Plot Holes: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

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We’ve all found a few plot holes in one story or another, and there is nothing that breaks immersion faster. Something about finding a glaring inconsistency that is unacknowledged by the writer nags at us, and makes us focus on the mistake rather than the story as a whole.

I find myself taking an almost perverse pleasure in spotting them from time to time, especially within well-established and popular works. Maybe that says something about me as a person, but there’s something about it that gives me a rush when I can jump up and say, “Ah ha! You screwed up!”

I don’t need to tell you why plot holes are bad. If you don’t already know why, then you should probably consider doing something else with your time besides writing. Instead, I’m going to tell you how to avoid them in the first place.

While a lot of people will tell you that there are several types of plot holes (one professor insisted that there were over a dozen), I think that there are only two.

The first type is smaller, and while still not acceptable, is far less likely to be found. These are relatively minor inconsistencies that do not directly contradict prior events or established canon (INCLUDING CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT), only affect the plot in a tangential way, and might have an explanation that is simply not present.  This could be a small mistake or a goof, like a character having knowledge that they shouldn’t. Most of the time, that sort of thing has some kind of plausible explanation to it that works within the canon. For instance, at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: (Spoilers, if you haven’t been alive for the past decade)

How on earth does Sirius know that Harry still needs a permission slip for Hogsmeade trips? In the brief interactions between Harry and Sirius that aren’t massive exposition dumps about the Marauders’ time at Hogwarts, nobody mentions it, yet Sirius sends Harry a letter on the school train that gives him permission. Further, when Sirius asks Harry about possibly moving in with him, he makes it clear that he believes Harry is well taken care of by his Aunt and Uncle. Because he has no inkling that Harry had been abused for eleven years (plus two summer vacations), it doesn’t make sense for him to even come to the conclusion that Harry doesn’t have a signed form independently.

Because this has such a minuscule effect on the plot, it’s rarely discussed, and I can’t find any evidence that anyone has brought it up– though I’m sure one of the Potterhead fan sites has figured it out (those people are insane about Harry Potter). But let’s take a look at why this falls into the first type:

1. It doesn’t directly contradict any of the previous canon or character development. Harry does need a signed form, Sirius is his godfather and has the right to give his permission, and he would want to make Harry happy.

2. The plot of the story is virtually unaffected by its inclusion in the letter. Harry gives one single line of dialogue expressing his delight, and the denouement continues without further mention of it. However, Hogsmeade trips in future books are important, particularly in the fifth and sixth books, so there is additional plot to which this is tied.

3. There are possible, plausible explanations for this. First, Dumbledore has an extended conversation with Sirius during his imprisonment and interrogation in Flitwick’s office prior to his escape. It is mentioned that Sirius divulged that the Marauders had succeeded in becoming Animagi during that exchange, and the rest of the discourse isn’t mentioned, so, for all we know, Dumbledore told him in an offhand remark.

Second, it’s possible that Sirius had corresponded with Dumbledore or Lupin between his escape and writing the letter to Harry. Doing far more detective work than is strictly necessary by any casual readers, you can extrapolate the time that passed between Sirius’s escape and the letter’s arrival. Hagrid says in his letter that Buckbeak’s appeal was scheduled for June sixth, which happens to be the date of Sirius’s escape. According to the Harry Potter Wiki, the train departs for London in the third week of June. That would give, at a minimum, seven days between Sirius’s escape and the letter. (In fact, since people date the Harry Potter books by Nearly-Headless Nick’s Deathday Party in the second book, it’s established that the third book takes place between 1993 and 1994, and June 6th is a Monday, meaning that the third week in June would begin on either the 13th or the 20th, depending upon whether they consider the third week to be the third full week or not).

Anyway, seven days is ample time for Sirius to get safely away, write to Dumbledore, and ask about Harry’s general welfare and home life, which would have been in keeping with Sirius’s character, who is legitimately concerned with keeping Harry safe and happy. The headmaster could have mentioned that the Dursleys refused to sign the permission slip as an example of Harry’s abuse, or to give Sirius a hint that he should do something about that.

