In this post, we show you how to find and fix the plot holes in a novel. We give guidelines on how to correct these plot holes, with five of the most common culprits explained.
No writer likes to leave a loose end, make a mistake, or create confusion in their novel. Sometimes it is a small breach and, at other times, it is a murky void.
What can you do if there are plot holes in your story?
First of all, don’t lose heart. Even famous and iconic authors have slipped up when it comes to plot. The truth is these goofs make it into the published version of a novel, only to be revealed by a ‘nit-picky’ reader or a sarcastic reviewer.
If you watch movies, you will often find plot holes. You can get away with it in film more than you can in a longer form story. The action moves quickly, so the viewer doesn’t notice it until after the credits have rolled, if at all.
In a novel, it is different. The reader is taking the narrative in at a more leisurely pace. They are more invested in the story and, therefore, less easily passed off with glib action or slick prose.
Sadly, a plot hole is often the kiss of death for your story. Essentially, it breaks the reader’s trust – they leave the world we’ve created because they don’t believe it. They feel cheated.
Your reader must be willing to suspend disbelief
We have all heard of the literary term ‘suspension of disbelief’. But, we sometimes forget that the reader must be willing to suspend their disbelief – emphasis on ‘willing’. They must want to ‘buy into’ your story. To do this takes skill, craft, and talent.
We want to stretch the reader’s credulity but never break it. By their nature, stories must be slightly exaggerated, almost fantastical – otherwise they would not be entertaining. More than that, we expect it from the genre we choose to read. We expect a comedy to be a bit ‘over the top’, a romance novel to have more drama and sensual excitement, etc.
So what is a writer to do when they identify a plot hole? Sometimes you can fix it with a tweak or two. For example, a slight adjustment to a timeline or firming up a character’s motivation and, in the worst case, rewriting a section of your manuscript. You have some license to ‘massage’ the facts to fit your story – but you need to do this without breaking the story or the reader’s trust.
You can ask a friend to ‘break the plot’
Most of the time, we’re too close to the story and we don’t see these plot holes.
We should give our manuscripts to a trusted reader or friend for a ‘cold read’. You can challenge them to see if they can spot anything that veers too far off from what they are willing to believe.
5 Ways To Fix The Plot Holes In Your Novel
Here we look at the five big culprits for plot holes and some ‘patches’ for fixing these gremlins.
Often misjudging a lapse of time or not getting the overarching timeline right can derail your plot. For example, you may get the social, moral context of your characters and their setting wrong, which won’t ring true with the reader. Or you can get important dates wrong in a historical novel.
► Patch it
You can slightly adjust dates of historic events. Eric van Lustbader did this in his Jake Maroc series of novels without losing stunning authenticity. You could create a detailed timeline of your characters from the moment they were born, and read up on the decades in which they grew up.
A side note on time travel: Time travel stories can trip up a writer, even an experienced writer. The very nature of these stories creates opportunities to leave plot holes.
There is no easy solution here, except to tread carefully because these can be narrative quicksand. However, sometimes these errors can become part of the story’s idiosyncrasies and even create debates among fans and critics.
We can create a squeaky plot wheel when our character’s motivation is at odds with their actions and behaviour. Weak or inconsistent characterisation is sometimes the cause of a crack.
For example, a character who is cowardly for most of the novel who suddenly becomes brave at the end without showing their growth and change. No one will believe it.
You need to show a character’s changes in a reliable and believable way. You can create deep characters with shades of complexity, but you most always understand their core fears, needs, and wants.
A powerful example comes from Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara is as fickle as any character in fiction, yet she is more real than any living person.
3. Technology and science
This is a common way to misstep and create a rip in your plot, especially in our age of advanced technology and forensic science. Even a simple element like a cell phone can cause the reader to lose faith in the story. They will be rolling their eyes, muttering, “Why didn’t she just call the cops?”
We sometimes forget that elements like geolocation-tracking, DNA, and other modern improvements can enable or speed up a police investigation in a detective story.
► Patch it
You can cleverly build a few ‘hiccups’ into the story. For example, the teenager doesn’t have her cell phone on her because her mom confiscated it when she was posting too many selfies on Instagram.
We quickly lose a reader when the plot points are just too convenient and pat, or what the Greeks called deus ex machina, which is Latin for ‘god in the machine’. In this scenario, you ‘shoehorn’ a solution to end the story (like an unexpected inheritance etc.) It’s just too neat and clean to seem realistic.
For example, the heroine knows how to shoot a gun without ever holding one before, or the technophobe hero can now hack into a supercomputer.
► Patch it
If you are going to unleash a surprise like this on your reader, you must build it into the backstory. Dean Koontz did this in The Good Guy. His lead character, Tim, is a seemingly ordinary man only because he wanted an uneventful life after leaving the army – but he still has all the skills of a soldier.
This is where a plot thread is left dangling, or ‘stage directions’ and characters don’t show up in the same way. The reader is left scratching their head or, worse, sending you an angry and confused email.
For example, the main character had blue eyes in one chapter, but in another his eyes are hazel. Or, in a subplot, the old Buick he was fixing up is never mentioned again.
► Patch it
Often these kinds of gremlins show up in a series featuring the same characters. A good plan is to keep character sheets, create a spreadsheet, or make a ‘story bible’.
I hope these tips to fix plot holes help you.
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