Ah, plot holes. We all face them. But how do you fix them?
Fixing a plot hole can be the difference between a finished story and something that spends its whole life in limbo. It can be the difference between a highly rated book and one that tanks.
Fixing plot holes is no easy feat, though. It can lead to a lot of headaches, a lot of tears, and a lot of stress.
So, to help you figure out how to fix your plot holes, I reached out to some of my writer and editor friends. And wow, did they have some wisdom to share!
A big thanks for everyone that responded when I reached out: your answers are AMAZING!
So, without further ado, let’s get to it…
How do you identify plot holes?
To fix a plot hole, you must first identify that it’s even there. But how do you spot them?
Angela Barton – author of Arlette’s Story
When we’re editing our manuscripts, it’s so easy to focus on the little details that we want to improve, that we miss our story’s biggest weaknesses. The main oversight in editing is the dreaded plot hole.
A plot hole is an inconsistency or gap in the narrative of our story. It contradicts the flow of logic established in our story. Some examples:
- The personality of a character suddenly changes.
- A secondary character in your story has their own troubled story, but it’s never concluded.
- Illogical events are rarely forgiven by your readers. For example, a superhero is easily defeated or a character travels to Spain from America and is drinking sangria in a bar later the same morning or financial difficulties are overcome by winning the lottery etc.
- One of your characters has forgotten an important fact that they knew earlier in the storyline.
Readers’ suspension of disbelief may ensure that some of your story’s smaller plot holes are missed or ignored.
But there’s a limit to how much they will accept.
Here are some tips for finding your plot hole:
- Be objective when editing. The easiest way to do this is to step away from your manuscript and leave it for a few days, or longer. Review it later with fresh eyes.
- Refuse to be influenced by your own opinions and emotions. Edit from the perspective of your characters.
- Writing lists can be helpful. I write a list of chapter numbers along with a sentence or two about the storyline in that chapter. I make a note of the month/year the scene takes place and which characters are present.
- Take time to question the logic of your plot. Does the previous storyline lead to that moment or has a journey or question gone unanswered? Have your characters made choices or said things that don’t reflect their personality?
- Keep a checklist of your subplots and make sure all of them are complete. Close all open ends.
- Keep notes on your revised edits. They may open up a future plot hole that needs managing.
- I recommend a professional edit as a safety net to plot holes. If this is too pricey, ask a writer friend to have a read through.
Dan Bronzite – writer, director, and creator of Script Studio
It’s a tough question because I’m sure every writer in every discipline will have their own perspective on this.
For me, I’ve been screenwriting professionally for over twenty years and so now I just get a gut reaction when reading a script when something doesn’t work. And then usually I think about it for a while and the answer presents itself, whether it’s a structural issue, i.e. the order of events presented to the audience is inadvertently producing an accidental plot problem, or a character’s backstory and real-time story hasn’t been developed enough and so this causes a problem.
When I first started writing I obviously heavily relied on feedback to identify problems but now not so much but it still happens. For instance, recently, a few different producers reading the same script I wrote have all identified a plot ‘logic’ problem that isn’t necessarily an error but is something that for some reason is not as clear to them as it is to me.
Elizabeth S Craig – best-selling cozy mystery author of the Southern Quilting mysteries, Memphis Barbeque mysteries, and Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries
I look for spots where something in my story doesn’t add up.
Maybe it’s a continuity problem or maybe I wrenched the plot in a particular direction for my own devices.
Maybe I’d mentioned earlier in my mystery novel that the weather was terrible, and yet a suspect (who isn’t sopping wet) says they were out taking a walk at the time of the murder (and the detective doesn’t even question it). That’s a pretty minor example.
A bigger problem might be that a victim fell off a cliff in a remote area and the police start searching that area immediately after a family member files a missing person report. It makes it convenient for me that the body is found quickly, but it just doesn’t add up.
I’ve found that asking the question ‘why’ helps a lot in identifying plot holes.
Why did the suspect take a walk on a miserable day?
Why isn’t the suspect wet?
Why would the police search this remote location first?
If there isn’t a good answer, I know it’s something that I need to fix.
