How to Find and Fix Your Novel's Plot Holes
As an author, nothing is worse than discovering that the novel you have lovingly labored over for months–or even years–isn't going over well with readers.
It's a terrifying thought, but it is one that all writers must consider as plausible.
The root of readers' dislike can come in many forms:
- Unlikable characters
- Poor character or plot development
- Offensive themes or remarks
- Poor writing
Among other causes, of course. But one of the most common elements that puts readers off of a novel are plot holes.
Chances are, you've probably heard of plot holes at some point in your writing life. But what exactly are they and why can they spell trouble for your novel? And how can you find and fix your own before your novel goes to print?
Don't remain in the dark, my friend! We'll go over all of this and more in today's post so that you can give your novel its best chance at success.
What are plot holes, you ask?
A plot hole is a missing element or obvious mistake that takes away from the plausibility and integrity of a plot. Examples of plot holes include:
- Illogical Events. Example: The all-powerful villain is easily defeated.
- Contradictions. Example: The hero is very loving in one scene, yet is unaccountably cruel in the next.
- Dropped Plot Lines or Characters. Example: The sidekick goes off in search of something, leaving the hero behind, and is never heard from again.
- Unexplained Changes in Character or Setting. Example: A character begins their day in the city and is inexplicably in the countryside by mid-morning.
- Continuity errors. Example: A character is said to have brown eyes in one scene and blue in the next.
At the end of the day, any element that leaves readers scratching their heads can be considered a plot hole, though the ones listed above are certainly the most major. But are plot holes always a bad thing? Is there any case where they might be acceptable?
Read on, lovely writer!
When plot holes are okay...
Though no writer likes to admit that plot holes exist in their novels, plot holes can be unavoidable - and even acceptable - on rare occasions. If you happen to find an inescapable plot hole in your novel, don't immediately fling your manuscript out the window.
Sometimes, readers are willing to overlook plot holes for the sake of the story. After all, fiction is fiction, and while it is best based in reality, a little imagination is hardly a stretch. Under the right circumstances, your plot holes might not give readers much pause.
Here are a few examples of when that would be the case:
- In Appropriate Genres. Within certain genres (e.g. fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) plot holes are quite common. And while some are major plot holes that leave readers rolling their eyes, others can be overlooked simply because they make the story possible.
- With Unreliable Narrators. An unreliable narrator is a POV character who can't be trusted to tell the story with accuracy. As such, readers won't always take what this narrator tells them as fact, opening up the window for them to ignore smaller plot holes.
- With A Novel Series. If you are writing a series of novels, you may find that you can explain a plot hole from one book in the next. Knowing that this is possible, readers may disregard plot holes in an early entry in the series in hopes that it will later be explained.
The simple fact is, readers have opened your novel to be taken on a journey. They want to be entertained or enlightened, to leave their own world behind for a few hours. If you've written a fantastic story, readers may recognize the implausibility of a plot hole but choose to overlook it.
This is otherwise known as suspension of disbelief. And while you hope that readers won't have to put it into practice it, there is no need to be ashamed if they do. It means that they love your story well enough to overlook its minor faults.
P.S. And yes, your story will have faults. No writer is perfect.
Finding Plot Holes in Your Manuscript
But suspension of disbelief certainly isn't a Get Out of Jail Free card. The more plot holes you can work out of your novel, the better! Finding and fixing plot holes is certainly a tough task, but there are a few things that you can do to worm them out.
Let's break them down:
1. Know your story well. Last week, the wonderful Kaitlin of Ink and Quills wrote a guest post explaining the benefits of pre-writing, which you can check out right here. I loved this post because it highlighted the importance of getting to know your novel before you write.
As it is, the less you know about your story before you pick up the pen, the more likely you will be to write a first draft ridden with plot holes. And let me tell you (from personal experience, unfortunately) that it will indeed make for a hellish second draft.
Know your story well, and you'll identify plot holes before you make them.
2. Examine your plot. This may sound obvious, but take the time to look over your plot outline. Is it logical? Do the events line up? Does your hero play off of the villain's actions (and vice versa)?
Looking over your plot outline is a rather simple task, but it will help you catch plot holes before you begin to write, which in many cases is a massive time-saver.
If you'd like to really crack down on your plot, take the time to write out a full five to ten page plot summary. Examine every characters' actions from beginning to end, looking for any areas of your plot that seem implausible, inconsistent, or otherwise jumbled.
3. Keep character sketches. A simple way to avoid inconsistencies in your character appearances and actions is to write up thorough character sketches. Keep these sketches nearby as you write to use as a quick reference guide. With them on hand, your chances of including a silly mistake in your manuscript will decrease dramatically!
