As I’ve been working on the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve recently been thinking about plot holes. Razor Mountain is a “puzzle box” story driven by mysteries. While any story can fall victim to plot holes, this type of story is especially susceptible.
I’m doing a few things with Razor Mountain specifically to try to catch and fix plot holes, and I plan to talk about those in my usual development journals. Today, I want to talk more generally about plot holes — what they are, how to find them, and how to fix them.
Two Layers of Story
There are a million ways to dissect and study stories, but for now I want to look at two layers: the action layer and the motivation layer.
The action layer is the “what” of the story. What happens? Who does what? The motivation layer is the “why” of the story. Why do the characters behave the way they do? For a story to have depth, it needs both of these layers. For it to make sense to the reader, the motivation layer should drive the action layer. If the action isn’t being driven by the motivations of the characters, then the plot is either arbitrary, or the characters have little agency in their own story.
Both layers can have plot holes, but holes in the action layer look different from holes in the motivation layer.
What Exactly is a Plot Hole?
For my purposes, I’m defining plot holes as any time when story elements at a particular point don’t lead logically into the story elements that follow. The reader has to stop and say, “Wait, why did that happen?”
Holes appear in the action layer when something happens that shouldn’t be physically possible. If the butler was trapped in the cellar in chapter two, then how can he be serving tea to the duchess in chapter four as if nothing happened? Holes appear in the motivation layer when actions don’t make sense based on a character’s motives or personality. Lucy hates Rachel, and we’ve seen that Lucy only helps her close friends. Why would she step in and defend Rachel when their teacher accuses her of cheating?
Action layer holes are usually obvious once they’re pointed out. That thing that happened is impossible. Did the author forget a scene? Did they lose track of the order of events, or simply overlook that particular instance of cause and effect?
Motivation layer holes are less straightforward. Character motivations are more nebulous than the physical reality of the action layer. Just as it isn’t always easy to understand why real people do what they do (or even why we ourselves act in a certain way!), it’s not always easy to understand why characters take action. Often, as authors, we want to be circumspect and only gently imply a character’s motivations, instead of beating the reader over the head with precise, detailed explanations of why the character does what they do.
How Plot Holes Happen
It’s certainly possible to accidentally write a character doing something that goes against their personality or goals. Plot-focused writers can have this problem, if they’re more worried about the sequence of the plot and not paying enough attention to the motives of the characters driving that plot.
It’s also possible that we intend to make the character’s motivations drive the actions they take, but fail to make the relevant motivations clear enough to the reader. This is one of those challenges where there’s no right answer. Some readers may have no trouble following, while others are thoroughly confused. As an author, this kind of problem is very hard to catch without the help of critique partners or beta readers.
Exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”) may end up with plot holes due to the way they approach the writing process. If you don’t know the path that the story will take when you’re in the middle of writing it, it can be easy to include accidental incongruities. Usually, exploratory writers will have to look for these inconsistencies in the revision process, once they have a better idea of the shape of the story.
However, just because you’re a planner who follows an outline doesn’t mean you’re immune to plot holes. Outliners can get plot holes because they go into the story knowing a lot of it so well that they forget to adequately explain something to the reader. When you know all the back-story and exactly why each event leads to the next, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to include a vital piece of information that you simply take for granted.
Identifying Plot Holes
We’ve established that plot holes can happen to anyone, and they can happen in the action layer or the motivation layer of the story. So how can we find those plot holes in our own work and fix them?
As I mentioned before, mysteries are magnets for plot holes. You can think of a mystery as a purposeful, temporary plot hole. The author picks specific bits of information to withhold from the characters and the reader in order to create tension. It may be a mystery of what happened (in the action layer), or a mystery of why it happened (motivation layer).
For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to trust that the author is doing this on purpose. A mystery that looks like a plot hole can bother the reader just as much as a real plot hole. As authors, we need to make it clear from the structure of the story that the mystery is supposed to be there, and understand that the reader will have the expectation of a payoff where that hole is filled in later.
To identify accidental action layer plot holes, it helps to look at places in the story where a lot of action is happening. If you have complex, interwoven plot lines, you’ll want to look closely at those areas of the story. It may help to make simple lists of events in sequence, or even a flowchart for complicated plots. A missing piece in the sequence is often much more obvious when laid out in this way. Does each event lead to the next in the sequence?
To identify motivation layer plot holes, you need to think about how character motives lead to character actions. Complex motivations make it easier for something illogical to slip past, so you might want to pay special attention to a character with several conflicting goals, or situations where multiple characters are at odds with one another, or have shifting allegiances and animosities.
Just as you can map out the sequences of action with lists and flow charts, you can map character goals and personality traits to the actions they take. If you can’t describe why a character would do that thing, you have a problem.
Finally, your last and best line of defense may be your readers. Critique partners or beta readers — really anyone can help find plot holes that you miss by virtue of being too close to the story. Ideally, you want readers who read a lot of your genre. Readers who prefer murder mysteries may have a slightly harder time catching inconsistencies in your politically charged sci-fi space opera. Still, the most important thing is to get extra pairs of eyes on your story to double-check your work.
Fix That Plot
Often, identifying a plot hole is the hardest part, and the actual fix just requires adjusting or adding a scene. A nasty action layer hole may require you to rethink how the events around it are laid out. A bad motivation hole may force you to change what a character does in the story, or change the character. You may find that you can add some backstory or personality trait earlier in the story so their actions make sense. Just try to make it feel organic. If done well, this can add depth to the character.
Instead of looking at it as just a fix for something broken, treat a plot hole as an opportunity to make the character or plot richer than it would have been. You can fill that hole with whatever you want, so you might as well fill it with something great.
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