It also helps to set the manuscript aside for a while and come back to look at it with a fresh perspective.
Ian Charles Douglas – Nottingham writer of sci-fi and fantasy for children and adults
I don’t think there are any magic bullets, but try not to have them in the first place.
Before you start do a timeline, or a flow diagram of the sequence of events. (Harry turn 11 —> the school writes to him —> Dursleys try to stop letters etc.)
If you’re not a visual type do a very simple book plan. So a chapter by chapter break down. But keep it brief. A few sentences for every chapter. I’d say not more than three per chapter and if that’s a struggle it may be that your book is too full of ideas.
Doing it before you start may help spot those loopholes but you can do it any time during the book writing. And it’s only for you, so doesn’t need to be perfect.
Also keep writing from editing. Don’t try and do both at the same time (it’s a classic behaviour).
Write a draft, don’t read back, don’t edit. When the draft is complete, then edit.
This, and taking a few days’ break, may give you the distance needed to see you novel clearly.
One more thing, join a critique group. Nothing improves your writing like getting supportive feedback.
Caroline Leavitt – NYT Bestselling novelist, award-winning screenwriter, book critic, editor, and chocoholic
Plot holes. Well, I outline everything in detail, so I usually have a 40-page writer’s synopsis, and I’m big on story structure so I tend to know the reveals, reversals, moral choices (moral choices being putting the character between that rock and a hard place, so whatever he chooses has a cost, yet reveals him).
Everything about plot, for me, comes out of character. That said, when you are so deep in a book, you cannot sometimes TELL where there is a plot hole. So I do the following:
1. I get other writers or my editor to read it. I never show to people who love me because they won’t be brutal, which is what I need. They point out the questions.
2. I tell the story to myself out loud, looking for a kind of ‘Because this happened to the character, this next thing had to happen,’ rather than a this happened, then that happened. Everything has to be tight cause and effect.
I sometimes print out the whole manuscript in a different font or a different colour. It tricks the brain into knowing something is different so you see it all a new.
Louise Harnby – fiction editor and proofreader
When it comes to plot holes, especially gaping ones, avoidance trumps reparation. These five tips will help you keep track of who, what, how and when:
1. Plot precis: Create a summary of the key plot (and subplot) lines, and the points on which they hinge.
Some writers like to create outlines before they write; others prefer to do it in later drafts. Either way, taking your story through this mill ensures that the timeline functions logically and all the strands have been pulled together such that the denouement is satisfying.
2. Character table: Record each player’s name(s), what they look like, how they behave, their relationships with other players, and any significant dates in their lives.
If Chapter three contains a flashback to July 1967 when Jenny gave birth to baby John, but in Chapter ten John celebrates his birthday in January, there’s a problem. Character tables highlight mismatches.
3. World-building wiki: Every story exists within a world, and that world has laws. Continuity is key, and a wiki helps you stay on track.
If your protagonist’s husband dies because the paramedic’s oxygen tank is empty, but they live on a world where the population breathes mainly nitrogen, your story will unravel. Your wiki will help with self-governance.
4. Tech checklist: The smallest detail can unravel a story when the reader is more knowledgeable than the writer. Imagine your baddie comes unstuck because they forget to attach the suppressor to their Makarov PM. Alas, your reader knows that this variant has an integrated suppressor.
If your novel includes technological or scientific information that’s new to you, create a checklist of things that need researching and reviewing.
5. Edit in stages: Divide your editing into macro and micro stages. Assessing whether your story makes sense structurally requires a different mindset to an evaluation of the rhythm of your prose or a spelling, punctuation and grammar check.
If you’re tempted to edit for plot, prose and punctuation all in one hit, ask yourself not how much time you’ll save but how much you’re likely to miss.
Paula Rawsthorne – award-winning Young Adult novelist
Plot holes are one of my pet hates, so I’m very careful to try to avoid them in my stories.
We’ve probably all shouted at the TV when we’ve noticed a ridiculous plot hole in a drama and, the more we can identify them in other people’s work, the more it helps us to become aware of them in our own writing.
For me, plot holes can ruin the enjoyment of a novel, short story, film or TV series. They leave me feeling frustrated—as if the writer has cheated.
