Plot Holes on the Writing Road

[Note: I’m coming at this from the perspective of writing mysteries, where plot is king, but this applies to all stories.]

My husband and I recently watched an Inspector Lewis episode on Masterpiece Mystery (Episode title: Expiation). I won’t go through the entire, terrifically convoluted plot, but here’s the part that gave us problems. A man finds out that when his wife was a little girl, she had a moment of insanity and killed her infant brother rather horrifically. She’s grown up and apparently normal now, but when the man finds out about her past, he worries that she’ll harm their two kids. However, he still loves her and doesn’t want to hurt her, so he manipulates her into a romance with a friend. She obligingly leaves the husband and marries the friend. That’s all fine, except that the kids go with her. Wait, didn’t the first husband push her away because he was worried about the kids? Plot hole.

This was one hitch in an otherwise satisfying plot, but it deflated our suspended disbelief with an audible hiss. When characters in a story behave in a nonsensical way, they don’t feel real.

I’ve found that the best way to detect plot holes is by listening to my overworked inner voice. Are you making any of the following excuses?

The events in my book take place over a long period of time, so it’s natural that the details are a little fuzzy. (A book plot is not a memory. It’s a narrative of events, and the details should all be there and all make sense.)

It’s not acting out of character if the character changes. People change over time. The readers will understand that. (Not unless you map out the reasons for your character’s change. If you don’t, your character has become a mere plot device, and not a very good one.)

There’s so much great stuff going on in my plot, the reader won’t notice this one little problem. (My husband and I did. Your readers are the same people who leave comments on IMDB like, “In the bar scene, the knot on Simon’s tie changes size.”)

When the action takes place, the reader won’t have enough information to know that it doesn’t quite make sense. (Bad author. No biscuit.)

Plot holes happen. You’re writing away, secure in your outline, when you discover that lawyers don’t have access to certain files. A DUI conviction keeps someone from driving for longer than you thought. Your character needs to have been in a certain military action but is then too old to bear a child. You won’t know about a lot of details until you’re well into your first draft. Ideally, you want a fix that doesn’t require a big rewrite. Here are a couple of methods I’ve used successfully.

Give two characters a shared past that makes sense of the problematic plot point. This back story doesn’t have to be integral to the central plot, and you can keep it secret until it’s convenient to trot it out.

Add a character. If it doesn’t make sense for your existing characters to do something necessary to the plot, give the action to someone new. The nice thing is, characters can be introduced at any point in the story. I had an expedient new character suddenly take center stage and add a tremendous amount to the book.

Add another secret. In the Inspector Lewis plot I described earlier, the author could have had the husband suspect that the kids were fathered by someone else. In that scenario, he wants to avoid the trauma of seeing them hurt, but doesn’t feel as compelled to protect them. After all, his worries might come to nothing. He doesn’t want to take his wife’s children away on a mere suspicion, he just doesn’t want to be involved.

Change your villain. In a mystery, your reader doesn’t know who the murderer is until the story’s end (you hope). If you have a great plot but one of the key points doesn’t quite work, give the gun/pillow/poison to someone else. I’ve done this twice, and couldn’t believe what an easy fix it was. After all, each of your suspects should have some reason to kill the victim, in order to provide red herrings. Until you reveal everything at the end, it could be any of them. Use that to your advantage.

A rich, complex plot is satisfying to the reader, but it’s also more work. Review your plot periodically while you’re writing. Be flexible. This kind of quality control is part of being a good writer. Your readers will notice and appreciate it.

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Esri Allbritten is the author of Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, published by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books  and available in hardback and ebook.   

Tripping Magazine is a low-budget travel rag that covers destinations of paranormal interest. The problem is, every time the staff tries to cover a supposedly supernatural event, there’s a crime behind it (think Scooby Doo for adults). In Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, the staff of Tripping Magazine hears about a ghostly Chihuahua seen by Charlotte Baskerville. Charlotte is the rich founder of Petey’s Closet, a clothing catalog for small dogs. Editor Angus MacGregor, photographer Suki Oota, and writer Michael Abernathy travel to Manitou Springs, where the ghost howls advice and spells out threats in tiny paw prints. But is the glowing apparition really Petey’s ghost, or is someone in Charlotte’s household trying to teach a dead dog new tricks – like murder? It’s up to Tripping Magazine to save Charlotte Baskerville, preferably without losing the story.

Visit EsriAllbritten.com to read an excerpt of Chihuahua of the Baskervilles.

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