After I finished the draft of my first full-length novel, I eagerly sent a copy to a friend for feedback. Much to my dismay, she flagged one of the most important scenes: an argument between two of the protagonists. She said it seemed out of character for both of them, and I had to agree. They lacked a reason to be emotionally invested. But how could I rectify the mistake without altering the story’s outcome?
Fortunately, the plot hole I faced is one that often trips up writers, and once I moved past my initial panic, fixing it turned out to be simple. Plot holes, you see, aren’t bottomless, and most can easily be filled in if you learn how to identify them.
Recognizing a Plot Hole
A plot hole is any inconsistency that undermines a story’s cohesion and makes the events, settings, characters, etc. less believable. Because you’re the author, you’re less likely to detect one unless you distance yourself from your manuscript first. With short stories, waiting one or two weeks is usually enough. With longer projects, such as a novel, I recommend taking a break for a month. Afterward, skim through each chapter and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do the characters act in unexpected, contradictory ways?
- Are the rules of the story world ever broken?
- Does the protagonist succeed without much struggle?
- Do the characters miss obvious solutions to their problems?
- Are any of the subplots left unresolved?
- Does the timeline or setting randomly shift?
If your answer is yes to any of the above, that indicates a plot hole, and your next step is to classify it into one of four categories so you can repair it.
1. Character Plot Holes
Authentic, lifelike characters have distinct personalities, and once those traits are established, readers will notice if their behavioral patterns change. As I mentioned in my introduction, this is where my own work-in-progress went awry. An easygoing character lashed out at his best friend in jealousy. The best friend, who is typically empathetic and understanding, responded with cold defensiveness. Neither of them had justification for their hostility, so the fight came across as contrived.
If your characters’ reactions aren’t lining up, you probably need to become more familiar with who they are, what’s motivating them, and where they’ve been headed since page one. Then transform the plot hole into a pivotal moment by backtracking and adjusting their arcs to explain how they arrived there and why they’re acting abnormal.
When I analyzed my two protagonists, I realized that I needed to revise the first segment of my story. To account for Character One’s jealous outburst, I sprinkled hints of insecurity into his dialogue and actions. And to account for Character Two’s defensiveness, I heightened the stress she experienced prior to the confrontation. Then I expanded their argument, letting it bubble to the surface over the course of two chapters instead of containing all of it in one scene.
2. Worldbuilding Plot Holes
Just like your characters, the fictional world you’ve created will conform to a set of norms that readers will pick up on as they venture deeper into the story. These laws can encompass everything from social structures to magic systems to technology to physics. When an incident tears down the framework you’ve put in place, you’ll know you’re staring into a plot hole.
If a mentor tells your protagonist in chapter one that magic can’t bring people back from the dead, he shouldn’t be resurrecting a fallen comrade in chapter twenty-five. And if your protagonist lives under the constant surveillance of a dictatorial government, she shouldn’t be able to rally a resistance in the middle of the city without attracting attention. These kind of plot holes make readers mistrust the story and the author. If the story world can be stretched and reshaped at whim, their suspension of disbelief will crumble along with it.
You have two options when dealing with worldbuilding plot holes. First, you can apply preset exceptions to the rules that characters exploit when the need arises. Maybe magic can’t resurrect the dead—unless it’s combined with a powerful artifact the protagonist has in his possession. This artifact may have been stashed in his pocket all along, or he may find it in a tunnel he’s crawling through and later learns its significance. Changing the rules is permissible as long as you bring your characters into contact with new elements and information.
Second, you can force the circumstances to obey the rules. The revolutionary protagonist could organize meetings outside her city instead of within it. Or blackouts could roll across the districts at regular intervals, making surveillance impossible at certain times and locations.
3. Convenience Plot Holes
A few years ago, Geico had a commercial featuring a group of people fleeing from a horror movie murderer. But instead of jumping into a nearby car with a running engine, they hide behind a collection of chainsaws. According to the announcer, “If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do.” But in a story, that rationale leads to a convenience plot hole where the protagonist’s path forward is either too difficult or too easy.
A green cadet shouldn’t have a chance at foiling a master criminal. A ragtag resistance shouldn’t defeat a massive, well-organized army in a short battle. And a princess shouldn’t stumble upon a magical spell mere moments before the villain would have destroyed her kingdom. When a conflict is cleared up with a snap of the author’s fingers, readers will be left unsatisfied.
However, the opposite scenario, like the one from the Geico commercial, can be just as eye-rolling. The frightened group bypassed the obviously better escape route: the car. Why? Because the writer wanted more drama. But the result is less realism. If a woman is being stalked by a killer, she should use the cell phone in her purse to call for help instead of randomly forgetting that she owns one. And if a couple is having a misunderstanding, they should honestly discuss it instead of avoiding each other until they both blow up.
Victory that’s achieved without sacrifices, stress, and loss will feel cheap. To counteract that, you need to throw challenges and setbacks at your characters. Put the inexperienced cadet through intensive training. Let the resistance’s first attempt at rebellion fail. Alternatively, you could attach consequences to winning. The resistance manages to overthrow the tyrants, but many of their own people perish in the war. Or the magical spell saves the princess’s kingdom, but it shortens her own lifespan.
On the reverse end of the spectrum, characters who overlook the resources at their disposal will appear brainless. You need to explain what’s stopping them. Maybe the car in the Geico commercial is a stick shift that none of the characters can operate. Maybe the woman who’s being chased is in a part of town with poor cellular reception, or she dropped and broke her phone earlier that day. Maybe the boyfriend and girlfriend are both afraid of being vulnerable with each other because of hurt from past relationships. With enough setup, you can help readers understand the characters’ choices so that the scene can continue as planned.
4. Continuity Plot Holes
Have you ever read a story where a character gets into a car accident one afternoon, then wakes up the morning afterward and walks into the kitchen to cook breakfast like nothing happened? Or a character is sitting at a conference in New York one minute but at home in Wyoming the next, with no transition in between? Or a subplot develops only to vanish? All of these are continuity plot holes, and they’re problematic because they defy logic. People don’t heal from traumatic injuries overnight or travel across the country instantaneously.
Sometimes all you need is a sentence or two to bridge the gap between point A and point B, such as a mention of the character’s flight to Wyoming. Other situations may require you to adjust your timeline, such as showing the weeks the injured character spends in bed. Or, if you must keep him active while he’s recovering, remind readers of his pain. Have the injury hold him back so that he can’t maneuver as quickly or exercise as much brute strength.
In the case of unresolved subplots, you need to clean up your story line. If the subplot is necessary, you should expand and complete it. But if it’s only a distraction, remove it.
The Threat of Plot Holes
As a writer, you invest a lot of time and energy into making your stories believable to readers. You scroll through pages of research for hours on end. You create complex, vibrant worlds. And you design engaging conflicts driven by relatable characters. But even after all that effort, one small plot hole can cause readers to doubt everything.
Don’t despair. Carry a large shovel and train yourself to spot plot holes from afar. The most immersive stories pay attention to detail, so pursue internal consistency even with minutiae, and you’ll be sure to capture readers’ imaginations with your finely-tuned plot.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.
Thank you Allison!
So good! I will be using these tips in my editing! Definitely a life saver for my rough drafts (and other drafts, too).
“Don’t despair. Carry a large shovel….” That is so becoming a quote on my wall. XD