How to Plug Those Plot Holes
There are few things that keep authors up at night as much as the dreaded plot hole. These dastardly problems can make Swiss cheese out of an otherwise solid story, leaving the reader unsatisfied or, worse, annoyed by the error.
Here’s the thing, though: every author will encounter a few plot holes in their writing. Even the most ardent plotter in the world will inevitably write a subplot that misses something or omit a crucial detail in their main story line.
Seriously, the only guarantees in life are death, taxes, and finding a sneaky plot hole in your otherwise perfect story.
That said, it’s much better for us to identify plot holes and fix them before our book is purchased and read by our audience. By then the damage might already be done in the form of lost fans and poor reviews.
That’s exactly what we’re here to learn how to prevent. In this article, we’re going to:
- Understand plot holes, including the various types
- Learn how to identify those inconsistencies
- Figure out how to fix plot holes (a very important part, I might add)
- Gain some new techniques to avoid writing plot holes in the future
When all’s said and done, you’ll plug that Swiss cheese with… other cheese? I don’t know, maybe the comparison isn’t perfect. But save the cheese for eating, it’s time to fix some plot holes.
Understanding Plot Holes
I’m barely exaggerating when I say plot holes are the nemeses of writers everywhere. And while it’s all well and good to say slightly hyperbolic statements like that, it doesn’t really explain what plot holes are. I mean, the name sort of says it, but I want to clear it up so we’re on the same page here.
In essence, a plot hole is a glaring inconsistency, omission, or error in the storyline.
Imagine, for a moment, your entire story is portrayed on a sprawling, massive stained glass window. Every character, scene, and conflict is laid out on the glass, and even your themes are masterfully shown for the reader.
A plot hole is the result of someone chucking a rock through part of that glass.
But you don’t just have a fist-sized hole in your story now. Anyone who has ever seen broken glass before (and I’m assuming that’s almost everyone) knows that cracks ripple out from the impact site.
The same can be said for your plot hole in that stained glass. It’s not just that plot holes matter in terms of the single error, but you risk the larger effect that error has. What does your plot hole do to your characters, themes, and other plot lines?
On top of that, plot holes can:
- Confuse the reader - If a character suddenly gains an ability with no explanation or a fact previously stated is suddenly changed without reason, the reader might be left scratching their head.
- Break the emotional connection - If a reader is heavily invested in a character's plight and then finds a plot hole related to it, that bond can weaken.
- Undermine the story's authenticity - Even fantasy stories with dragons and wizards need internal logic. A plot hole can make a fictional world feel less real or carefully constructed.
Worst of all, though…
Plot Holes Suspend Audience Disbelief
When we dive into a book, show, or film, there's a pact made between the creator and the audience.
The audience agrees to temporarily suspend disbelief, and in return, the creator provides a compelling, consistent world.
This isn't about accepting fantastical elements; it's about internal story logic. A plot hole, however, can snap readers or viewers out of this immersion, making them question what they previously accepted.
Imagine watching a documentary on Ancient Egypt and King Tut pulls out an iPhone. Or the Mother of Dragons is sporting a grande oat latte the night before a war. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt like you’d just wasted your time, right? That’s the feeling a plot hole can create.
The Different Types of Plot Holes and the Effects They Each Have
There are various flavors of narrative plot holes, each with its own set of complications, because of course there are. If it was a straightforward problem, we’d have a straightforward answer.
Instead, here are the different kinds of plot holes to look out for.
- Logical plot holes - These result from a break in the story's internal logic. For example, a character might escape from a sealed room “off-screen” without any sort of opening to go through.
- Temporal plot holes - Errors in time or sequence. Imagine a character mentioning they haven't seen another for a year when only a month has passed in the story's timeline.
- Character-related plot holes - This is when characters act contrary to their established behavior without reason. If your timid librarian suddenly becomes a skilled ninja without backstory or development, readers might raise an eyebrow. But I’d read a book about a librarian ninja.
- Causal plot holes - These are events that occur without a preceding cause. Like when an antagonist suddenly decides to turn good, without any buildup or justification.
Each type of plot hole can pull readers out of the narrative, leaving them questioning not just the mistake but potentially the entire story structure. And remember, even a narrative built on the most fantastical elements can shatter if its internal logic is broken.
