What is a Plot Hole? Finding 'Em, Fixing 'Em, and Avoiding 'Em
Plot holes: those pesky little mistakes that can fall anywhere between a simple accident in eye color all the way to messing up your entire story.
We’ve all been there. You thought you wrapped up everything so nicely, but then you go back to edit, or a friendly and well-meaning beta reader asks you “what about this?” and suddenly you’re struck with a sense of impending doom.
You created a plot hole. Cue dramatic music.
Okay, maybe it’s not all that bad, but that really depends on a lot of things. Today we’ll talk about plot holes. What they are, what causes them, how to avoid them, and how to analyze your story to make sure you didn’t leave any holes big enough to drive a truck through.
Because while hundreds of readers might miss it, there will always be that one who sees exactly what you’ve done and they’re going to march on over and give you a crappy review for it.
What are Plot Holes?
Plot holes are inconsistencies or contradictions in your story that can’t be explained or can’t be resolved within the context of the story, no matter how hard you try. They can result from inconsistencies in the plot, logic, or character development.
Plot holes cause problems because they create confusion or distract from your story. They can also create plot inconsistencies and contradictions in character motivation, making the story feel less believable or even completely nonsensical. And we never want that.
People generally enjoy well-plotted stories with tight storylines and logical resolutions. But when a plotting detail is overlooked, it can cause an unexplained gap in the story.
If you’ve ever come across one, you know how frustrating this can be. When a detail is forgotten, the overall plot loses strength, leaving your reader unsatisfied.
How do Plot Holes Happen?
Continuity errors can arise because of mistakes made while writing, editing, or revising, ranging from accidental inconsistencies in a character's personality or physical traits, to major plot elements that make little sense.
These occur more often in longer works, such as series, when it's difficult to remember all the details from one book to the next. People writing long series often keep detailed notes of their characters, worldbuilding, and plots to ensure elements remain consistent across books. It’s no small feat.
Types of Plot Holes
There are various types of plot holes you might encounter out there. You’ve probably seen them or written them yourself.
I swear there are certain readers who can spot a plot hole from a million miles away, while there are others you have to beat over the head. I’m in the second group—I prefer to pretend I’m just in my own world and I’m not overly concerned if everything makes sense. I know. Some of you are shuddering right now. But I digress.
The Continuity Error
This can be a single inconsistency or a series of problems that compound together. Continuity errors occur when certain aspects of a story contradict one another, whether it’s the timeline, the characters’ actions and backstories, or something else.
An example might be in a series about a private detective, a character might work as a lawyer in one book and as a doctor in the next.
Another example is a character who ages abruptly from one book to the next. Without an explanation, this pulls readers out of the story and takes away from their overall enjoyment of the book.
Other types of errors might include discrepancies in the timeline; changes in appearance, behavior, or attitude of a character; or possibly a name or title change. These errors can be subtle and easily missed, but can be jarring to readers when they notice them.
Continuity errors can take various forms, but they all have the same result—they rob the story of its credibility and can make it difficult for readers to suspend their disbelief.
The Forgotten Detail
A common type of plot hole is the forgotten detail. This occurs when you forget an element that was previously introduced, like a character’s whereabouts or an event that takes place off-screen. Hey listen, we’ve all been there.
For example, a character might suddenly turn up in a certain location with no explanation as to how they got there. Forgotten details can affect minor or major plot points, but they throw the story’s logic off and leave readers feeling lost and confused.
Plot holes can also be caused by contradictions, when an element in the story directly opposes another element.
For example, a character may be introduced with a particular set of skills or abilities, only for them to be completely forgotten later in the story.
Another type of contradiction is when an element in one part of the story makes little sense in the context of another part. For example, in one scene it’s winter and a few pages later, your setting is describing summer berries growing on a bush. This type of plot hole can occur when the story moves too quickly for the reader to keep track of everything, or when multiple story lines run together without adequate planning.
