A plot hole is an implausible inconsistency that makes the audience suddenly wrinkle their collective brow and say, “Wait, that can’t be right,” or “But why didn’t they just …?”
If you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption and wondered how the main character was able to reattach the Rita Hayworth poster to his cell wall after his escape; if you were left scratching your head at the fact that Harry Potter was the only one to notice Peter Pettigrew’s name on the Marauder’s Map; or if you wondered how anyone could have possibly known Charles Kane’s final word—“Rosebud”—when he, in fact, died alone, then you understand the frustration a plot hole can bring.
There are four main types of plot holes:
- Sudden, unexplained developments. The key word here is unexplained.
a. John and Jane are in love and talk of moving in together. John is scared and begs off, using his cat allergy as an excuse against the move. On numerous occasions throughout the book, however, John is described as having slept at Jane’s house—a house she shares with three cats.
b. A character on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly learns he’s the sole beneficiary of a rich uncle’s estate—an uncle who is never mentioned before the event … or after.
- Major changes in a character’s behavior. There needs to be a compelling reason for a change, and it needs to be shown.
a. In a dystopian nightmare, a boy who has been taught to avoid strangers on pain of death makes a nonchalant decision to come out from his hiding place in the woods to flag down people he doesn’t know and ask for their help.
b. A woman who makes decisions only after meticulous consideration accepts the marriage proposal of a man she has known for less than a week, with no apparent explanation or reason.
- Lack of plausibility. This happens when the facts in the story simply do not align with reality—often when the author has failed to do research.
a. A character who tore a ligament in a bike-riding accident goes out for a pain-free walk a few days later.
b. A novel set in the 1850s details a character turning on an electric lamp to read a newspaper.
- Illogical climax. When this kind of plot hole occurs, it’s common for readers to throw their books across the room in frustration—then promptly go online to share their negative opinions with other potential readers.
a. After a plane crash, a physically disabled man easily scales the side of a mountain—and finds a city on the other side!
b. The villain of a novel is completely indestructible … until he is killed by a falling icicle. (To quote Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle: “Bullets! My only weakness!”).
c. A character who died early in the novel suddenly returns just in time to save another character (as featured in every soap opera ever)!
Plot twists are absolutely acceptable, but they need to be rooted in logic, and the more complicated the story, the more carefully authors need to consider the overall cohesion of everything involved, from plots to subplots to characterization. In a series, for example, although it is perfectly acceptable for an author to leave some explanation for the next book(s), readers should never be left hanging entirely. Rather, the ending of each book should be fulfilling while leaving enough questions to make readers want to return for the next installment.
Novels and series that are well-planned and organized from the beginning will have very few inconsistencies, but even an outline created later in the writing process can help catch and resolve discrepancies. As Barbara Kingsolver said, “The plot is the architecture of your novel. You wouldn’t build a house without a plan.”
The revision process also can help uncover disparities:
a. Beta, or test, readers complain that a character wouldn’t act or speak in a certain way. For instance, a character who has a phobia of blood wouldn’t behave calmly or rationally after stabbing an intruder with a knife.
b. An editor points out a subplot that was never brought to conclusion. For example, an important secondary character who is in the process of adopting a child is never mentioned in the second half of the novel.
c. After rereading a second draft, an author notes that no explanation has been given for why a four-year-old character speaks in formal, archaic language, rather than slang.
Ray Bradbury once said that “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations” (Zen in the Art of Writing). Readers need to be able to follow those footprints one by one to a conclusion and to feel satisfied with the journey once they’ve arrived.
1 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary