Plot Holes (Part III)

With everyone buzzing around Plot Hole articles (Parts I and II) it was pointed out that I missed a comment from Secretly_Samus, author of Shannon on Writing and Rewriting, on Part I. Secretly_Samus writes:

This [Plot Holes Part I] makes me…ponder the question, how do you know when you have a plot hole?”

I apologise for the delay, but to help everyone who wonders if they have a plot hole, “The Pesky Plot Hole Questionnaire” can be a lot of help.

So don’t stress yourself too much over it, but if you’re worried about possibly having a plot hole on your hands, try asking yourself some of these questions (both from the original questionnaire on Freelance and Fiction and some I’ve added myself):

  1. Do your characters overlook obvious solutions to their problems? (e.g. the heroine forgets to use her incredible knowledge of karate when she’s attacked.)
  2. Do your villains conveniently overlook or pooh-pooh the one flaw that could let the hero escape?
  3. Does the cavalry arrive more quickly than is physically possible? (Your character took three days to cross the mountains. She gets thrown in jail. Her sidekick, who didn’t start the journey until learning of her predicament, is there springing her out the next day.)
  4. Are people a little too willing to help the heroes? (Or a little too unwilling?)
  5. Do you tell reader that the hero’s plan was brilliant but refuse to actually reveal how he/she pulled it off? (Skipping past the daring action can be a huge cop-out.)
  6. Do your heroes recover from physical trauma much too quickly? (Recovery times may vary greatly due to fantasy potions and sci-fi gadgets, but those elements need to be set up well in advance.)
  7. Do your heroes recover from emotional trauma too quickly? (We want to empathize with the     protagonists, and that can be hard when we’re still grieving over a killed-off character and the hero is running around like nothing happened.)
  8. Does the hero/heroine go ALONE to the one place where the villain will surely find him/her?
  9. Does a problem arise out of nowhere just to spur the plot along?
  10. Have you broken the rules of your universe to get out of a dead-end/move the plot along? (Ok, so people in your fantasy novel can fly, but not higher than 300 ft….except your Main Character when they need to…)

If anyone can think of others, please feel free to comment below/message me to add them.

A Wizard Did It

Happy February, everyone. To start off this month, we have part two of Tia Kalla’s question. For those who haven’t read yesterday’s post, Tia (@tiakall) tweeted me the question:

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

Since we ended January talking about plot holes, today we’ll be talking about tricky endings.

Now, I completely understand why Tia grouped these two concepts into one question. Where plot holes are a problem with something integral to the story, ending problems are just what they sound like…problems when you get to the all important climax and conclusion (or denouement, if you want to be fancy) of your story.

Unlike a plot hole, where you have a character/situation that doesn’t make sense or is in someway against the rules of your universe/personality of your character, what you generally find with ending problems are that you’ve written the rest of the story in a way that makes it so you can’t find a way to solve the problem you have spent the entire story building up.

For example, your Main Character is caught in the Big Baddy’s secret hideout with all his/her friends locked up and no way out. Now, if your Main Character is James Bond, they’ll figure out some crazy escape that works. Far too often, though, authors find themselves flailing trying to figure out just how they’re going to write their way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

And this is where you have to be careful not to fall into the most dreaded ending fix. The Deus Ex Machina.

What, you ask, is a Deus Ex Machina? A latin phrase that translates to something like “God out of the machine” my dear friend Wikipedia defines it “as  a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.”

From what I remember of Drama 101 in college, Deus Ex Machinas (yeah, yeah dei ex machina, but Latin plurals are crazy) abound in the Ancient Greek Playwright, Euripides’, plays, such as an example in the play Medea, where perhaps the original “hell hath no fury” woman has slaughtered her infant sons in revenge for her husband, Jason (of Argonaut fame) leaving her for another woman. Children freshly killed, Jason comes to punish (read: kill) Medea for her crime and has her there, just about as defenseless as possible, dead sons nearby, ready to pop her head off. Escape seems impossible for poor (read: completely insane) Medea, so how is Euripides going to write himself out of this? Is he going to let her die?

Spoiler Alert: No, that would just be completely understandable for the plot. He wants Medea to live. And so the chariot of the Sun God, Helios, comes down on stage (by mechanical means) and pulls her out of her predicament. Quite literally, a God in a machine saving Medea and solving Euripides’ plot problem.

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a modern-day book which uses Deus Ex Machina quite so literally as Euripides (does anyone have an example of God coming down in a chariot and fixing everything at the last minute?) but that doesn’t mean that seemingly unsolvable problems aren’t “suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object” in modern-day works.

Perhaps the most blatant of these moments are in situations where one of the main characters “suddenly” finds out that they had some power that has long been dormant that they only find out about just as everything seems hopeless. Often times this is found in stories with “Mary Sue” characters. Though Mary Sues are a controversial and a poorly defined occurence in fiction (which I’ll get into at some point in a later blog post) the overly-idealized Sueish character often find some magical way to save the day when all seems lost because of their perfect selves.

Like one of the suggestions for fixing plot holes in yesterday’s post stated, you should not to throw in things that are going to be important to the plot too late in. If you’re going to have something that is important come in later, try to touch on it before that exact point where it’s needed. Even if it isn’t a fix-all, knowing that the main character has the ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound when threatened is better than having it just suddenly happen at the climax of the story.

And that’s what makes Deus Ex Machinas so annoying. They feel like a cop out. You’ve spent however long reading a novel, or sat for however long in a theatre, have invested yourself in the plot and story, and just when you’re supposed to get the pay off – see how it all comes together – you find that there’s a proverbial “get out of jail free” card that makes the rest of the story not mean much. If the main character could have used their super-awesome teleporting skills right at the beginning, you wouldn’t have needed the entire middle of the story where they’re struggling through. So why did you have to read that part at all? If the wizard could have sent out that spell that just traveled halfway around the world to kill the Big Baddy, why the heck didn’t he?

So how do you avoid a Deus Ex Machina situation?

Like other general plot holes, it can help to outline before hand, or put in something that makes it so they aren’t saved at the possible last second by something that makes the rest of the book useless… But, truly, the most important thing in avoiding Deus Ex Machina is to spend some time thinking about your characters, thinking about how they would react to any given situation (when they don’t have a hope of lightning striking down the Big Baddy, or God dropping down), and not to worry about making your story “more exciting” by building up the danger they’re facing to the point where there’s simply no way they can get out of it without said lightening bolt from the heavens. Even with a little less danger, if you’re able to stay within the logic of your story, and have your characters stay, well, in character, it’s going to be a much more interesting, much better story than it would be by saving them by something out of nowhere that leaves the reader wondering what the point was if that’s the end.


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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. 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) 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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