As writers, we ask our readers to suspend disbelief all the time, but one thing we don’t want in our story—a big gaping plot hole. Stretch the suspension of disbelief too far and boom! Your reader will fall into a plot hole and you lose them. And worse, too many plot holes will cause a story to buckle.
A plot hole (a contradiction in the action of a story, a character suddenly acting opposite to their personality with no explanation, characters who act without motivation, implausible situations) can be difficult for you to detect. Especially when your writing is fresh on the page, you are too close to it to see. This is when a critique partner or group can come in handy, but it is possible find these inconsistencies yourself. All it takes is a little time and effort. Plot holes are best filled in at the revision stage (for a refresher on steps of revision, see Plot Your Revision) but if, at any point in your writing process, something jumps out at you as feeling wrong, give it a hard look and notate or fix it. Once you are ready, use these 10 tips for identifying and filling plot holes.
1. Once you have finished your first draft, put your manuscript in a drawer for as long as you can before revision. At the least, a month. The longer the better. You need a set of fresh eyes to not only find plot holes, but to get excited again about your story and manuscript.
2. Weed through your manuscript and get rid of what will go for sure. Slash and trash, as they say. Keep the trashed scenes in a folder “just in case.” This gives you the freedom to cut without worrying. If you do delete writing you need, you know where to go to find it. Once you get your manuscript down to just the scenes that will be included, you can uncover gaps in story or character with a bit more ease, and some gaps or holes will rise to the surface during this process.
3. Jot anything down on post-it notes where you see holes. Use notes pads (or whatever tag or comment function your word program has) to come back later. Don’t fix the problem then and there. Keep working in a big picture way before you drill down to writing specifics in scenes. For now, you are looking at the forest and jotting down where you need to plant trees. Speaking of planting trees, once you are down to the scenes you are going to keep, with notes on additional scenes or pieces to write…
4. Write one or two sentences on what happens in the action line of each scene so you can step away and get the big picture overview of what is happening. As you write this action line, keep in mind scene goal and outcome. Next, write a sentence on the character arc/essence of what is happening in the scene. Is this the place where your protagonist realizes what must be done (despite great harm to herself) to solve her problem? Say that. Don’t worry about how pretty it sounds; this document is the action/emotional outline of your story. A tool for you to use. This outline will take the writing out of the way (for the moment) and allow you to clearly see your story structure.
5. Now that you have a big picture of both the action and character lines, check character motivations. Be sure there is a reason for everything your character is doing. You don’t need to explain it, but your character’s motivations have to make sense within the story. Think of it as the why of the story. Again, work with notes at this point. Don’t stop to do actual writing. It’s important to keep focus on the big picture.
6. Look closer and check the cause/effect and action/reaction structure for each scene. You should sense a chain hooking all the action, scenes, and motivations together. When you think of each scene as a link in a chain (both for action and then another pass for character motivation) holes will jump out and beg to be filled! The “link” can span several scenes before it connects (in other words, you don’t need to have every connection in every scene) but there must be a link somewhere.
7. Check character emotion from scene to scene. Was your protagonist angry in the last scene but now is happy? Was scared but is now bravely forging ahead? Well, what happened in between to make it so? You don’t necessarily have to show us the emotion shift in a scene, but transition us to the character’s state of mind, then move on. Sometimes only a sentence or even phrase is needed. This step sounds simple, but inconsistent character emotion from scene to scene can happen easily and this will cause a reader to feel the story is riddled with holes. Do an entire pass-check on this one.
8. Don’t be afraid to change things. Embracing change means you are committed to making everything in your story work. If changing scenes truly makes you nervous, do a save before you start changing anything. You can always go back to what you had. But change things. Ninety percent of writing is in rewrites, so go to it!
9. Write setups for what you need. This is the stage where you can surprise your reader by setting up action that will happen later. This step makes your story stronger, more surprising, and present twists that are believable. Planting or setups make for an entertaining read!
10. Above all, keep it simple! Don’t come up with convoluted, twisty reasoning to make something happen. You’ll lose your readers and make a plot hole muddy, not solved to your reader’s satisfaction. Go for the straightforward setup for what happens in your book. Simple rings true with your readers and will keep them coming back for more.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com
Julie Tallard Johnson
My rewrite came to a slow screeching halt and I am picking it up again — and this helps. this middle chapter I am on is so important and therefore brings up lots of resistance. i need to just write through this one —
Good advice! 🙂
I used to be a bit of a panster, but I’m becoming more of a plotter. I just read ‘Save The Cat’ by Blake Snyder. It’s a how to book for screenwriters, and some of it didn’t apply to writing novels; but the ‘log line,’ ‘beat sheet’ and the plot card system are perfect for ensuring you fix these problems BEFORE you write.
Snyder makes a good point. It’s a lot easier to throw out a plot card (his version of scene notes; 1 card = 1 scene) if it isn’t working, than to delete a whole passage or chapter you’ve spent hours writing.
I’ll be doing a blog post on my experience with this plotting method complete with pictures the first Wed. in September.
Thanks Julie! I hate those screeching halts, but I agree, the only way is to work through it and write. *sigh* funny, isn’t it? 🙂 Keep the faith ?
Thanks Melissa, and thanks for your comments and the recommendation! You’re right, Snyder’s book is terrific for novelists and the more you catch earlier on, the quicker it goes. I try to do more plotting up front but after four books I find my process is still mostly in the pantser realm 🙂 However, I did learn much from his book, and understanding his method made me more aware of inherent story structure. I believe what strikes a chord with me finds its way into my writing. The great thing about the writing journey is exploring and discovering your own process. Good luck and enjoy your experience with plotting!
R. K. MacPherson
This is fantastic! I’m in the midst of revising an MS before submitting it and I know there’s problems, but 5, 6, and 7 might well help me eliminate them. Thanks!
Really loved this. Thanks ! I was so sick of the YA novel I had written I put it in the desk drawer. This article confirmed that this was indeed the right thing to do. I’ve started another novel in the meantime and taken these great tips onboard 🙂
You are so welcome R.K. and thank you. Glad it helps.
You are welcome, Toni. I frequently work on two projects for that very reason…of course, each is at a different stage. One first draft, one revision, or one still in the infant churning stage while I’m finishing up another. Keeps the wheels going!
Good luck with both projects!
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Thank you so much for this article! I have used methods similar and they work great but your methods take the cake!
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Now this I get! I’m trying to fix an unfinished book, I was running along towards the ending and came to a screeching halt, the ending didn’t make any sense. O.O Arrg! So I’ve been going backwards and discovered a huge plot hole (filling it), a couple of subplots that had nothing to do with anything (chopped). #9 all way. I’ve akso found stuff I had set up for the ebding, and what matters to the main pov but left to hang. There’s so much to fix I’m getting exhausted. x.x