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Filling the Plot Hole of Despair

As writers, we've all done it: created a cool story, had fun doing it, gave it a satisfying ending, then shared it so others could join on the journey... only to have that guy point out a plot hole so big that it could swallow a truck.

It's certainly happened to me.

And I hated it.

That's why I invented a technique to minimize that. To really understand the technique, though, it takes walking through the process of why I had to do it.

It usually starts with a brilliant observation that goes something like: "...If only the character had just [done some logical action]..."

Yes. You're absolutely right. Thank you for seeing that.

My. Story. Will. Be. Much. Stronger. Now.

Among a variety of other [hopefully internal] reactions, there's usually an awkward "Why didn't I see that?" moment. Looking back on it, it was usually because I had the spark of an idea and wanted to see it through. Inspiration struck while I was driving or doing the dishes or stuck on the treadmill, and from some glimpsed scene: a story evolved.

It's impossible to credibly say how often this happens, both following the muse and missing the plot hole, but my inner statistician whispers that it's "a lot." It's one of the things that's burned me enough that I shy away from "pantsing" stories. That is: starting with the seed of an idea and just riding the momentum to see where it goes.

After applying enough editorial aloe, it's why I now lean deep into planning over pantsing. The downside of planning is the inertia it drops on us when we've captured inspiration and want to follow the spark before it fades. The question becomes: is the inertia of a re-write more than the inertia of planning? Unless you have the ability to compare your progress through the multiverse of infinite timelines, that's an unknowable answer.

There is, however, a guideline that can help: how complex is the setting and the scenario? The simpler they are, especially when you're pushing off from the premise of the story, the safer it is dive in head first. If it's Jack and Jill on a hill, go follow that spark! If it's Jack Montague and Jill Capulet, maybe a little bit of planning first.

And that bring us to The Technique.

In short: reverse engineering.

The critical part for the technique to work: you need to know the premise of your story. We're not talking about a log line here, nor a summary, or even a synopsis. Just the premise. It's your spark, crystallized.

This alone can be a challenge, but if you have it in your grasp, you already have the roadmap of where your story is going. In a way, it's similar to a log line: a one-sentence description (or shorter) of the force that's pushing your character. Examples of the spark:

  • A contemporary drama: Revenge! You see a character finally getting justice after years of abuse.

  • A high-fantasy story: what learning magic does, good and bad, to a character.

The spark, whatever it is, is in your mind. If you walk down the aisle in Barnes and Noble, no matter which aisle that is, you'll find that spark has likely been in a lot of minds. The question is: what are YOU going to do with it?

The Technique:

Decide the story that you want to tell, then figure out how to get there.

Put another way: know your outcome, then decide how that should happen.

Back in the days before GPS, maniacs would point to a spot on a paper map and say "We need to get there!" then they'd study the terrain to find a route, usually starting from the destination and working backward to their present location. The premise of the story is that destination.

In the narrative, the destination isn't just a physical place, it's the lessons learned on the way that create the character's state of being once they've arrived. Continuing the map analogy, it's making sure you arrive at the destination while they're still open. Objectives achieved, goals met.

So, diving a little deeper, the author holds the goal of the story and reverse-engineers the narrative path to get there. When looking down from that 20,000-foot map view is when we see most of the dead-ends that become plot holes in a story.

That contemporary revenge story? Here's where we realize the spark is leading us to the show the satisfying realization of justice, but it's our own creativity that has to contribute a way for the character to realize they're stuck in a destructive cycle – and how they break out of it.

That magical mastery story? Here's where we invent the basic mechanics of magic itself, its power and limitations alike, so Joe Critic doesn't have reason to say: "Well, why didn't she just cast that spell to begin with?!"

...Or perhaps you've heard: "Why didn't they just take the eagles to Mordor?"

In short: figure out your story's destination and work backwards. You might be surprised at the plot holes you discover, and avoid, before they ever reach paper.


Have you used a similar technique? Tell us about it in the comments below. What worked for you? What didn't? What's your favorite method for side-stepping plot holes?

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