Need help finding and fixing plot holes in your work? Here I’ll outline common types of plot holes, how to find them before the beta reader stage, and how to fix them once they’ve been identified.
What is a plot hole? Something people complain about. Of the many, you can usually tell someone is complaining about a plot hole when they say, “Why didn’t they just . . . “
“Why didn’t they just ride the eagles into Mordor?”
“Why didn’t they just talk to each other?”
“Why didn’t they just use their superpower they apparently had all along to solve that problem earlier in the story?”
Now, while some of these do have answers if we look deep enough (the eagles aren’t a taxi service, secrecy was vital), feeling the need to ask these questions indicates you have a plot hole on your hands. I’ll call these WDTJ plot holes, as there are other kinds, but I’d like to start with these as they are some of the ones that do the most damage to story credibility.
WDTJ plot holes are somewhat linked to another author problem, called Deus Ex Machina. The phrase is based on a common practice in Greek plays wherein the author got their characters into trouble and rather than having them solve their own problems with their brains and skills, would just have the gods appear to fix everything. This is applied to modern stories when an author does just about anything to get their heroes out of a scrap that hasn’t been foreshadowed/makes use of something that has been brought up earlier, and is frowned upon because it is seen as the lazy alternative to figuring out how the characters can solve their own mess. WDTJ plot holes tend to be almost the reverse. In these cases, usually the author has provided the protagonists with too many resources to solve problems instead of too few. Rather than bringing in an unexplained force, power, or ally to save the protagonist, the author forces the protagonist to solve a problem using only some of the resources available to them, therefore complicating the plot unnecessarily. It’s easiest to explain with an example, so I’ll use the much-referenced eagle example.
It all started, of course, with The Hobbit. The eagles were introduced as relatively benevolent creatures that could swoop in and carry the hobbit and his dwarf friends to safety. Their maximum range isn’t really stated nor are their reasons for being helpful, except being sort of friends with Gandalf. Tolkien uses them again in the Fellowship of the Ring to get Gandalf off a tower. The problem comes when the whole premise of The Lord of the Rings, its excuse to be so long, and the whole of Sam’s and Frodo’s parts of the plot is that it takes a long and arduous journey to get from point A to point B. There are many treacherous places standing between Frodo and Mordor, pretty much all of which he and Sam get out of using their brains, skills, and foreshadowed allies (therefore avoiding Deus Ex Machina). The problem arises from the existence of the eagles. Since it appears that the only prerequisite for eagle riding is being a friend of Gandalf, why don’t the hobbits just ride them into Mordor and skip all the nasty mountains and orcs and Shelob? On the surface it’s difficult to find any answer to that other than “Because plot”, which is the most sure sign of a plot hole. It appears they had a resource they didn’t take advantage of when it should have been fairly obvious to them. Of course, as I said, there is discussion about the eagles not being as great of an option as they appear but because this is not really addressed in the text I would still consider it a WDTJ plot hole.
So how can you find plot holes like this in your own work? There is a certain amount of blindness that comes with trying to edit your own stuff, but some of these methods might help you objectively examine your plot for inconsistencies.
Some people are listers, some people aren’t, and only you can tell whether this and the other methods I’ll go into will work for you. In this case, I’m talking about lists of the resources I mentioned. Make lists of what resources your characters have available to them at various points in the narrative. These can be people in the form of allies or possible allies, tools like magic wands or a certain number of knives, communication devices (I’ve seen these forgotten often, when characters forgot they could just call their friends somewhere far away to solve their problem), latent abilities that the characters have such as reading minds or hacking, and whatever else you can think of. Then as you go through your story, whenever a difficulty comes up, use the list to check if one of the resources available to your characters could have helped them but they didn’t use it. There are various reasons not every inconsistency you find with this method will be a true plot hole, but I’ll go into that when I talk about how to fix the plot holes you’ve found.
If lists aren’t your thing, you might try letting your characters find the plot holes for you. If you have relatively self-aware, cynical and/or lateral thinking characters, this will be particularly helpful.
What I call free dialogue is somewhat related to freewriting, a common practice usually used to help with writer’s block that involves writing whatever comes into your head regardless of whether it works well, makes sense, or is even relevant to what you’re working on. Free dialogue, on the other hand, is more like letting your characters say whatever comes to their mind. It requires knowing your characters well, or if not, feeling comfortable winging it whether things end up in character or not.
