Plot holes. We all know what they are: inconsistencies or gaps that defy logic in stories. And we all know they're entirely undesirable when it comes to writing a good novel.
Plot holes diminish the plausibility of a story and can have a huge effect on the way that story is viewed by readers. Your novel may be wonderfully written with great characters and an engaging plot – but leave one plot hole in there and, sadly, all your hard work may be undone.
So how can you tell if your story has plot holes? And if it does, how can you go about filling them in?
Let's dive into a step-by-step process for finding and fixing plot holes in your novel.
How to find plot holes
The first thing you need to do is to determine whether your story actually has any plot holes. This may sound easy, but as the author, it's likely that you're too close to your story to pick up on all the holes that may exist.
Here's how to make sure you don't miss anything.
1. Read back over your completed draft and take notes
Sounds obvious, but the first step is to start from the beginning and try to read your novel as a true reader would.
It is difficult to distance yourself, we know. But once you've finished your draft, set it aside for a while and try to come back to it refreshed and ready to read as objectively as possible.
(Important note: don't attempt to identify plot holes while you're still writing. Plot holes definitely fall under the banner of 'things not to worry about during your first draft'. Leave them until after you've completed your draft and are able to look at the whole picture.)
As you're reading, take notes on anything that could contribute to or be construed as a plot hole.
It could be as small as a character's eye or hair colour changing over the course of the story, or as significant as an event that couldn't possibly take place due to something else that has happened earlier in the book.
2. Go over your plot with a fine-toothed comb
This isn't the same as the read-through we talked about in step 1. This time around, you'll be focusing solely on the stripped-back plot of your novel to ensure it makes sense at its base level.
To do this, you'll first need to write out a simplified version of your plot. This is similar to the outline you may have created before you began writing your novel. Basically, it will be a list of all the events that happen in your novel.
To make things easier, you may wish to organise your overview into plots and subplots. (If your story is overly complicated, this could pose a problem in terms of plot holes – we'll talk more about this below.)
Once you've laid out the basics of your plot, it's time to look over it with a sharp, scrutinising eye. Ask yourself:
- Does the plot actually make sense?
- Does it flow logically from one event to another?
- Are there any gaps or leaps that could be construed as plot holes?
- Do any aspects of your plot contradict each other?
- Is every question asked throughout your novel eventually answered? (If you're writing a series, the answer to this doesn't have to be 'yes' for every book – but by the end of the series as a whole, most if not all loose ends will ideally be tied up.)
- Are your characters' actions happening simply because they need to for the plot to unfold as you've imagined it? Or are there sound, logical reasons behind every event?
Stripping your plot back to its basics can help you spot issues you may not have been aware of before.
3. Create and cross-check a glossary of characters and world-building elements
This is where we get down to the nitty-gritty details. Every one of those details counts when it comes to eliminating plot holes, big or small. If your characters and world-building are as faultless as possible, you're likely to have fewer plot holes to deal with.
One of the best ways to ensure consistency in your characters and in the world of your story is to create glossaries. In them, you should list the following things:
- Basic details such as names, ages and physical descriptions
- Elements of backstory that might affect the plot or the character's portrayal
- Key personality traits and quirks
- Basic character arc/role in the story
- Locations visited or mentioned throughout the story
- Cultural aspects such as religion, societal structures, food and drink
- Political/power structures
- Magic systems
(Note that a world-building glossary is essential for writers of fantasy and sci-fi, but may not be so for writers in other genres. Still, it's a good idea to keep track of your story's setting elements, no matter what type of novel you're writing.)
Once you've drawn up your glossaries, cross-check them with your novel. This means going through and ensuring consistency every time a character appears or a world-building aspect is mentioned.
The more watertight your characters and world, the less likely it is that plot holes will crop up.
4. Use beta readers
This stage of the plot hole-finding process is the perfect time to enlist beta readers to help.
Once you've completed the above steps, you've basically done everything you can on your own to identify plot holes in your story. But as we've said before, it's so hard to distance yourself from your own work that there may be things you still haven't picked up on.