Related Note: There are six character sketch spaces built into the reference guide section of The Novel Planner. If you want to organize your novel, set writing goals, and plan out a novel year, you'll want to give this daily planner for authors a look.
4. Create a character checklist. To ensure that you avoid dropped characters and plot lines, keep a list of every character you introduce to readers. As you write an ending for each character, mark them off of your checklist. By doing so, you'll save yourself from a lifetime of disgruntled fan mail asking what happened to so-and-so.
5. Know the laws of your story world. Whether you're creating a fictional world or simply exploring a specific culture or lifestyle in our own, know the rules and parameters of that world.
If you are creating your own world, you will need to know its cultures, governments, laws, norms, and other social constructs. And if your novel has magic, make sure to lay out where it comes from and how it works. You can explore all this and more (and even create your own reference guide) in this post on worldbuilding.
If you are exploring a specific culture or sub-culture in our own world, or even dealing with characters that live a very unusual lifestyle (think royalty or secret organization or cult), you need to know your facts. What laws and expectations govern these people? What can and can't they do?
Take the time to research your novel thoroughly, and you'll be far less likely to write in plot holes that will aggravate readers.
6. Keep notes while editing. Once you've finished your first draft, you'll need to read it over before you edit. As you complete through this read-through, keep a list of any plot holes you uncover. You can use this list to plan out what you then must fix.
You should also keep a list of the changes you make while editing, as they may end up creating new plot holes for you to fix. Once you finish your second draft, a second read-through of your manuscript will reveal just what damage you might have done.
This is just one reason why doing at least two rounds of editing is so important.
7. Utilize beta-readers. Beta-readers are your critical eye. They read through your manuscript (most often free of charge) before it is published and then offer feedback on its content.
After hundreds of hours spent working on your novel, you know your story better than anyone, having reread every line so often that you practically have the entire book memorized. This intimacy can actually hurt your chances of finding mistakes, leaving you with a plot hole or two that keeps your novel from being its best self.
Sending your novel out to a few beta-readers should prove enormously helpful because they will catch the little mistakes that your mind is far too subjective to see. While it may be nerve-wracking to ask for feedback on your novel, remember that beta-readers aren't there to see it into the dumps. They want to help your novel reach its highest potential!
8. Trust your editor. If you land a book deal, your publishing house will assign your novel an editor. This wonderful human being will read through your manuscript and offer you professional advice, much like a beta-reader would but on a lengthier and more-experienced level.
If they make suggestions that leave you feeling uneasy, you are more than welcome to refuse to make changes. But keep an ear out for any recommendations your editor might make concerning your novel's plot. Chances are, they will noticed a plot hole or two that has escaped your own eyes.
If you are self-publishing your novel, I highly recommend seeking out the professional services of a freelance editor. You certainly can't trust yourself to catch every mistake, and while your friends and family may be willing to look your novel over, they simply aren't professionals.
Give your novel its best chance at success. Hire an editor before you self-publish it.
How do you fix plot holes?
Now, I know what you're thinking: "So, Kristen. I know how to identify plot holes now, but how do I actually fix them?"
Well, some plot holes are easy to fix. Continuity errors can be patched up in editing, unexplained jumps in location can be explained with a few sentences of exposition, and dropped plot lines and characters can be given a satisfying ending.
But what about those tough plot holes? You know, the ones you just can't seem to solve? You need events to happen in a certain way or for a character to act in a particular manner, but those elements just don't seem in tune with the rest of your plot.
Unfortunately, there is no band-aid fix for this kind of plot hole. In order to smooth it out, you need to spend some time in heavy thinking. It may takes days or even weeks for you to sort these plot holes out, but it must be done if you want to write a believable plot.
My best tip for solving this type of plot hole is to ask yourself one simple question time and time again: "what if?".
What if your character did this instead of that, went here instead of there, or said something completely different? What if you set the scene in a different space or combined two characters? What if...well, you get the point.
"What if?" provides endless options. If you daydream long and hard enough, you will find a solution for your pesky plot holes. It's simply a matter of time and determination.
Don't make this plot hole mistake!
One final tip before I wrap it up: just because a fix is easy, does not mean that it is the right choice for your novel.
If a tough plot hole has a writer stumped, they may succumb to the simplicity of creating a deus ex machina. Latin for "god from the machine", a deus ex machina is an unexpected person or event that saves your characters from an apparently hopeless situation.
Using this technique to smooth over a plot hole is like patching up a rip instead of having it professionally mended. It's not a solid solution, and it won't hold up under heavy scrutiny.
Steer clear of the easy way out because readers will see right through your contrived plot device and wished they had simply skipped the entire novel.
Do you have any more tips for identifying and patching up your novel's plot holes? What plot holes from popular novels and movies drive you absolutely nuts? Comment below. I'd love to hear from you!