The Ever-Dreaded Plotholes

Today’s post comes from a seemingly simple question from Tia Kalla (@tiakall):

@JessicaDall Any good advice for plothole/ending problem solving?”

Of course, I’d bet all of us writers wish that were simple, after all, it’s never fun to finish a story, get halfway through editing, and then find out that what the second half of your plot hinges on actually makes no sense. Sadly, there’s very rarely an easy fix, just some that are easier than others. And so for today, we will focus on plot holes, and I’ll attempt to tackle all those sticky ending problems tomorrow.

For those who don’t know exactly what a plot hole is, wikipedia puts it:

A plot hole, or plothole, is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot, or constitutes a blatant omission of relevant information regarding the plot. These include such things as unlikely behaviour or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements/events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.”

Reader or writer, I think we’ve all been there. Even if you’ve never seen a book in your life, you’ve probably experienced plot holes. You’ll find them in movies all the time. Cracked.com even came up with a list of eight movies left with gaping plot holes.

For example, Back to the Future:

Marty McFly goes back in time, helps his parents get together, invents rock and roll…and everyone promptly forgets he was ever there the minute he leaves.

Nobody notices that a famous clothing brand is later named after him, nobody notices that Chuck Berry releases a song that sounds pretty similar to the one he played at the big dance, and most importantly, nobody bats an eyelid when his Mom has a kid who looks exactly like him.”

Or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

At the end of another wondrous wizarding adventure, Harry uses a magical time-travel necklace to go back and save himself and his godfather from the evil dementors… The movie treats time travel like this urgent thing: “We’ve made it to the past! Now we’ve only got a few minutes to go back and stop the dementors!” No you don’t, you have as much time as you need. It’s f**king time travel. If you mess up, just go back and try again.”

Now, I’m sure every writer and/or reader had come across something in a story that seems out of nowhere, or completely out of character (I know I had to change a scene in a story when my editor pointed out that it didn’t make sense to have an otherwise cautious character agree to drive home with someone who might have had a few too many). But what’s awful about true plot holes are that they’re essential to your story. Had that car ride been the start of the story (a story about dealing with a drunk driving death, perhaps) or an essential part of the plot (it leads to a car chase that absolutely has to be there) it would have been a lot more difficult to get around it than having her take a taxi home for the night (which she does).

So just how, exactly, do you get around those annoying plot holes?

1. Acknowledge/Joke about the plot hole: One of the easiest ways to get around a plot hole is to simply acknowledge that, yes, it is a plot hole. For example:

“Wow, lucky this charm we’ve needed was right here where we just happened to be walking in a forest where we’d be lucky to ever find each other if separated.”

“Yeah, what are the odds?”

Not an ideal fix, but it’s better than just leaving it there for other people to pick apart. Personally, I believe this fix works best when a plot hole comes from someone acting illogically.

“Why the heck would you go and talk to that guy?”

2. Go back and change something that’s less important to make the plot hole make sense: For example, using my example of the cautious character getting in a car with someone who may or may not be safe to drive, put in somewhere much earlier that she’s very cautious, except when she’s drunk. That way, it would be easy to say she got drunk at the party and thus wasn’t her normal self. It’s easier to change than trying to rework just how you’re going to start your plot without her in the car and you have the plot hole taken care of.

What you do want to be careful of with this fix, however, is not to throw in the fact too late. Then it seems like a blatant attempt to fix something at the last minute. For example, in a book I was editing a while back there was a painfully obvious “oh, I need to move the plot along” moment that just made for bad writing. It seemed to go something like:

[Author is writing] Hmm, I need to have Generic Love Interest (GLI) jump in to this river and save Heroine who is suddenly going to turn into a Damsel in Distress long enough to have them meet and fall in love. But how can I do that? I’ve shown up until now that she is a completely competent woman who wouldn’t need anyone to save her. Oh! I got it.

Heroine: I know we’ve been on this boat for half a day, but just so you know, I can’t swim!

GLI: Oh, really?

Heroine: Yeah, I sure hope… AH! I just fell overboard, you need to save me since, like I just said I can’t swim!

It’s good the author was trying to fill in a plot hole, but if it’s important that the Heroine of your story can’t swim for that scene, don’t mention it three seconds before she falls in. Add it in earlier, take a little more time to edit and put it in earlier. A couple of references that maybe she’s afraid of water. Heck, even when they first get in the boat, make her uncomfortable. That way you have some precedent for when she falls overboard.

3. Outline: This might be most useful for keeping plot holes from happening int the first place, but outlining can also be a useful editing tool. Write down everything important that happens. Write down all the things that make those important things happen. It won’t take as much time as completely trying to rewrite and it will help you pinpoint where you’ll be able to make changes that will either allow you to make your plot holes make sense, or change them entirely. Is there a minor character you forgot about who could make the plot point work? Add them in so the plot hole makes sense.

4. Total Rewrite: And, of course, the most dreaded of the fixes for plot holes. Completely rewriting the story from however early you need to to get rid of the plot hole. Just considering it is enough to make the writer in you die a little inside, isn’t it? You’ve spent X amount of time writing your sixty, seventy, eighty-thousand word baby (562,000 if you’re Ayn Rand. Yep, that’s how long Atlas Shrugged is) you’ve finally made it through a complete draft, and now you’re basically going to have to start over. Still, if you can’t find any other fix (and you aren’t willing to just ignore it and hope no one very catches on – a fool’s dream) a rewrite could be your best bet. And sometimes it works out for the better. Now that you know exactly what you want to do with your story, and know your characters so well, the second time writing the same story might turn out amazingly better than you ever thought it could be just by going through and editing it.

And so, those are my suggestions for fixing plot holes (at least how I would do/have done it). If anyone has any other ideas, feel free to comment or email me (jesskdall(a)gmail.com) and I’ll add your ideas in as help for other writers.

To all: May your fixes be easy and your plot holes few.

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