That's where beta readers come in.
By using external readers to read and provide feedback on your novel, you get some much-needed outside perspective. Beta readers are much more likely to spot plot holes than you are yourself, and they might even have some useful suggestions about how to solve your plot problems.
Check out our ultimate guide for more info on how to work with beta readers.
How to fix plot holes once you've found them
So! You've been over your novel with a fine-toothed comb, and you've handed it over to others to get external perspectives. Hopefully, this has helped you identify any and all plot holes that exist in your draft.
Now it's time for the hard part: fixing them.
Here's how to fill in those pesky plot holes to ensure your story is watertight.
1. Explore alternative outcomes
Try to keep an open mind when reworking your novel. Yes, you have a finished draft and you may be happy with every element of the plot as it currently stands. But a lot of the time, changes are simply unavoidable, so don't be afraid to think outside the box and explore alternative plot outcomes and events.
A handy thing to do here is ask yourself 'What if?'. Examine the events in your novel that are proving problematic and ask, 'What if this happened instead?'.
Follow a few alternative paths to see where they lead. You never know; you may end up eliminating your plot holes and devising better, less predictable paths for your story to follow.
When reworking your plot to avoid holes, you should also take time to reconsider character motivations. What is motivating your characters to make the choices that lead to your story's events?
Are their motivations clear, believable and true to character? What other decisions could they make to change an outcome in the story?
Remember that out-of-character actions with no explanation can be plot holes in themselves, so tread carefully and know your characters inside out.
2. Remember that filling plot holes is not necessarily a one-trick fix
When it comes to filling in plot holes, it's usually not enough to simply fix the problem at the source. Making changes, especially later in the novel, can have a ripple effect, potentially creating even more plot holes for you to deal with.
Fixing plot holes by making changes as early as possible in the novel is the best option. As K.M. Weiland points out:
Plot holes are almost always the result of the story that's already behind you – not the story that’s still ahead of you."
Many plot holes occur because the events they involve simply haven't been set up properly throughout the story. An event might happen out of the blue, with no prior explanation or no grounding in the logic of your characters or world.
To fill in your plot holes, work backwards from them. Make sure anything leading directly to your plot issues is eliminated or altered as early in the story as possible. Alternatively, plant some extra detail or context earlier in the story that leads logically up to later events.
3. Bring things back to basics
Sometimes, plot holes can be eliminated just by simplifying things a bit.
The bigger and more complex your plot, the more likely it is that holes will appear. If you're finding your novel has a lot of plot holes, it might be worth considering whether you can simplify things – and in doing so, remove a few gaps or inconsistencies.
Remember that a plot doesn't have to be incredibly complex to be effective or engaging. Sometimes, the best storytelling is done in the simplest fashion.
Try bringing your story back to basics and seeing whether it solves your plot problems. This might mean cutting out subplots or characters, or reducing the number of events that occurs in your story.
If you're not sure whether your plot might be over-complicated, here are some questions to ask yourself.
4. Don't be afraid to do the work
There's no getting around it: fixing plot holes takes work.
Some might be easy fixes, but some might take quite a bit of time and effort to rectify. The important thing is that you realise this from the start, and that you're prepared to knuckle down and do the work to get your plot holes filled in.
Don't be tempted to take the easy way out by ignoring plot holes or only halfheartedly fixing them.
We understand that by the time you get to the stage of identifying and rectifying plot holes, you've probably been working on your novel for a really long time. The last thing you feel like doing is unpicking and re-sewing the threads of your story to fix the holes.
But the reality is that plot holes just might make or break your book for some readers. Don't undo all your hard work by failing to tie up these loose ends!
To stand a chance at succeeding in today's competitive book market, your novel needs to be the very best it can possibly be. And that means being sure that no stone is left unturned – and no plot hole left unfilled.
Have you had to solve any plot hole problems in your writing before? Share your pesky plot hole experiences in the comments!