Tag Archives: plot holes

How to deal with plot holes

ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T HAVE ANY PLOT HOLES? REALLY SURE?

Plot holes are especially hard to deal with when you are getting near the end, because they require a functioning brain to make sure the fix works, and I am even less likely than usual to have such an unfogged brain simply because of the pressure involved in making sure everything is taken care of, preferably BEFORE publication.

So it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation, and a place where the indie freedom to put off the launch another week or so is a Godsend.

I can’t imagine what it would be like with a deadline.

And someone like me should probably eschew using the pre-order feature on Amazon due to the likelihood of ‘something came up.’

I would imagine we first-timers should ALSO not push our luck.

Plot holes have a lot in common with potholes:

Somebody has to notice them, either by reading (driving) that scene, chapter, or set of chapters (street) that contains it – or by having someone else do it – and reporting back to the person in charge.

A systematic sweep of the work in question – this is known as beta reading or editing, depending on who does it – is preferable to having someone discover the hole by getting caught by it AFTER purchase, something which results in either broken axles or suspension of disbelief if they get big enough.

And, from what I’ve read, that leads to annoyed reviews. Not a good start.

Plot holes basically come in three sizes:

  • Small – affects a scene or chapter only, and is easily fixed within that scene or chapter without upsetting the external timeline between scenes (much). (Fill: asphalt)
  • Medium – big enough to require checking a series of scenes and chapters, so as to make sure the connections between the pieces have all been checked in the final product. (Roughly equivalent to paving the streets in my development.)
  • Really big – otherwise known as sinkholes, a big plot hole ruins the story in such a way that the whole thing is toast, and, depending on when you find it, will require a major rewrite, or the abandoning of the whole project. I hope not to create that kind.

Finding the holes:

I have enough distance from the writing as it has taken me forever to do some of the auxiliary tasks such as learning enough graphics to do a cover. Principal writing was completed on Palm Sunday, back in March.

So it is possible to read like a reader – constructing the story world out of the words as I go along, and listening carefully to when the mind says ‘Huh?’

Fixing carefully

The small ones get fixed easily as you notice them, because their spatial extent is usually obvious. Oops – this should be Saturday, not Sunday – is easy enough to change.

If you think about it, the medium-size ones are both the hardest to find, and the hardest to fix, because little pieces of old text have a tendency to hide in non-obvious places, such as internal monologue or someone’s reply to a piece of dialogue. So a great deal of care is going to be necessary in the finding and planning, but the implementation should be straightforward.

If you have Really Big Plot Holes, you may need professional help. Good luck!

The process of fixing the darn things needs to proceed in an orderly manner. Quick fixes, such as when my township fills the hole with some asphalt and a prayer, usually results in a repair which doesn’t last long.

I did a few quick fixes as I was writing Pride’s Children and posting them online every week, and only one or two people noticed: the fix was good enough to move on, or didn’t affect the story when the reader had to remember details from week to week. To be fair, I thought I had stopped, fixed the timeline completely, and tapered the edges of the fix into the ends and beginnings for a smooth continuum, and I had updated the calendar so I could proceed from there without worrying

I pride myself on my potholes: they are in the timeline, but are minor glitches, and they don’t make you question the story, just whether you remember correctly having heard a date before.

Where do plot holes like this originate?

I thought about that one for a while, and realized that, for the medium-size plot holes I’m dealing with, the hole came into existence because a particular piece of dramatic story worked so well in several different places that I had not done the hard work of deciding in advance where it would be BEST, and thought it would be obvious where the best location was – as I went along in the writing.

Example (but not in this book):

The easiest one I can think of is the typical timeline for when a woman tells the world she is expecting a baby. There is an obvious limited timeline between conception and delivery, and, for some women, the later dates make it fairly obvious that something is going to happen, but people are surprisingly bad at telling exactly how far along a pregnant woman is. And we hear stories on a regular basis of girl who delivered a baby at the prom – and claim that neither she nor anyone in the family had any idea she was in the family way.

I think there may be a good bit of denial or deception involved there, and the two or three cases in which I was close enough to have a pretty good idea, this was the truth. But even in those, families were not paying attention to loose clothing and moodiness because teenagers are often that way when not expecting.

In any case, having gone far afield with an example, the point is that the announcement of either a baby on the way or an actual baby changes a lot of things forever, and thus picking the right time and place has major consequences.

So it isn’t surprising, if a little one is on the way, for the writer’s brain to ask the question of how it would affect the characters and the story depending on where, when, and to whom the event is revealed – and for some of those to affect what happens in scenes which later turn out to be before anyone knew!

MY plot holes

The plot holes in Pride’s Children, Book 1, are not hard to fix – and I thought I already had fixed them – until reading in sequence had some of the questions I thought I’d already answered popping up again.

