In recent years I have noticed an amusing trend in which some people will immediately cry out “plot hole!” when something they don’t like occurs in a book, television show or film. I often find that a cursory inspection of the complaint reveals that whatever plot element the person in question is objecting to, isn’t actually a plot hole, at all.
In order to help out these individuals, I will hereby take this opportunity to define and illustrate what a plot hole is; and conversely, what is not a plot hole.
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WHAT IS A PLOT HOLE?
A plot hole is an inconsistency within a writer’s narrative, or an illogical turn of events in the storyline, or the obvious omission of pertinent information from the plot. Incidences of plot holes tend to be more noticeable, therefore more damaging, when directly related to something that later proves to be essential to the outcome of a story. While some people may be inclined to overlook and forgive plot holes in a work of fiction, it is a good idea for writers to avoid tarnishing their work with plot holes in the first place, no matter how minor they might be.
Plot holes can come in several different forms; so, for the benefit of all you aspiring fiction writers out there, I have listed below a brief description of the most commonly occurring ways in which you might taint your own writing with a plot hole:
What came before is contradicted by what comes after
If an event established earlier in your story is directly contradicted by an event later in the story, then you have a plot hole in your narrative. To illustrate this point, here is a simple example for you to ponder. In chapter three, you establish that your protagonist cannot swim, but in chapter eighteen he/she dives into a river and rescues someone from drowning, without having learned to swim in the intervening chapters.
Alternatively, you establish that your protagonist’s father was murdered three years prior to the events of your story. Later on you contradict this by mentioning that the father committed suicide a year ago, but you provide no explanation for this discrepancy.
Characters possessing knowledge they shouldn’t have, or vice versa
If one of your characters has knowledge that he/she couldn’t logically have received, or lacks knowledge that he/she logically should have, then you have another type of plot hole on your hands. Here is an example of the former. You write a scene in which two characters have a clandestine conversation which isn’t observed or overheard by anyone else. Later on in the story, a third character mentions this private conversation without having met either of the two characters concerned, and no reason is given for how he/she came to know of their conversation.
Occurrences that simply defy all logic
Just because your tale is a work of fiction, that doesn’t mean your narrative can get away with illogical happenings. Your plot must still follow a logical course within the context of your story. There are so many ways in which a story can fail to adhere to its own internal logic, but I’ll give a couple to illustrate how. First, your protagonist is a taxi driver, and while driving through the city he/she sees a woman snatched off the street, and bundled into the back of a van that speeds away. In response to this, your protagonist screeches to a halt, gets out of the taxi, then gives chase on foot, allowing the abductors to escape.
Alternatively, your protagonist is being pursued through a forest, at night, by a group of heavily armed bad guys. You make a point of mentioning that the battery of your protagonist’s phone is dead, preventing him/her from making a call for help. During the pursuit your protagonist decides to hide in a ditch hoping to go unnoticed as the armed group walks by. But as the armed men are passing by the ditch, your protagonist’s phone starts to ring, giving away his/her position.
The omission of necessary information
If you leave out a detail vital to the progression or outcome of events in your story, this will invariably result in a plot hole. While it may be the case that some people will simply fill in the blanks themselves, thereby negating the plot hole in their own minds, it won’t be true of everyone. So, imagine that you have written a scene in which your assassin protagonist enters a heavily guarded government facility. He/she is frisked by security, both manually and with metal detectors, then made to pass through an x-ray machine, to ensure that no weapons are brought in. If your protagonist subsequently becomes embroiled in a gun fight on the fourth floor of the building, you had better let the reader know how he/she came to be in possession of a gun.
WHAT IS NOT A PLOT HOLE?
Subjectively, there are some seeming inconsistencies in a story that can (mistakenly) be viewed as plot holes when they occur. In specific instances some of these inconsistencies could very well constitute a real plot hole, though in general terms they do not qualify as such. Below I have listed some of the ones most likely to provoke erroneous calls of “plot hole!” from some people.
Out of character behaviour
This first point is a contentious one. Many people deem all instances of out of character behaviour to be plot holes, but I don’t subscribe to this position in the absolute sense. From my point of view, out of character behaviour only constitutes a plot hole if it out-and-out defies logic. So if a character shown to be cowardly throughout a story commits one act of bravery, this should not be regarded as a plot hole, in and of itself, as logically it is entirely plausible. Likewise, an inherently selfish character who demonstrates any kind of selflessness would not be a plot hole, as it doesn’t defy logic.
Characters falling in love instantly or for no apparent reason
Far more often than not, it is very easy to foresee when two characters in a story are going to become entangled romantically, and usually it happens swiftly. Occasionally, however, it can happen much later in the narrative, but with no foreshadowing, and for no obvious reason. These are not examples of plot holes, just an illustration of a writer doing a poor job of depicting a believable relationship.
On numerous occasions I’ve heard people (usually “shippers”) crying plot hole on account of a relationship they dislike or disapprove of taking place. Their motivation for crying so loud is often very transparent; Character A and Character B got together romantically, but the disgruntled shippers wanted Character A to hook up with Character C instead. I’m sorry to have to break this to you shippers, but your “ship” not happening is not a plot hole, no matter how vociferously you scream about it.
Characters reacting stupidly to situations
Like me, I’m sure you’ve all read books in which a character reacts to a situation in a manner that you consider to be stupid; investigating a noise in the dark, alone, when a serial killer is on the loose, for example. It is likely a character’s reaction will seem even more nonsensical if you compare it to how you would react in that very same situation. However, a character responding to a scenario in a different manner than you would, does not amount to a plot hole.
The plot did not meet expectations
Just because you expected a story to go in one direction, but it went off in an entirely different direction, that you did not anticipate, this doesn’t mean there is a plot hole in the story. Therefore, when this occurs, it is not grounds for making accusations of plot holes.
Disliking events within the narrative
At one time or another, we have all disliked something that happened in a book we read. It may be the death of a favourite character, a relationship that did or didn’t materialise, the way in which a character handled a situation, or even the final outcome of the story. These things do not constitute plot holes, in and of themselves. That being the case, you will, hopefully, keep this in mind next time you come across something you dislike in a story, and will subsequently resist the urge to shout, plot hole!