Different Kinds of Plot Holes in Fiction

brick-wall-hole-1-1418992-mIs there anything an author fears more than the dreaded plot hole? Every time I write a first draft–every time– a part of me is terrified to take on my first read-through of the novel. What if I discover a horrible hole that I didn’t notice when I was writing? What if it’s a problem I can’t fix?

One way to address plot holes is to educate ourselves about them: what forms they take, and how they come about. Know your enemy, right?

Because of that, I thought it made sense to wrap up this current series of posts about plot issues by breaking down plot holes into categories.

Now, this kind of list isn’t a science. Not even close. So if you can think of something I overlooked, please let me know! If you disagree with something I’ve said, feel free to present your views. This blog is for all of us to challenge ourselves as writers and to grow as a result. (My only rule is that everyone respect everyone else.)

That said, here are the categories of plot holes I came up with, reflecting on my experience and my own personal fears.

A CHARACTER OVERLOOKS AN OBVIOUS, SIMPLE COURSE OF ACTION. AS A RESULT, HIS OR HER ACTIONS DON’T MAKE SENSE.

One of my favorite spoofs of this is the Youtube Video from “How it should have ended” based on “Lord of the Rings.”

(SPOILER ALERT, for those who aren’t familiar with the story yet or don’t want the video ruined. You can skip down to the next section if you want).

“How it should have ended” basically rewrites the endings of movies so that they are a bit more, let’s say “logical.”

Remember how, after dropping the One Ring into Mount Doom, killing Sauron and saving Middle Earth, Frodo and Sam are rescued from the volcano by a massive eagle that flies them to safety?

“How it should have ended” proposes that Frodo and Sam use an eagle to fly over Mount Doom in the first place, to destroy the ring. Much, much simpler than walking the whole way!

Now, there is always some degree of, “why didn’t the characters just do this?” when reading a book. My writing is not exempt from this. (And I’m not knocking the Lord of the Rings. It is a genuine masterpiece of fiction and especially fantasy.)

Sometimes, though, this plot hole becomes a real problem when an author forces a character to do something stupid, or make a serious mistake that doesn’t seem real or likely, simply because that mistake is needed to advance the plot in the way the author wants.

Avoiding this plot hole doesn’t require much:

  • You need a bit of common sense, which we pretty much all have. Just stop and ask: what responses are possible to this stimulus? Which of those make the most sense? Simpler is usually better. People opt for simple when they can. (Think of Occam’s razor).
  • You have to know your characters, and how they would respond to certain situations. Which option would most appeal to them?
  • You have to be true to your characters and their inclinations, and not force them to act against their nature.
  • If characters must act against their nature, then a reasonable explanation for why that is must be evident to the reader.

A CHARACTER’S ACTIONS BREAK THE RULES ESTABLISHED FOR THE “WORLD OF THE STORY.”

This one always has me terrified as a fantasy writer. I have constructed a complex fantasy world that sometimes feels exceedingly fragile in its makeup.

How does the public in Herezoth view magic? What are the laws (both governmental and physical) governing magic? I feel like I am always walking a tightrope, especially as public views and tolerance of magic in Herezoth evolve and adapt over time.

For a glaring example of a plot hole that involves breaking the rules of your story, I’ll hearken to Herezoth. I state quite clearly in book one of my series that magic can never interfere with human will. You can’t force someone to do something with magic…. No spell can take over a person’s mind and body and make that man or woman a puppet.

Were I, at any point, to write in a spell that allows a sorcerer to force someone to betray his friends against his will, that would be a MAJOR plot hole. It would violate the “rules” that I had established in a glaring fashion.

Most writers, however, fall into this plot hole more subtly (when they fall in at all).

Maybe you’re writing about a superhero. Maybe the public reacts one way when a villain does something but the opposite way when the hero does something that would look, in the eyes of the people, to be more or less the same. That doesn’t make much sense.

Or, maybe you have the good guys technically breaking the law and never show any consequences for that without explaining how or why that is. See what I mean? If you have established that such and such is illegal, then illegal activities should bring some kind of official punishment or at least some opposition.