You need to grasp the varied nature of plot holes to tackle them effectively. Knowing is half the battle, after all. So now that we're armed with the basics, let's dive into how to spot these nasty culprits.
Identifying Plot Holes
Knowing what plot holes are is only half the battle. Actually, it’s only like one-tenth of the battle. An important one-tenth, but a measly 10% nonetheless.
Now that you’re armed with that knowledge, though, it’s time to take the fight to these inconsistencies. When it comes to the war on plot holes, there are three different approaches I’ll be letting you in on:
- Standard techniques to identify plot holes
- Working with others to get feedback
- Critically analyzing your work
Techniques to Identify Plot Holes in Your Own Writing
First up, some handy skills you want in your back pocket for more than just finding plot holes.
Revisit your outline (or create one) - Yes, the trusty outline. For all my pantser friends out there, this isn’t about stifling creativity; it’s about ensuring a cohesive structure. By reviewing your story’s blueprint, you can spot inconsistencies or areas that have shifted during the writing process.
If you didn’t begin with an outline, consider making a retroactive one. This can help you visualize the entire story and notice gaps.
Outlines can be as detailed or as sparse as you’d like, just remember that the more you outline, the more effective you will be at finding pesky plot holes.
Dabble’s Plot Grid lets you keep track of all your plot lines, relationships, character arcs, conflicts, and anything else you could want on a scene-by-scene basis, letting you get an efficient and effective bird’s eye view of your story.
Chronological readthrough - Take the time to read your story in sequence, resisting the urge to edit small details. Focus on the big picture. This approach lets you experience the narrative much like your audience would, making inconsistencies more evident.
Bonus points if you read it out loud. Our minds have a way of making connections that aren’t necessarily there, and we have a tendency to skip over words when we read in our heads. It takes longer to read it aloud, but it’s worth the extra effort.
Character profiles and timelines - Maintain a profile for each character, noting key traits, backgrounds, and developments. This can help in ensuring they remain consistent throughout your story and aren’t the cause of any major plot holes afterwards.
Guess what? Keeping track of character profiles is a cinch in Dabble, with either profiles or entire templates with over 100 traits just a click away from your manuscript.
Similarly, a timeline helps you keep track of events and can highlight any temporal plot holes. This is less involved than an outline, though you can get real complex with programs like Aeon Timeline.
Question everything - Not to sound conspiratorial, but as you read, keep a list of pivotal plot points. For each one, ask basic questions like "Why?", "How?", and "What next?". If you can’t answer confidently, there may be a hole worth pluggin’.
Getting a Fresh Perspective and Feedback from an Outside Source
Contrary to the outdated stereotype of the solitary writer toiling away at their art alone, the creative writing process involves more than just you. If you think your book is the best it can be without outside feedback, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
In that same vein, getting a perspective other than your own can help point out any plot holes you’ve justified away or become desensitized to.
Beta readers - Beta readers are individuals who read your work before it’s published to provide feedback. They come in without the baggage of knowing your story’s planning phase and can offer insights on plot holes your readers might notice.
Writing groups - Whether it’s a local writers’ club or an online forum, these communities can be invaluable. Sharing portions of your story and getting feedback from multiple writers who know their craft can shine a light on inconsistencies.
And guess what? We have our own community of writers, The Story Craft Café, where you can network with other authors and maybe join or form a writing group of your own!
Professional editors - An editor does more than correct grammar. Developmental or structural editors are trained to identify structural issues, inconsistencies, and, yes, those pesky plot holes. While they come at a cost, their expertise can be well worth the investment.
The Shelf Method - Put your work on the “shelf” for a few weeks or even a month. Coming back with fresh eyes can help you see your narrative in a new light, making it easier to identify gaps or problems. No, it’s not technically an outside perspective, but your mindset will be much different than it was right after finishing your manuscript or chapter.
How to Critically Analyze Your Plot for Inconsistencies
Critically analyzing your work isn’t just tough, it can be painful. No one wants to admit their precious word baby is flawed, much less in a drastic way.
Worse, it’s difficult to be critical of your own work… you did your best the first time around, right? So what is there to criticize?
Experienced authors know that criticism is part of the writing process and there’s always something to improve, especially in a first draft. So here are some ways you can critically analyze your work for plot holes and inconsistencies.
