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:
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:
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.
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 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, 07 August 2009 - 06:02 AM.