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Plot Holes and How to Fix Them

Holes by Catherine MacBridewhWhatever kind of fantasy you’re writing, sooner or later you’re going to come up against the dreaded issue that can bring your whole book to a screeching halt. That is – the plot hole. So what can you do about it?

Plot holes are tricky beasts and can come in many different forms. Mostly, when a reader feels like they’ve hit a plot hole, what they mean is they’ve come up against a point at which they can no longer suspend disbelief. This might be because there are contradictions within the plot, because events haven’t been explained properly, because solutions seem implausible, or because character actions feel inauthentic.

Pinpointing the root of the issue isn’t always easy, so here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Finding Plot Holes

Is your book relying too much on co-incidence?

Some co-incidence is necessary, often to get the initial events going, but too much will knock a reader right out of your story. This might be a cumulative effect of too many small co-incidences or simply one giant serendipitous event that stretches belief to breaking point. Unless you are making a point of this, it’s better if your characters don’t get by on luck alone.

Have you forgotten to tie up a loose end, or left a plot hook hanging?

Neatly Tied Up by Evelyn FlintThis happens a lot more in TV than it does in books, and I’m sure we all remember a particularly annoying case that left us grinding our teeth at the screen. There is no excuse for this in a single book – here is where drafts and editing are your friends. However, it’s more likely to happen in a long series and so it’s worth keeping a separate list of all the questions you have introduced that readers will want answers to, even if it’s as simple as ‘will character be happy at the end?’

Does your ending still work?

You may have changed your story so much along the way that the ending you had planned just doesn’t work anymore. Even small changes along the way can lead to this issue, especially those involving character. It’s also possible to write your book exactly as planned but then realise you had the ending wrong the whole time – the act of writing the book has revealed things about character motivations and arcs that you perhaps didn’t see in the planning stage. If any of these things have happened, forcing the original ending onto your story is going to feel jarring.

Have you considered the tone of the book?

lost keys by Helga KvamIf a scene feels like it isn’t working, this may be the cause. For example, say your characters are trapped in a dungeon: how will they escape? You decide that one of them spends months training a rat, which then sneaks up to the jailor and retrieves the prison key. This is going to feel completely out of place in the sort of book where unlikely things don’t happen or where long-shot plans have consistently been shown to fail.

Is the emotion authentic?

Is your character behaving according to their usual behaviour? Are they following their usual motivations/pursuing their usual goal. If not, why not? Are you having to tell rather than show? If you find yourself telling readers what a character is feeling, rather than demonstrating it through their actions and dialogue, it will feel forced. You can tell a reader that a character loves another character until you’re blue in the face, but you can’t make them really believe it unless there is some kind of evidence backing it up.

Does your worldbuilding stand up to scrutiny?

Worldbuilding by MacContradictions based on previous information are a sure-fire way to frustrate your readers. This is especially common with magic systems, or technology that can suddenly accomplish things it could not do earlier on. Or is the problem that you’ve provided too little information about your world or magic system? When not provided with definite facts, readers will tend to make assumptions that you may not have anticipated. Don’t overlook fact checking and continuity errors either – if your main character is supposed to be an expert in something, any obvious rookie mistakes they make will seem like plot holes.

Have you resorted to Deus ex Machina?

This is when you throw in a huge co-incidence or god-like figure that comes in and sorts out the problem without the characters actually having to do anything or learn anything. It can cheapen drama because it can leave the reader feeling like they were tricked into caring about something that was never really a problem. ‘It was all a dream’ has a similar effect. Deus ex Machina does occasionally work as a solution, depending on the feel of the story as a whole, but it’s something to approach with caution.

Digging yourself out holes

Identified the problem? Great! So now what do you actually do about it? Not all plot holes require the same approach, and some will be much easier to fix than others. Every story is unique in its own way, so it’s often better to go with your gut and trust what your characters are trying to tell you. But if you’re really stuck, here are some places to start:

Time-Travel Surgical Strike

Spider From Mars by Rob StradlingGo back and change earlier details so that your plot hole is no longer a plot hole. Sounds easy, right? And because of the beauty of first (and second and third and…) drafts, you don’t even need to invent a time machine to do it. This works best with the simpler plot holes, such as technology or magic not working as they should. If you need things to function a specific way later in the plot, simply change the explanation you gave earlier. Try not to do this until the editing stage; if you’re still writing, make a note and go back later.

