Image: Matthew Loffhagen
A plot hole is an absence in the narrative that spoils the story. Usually plot holes are the absence of a ‘how’: a character suddenly knows something with no explanation, or the cast makes a seemingly impossible journey between chapters. Of course the absence of a great deal of explanation is necessary in any story, it’s only when that absence of explanation negates the reader’s suspension of disbelief that a plot hole is created.
The more you plot your story before writing, the fewer opportunities for plot holes. Of course intricate plotting isn’t always possible, so in this article I’ll be sharing 5 tips for escaping plot holes. Whether you can’t figure out why a character would do something or you’ve set them a seemingly impossible challenge, these tips will help you find a way through to the other side.
1. Identify the cause
The first thing you need to do when confronted by a plot hole is identify the root cause. Plot holes almost always occur as answers to unsolvable problems.
Some stories have a life of their own; authors can start off in one direction and find that the characters and events they’ve created are intent on dragging them somewhere unexpected. It can be fantastic for a story when that happens, when characters are so fully realized that they begin to write themselves. This communicates vitality and realism to the audience, but the risk of plot holes is high. When you don’t know what’s coming, it’s impossible to plan ahead, and authors often find their characters trapped in a situation that’s impossible to resolve without skipping over some vital details.
Something needs to happen – situation A needs to become situation B – and when it’s impossible to explain a satisfactory transition, authors fall back on distracting the reader while they’re swapped. This can be done incredibly skillfully and some readers will never realize what they missed, but those that do will be irrevocably dragged out of the story.
No matter how deftly you distract the reader, there’s really no hiding an absence of information. If your story currently demands an impossible event then no amount of tweaking will make the one you choose work. What needs to be addressed is why it’s currently impossible. In order to do this you have to…
2. Identify the facts
What are the facts of your situation? Say your characters are trapped somewhere; they need to escape but for some reason they can’t. Why? Write down the minute details of the situation. Do they have knowledge, resources or aid that they can use to escape? What makes the environment so inescapable?
Once you have a list of every element that makes the plot hole necessary, it’s time to get tough and start choosing those that can be changed. It’s easy to decide a situation is set in stone, so begin by listing the inconvenient facts in order of how flexible they are.
Now you’re in a position to start exploring actual solutions.
3. Don’t ignore facts, add them
The key here is to remember that as the author you can time travel. At any point prior to the impossible situation you’ll be able to arm your characters with the resources to move forwards. The solution to moving past an impossible situation is almost always to establish a new fact earlier in the story. In Greek mythology, Theseus is thrown into a labyrinth. The narrative requirements of his character are to slay a monster and then find his way back through the maze. The impossible situation is that the labyrinth is famously unnavigable. The facts are inescapable: no-one can find their way through the maze but Theseus, with no special skills, must find his way out.
The resultant plot hole would be that Theseus simply gets lucky or guesses well, a pretend solution to a factual problem.
If Theseus slew the Minotaur and the story cut to him leaving the maze, that would be a plot hole. It’s one that might even work for some readers, distracted by their satisfaction with the monster slaying narrative. Instead, Theseus is given a ball of string earlier in the story and uses it to mark his path from the entrance. The string may be a plot contrivance, but because it appears before the problem it solves, the reader is far more willing to accept it.
Never ignore the facts of your story, because the reader won’t. Plot holes occur when authors can’t see past a single scene. Think of your story as a whole and you’ll realize that there are a great many places where you can plant the seeds of a solution.
If your character never lies then you can add some personal history that excuses that one necessary untruth. You might have to go a long way, might have to add large passages to give the solution a satisfactory backstory, but there are very few situations so impossible that they can’t be explained.
If you are in one of those rare situations there are two options. The first of which is…
4. The nuclear option
If the situation demands a plot hole and there’s no way to fix it, then it’s time to consider removing the situation from your story. Once a reader spots a plot hole they see the writer behind the story, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to accept the fictional world again.
As annoying and difficult as it will be to completely excise a section of the story, it’s preferable to the readers you’ll lose due to even the most well-covered plot hole. Rewriting the section will allow you to structure it in such a way that it’s no longer impossible to solve, or at least in such a way that you can plant a solution earlier in the story. This is a nuclear option because the section you remove will have to be big.
If that’s too drastic then you’ll have to make your peace with the second option…
5. The less-than-nuclear option
If you’ve accepted your plot hole then it’s time to put all your energy into distracting the reader. The best way of doing this is combining a vague non-explanation with an immediate, exciting event that drags the reader’s attention away from the ‘how’.
If you need to dismiss the options a hero should logically have, so they have to go the route you want, they can state that they’ve ‘tried everything’. Unexplained intuition can drive characters to uncharacteristic behavior, and in the most dire circumstances protagonists can justify guesses and lucky shots as just that. The important thing is that plot holes are not just ignored. If your story is otherwise strong then goodwill may motivate a reader to accept your half-explanation, but asking them to accept a total lack of explanation is a step too far for many.
With these solutions you should be able to fix most plot holes, and make the ones you can’t avoid invisible. Of course it’s always worth getting a second opinion; as the author you’re so close to the story that some absences that don’t matter to a reader seem extreme to you. If you suspect this may be the case try Are you killing your book with too much detail and explanation? for advice on what you do and don’t need to mention. Also remember that plot holes may disappear on their own as you refine your story. Our article Writing your first draft is not as scary as it seems contains advice on the benefits of the drafting process.
What’s the worst plot hole you’ve ever encountered? Do you think some types of plot hole are worse than others? I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences in the comments.