They are sequence events: something happens before something else when it was intended to happen after.

Not to worry.

Plot holes respond well to logic.

I have the calendar involved, a list of the scenes, the affected bits of text. I watch whose point of view is called for – and pay attention to whether something is internal or external to the calendar. And I try to see the story as something that actually happened – so a comparison to ‘reality’ helps check for consistency and order.

In addition, I’m asking myself to choose – which involves a bit of writing back and forth with myself, and deciding, on the page, which sequence will be true, and why. Then I record that decision in writing in the Journal.

Then I have to go in and make sure the fixes, where necessary, do not interrupt the flow. These are plot holes which must be fixed, but their previous incarnation did not interrupt the flow, so that must stay the same. Inconspicuous mends, feathered in.

Needless to say, I don’t want to have to do this again, so I’ve checked out a couple of other sequences – and most are just fine.

And I’m going at the fixes VERY slowly.

So if you wonder why I haven’t been writing blog posts, remember I have CFS and that makes it slow to fix things, especially when I have to be extra careful not to make things worse!

I’ll get there.

Next time – planning prevents potholes

I think I’ve learned a few things – make sure your calendar is set concrete before you start writing. Liquid is fine when you’re planning, but at some point you have to be able to write your initials in it, and have them stay.

Keep the calendar current, and change timing with great trepidation; the brain is happy to throw up new ideas – it gets bored easily.

But I will think several times before moving ANYTHING during the writing, no matter how much it takes me out of the writing: running into holes when you thought you were done is very discouraging.

Like any other writing problem, you can’t avoid all of them, so it’s important not to get TOO discouraged when you’re not actually the god of your particular universe, and can’t make things be exactly as written. Oh, well – that’s what editing is for.

Finally

It’s still far, far better to find them while you can fix things (and preferably before the POD Accept button is clicked) – no one will ever know.

Do you have other kinds of plot holes that have bitten you? Solutions which work?

Writing the Great American Love Story

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

What are you trying to do?

Sometimes you have to take a stand, and declare, in public, exactly what you're trying to do. - Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

 Every writer reaches the point: fish or cut bait

If you were writing the Great American Love Story, what would you put in it? Continue reading

Bridging time gaps: 4 ways to switch pov character

WHO ARE YOU?  The writer chooses the point of view.  The writer becomes the character. - Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

How to write – from a writer unpublished in novel form

Another one of my ‘how to write’ posts which resulted when I had a problem, and solved it by writing it out – for myself, and for anyone else who might write like I do. Admitedly there are – and should be – few people in the category of ‘control freaks with CFS trying to write long complicated novels.’

It doesn’t matter.

I have come along to someone’s blog when I became aware of them, read a post from 2008, and been delighted because it was just what I needed. I’m not promising you delight, mind you – just the things which tickle my fancy (good) or keep me from writing fiction today (bad).

How to switch characters in multiple pov – identify the gap

‘BEING THIS CHARACTER’ – so I can write a scene in a new point of view (pov) – includes accounting for any time since the last time I was this character. Continue reading

Clash your symbols to blast through writer’s block

SPOILER ALERT (if you are reading Pride’s Children as we go along, you may want to skip this one for now.) This is my WRITING blog, and some viewers may be more interested in my odd techniques than in my stories.

I think of WRITERS’ BLOCKS as objects in my path I need to blast through to get to where I’m writing.

It helps me immensely to write down why I’m blocked, what’s holding me up, possible solutions, bits and pieces about how I got to an impasse. IOW, I write myself out of the block by studying it instead of running from it. Continue reading

For writers who are plotters, the answer to What Goes Where may be Dramatica

[ETA 11/27/15: Want to see if you like the results of plotting with Dramatica for structure? Pride’s Children: Purgatory, Book One of the trilogy represented by the whole storyform,  is now available at Amazon – see sidebar.]

Kate Paulk, over at MadGeniusClub, postulates the question today, What goes where? She is a pantser (writes ‘by the seat of her pants’), but wants to know, “So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.”

MY answer depends on how willing you are to have scaffolding in place when you write, and how much you know about what must go into each scene before you try to figure out who does/says/thinks what when. Continue reading

Upending plots to find holes

I had an interesting experience recently which gave me ideas about finding – and solving – plot problems. In the course of playing too many games of Free Flow on DH’s new iPad mini, I solved all but a small set of the 14 x 14 levels included. It irked me that, no matter how many times I went back to the remaining small unsolved set, even starting completely from scratch, I couldn’t find the trick to the solution.