Stick two or more of your characters who share their difficulties in a room and get them talking. Get them brainstorming how to get out of whatever you’ve them gotten into. With whatever is going on in your story, this might not really be possible because the pacing doesn’t allow it, or the characters aren’t on good enough terms to speak frankly etc. That’s why it’s free dialogue – it’s probably not going to make it into the final drafts or even an early one, so it’s okay to let thoughts flow regardless of whether it all fits into the voices of the characters or reflects the interpersonal relationships you want to come across. Personally, I usually don’t even write down free dialogue, I just run the scene through my head over and over like different takes when making a movie. I let my characters improvise like actors who know their characters and just keep going until something interesting happens (this also tends to help springboard the imagination to find solutions for issues elsewhere in your story). While your characters are talking, verbally bouncing ideas off each other, they may even ask each other outright “Why don’t we just . . . “ and you’ll have caught your potential plot hole.
One major cause of WDTJ plot holes is not looking at the whole story when checking for problems in a particular place. Oftentimes throughout a story your characters will gather allies and resources so that they have more in the end than they had in the beginning. Makes sense, right? If they’re progressing and plot things are happening of course things will change from one end of the story to the other. The reason this can cause problems, however, is when the resources gathered by the end of the story had no particular reason to not be available to the characters in the beginning.
An example could be if, late in the story, a relative with money shows up to provide necessary funds for bailing someone out of jail, buying supplies for a journey, paying for a wedding, plane tickets, etc. If there was also a problem earlier on that could have been solved by money, why didn’t the relative help out then? This can be addressed in various ways, such as the relative not knowing about the earlier trouble, or not being on such good terms with the protagonist earlier, but if they should have known, and the relationship has not changed through the story, it can be a plot hole.
A common variety of this problem I have seen is when the protagonist discovers powers late in the story that they have had all along but only realize they have and can use for the last battle or to overcome the last difficulty. Oftentimes authors do a fine job of explaining that the power wasn’t activated earlier for this or that reason, such as not using their magic because they were afraid of it earlier, and have only been able to conquer their fear because the situation is desperate enough now. However, this doesn’t work very well if the protagonist has been just as scared or felt just as hopeless earlier in the story. Even if the situation wasn’t actually as desperate, if the protagonist felt the same amount of desperation, it should have had the same effect on their powers and willingness to overcome fear to use it.
Found any plot holes? Now the hard part. Fixing them.
Fortunately for me, several solutions for WDTJ plot holes can be summed up pretty easily. Unfortunately for you (and for me on the occasions when it’s my plot hole to fix) they can require a lot of work to implement and can mean having to work around all sorts of other plot points.
Since WDTJ plot holes are at the root caused by having too many resources available to your characters, a solution is to simply take some resources away. Whichever resource your characters should have thought to use to save themselves complications and trouble that are necessary for plot, if eliminated, will solve the problem.
Of course, the reason this is easier said than done is that you’ve probably given this resource to your characters for a reason, maybe for an earlier or later problem. If you get rid of it, you have to find a different way to solve the problem you made it up for. Or it could be an integral part of how you’ve made your world or character, in which case getting rid of it would mean reworking whatever it’s part of, which can have a butterfly effect and mess up all sorts of other stuff.
The joys of writing.
There are solutions other than eliminating your excess resources completely. Instead, you can limit them. Make the resources less available or less desirable. In the example of the protagonists discovering powers she was afraid of, you could play up her fears early on and contrast them to how she feels about her magic in the desperate moments when you actually need her to use it. Or, if what eventually drives her to use her powers is fear, you can make sure to play up the final moments being much scarier and her feeling much more desperate when she uses her powers than at any time previous in the story.
In the example of the eagles, the plot hole is not a very bad one because Tolkien did take time to go into secrecy being vital to getting the Ring into Mount Doom. But I don’t recall him going into the eagles being too high and mighty to be used as a taxi service or saying anything specific about why the eagles wouldn’t work, such as the Nazgul being too tough for them, as could have been done if one of the characters thought of using the eagles and was shot down. The key when using this option to take care of WDTJ plot holes is to make sure your readers have enough information that they can figure out the answer to ‘Why didn’t they just?’.
Why didn’t they just . . . ?
Because if an army had been gathered around the entrance to Mount Doom it would have been impossible to get the Ring in.
Why didn’t they just . . . ?
Because until the climax she wasn’t scared enough of her enemies to overcome her fear of herself.
If your readers can answer the question there is no plot hole.
Other Kinds of Plot Holes
There are many other types of plot holes. The key to fixing most of them is similar, in that if you phrase the problem as a question, and come with an answer to it, you have your solution.
‘Why?’ is one of the most common questions, so, another way to find plot holes is to delve into character motivations.