However, there are two important warnings that come with this solution – a) Technology and magic systems have an impact on the world and the characters of a story. If you change even one element of your tech or magic, you will need to make sure that it is convincing in all aspects of your book. Need your character to fly? Fine, let’s change the magic system so that people can fly. But you now need to consider why all your other wizards aren’t using this ability, and how it might change the way magic is used and perceived in your world. b) Following on from this, be careful that you don’t create more plot holes down the road by introducing small changes now.

Add Foreshadowing

It may be that a particular scene or action feels too surprising or out of the blue. Foreshadowing will help by setting up reader expectations, or by shifting their emotions a little so that they’re ready for a change of tone or pace. Foreshadowing doesn’t have to be an exact duplicate of the event; in fact, it sometimes works better when it’s a low-key or minor thing that plants a small seed for a later event; a character simply criticising the hero once or twice can be enough to pave the way for a traitorous switch of allegiance later. A scene where a character loses a precious gift from their loved one might strike a note of loss that makes a tragedy later in the book seem less jarring to the overall tone. Conversely, if the plot hole is caused by a sense of characters achieving their goals too easily, a setback early on can make a dramatic win later more palatable.

Plan

party planning by AndyOkay, maybe you’re a pantser when you write the book, but in the editing stage it really is advantageous to make some kind of plan. The good news is that planning is much easier from this end because you already have the main events in place. Write down the key plot points, the inner motivations and exterior goals of all the main characters, the character arcs, and the tone/emotional arc that the reader should be taken through in the course of the story. This could be in the form of a flowchart, or whatever works for you. Once you have this, you will be better equipped to find things that stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll be able to see if events, tone or pacing go off course at any point, whether characters are behaving inauthentically, or whether you haven’t provided enough context for later events to make sense.

List Possible Fixes and Choose The Least Expected

Let’s say you’ve got your characters trapped between a fire-breathing dragonbear on one side and a horde of angry goblin lawyers on the other. What are all the possible ways they can either deal with these problems or escape? Usually (but not always), the first things you come up with won’t work – they will be too obvious or unlikely. Push yourself to consider every advantage and skill your characters have. Pay attention to the surroundings. What would your first instinct be in this situation? What about your friends? Ask yourself ‘what if X happened?’ and do this over again until you’ve exhausted the possibilities.

Ask Your Characters What Happened

Step out of the action for a moment and pretend you are interviewing your characters after the event. Ask them to describe the situation, then ask them how they were feeling, what was going through their minds at the time. Ask them to remember specific details if they can. Write their answers. Now ask them to tell you how they got out of it. You may be surprised when inspiration strikes.

Identify the Main Themes of Your Book

Exams by Dareen Al-QurashiSome writing advice will tell you not to worry about your themes at all, as they say this will negatively affect your creative writing. I don’t agree with this, but it’s important to remember that things work differently for different people. For me, considering the themes that have come out in my work will often help me to identify the right solutions to problems. When a solution not only sensibly solves a problem but also better explains a character’s motivations or complements the themes of the story, this is when you know you’ve got the right answer. I like plots to feel like they either flow naturally or fit together like a jigsaw; and like a jigsaw, trying to force pieces of the sky to join with pieces of the sea just isn’t going to work.

Talk It Through Out Loud

Beta-readers, writing groups, friends, family, partners, mirrors – if you’re really stuck, asking for help isn’t going to hurt. Even if you don’t use the ideas they give you, the simple act of talking it through out loud with another person can spark your own solution.

Complete Overhaul

Watering Hole by ken mccownIt’s painful, but sometimes this is the only fix. It might be the main plot structure, or a character, or a magic system that needs re-thinking, but when plot holes just won’t go away, sometimes they are an indicator of a much larger problem. Just don’t re-write until you’ve finished the book – it’s hard to assess a story properly until you have the whole thing in front of you.

I hope some of these ideas have been helpful. If you have any other tips for dealing with pesky plot holes, please leave them in the comments!

Title image by Catherine MacBride.

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5 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    Great advice. Your point about how a scene that doesn’t quite fit the tone you’ve created is a problem I’ve noticed in my own work. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. B says:

    “What would your first extinct be in this situation?”

    Ha, ha, ha.

  3. Gamabunta says:

    whWhatever (first word).

    This article was exactly what I needed, thanks!

  4. […] 9. Fantasy Faction – Plot holes and how to fix them. Patrz tytu?. […]

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