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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Plot Holes

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to a video on Plot Holes.

Plot holes are generally considered the bane of any storyteller’s existence, and if you read or watch any advice on plotting a story, you would think that plot holes are simply lurking about in the shadows, ready to jump out and eat your beautifully-crafted story. And it can feel that way when you finish your masterful tale and someone points out something that seems so glaringly obvious you wonder how you missed it. There is no shortage of critics on the internet, and CinemaSins and Pitch Meeting are famous for ripping into movies.

So what are these literary fiends exactly? I put this question out on the internet, and the general consensus, stated a dozen different ways, seemed to be that a plot hole is something in the plot that contradicts itself and then follows the contradiction instead of the original plot. For example, first saying that fire magic can’t do anything to stone because stone is impervious, and then later having fire magic melt a huge boulder with zero repercussions, as if things have always been this way. Or saying that the heroes have to go on this grand adventure in order to defeat an evil king, except whether they do or don’t go on this adventure has zero bearing on the story, and having zero bearing on the story has zero repercussions.

But I think the “definition” I like the most came from Patrick, who said that a plot hole is trying to make 1 + 1 = 4. A plot twist can show the audience that, yes, while 2 + 2 = 4, so does 1+ 3, 0 + 4, or even 5 – 1. It’s just taking the known elements, possibly adding a new element, and threading them together in a way that the audience may not have considered before, but makes sense according to the facts of the story. The plot hole may disregard some of these facts, or negate them completely, and still try to convince you that 1 + 1 = 4.

Now then, there are big plot holes and little plot holes. Little plot holes may be simple mistakes, such as saying a character’s shirt is blue in the morning and yellow in the evening. Big plot holes would be forgetting that a particular character is dead and suddenly writing them back into the story.

One thing to consider, though, is that not everything is a plot hole. For example, in Time to Kill, Tommen starts out by saying that Fast Bands are blue and Slow Bands are orange, when the opposite is true. Later on, Walter is describing Isthim as hot pink, but Tommen says she is yellow. The simple explanation is that Tommen is red-green colorblind and doesn’t grasp colors like a normal person. Sometimes he has to guess, sometimes he only sees what he sees, and sometimes he gets it wrong.

Another example is in Leap Second where Julianna’s story clashes with what has been said in other books, including In the Hands of the Enemy. But consider, too, that maybe she’s lying. I don’t know how many times I’ve read or heard a critical review of a book that says there’s such-and-such a plot hole, when it turns out that a character is just a really good liar. Lying is not a plot hole, and I don’t understand why some people expect all characters outside of, say, a crime drama, to be honest.

Are there ever instances where a major plot hole can be forgiven? Well, considering some of the media available, we seem to be able to, quite a lot. But should we?

I’ve heard it also said of stories that such-and-such a thing happening is highly improbable, therefore it’s a plot hole. This is not necessarily true. Improbable and impossible are two different things. Possibility measures the capability of something happening, and probability measures the odds of something happening. I think the best example of this distinction comes from the first Pirates of the Caribbean. In the movie, it’s established that Jack was once marooned on an island and left to die, but he bartered a job from some rum runners who used the island as a cache. Later in the movie, he’s marooned on that same island, but he and Elizabeth are rescued. Jack returns to confront Barbossa. Barbossa says, “It’s not possible.” And Jack replies, “Not probable.” It was fully possible for Jack to escape the island. The probability of him doing so, especially twice in one lifetime, was low.

So when someone says that such an event is unlikely and therefore a plot hole, go back and review how that event came to be. First, is it even possible? Is a fire magician inexplicably using earth magic? Is a dead man walking again without divine intervention? Second, what are the circumstances surrounding the event, both obvious and behind the scenes? Did battle suddenly break out between two camps? Did a judge make a surprise ruling? What might have happened offscreen to cause this, and is it relevant to the plot? Would changing this event have a positive or negative impact on the story? Third, what choices led up to this event? Choice is the key here. We make thousands of big and small choices every day. How does the progression of these choices lead to the event in question? Just because it’s unlikely that Jack could have escaped this deserted island twice in one lifetime doesn’t mean it’s impossible or a plot hole.

In Tick Tock, Tommen goes on this grand adventure to search for the cure to his father’s illness, and he needs Sifura’s help. Sifura is advanced enough in her Time abilities that she could theoretically just pop him in and out, no adventure needed. However, she makes the choice to honor the customs of her people and the D’bok people, making the journey, bringing the gifts, and generally making nice, leaving the cheating as a last resort. Choices are not plot holes.