For example, when I came out of the screening of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri I was, initially, bowled over by the film. However, the more I thought about it, the more I identified plot holes and convenient lapses in reality which seemed to be there just to enable characters to continue on their path of action. Ultimately, this diminished my enjoyment and respect for the film.
Of course you can always grant some poetic licence in storytelling but—especially if you’re aiming for gritty realism—the characters actions should result in plausible consequences and the characters shouldn’t behave ‘out of character’ just for the convenience of the original plot.
Rebecca Ann Smith – writer of YA, dystopian, and speculative fiction
Despite a talent for shouting at the telly, and for irritating my partner at the cinema, I find it frustratingly difficult to identify plot holes in my own writing.
I think this is because my brain doesn’t want to see the places where I’ve stretched credulity, or the logic of character, to get from one key moment to the next.
Sometimes this blindness means the task falls to someone else—a beta reader, or an editor, or my agent—to point out that the plot isn’t working.
Other times I’m able to see where I’ve gone wrong if I’ve left sufficient time between writing and editing.
Other times I press on past a questionable plot device, determined not to notice the mechanism creaking, only to find I can’t write the next part of the story—I’ve lost faith in what I’m doing; I don’t believe myself anymore. That’s when I need to rewind to the point where I did have confidence in the story, unpicking the chain of action and consequence until I work out where the problem lies.
Clare Stevens – fiction author
Plot holes, inconsistencies, continuity errors—we all make them, and when we’re in the throes of our narrative it can be hard to spot them.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night staring down a plot hole then spend a sleepless hour worrying about how to fix it.
Other times I don’t notice them at all—someone else points them out, which illustrates how important it is to get several other people to read your work.
When I received the first lot of edits from my publisher she had flagged a few inconsistencies, mostly to do with timescales and location. A particular character could not possibly be in a certain place at a specific point, having just travelled by train to somewhere else. Thankfully none of them were gaping holes and were mostly easy enough to fix, but despite multiple hours revising and re-reading the manuscript I’d failed to notice them.
I think it’s crucial to put a piece of writing away for a while before re-reading it. That way you look at what you’ve written with a more dispassionate and critical eye. That’s when you spot the holes.
Jonathan Taylor – author and lecturer in Creative Writing
I think you can really only identify major plot holes after the first draft of a novel or story. Then you can look back, and fix anything that needs fixing retrospectively.
I suppose there’s also a question of how much plot holes matter: there are lots of plot holes in some very famous and celebrated films, novels and stories—there are a few loose ends even in something as a wonderful as Shakespeare’s Othello or Winter’s Tale.
You can’t tie everything up, I suppose; but also there are more important things. In fact, I think the point is that if the overall effect is compelling enough (as it is, of course, in Othello and Winter’s Tale), the sheer force of what’s happening eclipses any niggles.
It’s about the experience moment-to-moment for a reader or viewer: most readers (unless they’re pedantic critics) don’t look back on a story after they’ve finished it, and think ‘Oh, that didn’t link with that.’ Or at least they don’t if the overall effect is powerful enough.
I can see a few plot holes in my first novel, Entertaining Strangers, now—but no one else seems to have noticed them (by and large), so it probably doesn’t matter that much.
Plot is difficult—but there are more important aspects to a book.
Alexa Whitewolf – paranormal romance and romantic suspense author
I’d have to say they’re part of my writing process. When I write a book, I don’t necessarily start at the beginning. Most of the time, I’ll write scenes from mid-book, then move to the beginning, and the end, etc. So it’s normal that in such a chaotic writing process I end up with plot holes. That’s where editing comes in.
After my rough draft of the book is done, I go through it with a fine-toothed comb, identifying areas in need for improvement and plot holes. Then when I’m done with those, I send my book to my trusty beta readers, and they’ll point out whatever else I’m missing.
So in short, I’d say I identify my plot holes through multiple reviews of the rough draft!
Sophie & Kathryn from The Student Wordsmith
Kathryn said she’s always found it easier to identify plot holes in TV programmes or films, rather than in books, so, when she’s reading through her work, she’ll often play it out in her head as if it were a TV show.
