How peachy would the writing life be if we didn’t have to prevent plot holes. Just imagine—you could write anything you wanted to, and every single thing would make sense. No need to worry about the fact that your two awesome scenes actually don’t make sense side by side. They get to be in the book simply because they’re awesome and fun and you had a blast writing them.
Alas, this is not the way of things. Unless you’re writing what George Eliot rather wistfully referred to as “home-made books,” with no readers to please other than yourself, you will eventually have to confront problems of logic that at times seem positively algebraic. As in the famous quote attributed to Tom Clancy:
The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
And here we thought we were writing fiction to escape reality….
Plot holes, in a nutshell, are those lapses in a story world’s logic when authors either bend their own rules or invent convenient new rules at the last minute in an attempt to explain away seeming incongruities. In a medium as complex as fiction (especially long-form fiction such as novels), it’s little wonder plot holes are relatively common (Jack dying in the Atlantic, anyone?). Sometimes stories are good enough in all other respects for audiences to forgive the lapses—even using them to spawn elaborate fan theories. Other times, plot holes are so problematic or even obviously contrived that emotionally invested audiences respond with downright anger.
At any rate, we all recognize that a master storyteller is one who is capable of telling a complex story that sustains its own logic throughout, avoiding plot holes. This challenge, perhaps more than any other difficulty of writing fiction, is why we turn to tools such as story structure and theory to help us create cohesive and resonant storyforms. But even when our story structure and character arcs are solid, we can still end up struggling with the particular logic of our own stories. This is true of stories set within—and therefore confined by–the real world, and ironically perhaps even truer of speculative stories that offer the fun of creating their own rules of reality—and the often strenuous logic of sticking to those rules.
The longer and more complex a story—especially if it branches into a series—the more difficult this can become. This is why TV shows often end up jumping the shark; if they’re to sustain the characters and story world for multiple seasons, they may have to rewrite their own rules to (try to) keep the conflict fresh and the stakes high.
The other significant difficulty of lengthy fiction (as I’m discovering in writing my first trilogy) is that when you don’t know how the story will end, or even simply if you don’t know some of the major events that will happen before the ending, you will not know how to properly set up your story’s logical parameters in the beginning. And that, right there, is the recipe for plot holes.
4 Questions to Prevent Plot Holes
Whether you find yourself at the beginning of a new story or trying to figure out why your current fictional effort seems to have gone off the rails, here are four questions you can ask to help identify, rectify, or prevent plot holes.