Have you ever seen a runner trip in a pothole? They’re in the zone, focused on the path ahead, running to the rhythm of their music when all of a sudden they stumble in a pothole. It jars them out of their trance and throws them off their running groove–not to mention hurts like heck.
The same thing happens to readers when they stumble upon a plothole–though it’s less dramatic and doesn’t usually require stitches or Bandaids.
What is a Plothole?
The short definition is anything that can be asked but not explained, or poorly explained (not to be mistaken for an unanswered question like in a cliffhanger).
- unlikely/impossible events
- forced situations or character reactions for the sake of plot
Examples The Hobbit: In this example I’m talking about the movie. If you didn’t read the book before watching the final installment of the films, you may have asked, what happened to the Arkenstone? In the book, it’s placed on Thorin’s grave. In the movie, supposedly it’s still hanging out in Luke Evan’s shirt. Not a bad place to be necessarily.
Harry Potter: Usually I pick on George R.R. Martin, but today I’m going to pick on J.K. a little. The time turner is a prime example of why time travel almost always leads to plotholes. Why didn’t he keep using it? He used it to save two people, which seems like an insipid abuse of time travel in the grand scheme of things. What about the other people who died later in the book. Why not go back and save them?
Aladdin: One of my favorite Disney movies of all time. I’ve watched it a hundred times and suddenly I notice a whole new plothole (pun intended). Aladdin uses a wish to become a prince and yet it is considered lying when he tells Jasmine he is a prince. Um, excuse me, he didn’t ask the Genie to make him look like a prince, he asked him to make him a prince. I think he got ripped off. Also he could have given Jasmine the lamp in the end so she could wish him back into a prince, but now I’m just being picky.
Deus Ex Machina
Ok, this is more of a plot device than a plothole, but I think you don’t get one without the other. A deus ex machina is basically where an unsolvable issue is suddenly solved by a new event, ability or super power, character, or God. Essentially, it’s when a writer has written themselves into a corner and doesn’t know how to resolve the conflict.
The result: the resolution is unsatisfactory and the reader is robbed. A prime example of this can be found in (I’m sad to say) The Return of the King. Tolkien wrote himself into a corner by making Sauron’s army undefeatable. Realistically the army of Gondor, even backed by the soldiers of Rohan, a wizard, and a few shire folk could not defeat them. I imagine Tolkien spent hours scratching his head before inventing a ghost army to defeat them. After all, ghost can’t be killed. So last minute, they use the ghost to help defeat the bad guys. It would have been a more satisfactory ending had the characters come up with a battle tactic to defeat the larger army.
This is the notion that if you describe something, it better come into play at some point. For instance, if you describe a chair, it better be flipped, thrown, broken, or at least sat on. If it’s described, it better be part of the plot or else you’ve created false promises or suspense.
I’m not a firm believer in this. I do see where too much attention to a seemingly significant item would be jarring if it never came to use, but something like a chair or table is sometimes just necessary to give the reader a sense o place. This is why it’s always a good idea to describe your scenery as the character interacts with it.
A great example of Checkhov’s gun. In A Game of Thrones, Sam gets a blade that several seasons down the road kills white walkers. Also, the necklace given to Sansa in season three or four is used to kill Joffrey. Those are some great examples of Checkhov’s guns coming into play.
Lack of continuity is a major cause of plotholes. This could be something small like a sudden change in appearance, or something even more jarring like a character referencing an event they have no idea occurred. It could also be a sudden change in motivation, even age.
Example: Merlin (the television series). Mordred appears in season one as a child, but by season five, he returns as a teenager or young adult. Realistically the oldest he could be is 13, but he is at least 16 if not older when he reappears. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters have only aged 3-5 years. Soap operas do this a lot, because let’s face it, babies get boring after awhile.
When is a Plothole not a Plothole
Sometimes readers believe the unbelievable, especially in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. These genres create a lot of their own rules, abilities, creatures, etc. Just because something can’t happen or doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it’s a plothole. When you event something (like magic), you are relying on your reader’s ignorance of a subject in order to make them believe it. A world with two moons and seven suns probably couldn’t exist or sustain life (could you imagine gravity?); however, your reader is more likely to accept that than if your character’s eye color suddenly changes in chapter two.
This is because of the suspension of belief. You can create super human beings, magical powers, fantastical creatures, as long as you make it as believable as possible and keep it consistent.
Example: Superman For decades, people have accepted that there is a superhuman man who comes from another planet, but they don’t believe that he can disguise his identity with glasses alone.
How to Prevent Plotholes
It’s easier to prevent a plothole than to fill one.
- outline your story
- create character sketches
- outline the rules and limitations of your magic systems
- research before writing
- keep track of the time of day, hour, month, season, and year of your story so you don’t accidently skip summer and fall and go straight into winter.
How to Fill Plotholes
- Identify your plot holes. Read through your MS and look for unanswered questions and things that couldn’t happen
- Your character could not have survived that fall
- Your character’s hair changed color
- Your character is angry in this chapter but fine in the next
- Your character’s worst fear is being shot, but you have her bravely confront an armed robber.
- Your character can’t swim, but saves a child from drowning.
- Your character’s dog went missing. You never explained what happened to it.
- Create setup: make sure you lead up to the event so it can realistically unfold.
- Make changes: no one likes to make big changes, but think of the big picture. You may have to adjust the setting, events, even drastically change your character so that necessary events can occur.
- Ask an outsider. Beta readers are far more likley to identify and resolve a plothole.
- Think on your back: they say lying on your back helps you think
- Step away from your WIP. Distance can help you see clearer. The solution may even come to you when you’re not thinking about it.
- Keep it simple: When filling plotholes, don’t make it difficult or over complicated.
It’s like Yzma’s plan to get rid of Kusco in the Emperor’s New Groove. She’s going to turn him into a flea, a harmless, little flea, and then put that flea in a box, and then put that box inside of another box, and then mail that box to herself, and when it arrives smash it with a hammer. She changes her mind–not because the plan was convoluted–to save on postage. She goes for a simple route: poison.
Recently I filled a glaring plothole–in the beginning of my book no less–by using the methods above (mostly lying on my back and talking to my sister). What’s the biggest plothole you’ve ever had to fill?