The "So What?" Test - After reading a section, ask yourself, “So what?”. If a plot point or detail doesn’t add value or make sense in the grand scheme, it might be an inconsistency or, at the least, an unnecessary diversion.
Be as objective as you can with this one. Heck, try answering your “So what?” to your partner, friend, coworker, etc. If it sounds weak when you describe it, you might have some work to do.
Mind mapping - Visual aids can be beneficial. Map out your plot, subplots, and character arcs. Lines connecting events and characters can help you spot areas where the narrative loses its coherence.
Logic check - Even in a world filled with magic or advanced tech, internal logic must be maintained. Continually ask if an event logically follows its predecessor. If you can’t draw a direct line between cause and effect, how do you expect your readers to?
Consistency checklists - Create a checklist of major plot points, character decisions, and story rules. Regularly refer back to it, ensuring you haven't deviated without reason. This can come in handy when you’re doing logic checks, too.
Identifying plot holes requires a combination of self-analysis and external perspectives. By repeatedly testing the integrity of your narrative and inviting fresh eyes to review it, you're positioning your story for the best shot at coherence and continuity.
After all, the plot holes you find and fix today are the criticisms you won’t hear from readers tomorrow. And, honestly, we could all do with a little less negativity in the future, right?
How to Fix Plot Holes
Let’s get one thing straight: you’re here because you care deeply about your story and your readers. And while we've broached the subject of consistency before, let’s be clear about its significance.
A consistent narrative is like the foundation of a house. A crack, no matter how minor, can jeopardize the entire structure.
Consistency in your story serves as that strong foundation, ensuring your reader remains engrossed, believing in the world you've created, and following the journey you've charted. The longer you can keep them in the world of your book, without them remembering they’re just reading words on a page, the better.
And the key to that immersion? You got it—consistency.
So now that we know how to identify plot holes, let’s patch them up and keep our stories consistent.
Strategies for Mending Plot Holes
- Make a quick fix - This may sound like a cop out, but more writers than not fix simple plot holes with quick, simple fixes. Have a character reference their spouse that you said was dead? Make it a memory or switch it to a friend. Did they pull a gun out of the glove box in their car? Backtrack four chapters and add a line about them tucking it in there, just in case.
- Subtraction is addition - Sometimes, the best solution to a plot hole is to remove the offending section altogether. If a subplot, character, or scene creates more questions than it answers or adds no substantial value, consider cutting it.
- Insert a foreshadow - If an event seems too sudden or out-of-the-blue, backtrack a little. Introduce subtle hints or foreshadows earlier in the narrative. This makes the event feel planned and part of the overall story arc.
- Enhance character motivations - If a character action feels inconsistent, delve deeper into their motivations or backstory. Giving them a strong reason or past event that influences their decisions can iron out character-driven plot holes.
- Embrace the plot hole - Come to the Dark Side, Luke. Sometimes, a plot hole can be turned into a plot twist. If there’s a glaring inconsistency, try turning it into a mystery to be solved or a deliberate misdirection.
- Introduce a new element - Without overcomplicating things, think about introducing a new character, artifact, or event that can serve as a logical bridge over a plot hole.
- Use flashbacks or memories - If there’s a missing link in your story, consider employing a flashback or a character's memory to fill in the gaps. It gives readers a “lightbulb” moment and deepens the narrative's richness. Be careful with this approach, though. You don’t want to solve all problems with a cheap flashback.
- Consult an expert - If your plot hole revolves around a technical detail (like medical, scientific, historical info, etc.), consulting an expert in the field might provide a solution you hadn’t considered.
Famous Authors and Their Plot Hole Patches
Even the most celebrated authors in literary history have grappled with plot holes. Here’s how a few tackled theirs:
J.K. Rowling - In the Harry Potter series, fans raised questions about the Marauder’s Map and how certain characters weren’t spotted by it. Rowling admitted she had to work around this, and though not all questions were directly addressed in the text, she provided explanations in interviews and on her website, allowing deeper dives for those hungry for clarity.
Isaac Asimov - His expansive Foundation series spanned millennia (and I’m thoroughly enjoying the show on Apple right now). In later books, he found ways to bridge inconsistencies between stories, sometimes by connecting characters or revealing that certain historical accounts (within his books) were flawed or misinterpreted.