THE AUTHOR FORGETS ABOUT/ DROPS A SUBPLOT

This is a problem that a good read-through can usually bring to your attention. And the good news is, it’s generally very fixable (and pretty painlessly so, as long as wrapping up your hanging threads doesn’t force some kind of conflict with how you’ve developed other story lines.)

It’s  frustrating to realize you only thought you had a fully developed story. But perspective is key here: rarely is forgetting to resolve something a death knell for your work. If anything, it’s a chance to create more, then tighten up by cutting elsewhere to maintain a good word count.

This is really a great way to get in as much intrigue and action for your words as possible. Add what you need, then cut things you don’t need to get back to the word count you had before. I try to do that regularly. Can’t say I do it well, but it’s a good goal and a good way to focus on content editing (as long as you have a viable word count goal that fits your story.)

So, what are your thoughts on plot holes? Have you had to dig yourself out of one? Do you know of a category or kind of hole I’ve overlooked? Please do comment.

And feel free, if you found this post helpful, to check out the rest of the series on plot issues:

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42 responses to “Different Kinds of Plot Holes in Fiction

  1. As to your own plot hole about the control spell, Is it a written law of your world?
    If it is then it will add several scenes to you book as he contemplates the dilemma of braking the law. in book 2 of me series, my goodie goodie captain pulls a gun on an enemy captive soldier and shoots him in the head to make a point.
    Thank you for this post and it may me stop and think to explain the ream motives as to why he did.

    • That was just an example I pulled out of the air, though it is a physical law of magic in my books. I’ve never had characters test its limits 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post! That’s a really intriguing idea…. Maybe a way to develop magic and my word as I continue with more books about Herezoth!

  2. Love this post. I don’t tend to think about plot-holes, but I spotted some familiar friends in those descriptions…
    I know some authors say ‘don’t take the obvious route – not a choice between A or B, but C,’ but I think that may well overcomplicate what could be a lot simpler action and plot.

    • Overcomplication is different than a lack of development or complexity, I think. And you make a great point!!!! A to B can be much, much, better, than A to C to D to F/E just to get to B by chance.

  3. A good way to avoid plot holes to to have someone you can discuss your plot/ ideas with, thus allowing for continuity. Additionally, the first draft is there to be improved. So no worries. The first draft is never perfect. Take joy in making it better.

    • Exactly! The first draft is there to make things better. I try not to discuss WIPs too much with other people until I have a draft down, but that’s my system. You’re right: It could help to hash a plot issue out with someone else!

  4. I get paranoid about the second instance, so I double check my stuff whenever I hit a scene that deals with world rules. Hopefully, I’m predominantly successful. Though, I am guilty of having one or two dropped things in my books. Still not sure what the tree with red eyes in my third book is. I think I know, but I’m only 95% positive.

    That first one is rather interesting because I’ve used this defense when a character takes a more difficult path: Human Error and Stress. I’ve known so many people in real life who are incredibly intelligent, but will create a ridiculous plan when under stress. I’ve done it sometimes. People make mistakes, which can get you out of some plot holes. You still have to keep it within reality because there’s a limit.

    • Stress is definitely a factor in how “intelligently” we respond to a situation. I have tons of booksmarts and am pretty smart…. but man, when I am stressed or feel pressured I make a lot of flubs. I know that about myself and do what I can to avoid situations that make me feel stressed/pressured but of course, that’s not always possible. I DEFINITELY get what you say here. I would be one of those characters who make stupid choices when it counts 🙂

  5. These are great points to keep in mind when writing. I especially agree with making characters behave counter to their personalities. I think those become issues to the reader and distract them from enjoying the story. As long as a reader believes the character has his or her reasons for something, they can remain engaged in the story. At least that’s my philosophy. 🙂

    • I totally agree 🙂 The character doesn’t have to act in a smart way, but what he or she does has to be believable and make sense considering all the circumstances involved. As long as he or she has her reasons, as you say, and they aren’t completely ridiculous/ so stupid they can’t be believed, all is good for me as a reader.