Usually, visualising it in this way is when the plot holes/gaps jump out at her.
She imagines herself sitting on the sofa and watching it play out and she starts to think about whether she would get bored or be muttering to herself that it’s not making any sense—a bit like when we spot mistakes or bloopers in TV and film, I guess!
So far, doing it this way has been really effective for her as she finds that, if she just tries to identify them through reading, her brain skips over a lot of the key parts of the plot and she misses them…
How do you fix plot holes?
And now we get onto the juicy part. It’s all very well and good knowing what your plot hole is, but how do you fix it?
Kristina Adams – author, poet, blogger, copywriter
For me, there are two very important elements: the first is to not overthink it and the second is to not try and fix it alone.
When I know something is broken, I’ll take a break from it for a while. I don’t put it completely to the side, but I don’t actively work on it. I work on something around it, such as a spin-off, or I design the cover or write the blurb. That keeps the characters in my head.
Quite often the solution will come to me while writing about related characters. For instance, I was really struggling to write form the point of view of one of my characters because I saw her as the villain and not a three-dimensional character. Writing about earlier on in her life, before she became bitter and jaded, made me see her in a whole new light. I understood her motivations and how she turned into the woman that she is now.
Then, while I was reading a book in the same genre, I figured out what her book was missing. While I’m not ready to work on that story just yet—I want to finish writing around her first—I’m excited to go back to the project and see what happens.
However, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes the only way to fix a plot hole is to get an objective perspective. I’m lucky in that I’m friends with a lot of great writers and editors. When I get stuck, I know exactly who can help me fix it. I have fixed many, many plot holes this way. Without that help and guidance my stories would have turned out very differently and may never have been published at all.
When you’re so close to something, no matter how experienced you are, you still need to hear a third-party unbiased perspective and can’t be too precious about it.
The difference is that when I get that feedback, I am confident enough in my writing now that I know when the critique is flawed since these things are always very subjective and sometimes a reader has either rush-read something, is inexperienced, doesn’t like the genre or just doesn’t get it. But when you start out it’s easy to take negative feedback to heart and start changing everything based on it when really you don’t need to since the feedback was misplaced and you can end up ruining your script.
Ultimately the things to take away from this is that:
- You are always learning,
- You are never so great a writer that you don’t need to get feedback and
- Plot holes, structural issues and character issues are always identified through the subjective lens of the person pointing them out, so sometimes there is no hard black and white right or wrong since the same story can be told 1000 different ways and it just depends on which one you pick.
I would also say that as a writer you should always give yourself ample time after completing a draft to re-read it, otherwise you are too close to notice and accept issues.
And as Faulkner rightly stated, you must get used to killing your darlings…because sometimes you have to do that to fix the problem!
Elizabeth S Craig
Fixing the plot hole can be as easy as deleting a reference or as difficult as adding in new scenes or restructuring an entire book.
For the first example above, simply deleting any mention of rain would work.
Similarly, it could work as a clue to the detective that something is wrong with the suspect’s statement—she couldn’t have been taking a walk in that weather and be bone dry.
The fix for the second issue might be more involved.
Maybe I need to write in the police receiving an anonymous tip about a body at the bottom of a cliff.
Maybe I simply need to use a couple of quick transition statements explaining that the police had searched for hours or even days before stumbling on the body at the remote location.
I find it helps to make a list of possible fixes and then figure out which is most plausible.
Ian Charles Douglas
How to fix them? Role up your sleeves and get editing. You know, I just submitted the draft for Electron’s Blade to my publisher and the day before, after six months of editing, I spotted a corker on the final pages that I’d completely missed. Just have to dip back into the manuscript and re-write the pages that need it.
A related issue is how you store and manage the info for your book. Lots of folks use software apps, like Scrivener, or Post-it notes, or whatever works for you. I myself don’t use anything. Other than lists and notes on the PC. But look around and see what works for you.
When I, or editors, find the plot holes, I go back to the character. It usually is a question of how did the character get from point A to point B? They can’t just change from say a miser to someone who is generous. Some action has to have forced them to change. So I try to figure that out.
