4 Questions to Prevent Plot Holes
How peachy would the writing life be if we didn’t have to prevent plot holes. Just imagine—you could write anything you wanted to, and every single thing would make sense. No need to worry about the fact that your two awesome scenes actually don’t make sense side by side. They get to be in the book simply because they’re awesome and fun and you had a blast writing them.
Alas, this is not the way of things. Unless you’re writing what George Eliot rather wistfully referred to as “home-made books,” with no readers to please other than yourself, you will eventually have to confront problems of logic that at times seem positively algebraic. As in the famous quote attributed to Tom Clancy:
The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
And here we thought we were writing fiction to escape reality….
Plot holes, in a nutshell, are those lapses in a story world’s logic when authors either bend their own rules or invent convenient new rules at the last minute in an attempt to explain away seeming incongruities. In a medium as complex as fiction (especially long-form fiction such as novels), it’s little wonder plot holes are relatively common (Jack dying in the Atlantic, anyone?). Sometimes stories are good enough in all other respects for audiences to forgive the lapses—even using them to spawn elaborate fan theories. Other times, plot holes are so problematic or even obviously contrived that emotionally invested audiences respond with downright anger.
At any rate, we all recognize that a master storyteller is one who is capable of telling a complex story that sustains its own logic throughout, avoiding plot holes. This challenge, perhaps more than any other difficulty of writing fiction, is why we turn to tools such as story structure and theory to help us create cohesive and resonant storyforms. But even when our story structure and character arcs are solid, we can still end up struggling with the particular logic of our own stories. This is true of stories set within—and therefore confined by–the real world, and ironically perhaps even truer of speculative stories that offer the fun of creating their own rules of reality—and the often strenuous logic of sticking to those rules.
The longer and more complex a story—especially if it branches into a series—the more difficult this can become. This is why TV shows often end up jumping the shark; if they’re to sustain the characters and story world for multiple seasons, they may have to rewrite their own rules to (try to) keep the conflict fresh and the stakes high.
The other significant difficulty of lengthy fiction (as I’m discovering in writing my first trilogy) is that when you don’t know how the story will end, or even simply if you don’t know some of the major events that will happen before the ending, you will not know how to properly set up your story’s logical parameters in the beginning. And that, right there, is the recipe for plot holes.
4 Questions to Prevent Plot Holes
Whether you find yourself at the beginning of a new story or trying to figure out why your current fictional effort seems to have gone off the rails, here are four questions you can ask to help identify, rectify, or prevent plot holes.
1. Do You Know Your Story’s Ending?
The ending is in the beginning. This is the essence of narrative fiction. Exceptions inevitably end up feeling like my five-year-old niece’s idea of a hilarious joke:
Me: Who’s there?
Me: Banana who?
Niece: Banana… nose! [dissolves into hysterical laughter]
There is a certain joy (and realism) to the “and then!” type of episodic storytelling that throws one event after another onto the stage, but the effect eventually ends up feeling pointless and/or ludicrous (which, granted, can be the point in some types of story). My niece’s jokes are funny enough on their first outing just because she thinks they’re so amusing, but by the time she gets to the fifth one… not so much.
Storyform in general is designed to make a point—to present a cohesive picture of life that, whether explicitly or implicitly, says something meaningful.
This only works when the story’s beginning and ending are part of a whole. The beginning asks a question which the ending answers. The beginning sets up the pieces which will play out in the end.Indeed, entertainment aside, we could argue that the entire point of everything that happens in a story is to set up the pieces necessary for the Climaxto play out.
In turn, this means the Climax must play out in a way honoring to everything that has come before it. If the Climax is about noses, then the chapters leading up to this end had better be about noses, mouths, and eyebrows—not bananas. Too many stories meander through their first two acts, only to do a sharp right-angle turn into a Climax that, at best, seems patched on. There is nothing more powerful for readers than the experience of a Climax that flows inevitably and sometimes inexorably from the cause-and-effect of solid setup.
When we do not know how a story may end, we too often end up writing ourselves into corners via our own story logic. For example, by the time you reach the story’s Climax, you may realize you need a character you killed off at the Midpoint. Or you may realize the story’s most resonant ending is going to be tragic rather than happy—which can be problematic if not properly foreshadowed. Or if you’re writing speculative fiction, you may realize your established story physics make it impossible for your fleet of spaceships to reach the climactic battle in time. Whoops.
Sometimes this is unavoidable. As authors, we are not omniscient, even (especially?) about our own stories. Revisions will almost always be necessary at some point in order to make sure every piece of the story works in unison. But the more we understand about how the story will end, the more likely we will be able to avoid writing ourselves into tricky corners.
