Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How to Fill Plot Holes in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series

Q: I’m struggling with filling in the holes in my story. Once I figure out how to make believable connections with the areas I’ve already written I’ll have completed my first draft. I'm so close! Brainstorming tricks/advice for situations like this would be appreciated.

A: I’m sure there are writers out there who manage to get through a first draft with no holes, but I think most of us discover a gap or two after the first draft is done.

Often, an idea hits us during a first draft and we run with it without thinking about how it fits into the larger plot. We write what we want to have happen at that moment, but the why and the how the protagonist gets there never makes it into the story. Everything feels like it’s working, until we step back and look at the plot as a whole and realize there’s a huge gap in logic or plausibility.

When that happens, try asking these questions to find those connections and fill those holes:

1. What’s causing the plot hole?

Holes exist when something is missing, so simply adding those missing pieces fixes it. Most of these pieces fall under how or why, as in “how did this happen?” or “why are these characters doing this?” These include:

Proper groundwork to set it up: Small holes just need the right setup to fill, such as having a character mention an unexpected side trip, or that they saw something weird three nights ago. A line or two earlier in the story is enough to tie the plot hole into the rest of the plot.

Backstory to explain or make it feel credible: Did you add a history or world building aspect that hasn’t been seen or mentioned prior to the hole? For example, if you’ve never shown the protagonist is an expert pool player, suddenly having them get out of a problem by winning a life and death game of eight ball will feel contrived and out of the blue. But if the protagonist has a pool table in their house, or a custom cue hanging in their apartment, it slips in the hints that they play before readers get to that scene.

Motivations for a character to act this way: If the hole is a result of implausible character actions, showing the motivations for the actions can fix it. Let readers know why the character decided to do whatever it is, and make sure those reasons are at least hinted at prior to the event.

Trigger events or the catalyst to this event: If an outside force causes the plot event, but that event is never shown or mentioned, readers will be confused about how the event happened. A sudden flood that keeps the protagonist from getting home will be quite the coincidence if you never mention rain or flood warnings, or even that the setting was anywhere near water.

A plausible reason for it to happen: The biggest plot holes are those with events that have no reason to happen aside from “the author wanted it that way.” Drilling down into the “why” here usually fixes it, though it can take a lot of work. Start by asking why this event happened. Next, ask why (or how) that step happened. Keep working backward until you find the connection.

Once you figure out what’s missing and what you need, look for places in the manuscript where you can add this information. Most of the time you can slip it into another scene with a little tweaking, but you might have to write a new scene if the hole is big enough.

(Here’s more on filling plot holes)

2. What are the steps leading up to the plot hole?

Trace back what happens in the story to create or lead to that event. If there are no steps, think about what would have to happen for that plot event to occur. Where might you add a scene or a few details to set it up? What existing scenes might work as steps to the hole if you changed a few details or added another layer? What characters might act in ways to cause that event?

3. What needs to happen as a result of the plot hole?

If you’re not sure where to go to fill it, try looking at the results of the plot hole. What happens because of this moment? Are there places or situations that could work to get to that same result without this scene? Look for scenes that might tie into the plot hole scene or the results of that scene. You might be able to add the setup you need there.

4. Who’s the best character to fill the plot hole?

Someone pushed the plot into this hole, and odds are, that’s the character best suited to get it out of the hole. Who has the ability to cause this plot event to happen in a believable way? Who has something to gain from it? Lose from it? Who might be hurt by it? Who are the people connected to it? How might their actions have influenced it? If there are no characters tied to this event, you might need to add someone to make it all work. If so, look for earlier scenes where you can introduce such a character and integrate them into the story and plot.

(Here’s more on showing character motivations)

5. What would have naturally happened at that moment?

If the plot hole exists because you wanted that moment or scene at that time for the plot, it’s possible it’s just the wrong thing to do. Step back and look at the character actions and decisions in the scenes leading up to the plot hole event. Ignore what you wanted to have happen. What would the characters actually have done in those same scenes if they weren’t headed for that predetermined plot hole event? How different is that from what you wanted to have happen? Does this new path lead to a similar outcome? A better outcome? A worse one? Maybe you don’t need this event after all, and cutting that scene fixes the problem.

Plot holes happen, but most of the time they’re not hard to fill. Just step back and examine the goals, choices, and motivations of the characters leading up to that hole, and you should see where your plot went off the path.

What advice would you give someone trying to fill a plot hole?

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. Thanks Janice! This is helpful. I am actually in the process of asking myself a bunch of "WHY?" questions now.

  2. I look for places where things are going too smoothly. Also, Janice, could you answer last week's question that someone asked about POV 1st person for multiple characters?? Thanks!

  3. There is another way to consider plot holes. When I wrote my first novel, I considered it to be the first in a series. So there are plot holes in it, but then they get filled in later in the series. One involves a paranormal incident that apparently drives a local police officer into insanity. The officer goes missing, and so does his wife. The present characters are fearful for her because they went to high school with here, and her disappearance is not at all like her. The officer shows up one more time in the story, still crazed and scary, in a little town in Arizona.

    Those are the only things I say about him in the first story. There is nothing that says, "Remember this guy."

    But you can bet he'll show up in a later book. I really do want people who read my story to worry about where he is, and where his wife is.

  4. Once you have finished your first draft, put your manuscript in a drawer for as long as you can before revision. At the least, a month. The longer the better. You need a set of fresh eyes to not only find plot holes, but to get excited again about your story and manuscript.

  5. Thanks for this post. One to save for my next WIP! (hopefully don't have holes in Half-Truths!)