Don’t Pet the Bull (a.k.a. Don’t Idiot Plot)

I recently finished a book that really annoyed me. Throughout the novel, the main character walked into ridiculously dangerous situations with no plan whatsoever, just blithely assuming it would work out. In short, he was an idiot.

In many ways, it reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. We were out eating dinner on the back patio, which happened to face the neighbor’s “barn.” (The barn was built initially for animals, but they decided it was too nice for that and instead rent it out for receptions, church activities, reunions, etc.) As it happened, there was a wedding reception there that night. We were idly watching the comings and going and commenting on the clothing (matching teal button up shirts and skirts for the wedding party? Really?) when we noticed some of the guests, including two small children, probably not more than two years old, approach the pasture, climb over the fence, and head in the direction of the cows.

We were more than a little concerned when the man, while holding one of the kids, decided to pet one of them. And not just anyone of them, he decided to pet the bull. Now, the neighbor’s bull was very nice…for a bull, but it was still a BULL. You don’t pet bulls, not when you’re in the pasture with them and definitely not when you’re holding a toddler.

Anyway, the bull moved closer. The guy moved back. The bull moved forward. The guy yelled at it. The bull changed direction and the guy turned away, completely missing the bull bucking.

We watched, horrified.

Fortunately for everyone, the bull got distracted (Mmm, grass…) and didn’t circle back on the man, although he started to. The people left, apparently unaware of any danger they’d been in.

It made me think of a bit of advice I heard at my very first writing conference:

“Don’t idiot plot.”


By this, the speaker meant that you should never have things happen because your main character is too stupid to live. You know, the girl in the horror movie who hears that the serial killer has escaped from prison, in her area no less, and she hears footsteps upstairs and decides to investigate, on her own and with the power out. That sort of thing.

If your plot only moves forward because your character is doing things that no rational human being would do, then you might have a problem.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that your character doesn’t make mistakes and never does anything wrong. We’re all human and we all do things that we know are absolutely idiotic. Hopefully nothing as risky as petting a strange bull while holding a toddler, but we all do things that we cringe at later.

I think the important thing in those situations is to look at the character’s motivation. Make sure the character’s actions are something the character would really do. If it’s just something that you as a writer want them to do to move your plot forward, then you might have a problem.

In any case, good luck and don’t pet the bull!


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.