Do you worry about plot holes in your story?
You want to give your readers an engrossing, believable experience. You don’t want a glaring spotlight shining on the gaps you failed to correct in your story.
So do you have to find and fix every plot hole you can?
Well, it depends.
Can glaring plot holes hurt your story?
Is your story bad because you have some?
Are plot holes a death knell for your novel?
Not at all! Plot holes happen to the best of us, and they’re not the end of the world.
There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding floating around when it comes to plot holes. Many issues people call plot holes actually aren’t.
And while some readers might notice certain plot issues, many don’t notice them at all — or if they do, they’re not bothered by them.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to avoid them.
We’ll talk about exactly what plot holes are, how serious they are, how to avoid them in the first place, and how to fix them when you find them.
What is a Plot Hole?
Let’s start with a quick definition:
A plot hole is any gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the logical flow established by the story’s plot.
Such inconsistencies include things as illogical, unlikely or impossible events, and statements or events that contradict earlier events in the storyline. — Wikipedia
Plot holes are usually unintentional, the result of a mistake or an oversight. Writers may simply forget that a new development contradicts an event that happened earlier, or they may forget to check.
But the term “plot hole” is also frequently misunderstood or used incorrectly. For example, when an author intentionally writes a character who does something unwise or illogical, that’s not a plot hole.
“Loose ends” or unexplained or unfinished subplots aren’t necessarily plot holes, either. Your readers may not be happy about those unanswered questions, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a plot hole.
The writer may have deliberately intended for them to be left to decide for themselves if there’s a happy ever after for that character or not.
Why You Should Care About Plot Holes
Finding and fixing plot holes matters because they affect your readers’ experience and enjoyment of your story — to the point where they may stop reading (or grumble about them on Goodreads.)
When your readers stumble across a plot hole, it feels like they’ve hit a speed bump. It feels jarring, and they’re thrown out of the story world.
This is bad enough, but worse, they might start to think you don’t know what you’re doing. And if they don’t trust you as an author, they’re going to find it hard to enjoy your novels.
So in general, it is good practice to avoid them as much as possible.
In order to help us do that, let’s start by learning about some different types of plot holes.
Types of Plot Holes
There are many kinds of potential plot holes, but these are some of the more common ones.
1. Character Knowledge
This type of plot hole occurs when a character suddenly knows some key piece of information out of the blue, or when they inexplicably or suddenly forget something they discovered earlier in the book.
It could also occur when your characters don’t know something that anyone else in that situation would know — for example, a doctor or a nurse who’s a passenger on an airplane would likely know the signs of a heart attack and what should be done immediately if a passenger is in distress.
A health professional without this knowledge would be suspect.
Plausibility plot holes come into play when part of the storyline is highly doubtful.
Take the movie Armageddon, for example, when they decided it’s easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than it would be to train astronauts (who typically have one or more advanced degrees) how to drill asteroids.
In one episode of Lupin, the title character hands over an old cassette tape with evidence to a TV station, but the TV station doctors it, removing the incriminating evidence against his enemy and supposedly losing it forever.
However, the idea that Lupin would not have made a digital copy of the evidence is very implausible, especially as he’s been demonstrated to be a technical whiz in previous episodes, creating deepfakes and using advanced surveillance equipment.
3. Breaking the Laws of Science or Physics
Many sci-fi books and movies ignore the science behind how space, gravity, and orbits work.
For example, they may feature huge explosions in space that are impossible due to lack of oxygen, stretch the amount of time someone can stay alive in space after they have been ejected from their spacecraft, or raise the odds of actually finding and rescuing someone in the vastness of outer space.
If you’re writing ‘soft’ sci-fi, where the readers are more interested in the action and character relationships than the science, then you can probably get away with this.
However, if you’re writing ‘hard’ sci-fi, then your readers will likely be much more discerning – many of them probably scientists themselves – so if you want to gain and keep their respect, you’ll need to be accurate.
But your story doesn’t have to be set in space to include a physically impossible plot hole.
Say it takes eight hours to fly from Chicago to Paris, but the character arrives much sooner than that — never mind the time it would take them to pack, travel to the airport, get through security, and hire a car at their destination. You risk losing readers if they notice this faux pas.
4. Logic Fails
These types of plot holes occur when the events or circumstances of the story don’t make logical sense — what happens later doesn’t necessarily follow from what happened before.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry and his friends complete all the trials guarding the stone successfully, but when Harry reaches the final room, Voldemort is already there waiting for him.