2. Do You Have a Purpose for Every Character, Setting, POV, Relationship, Scene, Etc.?
No story avoids loose ends altogether. Indeed, those that do, or that try too obviously to do so, often lack verisimilitude because they feel too manufactured. It used to be the fashion to include an epilogue that spelled out the remainder of the characters’ lives, but this robs the story of a sense of continuance. At the very least, it’s often beneficial when a few minor subplots are not completely resolved, so readers get a sense of the characters living on even after the story’s ending.
However, in order to create a story that leads solidly, inevitably, and even profoundly into its Climax, every major piece within the story should be there because it contributes in some crucial way. This is true primarily in the sense that you want every piece to act as a catalyst, propelling the plot to its final end. But it is just as true on the deeper level of theme and symbol. If any particular story “piece”—whether a character, setting, POV, relationship, or scene—exists within the story without expanding upon the theme in some way, it is probably extraneous and perhaps even deadweight.
This becomes more important the more emphasis you put on any particular piece. For example, if early chapters spend a lot of time detailing your protagonist’s relationship with her mother, readers will anticipate this relationship is important to the story. If, however, the relationship does not figure in creating the Climax or, worse, is never returned to at all, then the loose end becomes a plot hole. Readers were led to believe, even if just subconsciously, that the mother was important—and then… she wasn’t.
This, too, can be very tricky, since we sometimes follow rabbit trails in early drafts without fully understanding where they will lead. When they end up leading nowhere, they can already be so deeply woven into the fabric of early chapters that removing them creates other lapses of logic or linearity. This is why it is so valuable to see characters and other story pieces as not just individual pieces but as parts of a whole.
- What archetypal role is this person, place, or thing playing within the overall storyform?
- If it is a role already being filled by someone or something else, can this piece be deleted or combined?
- Is it a necessary catalyst and/or symbol?
The tighter your understanding of your story in the beginning, the less likely you will create unnecessary “pieces” that end up going nowhere and creating plot holes.
3. What Is Your Antagonist’s Throughline?
We often forget about the antagonist. He’s a plot device—the stereotypical “bad guy” whose primary story role is to get in the protagonist’s way and create some fireworks in the final showdown. But if we don’t understand the antagonist’s motivations from the very beginning, we cannot set him up properly in the Climax. And if we can’t set up the antagonist in the Climax, it won’t matter how well we’ve set up the protagonist.
This can be particularly challenging when you’re dealing with an off-screen antagonist or with a “Big Boss” antagonist operating from a national or global level. If the antagonist is not the primary relationship character (and this often isn’t the case), then the archetypal dynamic of the conflict can become tricky to represent in a cohesive and resonant way.
Some of the worst plot holes arise because the antagonist is neglected until the Climax when he’s suddenly supposed to show up and counter-balance the protagonist’s thematic argument in a grand finale. Even more obviously, if the antagonist’s motives or methods are phoned in, the story logic almost always suffers. In some ways, the antagonist is the most important factor in creating a coherent storyform. If what the protagonist is resisting and why she is resisting it doesn’t hold water on both a practical and thematic level, the story as a whole will weaken.
When examining the role you envision the antagonist playing in the Climax, it is important to step back and ensure you’ve set this up throughout the story. The stronger the antagonist’s motivations and the more realistic his methods, the more powerful your story’s final meaning. Just as with the protagonist’s actions, the antagonist’s should form a solid line of dominoes, interacting with the protagonist’s throughout the story, until they finally and fully interact—in a logical way—in the end.
4. What Is the Simplest Way to Set Up Your Characters’ Backstories and Motivations?
One of the final problems with not knowing how your story will end is that you may find yourself making up your characters’ backstories—and thus their motivations—on the fly. You know you want your protagonist to be and do certain things because you’ve already envisioned him being and doing those things in specific scenes. So you write the scenes and make up the backstory as you go.
So far, so good. But sometimes, as the story keeps on trucking, you find your character being and doing other things—which require new backstory explanations. Before you know it, you may end up with an extremely complicated story.
The problem of on-the-fly explanations can become even more obvious when you find yourself making up reasons for events, whether it’s the effects of your fantasy’s magic system or just the political ramifications of spycraft.
The best stories may be complex, but they are never complicated. What your characters are doing and why they are doing it should always be simple; you should be able to explain both in a single sentence or phrase. If you find yourself using multiple “and’s,” reconsider whether your story’s background explanations may not have outgrown themselves.
Aside from causing undue complications, this “explanation train” and its multiple cars risks running away from you. If there comes a point when even you can’t keep track of all the whys and wherefores you blithely created along the way, you will almost inevitably end up creating lapses in logic and other thinly veiled (or even gaping) plot holes.
Ultimately, all of these questions point to the same solution: creating a storyform that is cohesive from beginning to end and building it with the fewest pieces necessary. When we can do that, we’re not only less likely to create plot holes in the beginning, we’ll also have a much easier time spotting and then figuring out how to prevent plot holes in the long run.