Also, don’t mistake clues for plot holes. We recently watched a movie called Archive where a man is trying to build AI robots in order to essentially resurrect his dead wife whose consciousness is kept inside a static machine, but the machine is degrading. There were a few points—flashbacks as well as the cricket bat—where I was thinking “plot hole, plot hole, plot hole” until it got to the end and I was like “plot ho-ly crap! That’s a twist!” And everything made sense. The “plot holes” were actually clues. 3 + 1 = 4.

But let’s say you do finish your story, and you’re going through, and realize that there is a huge plot hole laughing at you. You did something, forgot something, whatever the case, and wham! There it is. What do you do?

First, write out two sentences. The first sentence, write what you want to happen. You want your heroes to defeat the evil king. The second sentence, write what actually happened. The character who delivered the killing blow died back in chapter eight, but his was the magic that the evil king was most susceptible to and he accidentally got resurrected.

Having the first sentence, what you want to happen, will help keep things on track as you go for the rewrite. If you find yourself staring at the chasm that opened up where your plot sank into the ocean, wondering how you’re going to bridge the gap, take a lesson from bridge builders. A balloon can take a string across. A string can get a rope across. A rope can get a cable across. And so on and so forth until you have bridges built across impossible places.

Start small. Maybe you really only need to tweak a few scenes. If you want to go for the full scrap and rewrite because your plot hole is more like a plot vine that’s strangling the rest of the story, then go for it. But if you are happy with how everything else turned out, it’s just that one oops that’s tripping up your audience, why ruin a good thing?

Also, once you figure out where things went wrong, decide whether you want to change the scene for the story, or the story for the scene. Think of it this way: you want to paint a wall green, but somehow, somewhere, you end up with ten percent green and ninety percent yellow. Maybe you decide that you like the yellow better, so instead of trying to force everything back to green—scrapping and repainting completely—you just go back and turn the ten percent green to yellow. Sometimes the mistakes are what bring out the better story.

Consider, too, what it would take to fill in a plot hole. 1+1 does not equal 4, but it’s halfway there. What can you add to get it the last little way?

Let’s say your fantasy story says, definitively, that fire magic has no effect on stone, and yet, this is somehow terribly important to the big reveal at the end. What do you do?

Well, you have a few options. First, you can change the rules. If it’s only stated once, way back in chapter negative one, that fire has no effect on stone, but then it’s never revisited, change the rules.

But maybe it’s a prevailing theme, and it’s firmly stated multiple times in multiple ways that this is how things are done. Another option could be to shake up your characters. Maybe your primary character becomes an earth magician and the sidekick becomes a fire magician, or vice versa.

A third option is another way of changing the rules, and in this instance, it might be akin to “leveling up,” that there is greater breakthrough magic that allows for the crossing and overpowering of magic.

A fourth option may be to change up the villain. Maybe his weakness is different. Or, a fifth option, change the environment. Change the arena of the final duel.

A simpler plot hole might be something like trying to figure out the whodunit of a murder mystery, and saying that Colonel Mustard was the only living person who was absent from the party at the time of each murder. But, upon further examination of the plot, he actually wasn’t.

Maybe he ordered a hit. Maybe he bribed the serving staff to ensure his victims got the poisoned soup or bread or whatever. Maybe he had a co-conspirator. Maybe he’s innocent and someone else is playing off his being absent each time in order to frame him.

If you do end up having to go back and make things work, it’s a smart idea to add some measure of foreshadowing of the more clandestine aspects. If you have him absent for every murder but one, and just casually drop in that he bribed the maid, well, yes, it might work, but why? Does he have great amounts of money? Is he in love with that maid, or the maid in love with him that she would do literally anything for him? Does the maid have a vendetta against the particular victim that he knew he could exploit and so save himself? How does he ensure that the bribe works? How does she ensure that the poison gets to the correct victim?

As much fun as it can be to just write by the seat of your pants, I find that as long as I do a little planning beforehand, always asking the question “why,” and just giving things a little thought, most plot holes can be avoided. They’re not beasts lurking in the shadows, waiting to jump out and eat your characters. They’re more like bug splatters on the literary windshield. A few small things may be overlooked, but if you can no longer see where you’re going or why, it might be time to clean things up and take a different road.

So that’s my bit on Plot Holes. Eventually, we will get to Character Development and Evolution, and I hope it’ll be next time. We’ll see, and I’ll see you there.

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