Either Voldemort already passed all the trials and somehow set them back to their starting points (such as the chess game and the potions), or alternatively, he found another way into the chamber. This is never explained in the novel.
5. Contradictions or Continuity Errors
Contradictions and continuity errors occur when the facts of the story or situations change without explanation, or when a character acts in a way that’s completely opposite to something that happened earlier.
Perhaps the type of car a character drives changes suddenly, or a story starts on a Monday but the author writes the next day is described as Wednesday.
In It (the movie) by Stephen King, Eddie’s broken arm is sometimes on his left side, and at other times it’s on his right.
In Robinson Crusoe, the main character strips naked to swim out to a sinking ship, but then brings back the supplies by shoving them in his pockets.
In the Harry Potter universe, food can be summoned if someone knows where it is, or transformed or increased in quantity if it already exists.
So, why did the characters struggle so much with hunger in their search for the Deathly Hallows? They did have some food and could have summoned more.
One famous inconsistency plot hole comes from the classic fairy tale, Cinderella. Why does everything magic vanish except her shoe? How did her glass slipper survive midnight?
More commonly, a character may do something completely out of character in order to serve the plot.
Or a character may have ‘powers,’ like X-ray vision, that they use to get out of a difficult situation, but then don’t use those same powers in a different situation (even though it would make sense) because using them would remove all conflict and tension.
In Return of the Jedi, why do all the Force ghosts appear to Luke as if he knew them personally, except for Anakin?
And in Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, the NSA is called a top secret agency, one that few Americans are aware of. But throughout the story, people openly protest against the NSA and there’s bad widespread publicity.
So, which is it?
7. Unfinished Business
Unfinished business occurs when the author starts a subplot but then neglects to go back and finish it, leaving the reader hanging.
The Big Sleep, written by Raymond Chandler and published in 1939, has a famous plot hole in which the chauffeur is murdered — but the book never explains who did it, why, or what happened.
Raymond admits that when he wrote the novel, he cannibalized some of his previously written short stories. In those days, stories were literally cut and pasted together from the pages of pulp magazines.
When a movie director asked him who the murderer was, Raymond had forgotten all about it.
Note that this is different to when authors deliberately leave loose ends.
8. Erratic Motivations
Readers may question a character’s motivations when they do something that doesn’t make sense, especially when compared to what the characters said they were going to do earlier or what they claimed mattered to them.
If your readers are left scratching their heads, asking, “Why did they do that?” your character was probably not properly motivated.
You may not have set up the situation clearly enough, explained clearly enough or created enough back story, or you may have lost sight of how your world works.
As an example, at the end of the Hunger Games series, (spoiler alert!) Katniss is shown in golden sunlight in a field, watching Peeta play with their child and smiling dotingly at her new little baby.
But Katniss never expressed wanting a family. She’s always been a loner, though she has strong bonds of love with some people.
So an ending that would have been in line with her character would have been her looking over the new world order she’d created, with satisfaction, but from a distance.
Making her into a flowing dressed mother feels like a jarring departure from her character in service of a traditional ‘happily ever after’.
9. Factual Errors
For example, a British Courtroom drama might feature a judge banging a gavel — even though they are not used by British judges and never have been (but Brits are so used to seeing them on TV, we assume our judges have them too).
This type of plot hole may be easier to avoid than some of the others — just do your homework!
That means checking on details you’re unsure of, talking to experts on the topics your book touches on, visiting locations in person, or whatever else helps to make your story more believable and realistic.
Now, that’s not to say that you necessarily have to get a PhD or become an expert in complex topics like law, medicine, technology, or science. The best way to figure out how accurate you need to be is to read a lot until you know the expectations of your genre.
How to Fix Plot Holes
Now that you have a better idea of what plot holes are, let’s discuss how you can fix them.
1. Complete Your Character Profiles
Dive deep into your characters’ motivations. When you know what drives your characters, you’re much less likely to make them act inconsistently
2. Create a Plot Checklist
For each chapter, create a checklist of the major plot points. It doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as it works for you.
A simple checklist will help you remember what happened, which characters were involved, and make it easy to know exactly which sections you may need to revisit when you have to make changes or updates.
3. Do Your Research
This is particularly important when it comes to science, medicine, law, police procedure, or any technical or professional topics your story may involve.
It’s a good idea to make a list of all the things you need to research during your plot planning stage, including things like:
“What’s the recipe and baking time for this bread?”, “What goes into planning a horse show?”, or “What would be the relative top speeds of an orca and a giant flying cat?”