  6. Great post! I constantly worry about plot holes in my own books. Luckily my brother is a master at spotting them and pointing them out while subtly mocking me for having them in the first place, so that usually works out well 🙂

    Small point about your Lord of the Rings example — because people throw that one around a lot as a gaping plot hole, but it’s really not. I think people forget that the giant eagles do whatever the heck they please, so they very well may not have wanted to fly straight into the domain of the most evil creature alive — not to mention those Nazgul riding around on their dragons, which would have been a serious and possibly insurmountable problem to overcome.

    I guess what I’m saying is that, when you’re a writer and someone points out what they think is an obvious plot hole, take it with a grain of salt — just because they don’t understand why something happened, doesn’t mean there’s no good reason for it happening that way.

    • Fantastic points! I honestly don’t think that’s a real plot hole in LotR, I just used it as a funny example because that video is hilarious 🙂 (and like you say, it’s pretty commonly argued so it came to mind easily). I totally agree with your argument there…. Tolkien knew what he was doing. All the way. Those books are among my favorites ever 🙂

    • One of the reasons, in fact, I think that video/argument about the eagles is so funny is precisely because it simplifies things to a ridiculous degree that couldn’t actually have worked in a world as real and complex as Middle Earth.

  7. I’m very careful about number one but probably still do it quite often.
    I haven’t written much fantasy so haven’t really fell into that one.
    Number 3 I can see myself being caught in a lot. In fact how about creating characters and completely forgetting about them? I did that in last year’s NaNo. Yeah, the same 84K one continued this year. It’s embarrassing when I realise. I feel I have to look around and make sure no one noticed!

  8. Such interesting points here as always. Very, very interesting!

  9. Reblogged this on Piper's Place and commented:
    A light-hearted look at potentially serious problem

  10. There have been a couple of times when I’m just about to drop off to sleep when suddenly I think “But she can’t do THAT! It doesn’t work with …. ” 🙂

  11. Thanks for your blog, as always.
    I have found that if I tell my story to another person that person does not necessarily have to comment. While I am telling it, I come to realise there is a big hole in my explanation as to why X was the character’s next action. It prompts me to recognise the hole….. and then do something about it. Does that make sense?

    • That makes perfect sense 🙂 A lot of times just verbalizing things can help you see how things fit together…. or where they don’t. If I could convince friends/family not to comment that would be super useful! 🙂

  12. When I turn my head inside out checking and checking. Sometimes I tie myself up in knots. But it is worth it in the end.

    • I get tied up too!!! And I agree, it’s worth it (most times, haha…. been tied up so long right now with my current WIP I’m considering just letting the whole trilogy idea go.)

      • I know how you feel. I’ve been working one of my crime novel’s forever and I am never satisfied with it. I decided to do a re-write because I think I am a better writer now than when I started this particular book and also time moves on. I hope 2014 is the year of Ms Birdsong Investigates. Fingers crossed for yours too. Mine is going to be a series as well. Hard work for us both. 🙂

        • For sure! My problem was I wanted a follow-up series to one I already wrote. Turns out that’s not easy to do while determined readers won’t have to have read the first one.

          Bah. I’ve been struggling with the plot holes and other issues with this draft for over a year. Think it’s time to move on 🙂

        • Yep, leave it alone for a while and then come back refreshed after a break. Amazing what glares at you after being away from it for a while. Good luck. 🙂

  13. I haven’t been in touch for a while – just reading and taking it in so I thought it was about time I popped up and reaffirmed my existence!

    You’re good at isolating issues and then providing great solutions. Great advice – as always!

    Thanks Victoria.

  14. Gah! I agree. Plot holes are not fun on that first draft. To be honest, I never would have thought about the eagles just flying Sam and Frodo over it in the first place! Ha ha!

    I think there’s also some artistic license that readers give authors. Not every reader, obviously, but most readers go with the flow until it’s a really glaring plot hole. I enjoyed LOTR, so I didn’t think too much about, ‘Why didn’t the eagles fly them in the first place?’

    I’m not everybody, but I think there is some leeway given to an author that writes a really good book.

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