I also am a huge fan of Post-its—a different colour for each character. I pop them all over the manuscript so I can track the character arcs (for me, if there are strong arcs, there are no plot holes). I make sure the character is different in the beginning than they are in the middle and at the end.
And this is my secret weapon that I’m happy to share—my wants and needs lists. Hang on.
What does the character want and why at the beginning, and what are the stakes?
What happened to the character before all this that gave rise to a misbelief or something haunting them so they cannot make the right plan?
For example, if you grew up dirt poor and bullied for it, and you got to visit a rich friend, you might decide that money was everything, and that would be your plan.
The next part is what is the character’s plan to get what they want?
Maybe the character goes to school, works hard, goes into banking to get money, even though they do not like it. Because they believe mistakenly that money buys happiness. And the character gets a partner, too.
So the plan has to always go wrong, because it’s based on the misbelief.
So the character begins to feel the 22-hour days are not making him happy, and then the partner leaves. The character is alone, at the moment I call the Big Doom, when all seems lost. But in that moment, he realises hey, what I wanted, money, what I thought would happen, that I would be happy, has not happened!
And that frees the character to realise they can do something different.
Maybe our character decides to open up the bookshops he’s always wanted. Maybe he can’t get his wife back, but he gets to know this cashier and he discovers that makes him happy.
Character is what it is all about for me, plot holes and all.
Paula Rawsthorne – award-winning Young Adult novelist
When I write I’m very much a ‘plotter’ and this helps me to avoid plot holes.
My novels are twisting, turning thrillers for Young Adults so I find it essential to have the skeleton of the plot, from start to finish, before I begin writing.
In conjunction with this I’ll also be jotting down dialogue, details about characters and scenes that are emerging in my head.
Of course, once you start to actually write the story it will naturally evolve as the plot and characters take you in unexpected directions.
I love this part of the creative process but, as I progress, I try to identify if aspects aren’t ringing true.
It may be that I’ll have to write the full first draft before I can gain an overview of what’s working and what’s not (including any plot holes). Then I’ll go back and work out what needs fixing—asking myself questions such as:
- Is this plausible?
- Would this character behave this way?
- What would be the consequences for them?
If it becomes clear that I’m dealing with a plot hole and that it can’t be fixed, then I get rid of it and usually find that the story continues to evolve and strengthen.
So don’t be afraid of ‘killing your darlings’ even if it feels painful and creates more work at the time.
Also, I’m lucky to have a wonderful editor who will point out any inconsistencies in my manuscript. Her comments force me to address any problems with the storyline, characters etc.
If you haven’t got an editor then you can ask someone you trust and respect (from a literary point of view) to read your draft and give you honest feedback, particularly about any plot holes that you may not have noticed (or you’ve tried to ignore) because you’re too close to your story.
Rebecca Ann Smith
Fixing plot holes can be annoying, but it’s easier than spotting them in the first place.
I plot my novels in advance, so I usually understand the purpose of the plot device—I know where I’m trying to get to, if not always how to get there.
I believe in the axiom that ‘my first idea is not, necessarily, my best idea,’ so it’s usually a case of coming up with as many ideas as possible until I hit upon the one that’s elegant enough, or at least sturdy enough, to do the job.
Sometimes I’ll get out a notebook and write free-hand until an idea I like presents itself, chewing over the problem, examining it from different angles. But what if… and what if…
As I write speculative fiction, my stories often turn on matters technical, medical, or scientific.
If I’m stuck I’ve got my go-to experts on hand to ask questions about how things work, or how they might work, if the world was slightly different, and if I offer to buy them a drink they’re usually more than happy to chew over the problem with me.
You have to go back, sometimes a long way back. Retrace your steps until you find the missing bit. This can be like searching for the elusive end in a tangle of wool. You have to unravel it. You may have to change the order in which things happen, you may need to plant clues or stepping stones at intervals along the way. You might need to re-write whole sections.
I’m not great at plotting, it’s not my strongest point, as the narrative develops a life of its own as I go along. I wrote my novel in chunks, not in the right order, then had to retrofit a coherent structure by piecing the bits together. That’s where the holes can creep in. No matter how free-flowing your writing, there comes a time when you need to map out the narrative.