The Deus ex Machina
A deus ex machina (Latin for "God from the machine") is an unexpected plot device used to resolve a seemingly unresolvable problem in a story. It’s typically a last-ditch attempt to save the story using a supernatural force or intervention, like magic or introducing a new character that saves the day, in a way that's feels contrived and unlikely.
Probably because you didn’t set up the earlier plot to support it.
While often used to resolve conflicts in stories, the use of a deus ex machina can also result in a plot hole. By introducing an element that resolves a problem without really having to resolve the problem itself, a deus ex machina creates that annoying logical inconsistency you’re trying to avoid.
For example, in a story where a family is stranded on a desert island, a deus ex machina could be used to suddenly bring a boat to the island, allowing the family to escape the island with no explanation of how the boat got there in the first place.
C’mon. We know you’re better than that.
How to Write a Story Without Plot Holes
While some holes are easy to fix, others can take more time and effort to patch. If you want to avoid writing plot holes into your story, here are some tips to help you out.
1. Outline your story before writing it. Before you write your story, create an outline that includes the major plot points and characters. This will ensure you won’t forget anything important or contradict yourself later.
2. Make sure the plot moves logically. As you’re writing, pay close attention to how characters and events are connected. Ask yourself if each element of the story is necessary and if the consequences make sense.
3. Give your characters believable motives. It’s important that every character in your story has an identifiable goal and a reasonable motivation for achieving it. This can be complicated, so make sure to spend time developing each character’s motivations, goals, and their arcs.
4. Leave room for readers to fill in the blanks. When you explain too much or reveal too many details, you leave little room for readers to interpret and create their own theories and connections. Try to leave some elements of the story unexplained both to surprise readers and encourage their imaginations, as well as giving yourself some wiggle room when it comes to any inconsistencies that you might miss. Wink. Wink.
5. Take your time with the ending. The ending of your story is where any existing plot holes might become glaringly obvious. Make sure your ending makes sense in relation to your plot and that your story ends where it should.
Analyzing Your Story for Plot Holes
When analyzing a story for plot holes, it is important to look at the key elements of the story, such as character development, pace, and the events that happen throughout your plotlines. Below are some tips for analyzing a story for plot holes.
1. Look for characters that serve no purpose or do not add to the story. Plot holes can often occur when writers introduce characters who are not relevant to the story or don’t contribute anything meaningful. Look out for characters that appear to serve no purpose and ask yourself if they are necessary—no matter how much you might love them. Slash and burn, baby.
2. Pay attention to details. Plot holes can also occur when writers are not consistent with details in the story. For example, if a story establishes that a character is left-handed but then later has them using their right hand for some tasks, this can create a plot hole. Look for any inconsistencies or details that appear to contradict each other. Keep notes if your memory isn’t the best, and if you know someone who’s got a mind like a steel trap, offer to bake them cookies if they’ll check for inconsistent details. A good editor should be useful for this too.
3. Check for timeline issues. Timeline issues can easily create plot holes in a story. Pay attention to dates, timelines, and the sequence of events in the story. Ask yourself if the timeline makes sense or if there are any inconsistencies that could be causing a plot hole. Try mapping it out if your timeline is particularly complex.
4. Consider how the events unfold. Plot holes can happen when a story’s events make no sense in comparison to how the story has unfolded thus far. Ask yourself questions like “Does this event make sense given what has occurred in the story so far?” and “Is this result logical given the events leading up to it?”
Use Dabble to Banish Plot Holes
Okay, now that we’ve established a few things about plot holes, I’m going to share an amazing tool to help you ensure your plot never falls down the rabbit hole ever again.
Dabble Writer is the writer’s tool because it offers Notes, where you can keep track of every detail about your characters from their eye color to their height to their worst fears. You can track your worldbuilding details and literally anything else you’ve got going in your novel.
If that isn’t enough, then the Plot Grid is the perfect tool for mapping out those timelines, drafting out your plot, and ensuring you don’t accidentally introduce any inconsistencies along the way.
Try it free for 14 days and see how you can make magic happen.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.