Plot holes are as dangerous to writers as the Joker is to Batman, Sauron is to Frodo, and Thanos is to the Avengers. Inconsistencies and improbabilities sneak into our manuscripts like nefarious villains, demanding substantial rewrites. We try to be vigilant, but what if a reader stumbles upon a crack we overlooked during editing? How can we save ourselves from ridicule?
Character motives and abilities are two areas where a gap can cause readers to scoff. Though sometimes these fissures are hidden beneath layers of plot and worldbuilding, authors before us have managed to find and fill them. If they were able to survive the search, so can we.
Plot Hole #1: Faulty Motivations
The first cavernous plot hole involves unexplainable or nonexistent motivations. These threaten a plot’s very existence. Without a reason, a character can’t act, and if a character can’t act, conflict—and subsequently plot—dies.
If we didn’t understand Thanos’s backstory in Infinity War, our awe of him would vanish. We’d feel the same apathy toward underdeveloped protagonists. In Fawkes, if Thomas hadn’t needed a color mask from his father, his search for him wouldn’t have made sense.
Stories revolve around characters. Without a fear, desire, or need as a propellent, the protagonist won’t run into problems, and moments where he does will seem contrived. But, in order to give characters solid motivations, you first must detect what may be missing. You can accomplish that with a simple exercise.
Once you’ve figured out your basic plot points, outline the narrative from each main character’s perspective. Don’t worry about bullet-pointing every detail. You only need to write out their reactions to major events.
When I went through this process with my NaNoWriMo novel, I focused on the antagonist first, then the love interest, the protagonist, and so on. My antagonist’s synopsis was about a page and a half while others were longer or shorter. By examining each character’s actions and path of reasoning, I gained more insight into who they are.
Clarifying characters’ roles in the story helps you discover absent motivations and forewarns you when you’re manipulating a character to move the plot forward. I needed to write out all seven of my characters’ plot summaries to ensure that their journeys to the climax would be plausible.
If you stop here, though, you’re still liable to end up with a shallow character. You also need to alter your character’s backstory so it supports his new ultimatum. But how can you scrape up relevant backstories and motivations for dozens of characters without your book disintegrating into a thousand molecules? By tying everything to theme.
For example, maybe your villain is pursuing world domination. To create a fitting motivation, you’d go to your theme, which is about finding meaning, and conclude that your villain wants to be remembered for his conquests. He believes fame is all that matters.
See? That wasn’t a headache to brainstorm, was it? Your villain’s backstory now connects to your theme and provides enough incentive for his schemes. All that remains is to keep his powers intact.
Plot Hole #2: Flimsy Abilities
When a legendary villain attacks an upstart chosen one (who only embraced his destiny two days ago) and loses, readers will revolt. Propping up a hero’s skills and dumbing down a villain breaks their trust. A character’s talents shouldn’t be subject to the author’s whims.
Look at your big plot points, or any conflicts that aren’t completely fleshed out, and determine where the scenes leave your character. Does he win, fail, or is it a draw? Friction between characters accelerates the story, which is why these interactions must be realistic.
If an inexperienced character is supposed to beat a stronger or smarter opponent, you need to get creative. One way to level the field is through exceptions. In her book Fight Write, Carla Hoch states that “the only absolute in fighting is that there are no absolutes.” A novice could defeat an expert combatant, but the circumstances that lead to his triumph must be convincing.
If you’re writing a newbie-versus-supervillain scene, cripple your villain with a weakness (but, please, not in the climax). Perhaps an explosion on the street distracts him and allows the protagonist to escape. If so, you need to show beforehand that the villain is hypersensitive to loud noises and prone to lapses in concentration. Any flaw that enables a protagonist’s unlikely survival must be foreshadowed.
For extra measure, the protagonist should be in worse shape after meeting the villain. This will add realism to the encounter without compromising your villain’s reputation.
Though I wouldn’t recommend reversing this strategy and applying it to a hero, Avengers: Endgame succeeded at it. During the climax, the writers faced a problem: Captain Marvel. They managed to send her off to an unknown galaxy for most of the film, but they wanted her present in the final battle. However, she could take on Thanos alone, which would have cheated the main protagonists out of a hard-won victory.
To shrink her role, they positioned Thanos so he could seize the Infinity Stones, and wham! She was out of the fight. Her strength wasn’t diminished, nor was Thanos gifted with new skills. Thus, the outcome doesn’t destroy the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We can learn from their ingenuity, even if we don’t imitate it exactly.
Your second option for equalizing the odds is worldbuilding. If you can’t engineer a situation so the right character comes out on top, you need to change the setting or its rules. In my NaNo novel, I needed a character to stay injured for an extended period of time, but with his influence and wealth, he’d have easy access to healers who could quicken his recovery to a matter of days.
To solve my conundrum, I incorporated a deficiency into my story world. If a big bone needs mended, or a massive gash sewn up, the healers do the job. But the more complicated and delicate the injury, the higher the chances of error. So, if my character hopes to avoid possible mutilation, he wouldn’t seek help. Using worldbuilding, I repaired a potential plot hole.
Plot Holes Are Opportunities
Though the title suggests my article will help you eliminate plot holes before you write a first draft, you can implement these tactics at any stage. You don’t have to wander through the minefield, crossing your fingers that you don’t miss any craters. Like a good shovel, fully fleshed out character motivations and abilities plant logic in your story.
As with any storytelling issue, plot holes aren’t simply obstacles. They’re opportunities to weave nuance into our story worlds and complexity into our characters—to add depth we otherwise wouldn’t have. When a plot hole gapes before us, instead of despairing, we ought to ready our shovels and cram it with creativity.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.