Plot Perfection: Navigating the Treacherous Waters of Fiction Plot Holes

The text Plot Perfection: Navigating the Treacherous Waters of Fiction Plot Holes in all caps overlaid over an image of water

Ahoy, me hearties! Today we be sailin’ toward a darrrrk, perilous abyss lurking deep in the briny waters of ye dear manuscript: the ol’ plot hole.

When you’re writing a piece of fiction, you don’t need some pirate dialect schtick to enthrall your readers—as a matter of fact, I strongly advise against it. No, what you need is a solid, well-constructed plot.

Every avid reader or movie enthusiast knows the thrill of a brilliant story. When you are lost in an imaginary world breathed into life by a writer’s deft hands, surrounded by vivid characters and embarking on extraordinary adventures, it is nothing short of magical. You root for the heroes. You fall in love with the setting. You eagerly turn each page, breathless and hungry, until your alarm clock jerks you from the new universe at 5 a.m.

Beneath the magic, however, lurks a threat to this captivating tale: the dread plot hole. Like a creature rising from the serene deep, a plot hole can destabilize even the most flawless tale. It leaves readers and viewers adrift, and questioning the entirety of the narrative they enjoyed so much a few minutes ago. These holes range from minor inconsistencies to significant gaps that threaten to turn this new world they’ve grown to love into a world of disappointment.

Let me introduce you to two new friends: Bobzo the Example Guy and his next-door neighbor, Frank. Bobzo thinks Frank is a vampire, because Frank is wary of garlic and sunlight, and he keeps seeing Frank drinking blood-red wine all the time.

Bobzo is as worn out by life as the rest of us, buys the same foods from the grocery store every week (chicken breasts, potatoes, eggs, mild cheddar cheese, butter, bread, and flour), and has a hot enough body to catch Frank’s eye.

A digitally created mock grocery list with a notebook paper background. Chicken breasts, potatoes, eggs, mild cheddar, unsalted butter, milk, and flour are listed. Milk is crossed out with a frown beside it. There are scribbles and doodles of a stick figure, a deer, and a rocket ship on the paper.

Frank is, in his own words, “pasty and middle-aged.” He’s allergic to garlic. He’s extra sensitive to the sun. He’s a nerd. And oh, yeah, he’s totally a vampire, but a frumpy one, not your typical sexy one.

Do you ship it yet?

Now, let’s poke some holes in the plot:

Wait, we think, Bobzo only eats mild foods. What’s he doing chowing down on chicken tikka masala all of a sudden?

Or, I thought Frank was a vampire. Now, suddenly, he’s a werewolf? What?

Bobzo doesn’t like Frank yet. So why are they holding hands? And what happened to that garlic bomb that was bearing down on Manhattan and threatening to wipe out vampires like Frank for good? Did the writer forget about that?

Yeah. Yeah, the writer probably forgot about that. Sorry.

One of the coolest things about writing is that it’s malleable. Through careful planning and editing, you can repair—even prevent—the contradictions, logic puzzles, inconsistencies, and dropped threads that dig plot holes into your story.

Let us set sail today upon a sea of plot. Armed with this map charting the treacherous waters of fiction plot holes, you will learn how to recognize these threats, how to plan and outline them out of existence, and how to handle the sneaky ones you find later. With hard work, dedication, and care, you can save Bobzo, Frank, and your story from the myriad abysses lurking in this complicated craft and achieve plot perfection.


What is a Plot Hole?

Most of us have heard of plot holes. If you’ve ever checked out media reviews or guides on how to write, you’ve probably seen talk of them before. These are the problems in plots that can cause the most confused ???s from your readers.

“In fiction, a plot hole, plothole or plot error is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot,” says our friend Wikipedia. But what does that mean? What are they? How do they happen?

Plot holes are, in short, mistakes that make you scratch your head and go “Wait, what?” These can be inconsistencies in logic or characters. They can be factual errors, such as historical anachronisms. They can go against the laws of science or magic established by the story, or contradict other events or facts established previously. Or they can be a storyline that never gets resolved. Whatever the type, they often leave your readers unhappy.

See, there’s a difference between not spelling everything out for your readers and creating plot holes. One fuels the imagination and, hopefully, a ton of discussion. The other fuels frustration and unfulfillment. Your poor readers might be tilting their heads like bewildered puppies for all the wrong reasons by the end, if you’ve crafted a plot hole instead of something fun to discuss. No writer wants that.

How do you recognize these things, though? What is a plot hole? What are you looking for when you’re grabbing your map and sailing through your story in search of plot holes?