If you can speak to an expert, that can be extremely helpful, firstly to make sure you’re not making any embarrassing errors, but also to give new ideas and insights you hadn’t considered.
4. Don’t Skip Your Due Diligence
If you’re inventing a magical system or special powers, note how they work, what the rules are, what the limitations and costs are, etc.
Make sure you know exactly how they will work to avoid inconsistencies. Even though you’re writing fantasy, you’ll annoy readers if you’re not consistent in your rules about magic or superhero powers.
5. Look Through Your Characters’ Eyes
Follow the story through from the points of view of your supporting characters and subplots. When you trace the logical flow of events through different perspectives, gaps are easier to find.
6. Create Timelines
Do your prep work. Sketch out your story and character timelines. What’s their backstory? What’s the history of your world? What things happened, and when, to bring your characters where they are today?
7. Enlist Other People
If you’re able to get a handful of people to check your novel for plot holes, you could save yourself an awful lot of time and heartache later on.
Pay attention anytime someone tells you, “I didn’t really believe that X would happen.”
That’s a sign you didn’t set the situation up well enough, didn’t include enough foreshadowing, didn’t explain the circumstances, or didn’t provide enough information to make your story seem believable.
You can’t – and shouldn’t – change your book to try to meet the demands of every single reader, so be careful of having a knee-jerk reaction just because one person has an issue with something.
But if something is not working for several people, you should definitely take note.
8. Take a Step Back
It’s hard to see potential problems when you’re in the weeds every day. So don’t be too impatient to set your story aside for 2 to 4 weeks. Give yourself some distance. With just a little bit of time, confusing plot points are more likely to jump off the page at you.
Final Observations on Plot Holes
Let’s wrap up with a few additional takeaways…
The importance of plot holes is proportional to their importance in the plot.
The key to knowing whether it’s okay to use some hand waving is whether it is critical to the plot or the character’s main arc.
For example, a mistake that an awful lot of TV Cop shows make is placing a huge importance on the reading of the Miranda rights (you have the right to remain silent, and all that).
But in reality, these rights are rarely read at the point of arrest, and it doesn’t matter that much if they aren’t.
Having your character read the rights for dramatic effect isn’t that big a deal. But if the case later collapses because the Miranda rights weren’t read, then you’ve got one whopper of a plot hole.
Some plot holes become fictional fact.
Having said that, there are some technical or factual errors that have become so ubiquitous that they have become a sort of ‘fictional reality’.
As well as the Miranda rights misrepresentation, many police procedurals repeatedly repeat the same errors about things like suspect interviews, confessions, and the all-powerful detective.
This has happened so much you would be hard-pressed to convince a lot of people that they are mistakes at all, and they certainly wouldn’t clock them as ‘plot holes’.
Another example, hacking is always horrendously misrepresented in fiction. But the reality is utterly tedious and would make for terrible writing.
So for the general public (and probably even people who know better) being a little hand-wavy here is fine, as long as your plot doesn’t hinge on it.
Take criticism with a grain of salt.
People don’t always agree on what plot holes are, and things that are unforgivable plot holes for some are waved away as unimportant by others.
Some plot holes matter only to experts. If a lawyer, police officer, or surgeon notices something happening that would never occur in real life, they’re going to find it harder to suspend disbelief. However, many laypeople may not know or care.
So at the end of the day, it’s okay to make some judgments about which plot holes to fill in, and which to just skirt around.
Take Care While Editing
Editing can cause all kinds of disconnects in your story. It’s bound to happen, so be on the lookout.
Your story will probably benefit from deleting a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter or two here or there, and that’s fine. Just be sure if you reveal any crucial information in those deleted sections, you try to fit it in elsewhere.
And after you complete any changes or edits, make sure you go through to re-read and recheck that your story still makes sense.
Most editions of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain remove a chapter known as “The Raftsmen Passage.” While this chapter does slow the story down, it also reveals some critical information about where the boys are located.
In the next chapter, Huck knows where they are on the river, but it’s not clear exactly how once the chapter is removed.
Find and Fix Your Story’s Plot Holes
In the end, remember to keep plot holes in perspective.
The absolute most important thing is the readers’ enjoyment of your story.
So while you should certainly go to serious efforts to ensure your work is plot hole free, don’t get so hung up on them that it bogs down your story, or worse — paralyses you so you can’t finish the novel at all.
And if you need to dive deeper into your characters’ motivations, get clear on your timelines, or create a visual map of your plot, head over to the Novel Writing Roadmap and get started today.