I’d suggest multiple read throughs of everything you write looking specifically at every character’s motivations for everything they do on top of any other edits you’re working on. Aside from finding plot holes, this will make your dialogue infinitely better. If their motivations are entwined with their words and everything they say is for their own reason and not for plot reasons, their character will come out and make everything they do characterization. Once you’ve found a motivation inconsistency, it’s time to dig into your character and Then the fleshing out has to be integrated in the narrative well so that it looks like regular writing and not a plot hole patch.
I’ll likely do an entire post or a few just on character motivation and how to work on it specifically, but this sums it up as far as it applies specifically to plot holes.
Another kind of plot hole is basically a Deus Ex Machina Lite.
I’ve been reading up on famous plot holes and I’ve found a number of them involve things simply going too conveniently. Gods don’t descend, but the antagonist’s interference with the protagonist’s plan ends up making things better for the protagonist. Characters do things that work for the plot even though they had no reason to, like Buzz Lightyear freezing with the rest of the toys despite not believing he was a toy.
These sorts of plot holes are sometimes less of a big deal than others. Maybe partly because good coincidences happen in real life, and if these are balanced with bad coincidences it can be considered realistic. I think they also tend to be less jarring than WDTJs and motivational inconsistencies. But, they can still pull the reader out the story and make things less enjoyable or fulfilling. Something I particularly don’t enjoy when reading is if the author makes a lot of build up talking about how difficult something is going to be and then the protagonist ends up having a really easy time with it. This happened recently when I was reading a trilogy about a magic user who, throughout the series, had big drawn out fights involving magic and tactics and physical fighting. It was very built up throughout how hard the inevitable final battle with the magic user’s mother would be. The magic user built a huge army throughout the final book for the purpose of invading her mother’s kingdom and taking things over. But about ¾ of the way through the final book, the big battle ended up not being against her mother, but against herself. During this self-discovery time she unlocked a bunch of extra amazing powers (which had been foreshadowed, so that wasn’t the problem). The problem was that after this power discovery, the whole army just marched right into Evil Mom’s castle with no resistance and Miss Magic User took Evil Mom down very easily with the new powers, which she probably didn’t need and could have taken her with just the powers she had before.
So I was expecting this epic war type thing with siege towers and army scale tactics and a big magic fight at the end, but I got a walk in with a super easy magic fight. I didn’t like this last book for a lot of reasons, but most of the others were personal taste issues, while I consider this ending let-down more of an objectively bad way to end a story.
But how can you determine whether things are actually too easy for your characters or not?
To a certain extent, it is possible for the author to feel for themself whether or not things are less complicated and difficult than they needed to be. For one thing, if you were expecting a bit of writing to be very hard and it ended up being very easy, that might be a hint. Usually the most difficult problems our characters need to solve are difficult to write because we, the authors, have to actually do the figuring out before we can write our characters doing the figuring. Basically, if you feel yourself being lazy, don’t do that.
But I have to say this one is probably going to get past a lot of self-edits and may only get caught by beta readers. I’ll talk about how to find good beta readers in another post, but for now I’ll say I define beta readers as opposed to editors as non-professionals who don’t have to have any experience writing or editing but who really like to read, preferably the genre you write. They can give general feedback about how the story makes them feel, did they like the characters, etc. and other things depending on each beta reader. Thus they should be able to tell you if they expected something to be harder for the characters or if it felt like there was a build up with no reward. Unlike an editor, while they may be able to tell you there is a problem, they usually won’t be able to point you in the direction of fixing it.
However the Deus Ex Machina Lite is found, the basic solution is to dig in and put in the work to come up with complications that will genuinely challenge your characters.
Those are the ways to do it. But the way is hard. The doing is hard. Often when an author has a plot hole in their work either they have already banged their head against it again and again and are too tired to come up with a reasonable solution that doesn’t tear down the rest of the narrative, or they’ve worked on everything else for so long and are in so deep they can’t even see the problem. It pretty much sucks for us all around.
I hope my ramblings offer some insight or at least an outside perspective that will spark some ideas. While you’re enjoying the trenches of editing, I hope you take a little time to rest and some to take comfort in the shared misery of other authors. There is a huge online community of wonderful supportive people who enjoy complaining together and boosting each other’s self-esteem. If you’re feeling down hop on Twitter or one of the author support Facebook groups and have a vent. You can find me both places and I’m always up for some commiserating, which you can also use the comment section for.
I’d love to know if you have any suggestions about how to find plot holes or fix them. Tell me what movies, books, shows, you think have the most irritating or glaring plot holes or that have very shoddy plot hole patches. You can also tell me what subjects you think I should address in future posts.
May the road rise up to meet you.