Here are a few kinds of plot holes:

  • Inconsistencies: Wait, he lost access to all his money—how is his dog now chewing on his $1k+ Bontoni shoe? Didn’t you say her eyes were green? Why are they brown now? I thought his daughter was 4, not 14? On page 6, you said The Great MacGuffin couldn’t do that, and now, here on page 206, it’s doing it? Why did the police arrest them for that when you said it was legal just a few chapters ago?

    Plot holes from issues with consistency or continuity in stories are common. Sometimes you need to make something happen but didn’t set up for it earlier, then didn’t go back and tweak things until it worked. Sometimes you need to make something happen, but the rules of your universe say no. Sometimes you didn’t think things through when you were building your outline, and now it’s come back to bite you in the ass. Sometimes you forget what you were planning, then write something else that doesn’t fit with what happened previously.

    Whatever the case, you’ve done something that doesn’t fit, and now you need to fix it so you don’t throw your readers out of the story.
  • Fact Errors and Impossibilities: There was no Starbucks before 1971. Sorry about that. Pigs can’t fly, unless you load them on a plane, or a trebuchet if you’re feeling evil. People didn’t have cell phones in the 1800s, or wear polyester, or drink Red Bull. Guns don’t work like that, or that, or that. We’re not all invincible to bullets, no matter what Cecil Palmer says. You can’t lose that much blood without dying. You can’t heal from that in just a few weeks. Horses aren’t that fast. Airplanes aren’t that fast, either.

    Fact errors are easy to define—they’re simply wrong information. Unless you’ve already established that, hey, this is an alternate history or some fusion of modern and historical, or some other type of ‘verse that supports the strange and impossible, then you need to keep a close eye on your facts. Savvy readers will notice when you’ve gotten something wrong, and a lot of them won’t be kind about it. Make sure your facts are facts.
  • Unbelievable Actions: This is when characters behave in ways that they wouldn’t. You might be pulling the strings (no matter how often your characters make you feel otherwise), but it’s still possible to come up with behavior for them that just doesn’t fit with their background or personality. OOC—out of character—behavior is greatly disappointing for your readers. It throws them off. They thought Frank would never do xyz. They thought Bobzo would do abc. It makes more sense that way. But then they don’t.

    You need to know your characters as well as you can to keep this from happening.
  • Contrivances: Contrivances aren’t plot holes, exactly. They are events that are technically possible in the story’s universe, but they are so unlikely that their inclusion is detrimental to the story. This is sometimes a flimsy disguise for a plot hole, an improbable resolution to an otherwise unfixable problem, or even something that the author simply wanted to include but didn’t execute properly. It’s all dissatisfying payoff, no proper buildup.

    Is it fixable? Of course. Some buildup, some foreshadowing, some signs that Bobzo’s Great and Mighty Pie Pan is going to save the world, and it goes from contrivance to valid plot point.
  • Loose Ends: A dropped ball, a dropped character, a dropped plot thread—this kind of plot hole, sort of like your character at the beginning, is made of unresolved issues. These are yet another problem that hurts your readers’ poor brains. No bueno.

    Unless you’re writing a series, they want plot points to be resolved by the end of your book. They want to know what happens next and how the different pieces of the story end. They want resolution for the side plots as much as they do for the main plot. They want payoff.

“Wait, this is a lot to keep up with, M!” you’re saying. “How do I find and deal with these things? How do I keep them from happening in the first place?”

I’m glad you asked.

Fiction Cartography: Planning and Outlining

There are three kinds of writers: Plotters, Pantsers, and Plantsers. Plotters plan out their story before writing it. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants and let the story carry them where it wants to go. Plantsers are a combination of the two.

A note for our pantsers: You don’t have to be a plotter or a plantser to make doing an outline before you write work for you, I swear. Let’s just get that out of the way. There is no one way to write a solid story. Do whatever gets the story out. But after the first draft, at least, you should make an outline.

Just as there are different kinds of writers, there are different kinds of outlines. Snowflake Method. Beat Sheets. Three-Act Structure. Outlining in reverse. A list of scenes. Pick your poison.

Here’s why creating a thorough outline is so important when it comes to preventing and fixing plot holes. It’s pretty simple, actually: An outline is your map of the stormy sea that is a story. It helps you see where your story is going and where it could go wrong. It helps you plan. It helps you fix.

Outlining allows you to recognize the holes in your story before they become holes. It gives you a chance to figure them out and come up with explanations or solutions, either before you start writing or during the editing process. If you notice that, hey, you’ve dropped the plot about the main character’s dog running away without saying what happened to the dog, you can work that into your outline and fix it. If you realize that there are some facts about cowboys that might not be accurate, you can go back and research that some more, instead of pouring a ton of words into the story and then having to scrap them because they’re flat-out wrong.

