How to Find and Fix Your Story's Plot Holes
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When spending so much time working on our stories, it can be difficult to see the forest through the trees.
This is a phenomenon we discussed in our recent article on the importance of gaining objectivity as we edit. When we're in the thick of revising our stories, we may find ourselves so focused on all the little details that we want to improve that we fail to see some of our stories' biggest weaknesses. And the biggest of all, perhaps, are plot holes.
What are plot holes exactly? And how can you find and fix them throughout your manuscript? Let's break down everything you need to know today, writer!
What are plot holes, you ask?
A plot hole is a gap or inconsistency in a narrative that specifically contradicts the flow of logic established in the story. As such, plot holes include:
- Illogical Events. (Example: An all-powerful villain is easily defeated.)
- Contradictions. (Example: A character's personality changes greatly between two scenes with no explanation.)
- Unresolved Storylines. (Example: A secondary character is given their own subplot, which is later forgotten.)
- Impossible Events. (Example: A character moves too quickly between far distances.)
- Continuity errors. (Example: A character seemingly forgets a vital piece of information they knew earlier in the story.)
Every reader suspends some measure of disbelief. Otherwise, no one would enjoy stories with fantastical elements or question the physics of a crazy car chase. But there's also a limit to how much readers will accept for the sake of entertainment, and plot holes are often what push readers over the edge.
Finding Plot Holes in Your Manuscript
Readers' suspension of disbelief may ensure that some of your story's smaller plot holes go unnoticed or ignored. But generally, you'll want to take some time during revisions to find and fix the plot holes that could spell disaster for your story.
This may seem like an obvious task, but the trouble comes with the lack of objectivity we mentioned at the top of our post. As writers, we're often so caught up in the details that we fail to see these big picture plot holes for ourselves, which is exactly what leads us into the first of several tips for seeking out your story's inconsistencies and illogical events:
#1: Edit with objectivity.
The surest way to catch plot holes when revising is to first take some time to gain a little objectivity, to step away from your manuscript in order to review it later with fresh eyes. We talked about even more tips for gaining objectivity in this article, so make sure to check that out.
#2: Draft With intention.
Every writer's pre-writing process will look a little different, so don't feel pressured to outline your novel scene-by-scene before writing if doing so doesn't work well for you. Generally speaking, however, the more you develop your story before writing, the better your chance of catching plot holes early.
#3: Examine your plot.
As you read through your story before revising, take some time to question the logic of your plot. Do the events in your story build upon those prior? Do instances of conflict have meaningful consequences? Do your characters make choices that are true to their personalities and beliefs?
Think about some of the most glaring plot holes you've found in stories you've read or films you've watched, and don't be afraid to interrogate your story for similar mistakes.
#4: Stay true to your characters.
As I've often said, characters are the backbone of plot. It's their desires and motivations that drive stories forward and their flaws and failures that lend to conflict. As writers, however, it's all too easy to use our characters as wish fulfillment, playing out events as we'd ideally like them to occur rather than staying true to the characters we've developed.
This reality always makes me think of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The reason that Martin was able to successfully execute his protagonist at the end of the first book in his series was that doing so was the most logical result of several characters' personalities and beliefs.
We, too, can work to stay true to our characters as we find and fix our story's plot holes by first taking the time to develop our characters fully, then interrogating our characters' choices throughout our stories in much the same way we did with our plots in the tip above.
#5: Create a subplot checklist.
It's surprisingly easy to drop small subplots as we write, especially in stories with multiple points-of-view and complex storylines. The easiest way I've found to keep all of these story threads in check is to quite literally keep a checklist.
Every time I introduce a new plot or character arc, I write it down in a document called "story threads", which I then review as I write and edit to ensure I haven't accidentally created any plot holes.
#6: Know the laws of your story world.
If you're writing any form of speculative fiction — stories that include fantastical, supernatural, or futuristic elements — it's all too easy to create plot holes that concern your world-building: magic systems with no boundaries, space cadets who can't fire a phaser to save their lives, vampires that sparkle...
You get the idea, right? Taking the time to develop the framework of your story world is vital. There are many ways to go about world-building, but putting in the time and effort is key to both avoiding plot holes as you write and knowing where to look for potential plot holes as you edit.
#7: Keep detailed revision notes.
You may patch up many plot holes as you revise, but even the smallest of changes to your plot, characters, or world-building can result in a butterfly effect that only creates more plot holes. For this reason, I'd encourage you to keep detailed revision notes as you work.
Once you've finished a new draft, review the changes you've made and identify any potential problem areas in your story. Take a few weeks' break to regain your objectivity, then work through your story once again to catch any new plot holes you may have created.
#8: Work with beta-readers or an editor.
We may work hard to gain an objective eye. But, at the end of the day, chances are that we won't catch all the plot holes we've created. We're simply too close to our work. This is where the aid of beta readers or a fantastic editor comes into play.
Bringing a manuscript to life is far more of a group effort than you may at first realize. Where our own objectivity falls short, getting a few secondary eyes on our manuscripts can make all the difference in catching those pesky plot holes. So, don't be afraid to reach out for help!
How can we fix our stories' plot holes?
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for patching up every plot hole you encounter. And, in most cases, slapping a bandaid over them won't work either. Granted, some plot holes may be explained away with a few crafty lines of exposition. But, in most cases, fixing plot holes will likely force you back to the drawing board.
Restructuring plots, deepening characters' development, reviewing themes and character arcs, and even reshaping our story worlds — none of this is easy, yet it's all too often required of us as we work to fix the plot holes we've created. For the sake of our stories, we must be willing to put in this hard work.
Even when we do discover seemingly simple fixes for our plot holes, it's worth asking whether the simple fix is the best fix. We must work always to serve our stories, to craft the very best versions that we can. This work isn't always pretty, and it's certainly not often fun, but it's worth the effort when we have a truly phenomenal tale to share with the world.