It helps to have an at-a-glance timeline of the action. When I did this for my novel I realised I’d got the weather wrong in some of the scenes—I’d created an eternal summer! I had to weave in colder conditions, darker nights, and Christmas. I had to change what people wore, what the trees looked like and whether the action took place indoors or outdoors. I am sure many writers are a lot more organised in how they plot their novels. With me it’s more trial and error and plenty of back-tracking and editing to fix those holes!
As regards how you fix the holes: well, as I say, it’s always a matter of looking back on a first draft, and thinking about the weak links.
A novel, in particular, is a chain of cause and effect. Novels—which are very strange forms, to be honest, very contrived—grew up in the wake of Newtonian physics, and they often have that sense of causation—of one cause linking to an effect, which then links to the next cause and so on and so forth. Memoirs, poetry work very differently.
But what this means for novel writing is that holes in the plot might be seen as holes in causality—in a chain of causes and effects. Thinking of it that way helps, I think, in making sure that everything in the chain connects up—and the narrative as a whole moves from one step to the next.
Again, you can only see the chain as a whole after you’ve written a complete draft.
You have to be willing, I think, to rewrite and reorder and fill in connections in the second draft—that’s what I did in my second novel. I wrote Melissa in semi-coherent pieces in the first draft, and then gradually reordered it, and filled in transitions between scenes.
It depends on if I had an outline for the book to begin with…I don’t always ?
And sometimes I do, and the story ends up somewhere completely different, thus accounting for the plot holes. But I digress.
To fix the plot holes, in option A (with an outline), I’ll usually go back to the outline and see what I missed or what I can incorporate to fix the story. That usually adds another two rounds of reading through the manuscript after the fix, to ensure it didn’t disturb anything else in the story.
And for option B (if I didn’t have an outline), I’ll usually have a brainstorming session and narrow down three main ideas for fixing the plot hole. I’ll try each version into writing until one clicks, and that’s usually the one I end up going with. This also adds another round of rereading the manuscript to catch any other omissions/holes 🙂
Sophie & Kathryn from The Student Wordsmith
When you’re trying to fix plot holes, we think it’s key that you think about your work as if you were the reader rather than the writer.
As a writer, you’re often so close to work that you begin to skim it or not see things (just as Kathryn has mentioned above), so we’d advise, firstly, taking a break and stepping away from your manuscript.
Kathryn’s favourite past-time is heading out to find bubble tea, so she’ll go out and reward herself with one and then come back to her text with fresh eyes/fresh mind.
At this point, she’ll look at her work from a different perspective. She’ll take it on as if she were the reader and ask herself ‘how would I be happy for this to be fixed? What would I want to read happens?’ By doing it this way, it’s much easier to be critical of her own work and figure out a way to fix it.
Normally, she comes up with three options (she doesn’t just stop at one!) and then she picks the one that is most believable if she were a reader.
Not sure you could do this with your own work? Call on some key, critical friends to act as your eyes and ears and spot them for you! Then, you can deal with the magic of fixing them!
Whew, what a post!
There’s some seriously great advice in here, that’s for sure.
There’s also a lot of common themes—plan your book so that you can avoid them in the first place, don’t edit as you write, get feedback from the right people.
A lot of people say to me that they don’t like planning because it takes the fun out of writing, but this is proof that it doesn’t! Every writer on this list is talented and has loyal fans. While they may not all make a living from their writing, there’s more important things in life, and connecting with your readers is at the top of that list.
WHAT a terrific post. Really useful, thank you. It was fascinating to see that your contributors themselves covered the whole plotting spectrum from the plunge-in approach to lengthy outline. As well as being aware of the demands of one’s particular genre, it’s important to understand one’s own writing psyche: and not be deceived by it! Meaning that while you might FEEL you’re a plunger inner, you may well NOT be in reality. And there’s only one way to find out. The hard way. In order not to waste your OWN precious time, I’d recommend starting with a decent plot outline and if discover you’re lucky enough to wing it to the end without one, well done. But if you start off on your merry way WITHOUT the outline and then discover you’re deep in the forest on your tod…that’s a lot of time wasted. Thanks for a great post. Bookmarked!