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Why Doesn't the Dog Bark? Plot Points vs. Plot Holes
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
October 18, 2012
As writers we are usually concerned with what happens in our stories. However, we can often improve them by being concerned with what does not happen, too.
Plot points or plot holes?Sometimes what does not happen is a crucial plot point, as it was in that particular Sherlock Holmes mystery ("Silver Blaze"). If it's a critical plot point, then there should be no problem, as you, writing the story, are aware of it and are already dealing with it. However, there may be other unanswered questions that you do not notice. And these can lead to the dreaded plot hole.
Let me give an example from the fourth book in J K Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now, let me say that I adore her novels, which brim with rich characters, tricky plots, and marvelous, magical settings. But The Goblet of Fire has a serious plot hole (beware: spoilers follow). In my opinion, the whole Triwizard Championship is unnecessary. If Lord Voldemort wants to get Harry Potter to grab hold of a portkey, it would be far easier to trick him into touching another object -- rather than arranging for him to participate in, and then go on to win, the Triwizard Championship. In fact, the Triwizard Championship seems like a convoluted, complicated, and most unreliable method for Voldemort to achieve his goal. I can't help asking: "Why didn't the Dark Lord try something simpler?" This particular plot hole could have been resolved with a single paragraph, but as far as I can tell, Rowling never addresses it in her book.
Types of plot holes
Plot holes can arise from various issues. Here are several common ones:
Out of character: You need a character to do something -- or not do something -- but it is "out of character." For example, say that Jane always tells the truth, but at some point your story requires her to lie. The question then becomes: "Why doesn't Jane tell the truth?" There are many ways you could resolve this. Jane could be misinformed and believe she is telling the truth. Jane could be hypnotized and not be responsible for her own actions. Jane could have a reason for lying that is so strong that it overwhelms her hatred of falsehood. Someone could pretend to be Jane so that it is not Jane speaking. Or you could rearrange the story so that Jane can continue to tell the truth -- or alter her character earlier so that lying is not problematic for her.
Incomplete communication: Often much could be resolved by a simple conversation between two characters. If that's true, you should have compelling reasons why they do not have that conversation. For example, frequently two characters are falling in love with each other but they don't communicate this important piece of information. The question becomes: "Why don't Jack and Jill confess their love?" Perhaps Jack says nothing because he believes Jill loves another. Perhaps Jill says nothing because she believes she's not worthy. Perhaps a third character deliberately interferes to thwart the communication.
Strange timing: Often, for a plot to work, you need the events to happen in a particular order. However, that order may not be logical. The trick is to make it logical. Perhaps you can't have Joe appear on the scene for a while, so the question becomes, "Why isn't Joe on time?" You can use a trivial delaying tactic, such as making Joe's tire go flat.
Why ask "why not?"
Looking for things that would normally happen -- and figuring out why they don't -- can greatly enrich your story. Let me give you an example from my current project. My coauthor and I have written a trilogy about the life of Niobe. While in the process of writing the third volume, we had a problem because one of the daughters, Chloris, was not yet married near the end of the book even though she's in her mid-twenties. But back then -- Bronze Age Greece -- girls married sometime between ages thirteen and eighteen. Chloris is beautiful and a princess so she does not lack for suitors. Our question was: "Why isn't Chloris married yet?"
We batted this question around for months. We came up with several possibilities, such as an engagement that failed because her beloved died, or her being a lesbian who refused to marry any man. But for various reasons these ideas weren't satisfactory. Finally we hit on the following explanation: Chloris joins a cult, the maidens of Artemis, and takes an oath of virginity for as long as she is in the cult. This approach requires some poetic license, but not too much, as we borrowed from other groups devoted to other deities, such as the Vestal Virgins of Rome (they were permitted to marry upon retirement); the Maenads of Dionysus; and the women devoted to the mysteries of Demeter. So making her a member of a cult devoted to Artemis was plausible. Furthermore, the solution, "Chloris doesn't marry because she takes a temporary oath of virginity in order to serve the goddess Artemis," opened up many great plot possibilities to us. It also made our Chloris character much more interesting, much more alive. The question frustrated us for months, but we believe our out-of-the-box solution significantly enhanced our story.
Identifying plot holes
It takes skill, practice and patience to identify plot holes, but you can start by asking yourself the following questions:
Your answers do not have to be so ground-shaking that they change the whole plot of your book. The reasons can be trivial. The important thing is that you deal with them somehow.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.