 

Whew.

So yes, there are some possible explanations, and these are only two of them. I can come up with other scenarios, but you get the idea.

Now, despite the above caveats to this plot hole, this is still a plot hole, and they should be avoided as a general rule. Exceptions include comedies, where the plot holes can be played for laughs, or in stories or scenes that use them as an actual device (think dream sequences).

 

The second type of plot hole is larger and far more significant. This is characterized by having farther-reaching plot significance, usually flying in the face of previously establish canon or character development, and having no discernible explanation. This type goes beyond a mere letter; it genuinely disrupts the story by its presence.

A pretty big one that I noticed when I first saw it was Cypher’s meeting with Agent Smith in The Matrix. It had been previously established that you couldn’t simply jump into the Matrix on your own; you needed an operator. As the meeting had very far-reaching implications in the plot– it set up Cypher’s defection to the machines– the fact that this goes unexplained is particularly annoying to me. (Though I did think that maybe one of the others– Switch or Apoc, as Mousy was killed in the Matrix, not by Cypher– had also defected, and had helped Cypher. However, since this is completely left unanswered, it remains a plot hole).

Or I could go into Harry Potter again, how about that?

Well, hold onto your hats, because there is so much that doesn’t make sense.

For instance, how about the ridiculously inconsistent way that Portkeys function? In the fourth book, Portkeys are introduced very early on, and we learn two things about them: first, they are designed to function at a specific time; second, that they work once. How, then, does the Triwizard Cup take Harry to the graveyard as soon as he touches it? Further, how does it take him back? Even if you explained that the cup was designed to deliver the winner to the front of the hedge maze, thereby leaving no doubt as to who had reached it first, it still leaves you wondering how it functioned twice.

Or, how about wand loyalty? This one is a bit of a different example, because it doesn’t break canon until it’s introduced several books later, but wands that are taken from an enemy tend to change their loyalty to the victor. Harry was disarmed many, many times in the first several books– in fact, it’s really the mainstay of offensive magic by most of the cast until Stunning is introduced. Shouldn’t his wand have changed loyalty each time he was disarmed? Considering that it becomes an enormously important plot point in the final two books, it deserves some kind of explanation, but doesn’t get one.

Or what about the inconsistent crackdowns on Underage Use of Magic? In the second book, Dobby’s Hover Charm gets him a warning, establishing the fact that it is the area around Harry that is enforced, not Harry himself– namely, the house and general area. In the fourth book, Mr. Weasley does some magic to defend himself from Uncle Vernon. Why doesn’t he get a letter? Okay, so he had received special permission to hook up the house to the Floo Network, and might have been able to skate around the issue with his Ministry contacts, but what about book five? Tonks performs a few spells in Harry’s room, and Mad-Eye casts a Disillusionment Charm in his kitchen. They’re operating in secrecy, so the Ministry has no clue what is happening, and considering how pumped they are over the idea of convicting Harry of the same crime he committed earlier in the book it makes no sense that this wouldn’t be explained or even mentioned.

I can go on longer, if you like, but you get the idea. When you write a book series that lasts for seven massively popular volumes, you’re probably going to have some inconsistencies.

All of these ignore previously established lore and canon, and affect the plot in a rather significant way. And, the final nail in the plot-hole coffin, they aren’t explained at all.

 

So how do you avoid making the same mistakes? Because, trust me, people will notice. It might take a while for people to do so, but they will catch on, and point it out, and then you’re left either looking like a doofus or obfuscating the issue to cover it up.

