and there, and then assume her form so that he could get close to John?

The problematic fact that he DOESN'T do this is underscored shortly afterwards, when the T-1000 DOES do something like this ... except, because he hadn't killed Sarah, she is free to enter the scene too, and thus there are two Sarahs, which completely blows whatever stealth the T-1000 could have hoped to gain by assuming Sarah's form.

Yep, that smells like an idiot plot device, all right.

Edited by SDG

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