Agatha Christie - The queen of mystery occasionally left readers with unresolved questions. In some cases, she would address these in later novels, presenting them as further mysteries that either Poirot or Miss Marple would “recall” and resolve.
Remember, perfection is a noble aim, but every story will have its minor discrepancies. The aim is to ensure they don’t disrupt the narrative flow or pull the reader out of the immersion.
With patience, creativity, and just a little bit of literary magic, you can patch up those plot holes and craft a narrative that’s as seamless as it is captivating.
Tips to Avoid Plot Holes Altogether
Finally, I want to leave you with some advice to write in a way that helps minimize inconsistencies or avoid these nasty plot holes completely. Some of these will sound familiar, but now we’re taking a proactive approach to our writing rather than reacting to holes we find.
Wield the Power of Planning
Outlining - Think of an outline as your story’s blueprint. Just as architects wouldn’t construct a building without a solid plan, authors should be wary of diving headlong into a narrative without some form of guide.
Outlining doesn’t mean rigidly sticking to every detail—stories evolve, after all—but it does mean having a clear path. An outline can help you spot potential plot pitfalls before they become cemented in your narrative.
For pantsers, that might mean a list of important scenes or a rough three-act outline. For plotters, outline to your heart’s content.
Character development sheets - A well-rounded character doesn't spring to life overnight. Using character development sheets or profiles allows you to delve into their backstory, motivations, likes, dislikes, fears, and more. The more you know your characters, the less likely they are to take actions that feel inconsistent or out of the blue.
Think about your partner or best friend. You could probably tell me exactly how they would act in any given situation because you know them so well. Putting the work into knowing your characters will give you that same familiarity.
Set clear rules for your world - Especially important for genres like fantasy and science fiction, establishing and adhering to the rules of your world ensures you won't trip up later. Whether it's how magic functions or the technology of a distant planet, consistency is crucial.
And guess what? I’ve got some guides on creating magic systems for fantasy stories and writing about technology in sci-fi for you, if you want ’em.
Become a Guardian of Continuity
Sequential writing - While it might be tempting to jump around, writing your story in sequence can help maintain a logical flow. If you do prefer to jump, always revisit previous sections to ensure events and details align.
Continuity checklist - One of the things we mentioned before, this checklist is one of my new favorite things. As your story progresses, maintain a list of key events, character decisions, and introduced elements. This acts as a quick reference, ensuring you don't inadvertently contradict something established earlier.
Pro tip: You can keep this checklist in your Dabble Story Notes so it’s only one click away when you’re writing or revising your manuscript.
Embrace the Process
Drafts are your friends - Understand that your first draft is unlikely to be your last. It's called a draft for a reason—it’s malleable, changeable. It's where you figure out the kinks of your story.
Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, knowing you'll come back with a more critical eye later.
Stay open to feedback - Be it from beta readers, writing groups, or editors—we know outside perspectives are invaluable. They'll see things you might have become blind to, given your closeness to the story.
Ask for feedback. Establish relationships with your future readers and other writers. Listen to voices other than your own.
In the end, the goal isn't just to avoid plot holes, but to craft a compelling, cohesive story that resonates with readers.
If you actually take these practices to heart and use them, not only do you safeguard your narrative from inconsistencies, but you also elevate the entirety of your storytelling experience.
Every page, every chapter, is a step in a journey—both for you and your readers. Make it one worth embarking on.
Go Plug Those Plot Holes
Plot holes terrify some writers, but I hope this article has made these inconsistencies a little less scary. Seasoned authors know that plot holes are things that happen, and they will always happen.
But seasoned authors also know how to minimize those errors and find and fix those holes when they sneak through before their readers do. And now you do, too.
The best part? You don’t need to do it alone. I’ve mentioned a few times how Dabble has some handy features to make fixing plot holes yourself a thing of the past. It also includes:
- Goal tracking and automatic daily goals
- Automatic back-up syncing (seriously, losing 30k+ words hurts)
- Writing on any device, anywhere
- A clean, modern interface
And a bunch of other user-friendly features that are there when you need them and gone when you don’t.
And you can start pluggin’ away on those plot holes with Dabble for zero dollars and zero cents by clicking here and starting a fourteen day trial.
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