Here is my formula for an airtight plot:

1. Know your lore. If you’re creating a world that has strict rules that govern it (be it magic, science fiction, whatever), you need to know those rules and stick to themThe Dresden Files is an excellent example of this. Magic follows extremely logical and predictable paths, and Jim Butcher (the author, doofus) knows exactly what they are, and doesn’t deviate from them. If magic behaves one way, then that is the way it behaves forever. The same should apply to your story. For example, if werewolves transform when exposed to the light of the full moon, then they should be able to avoid their transformation simply by staying inside and drawing the curtains. If it happens during moonrise, then there shouldn’t be a scene taking place where they don’t transform until the clouds part, understand?

2. Show your work. Just because you know the explanation behind something doesn’t mean that the reader will. You need to decide what is important for the reader to know, and if that doesn’t include that explanation, then you need to make that explanation possible to infer through clues. Seriously, or they’ll call it a plot hole. It can be as simple as a significant look between two people, or a dismissive remark. Whatever the case might be, at least hint that there is an explanation, and people will spend their time looking for it rather than calling you a dope.

3. Let someone else read it. I’ll be doing another post on drafting practices, but take my word for it: fresh eyes are invaluable to your manuscript. Sometimes, you’re just too close to your own work to spot a plot hole, even after multiple drafts. Find someone you trust– they don’t need to be a literary genius, they just need to be someone else– and have them read through it. Then have a few other people give it a look. If your control group doesn’t find one, you’re probably okay– but don’t count on it.

4. Learn how to Hand Wave. If there is a potential plot hole in your story that you recognize, but do not know how to fix, then you need to learn how to dismiss it. This is often accomplished by having the characters acknowledge the plot hole. For instance, in the Harry Potter example about underage magic, it could have been fixed in a few vague lines of dialogue:

“Tonks, aren’t I going to get in trouble if you do magic here?”

“Oh… well… Mad-Eye’s fixed it.”

“Er– excuse me, but, I mean, how cou–”

“Trust me Harry, you don’t want to know.

That’s it. That takes a plot hole and turns it into an intriguing reference to another event– tying in with what is referred to on TVTropes as a Noodle IncidentRowling could have acknowledged the inconsistency, and taken the opportunity to imply that Mad-Eye is even more badass than we had previously been led to believe if he can exert some kind of influence over law enforcement.

5. Know where you’re going. In my previous article on Outlining, I explain how important it is for you to know in advance how your story is going to go. It’s pretty clear that Rowling didn’t know how important wand loyalty was going to be when she first started the series. While that’s generally okay– stories have a mind of their own, and tend to travel where they want to– in this case, it messed with the established canon a bit too much to be easily excused. (Though it did offer an explanation as to why Neville sucked at magic so much for the first five books; he’s using his dad’s old wand until it breaks at the end of Order of the Phoenix, then he gets his own and is shown to be far more competent). It’s very difficult to know all of the twists and turns your story will take, especially if it’s particularly long, but if you know as much as possible at the start, it can really help avoid contradicting yourself later.

6. Draft. Draft again. I can’t tell you how important multiple drafts are. I almost completely rewrote Catalya three times. Once was a fairly important set of changes that added a level of consistency that was absent from the manuscript (and removed a superfluous character or two), the next was a monumental shift in tone and intent, and the last cleaned up the prose to be up to my current standards. In a much earlier draft, I had spotted a couple of plot holes– they were minor, but very present, and I addressed them. Honestly, sometimes it is the only way to spot them.

7. Listen to your readers. Whether you have your book available for sale or you’re still drafting, take your feedback seriously. Too many times, inexperienced writers defend themselves rather than accept the critiques. Don’t be that guy. If they have something to say, whether it’s related to a plot hole or not, it could be relevant. Your job is to make the story the best that it can possibly be, not prove to anyone else that you’re smarter than they are. If something isn’t adequately explained, consider deepening the explanation that’s given. If it’s not something that is supposed to be revealed, hand wave it, or be cryptic, but don’t be absent.

 

That’s all I have to say on the matter, at least for now. In short: be careful when you write; you don’t want to be remembered for continuity errors, do you?

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