Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Back Fill Those Plot Holes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Whenever you deal with something as complex as a novel plot, there are bound to be some holes here and there. They're not critical flaws, but if left undressed, they could put readers off or make the story feel contrived.

One of the more common plot holes is to have a scene where your characters are doing what they need to do for the plot to unfold, but the reasons might be weak or non-existent, and you want to find a way to make it all seem logical. Often you can change a detail in a previous scene so that a later scene makes sense.

Things to Look for to Back Fill Your Plot:

1. Is there a previous event or situation that can affect the problem scene?

Chances are your scene doesn't exist in a vacuum. Something had to happen for your characters to be at this point. Go back and look at each of the key scenes that led them down this path. Is there anything you can do to nudge things in the right direction?
  • Where did they make a choice that would affect this scene?
  • Where did something unforeseen occur that affected this scene?
  • Where did they miss a clue (or could miss one) that would affect this scene? 
  • Can the antagonist cause a change through their actions?
(Here's more on plotting from the antagonist's perspective)

2. Can a character act or choose differently and change the outcome?

A simple choice can change how a situation later unfolds. This is especially true if the problem scene involves an item of some type, or a piece of information. Having a character find or learn something early on that can simmer in the reader's mind until it's needed can set up what you need to have happen without it feeling contrived.
  • Where might a character make a different choice to achieve the desired outcome for that scene?
  • Where might new information be revealed that affects a decision?
  • Where might information be withheld instead?
(Here's more on showing character motivations)

3. What variables need to work together to achieve the desired result?

Sometimes you just need to step back from the scene and look at it objectively. Forget what you wrote or planned. Ask yourself what steps need to happen for this scene to work. Then look back and see if there are any places where any of those steps might take place.
  • Where did the plot start to go off track?
  • Where might a clue be discovered?
  • Where might a character do or say something to lead in this direction?
  • What might be added to achieve this result?
(Here's more on adding small problems to your plot)

4. Don't be afraid to change things.

Once you've written something down, it can be hard to change it, but all you're really doing is connecting the dots of the same story. Give yourself the freedom to think about how a change affects scenes down the road. Sometimes that road is better than the one you were on. If it's not, you've lost nothing by thinking about it.
  • How might this new detail affect future scenes?
  • What else might be missing (or weak) that can be solved by this change?
  • What are other ways in which you can achieve the same effect? Do any of those work better? 
(Here's more on creating plots that don't feel like coincidences)

Sometimes it's not the scene that's "broken." It's what came before that scene that is tripping you up. Going back might be just what you need to move forward.

What plot holes have you fallen into? How did you fix them?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Good solid advice. Things need 2 change in revision as characters grow and "the plot thickness" :-)

  2. Excellent post as always. And this is often where beta readers step in by saying, but why would this happen, isn't that a little too coincidental? They are invaluable for finding the little plot holes that we miss.

  3. I'm thinking that I'll have to go back fill my plot and these are great suggestions. Thank you :)

  4. This is exactly what I needed to hear! Thanks.

  5. Great suggestions. I sometimes resist changing something. But I'm going to start looking at that with fresh eyes.

  6. Plot logic must also work for the bad guy or opposing character. I often suggest to my writing students that they should write a summary of the plot from that goal-opposing viewpoint to make certain that that plot makes sense from that direction, too.

  7. Keep that McGuffin floating around. It's an under-rated technique.

    The McGuffin could be worthless (a photograph of the desert with no particular meaning), valuable (QE II's Coronation necklace), a treasure map or whatever.

    Its value lies in enabling both character and plot development.

  8. Thanks all! Marilynn, that's a great idea. I've done that (and still do) and a mystery writer friend of mine writes her killer's plan before she does her heroes :)

  9. Many thanks for these tips!

  10. When I first start having trouble with a scene, my subconscious tends to toss in another character. When things get problematic, I therefore pause and re-evaluate who's in the scene. In one particular case, a story I was working on took a turn darker than I'd wanted, so I paused and backtracked and found the point where the character who'd caused the issue had jumped in—and figured out that he didn't have to be there. Adjusted based on who had to be in the scene vs. who could be in the scene, and that fixed things. :)

    1. Very interesting. That's a great example of knowing your own "bad habits" (I use that loosely) and being able to weed through them. Now you've made me wonder if I have extra characters for the same reason (grin).

  11. About half the members of my crit group are going through this right now, so I have shared this post with them. For me, I had dug into a plot hole so huge, I ended up starting my entire story over, but with a detailed outline to begin with so I could find all the plot holes before actually writing the whole thing. And plant clues. And validate something that will happen later in the story by having it happen in a different situation earlier in the story (so it doesn't appear like random bit of magic in this case). But I have no doubt even once I write the first draft, I will have to do more of this! Thanks for the helpful post.

    1. Thanks, hope it helps them figure their plots out. Ugh, been there myself so I feel your pain. I take comfort in the knowledge that sometimes a first draft is there to brain dump on the page so we can actually find the real story. Makes those "why aren't you working???" drafts easier to handle :)

  12. This was some helpful and timely advice as I am currently going through a revision process. This can give me some great food-for-thought as I work to thicken the plot and guide the characters on roads that don't come off as contrived.

    1. Glad I pulled it out this week then. Good luck on your revisions! If it helps, I did an article about avoiding contrived plots: (linked in the above post, but just in case you didn't see it)

  13. I've been using a program called Scrivener, which I'm sure lots of folks here have used or are familiar with. I like it for that very back fill type of reason. My individual files have headers and I can go back, revisit what I did, can put scenes side by side to determine what I might have missed, and can move things around very easily.

    1. I use it myself. Tough learning curve, but once you figure it out it's quite handy. I love how easy it is to handle scenes and do just that.