With outlining, you can maintain continuity and keep your story consistent. You can ensure that it makes sense. You can keep up with all of the complex plot threads running through your story like nerves in a body. You can spare yourself the embarrassment of a ton of dissatisfied readers ripping the story apart on social media because you got some little detail wrong or messed up one hell of a detail.

Take the time to outline and make your story shine.

Clean Up, Clean Up: Self-Editing and Revision

An important part of any story is the self-editing and revision process. This is the time when you dive deep into your story’s sloppy, slippery, sticky guts and find all those problems that need stitched up or cut out or what have you. Armed with that outline you totally just finished (you did do that, didn’t you?), you can find the holes you’ve spotted since you wrote The End and fix them.

Every story needs to be edited. Every story. The more someone insists that it doesn’t, the more likely that it does. Editing is like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you and good for your story, whether you like it or not.

Eat your vegetables. Edit your story. Find your plot holes. Fix them. Your story will thank you.

Get Thee a Navigator, or Three: Recruit some Beta Readers

A beta reader is the writing world’s version of a beta tester. These are people who will read your manuscript and give you valuable feedback from the point of view of a regular reader of works like yours. If you are concerned with spotting plot holes—and other writing issues—getting the feedback of a few beta readers can be enormously helpful.

Readers have eagle eyes for plot holes. They see your story differently than you do. You are too close to it, so it’s easy for you to miss the problems. That’s totally normal! Our brains are experts at lying to us. They’re tricksters. They fill in gaps without us even noticing. That’s just what they do.

Letting beta readers check your story for plot holes and other problems before you try to get it published can save you a ton of unnecessary difficulty and embarrassment in the future. With the help of their keen eyes and active imaginations, they can direct you toward the errors in your story.

There are several places you can look for beta readers: among friends, in writing communities, in your pre-established fanbase if you have one, on websites like Fiverr and Upwork, or even on Google. Whether or not you pay for one depends on whether or not they agree voluntarily or you hire them for their services.

With the help of beta readers, you can surely solve your plot hole problems. 

Addressing Common Plot Holes

Let’s look at those plot holes I listed above in more detail. Maybe if we know these enemies a little better, we’ll be able to defeat them.

Inconsistencies

Ah, inconsistencies. These are so frustrating. Outlining and brainstorming are your best defenses against inconsistencies. When you can see more of the picture that is your story, it becomes easier to find the parts that don’t work because they contradict the established events or facts of this universe. Then, as you outline, you can come up with solutions for the plot holes in your story. 

Let’s try fixing up one of the ones listed above: Why did the police arrest them for that when you said it was legal just a few chapters ago?

Good question.

You reach a point in your story where your protagonist gets unjustly arrested. They didn’t do anything wrong. These cops don’t know them at all. Why are they in trouble with the law now?

Maybe they’re being falsely accused of an adjacent crime. But they don’t have any enemies! They’re just living their quiet enby life, drinking tea and knitting and doing crossword puzzles and working a job to feed the cat. Looks like they have an enemy now, though. But why? Maybe the actual criminal looks a heck of a lot like them and is setting them up to get away with the crime.

Another plot hole: Where did this criminal come from? You should probably plant some clues that this person exists. Maybe they get mistaken for this other person all the time. It’s kind of annoying for them, actually, but they don’t think anything of it. It’s background noise in their life…until it isn’t.

So they think they’re being arrested for one thing that’s not illegal, but instead it’s because of a crime they didn’t even commit.

Now there’s something to go in the outline! A hole has been filled! Yay! Now no one will go, “Wait, but xyz isn’t illegal!” because the arrest is for something else.

Inconsistency handled.

Fact Errors and Impossibilities

I’m sure most of us have heard about weapons lovers complaining about guns not working like that, or people who know a thing or two about anything else that writers always get wrong. Some readers are more forgiving of fact errors than others—and some errors are so egregious that almost no readers will let them stand.

The key trick for handling fact errors is research. Research, research, research. No fact is too small. Research as much as you can during the planning process, the writing process, and the editing process. This goes for any genre you may be working in that relies on facts, be it historical, modern, futuristic or fantastical.

Do you have to stick with what reality says? Of course not. This is fiction, after all. But in writing, a rule broken deliberately almost always comes out better than one broken by not knowing any better. Know what the rules are. Then, when you’re worldbuilding, you can make up a reason and break them.

Unbelievable Actions

Characters are arguably the most important part of your story. It’s the characters that people get attached to, that people root for, that people fight about on the internet. It’s your characters that people remember. And when your characters start acting OOC, your readers will not be happy campers.

Know thy characters, friends. Dig deep into them: who they are, what they do, how they act and react in situations. Take detailed notes on them. You don’t have to do those character sheets you see all the time—just figure out a way of keeping up with them and their personalities that works for you.

As I said about factual errors, a rule broken deliberately almost always comes out better than one broken by not knowing any better. When you know your characters and what they would and wouldn’t do, it is much more interesting if you break those rules about them for a damn good reason. You can push them until they crack like a geode. You can find those buttons that set them off and press them, then see what happens. With effort, if you want it to happen badly enough, you can make the characterization error work. Or, if it doesn’t work at all, you can fix it.

Stories are malleable. Just get you a little elbow grease and make yourself a few maps and guides, then start fixing things.

Let’s visit our friend Bobzo again. Bobzo only eats mild foods. What’s he doing chowing down on chicken tikka masala all of a sudden? That’s unbelievable!

Or! You can come up with a reason that makes it believable. Maybe he starts taking medicine that helps with the killer gut pain he gets whenever he eats anything spicier than your standard bowl of mashed potatoes. Maybe he wants to impress the possible vampire he totally doesn’t have a crush on, or prove a point.

With a little effort, you can make the OOC behavior work, or you can cut out the problem and write something else. 

Contrivances

With some good ol’ fashioned development, a contrivance becomes a proper plot point.

What you can do with a lot of contrivances is foreshadow them. Spend the story implying that the impossible save might happen, even though the characters have very good reasons to believe that it won’t. Make it fit in organically instead of glaring like the sun’s reflection on a car windshield. 

So, you want Bobzo to save the world and Frank at the end by bonking the King of Werewolves over the head with his Great and Mighty Pie Pan. “Yeah, that’ll be a rad twist,” you say. I agree. Someone saving the world with a pie pan sounds badass.

But you can’t just bring the pie pan up out of nowhere. If you get to the end and Bobzo suddenly has a Great and Mighty Pie Pan with zero indication that this thing even existed before, you’re going to get some eyerolls and some disappointed readers.

So let’s work the pie pan into our story.

Bobzo reveals at the beginning that he likes baking pies, despite his food sensitivities. He can’t actually eat most of them, but he’s good at making them. His pan, he insists, is magic. He inherited it from his grandmother, who swore up and down that it would save the world one day. Frank is skeptical—and, to be honest, so is Bobzo—but hey, maybe.

The pie pan should pop up several more times in the story. Maybe it gets the name “The Great and Mighty Pie Pan” at one point. You pepper in a little lore here and there, too, maybe a moment when Bobzo smacks something with the pan, and, eventually, the reader knows the pie pan. If you use it to save the world, it won’t be a contrived piece of BS because it’s woven into the story now.

Weave your contrivances in better. Your readers will thank you.

Loose Ends

Readers don’t like loose ends. At all. They want to know what happened to the dog that ran off in the first chapter. They want to know what happened to that garlic bomb that was bearing down on Manhattan. Readers want to know more. If you introduce something, you’d better give them some payoff for that something, or they’re not going to be happy.

Hopefully your outline or your beta has led you to the dangling plot threads in your story. Knowing what they are can help you figure out ways to weave them into your finished story like yarn woven into a finished sock. You can reunite Bobzo with his missing dog, who’s been hanging out with one of his other neighbors all along. You can have Frank use his techy skills to make the garlic bomb crash harmlessly in an unpopulated part of the Northeast. You can give them that payoff.

There. No more loose ends.

Conclusion

A well-constructed plot takes your readers on an adventure that they won’t soon forget. A plot littered with holes may also take them on an unforgettable journey, but for all the wrong reasons. Readers should enjoy your story, not be distracted by all its flaws.

Through outlining, editing, getting a beta reader, and editing again, you can give your readers smooth seas to sail. You can ensure that your story is consistent, coherent, and error-free. You can make sure your characters stay in character. You can avoid the dreaded contrivances and make sure all of your big bangs have good buildup. You can give every dangling thread some payoff.

For satisfied readers, it is vital to do your best to smooth out plot holes. That way, your readers will know that they are in good hands every time you tell them a tale. Hunt down the plot holes that are sailing in the same waters and put out a story that you can share with pride.


Have you written any funny plot holes? Have you run into any interesting ones while watching or reading something good (or bad)? Tell me in the comments below!

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