A minor problem, you say. Agreed. But games can be useful (I know – this doesn’t justify all that time spent gaming) – or humans wouldn’t have invented them, and wouldn’t get so much stroking from them, so much pleasure, that they can become addicting. There is a sense of completion that releases endorphins and other good brain chemicals when a puzzle is solved.

So, I continued to come back to this set of unfinished puzzles.

But it wasn’t until, in desperation, I turned the iPad upside down that I found my answers: even though I had started each level from scratch, the orientation of the dots (you are trying to connect each colored dot with its mate in such a way that all squares on the board have a color in them and NONE of the squares is EMPTY) had locked into my brain prematurely, and I literally could not see them in a different way.

It actually HURT my brain to turn the iPad upside down, and to view each puzzle WRONG – but in a new way.

I told myself anything that made my brain hurt must be good for it (on the theory I hold that the brain is a muscle-like object, and it must be exercised).

I deliberately tolerated the stress – and quickly solved the remaining puzzles I had been struggling with for more days than I care to admit. Immediately. The skills I had developed for this particular little game had settled too soon into working on the default orientation – a technique that got me successfully through most of the 750 puzzle levels that came with the game – but not all.

I’m doing something similar with the scenes I’m revising now: I have text for these scenes, text that I like, and a flow through the plot that strokes my brain (we all write, first, for ourselves), but it isn’t good enough.

Revising in place, just taking the words that are there, the order of words in a scene, and making them better, is good and useful and satisfactory – after all, I worked hard to write them originally,

But it doesn’t solve all the problems. I’m stuck, in some scenes, with a feeling that I haven’t done my complete job, that there are unexplored empty ‘squares’ on the grid. A feeling that if I notice a tiny void, a reader will, too. My brain hurts.

But the reader can’t fix the problem. That’s my job. If my writing isn’t satisfying me, it has no business going out into the world.

So I’ve been taking the elements of a scene, and going back to ‘start.’ Rearranging the order, re-thinking, re-visioning.

Letting my brain hurt. Turning the scene completely upside down, asking beginner questions: What does this scene do? Why is this scene in the book? What can the reader only learn here? Even, Why the heck did he do that?

I’m hampered by the fact that I can – as an end result of many years of reading – turn out clean copy that LOOKS finished with relative ease. And once it is fixed in black and white on the page, it is very hard to question what looks ‘published.’

It takes time. It isn’t strictly necessary.

But if I identify the plot problems – the little bugs which irk the brain – those empty squares – and solve them, I get the endorphins. And a scene I have to admit is vastly better.

Thoughts?

Who, what, where: the Scene Header – Scene Template, Part 4

The scene header in the template contains critical information for me to situate the scene in time and space – and point of view.

Here is a sample:
Scene 10.1 – Karenna comes to set as Andrew’s guest; meets MH / pov Kary
1 pm; BH set in Hanover, NH; Kary, George, Michael / Wed., May 25, 2005

Before writing a scene I have to locate it in the space/time continuum of the story – someplace before the end and after the beginning.

The Scene Title, written with care, can serve to bring the whole scene back into my memory. I like to keep it to a similar length for each scene, for listing convenience. Brevity is more important than correct sentence structure – anyone who tweets has plenty of practice phrasing things economically.

A list of these headers (or of the information contained) serves me as a timeline. The title – and having this kind of a title for each scene – can point out continuity problems and plot holes.

Physical books (except Choose your own Adventure stories) appear in some kind of order on the page; even ebooks come at us in some order. Lists of header information helps me note such things as:

1)    Too many scenes in a row from one point of view. If not deliberate, does it need fixing?
2)    Simple stupid things like Wednesday May 25th is followed by Thursday May 23rd – because I changed the year in the story and haven’t cleaned up my calendar sequences.
3)    Oops! George can’t be here – he already went back to Ireland.
4)    If there are two scenes where ‘meets MH’ are listed, it may point out that I changed my mind as to when they met, and that I need to do some cleanup.
5)    The story says it rained at noon and brought filming to a close, but this scene is listed as happening at 1 pm – I should either mention it stopped raining (and there was mud – they were filming outside), or write the scene in the rain.

In addition, keeping track of which characters are in a scene is very useful if I need to add an interaction between two characters that lets the reader in on a key piece of information; a list of places in my story where the two characters appear together in scenes gives me a choice of places to tuck in a nugget.

Having a list of several places where two characters could interact makes it easy for me to motivate a tricky action in a later scene by going back and putting in increasingly-obvious pointers for the reader, so that, when the motivation is needed, the reader remembers having seen something about this before. This keeps the tricky action from seeming to be added on randomly because the plot requires it. If I want Billy murdering Sue by the end of the story, I can show the enmity developing in increasingly acrid interactions. Otherwise, I have a long search through my manuscript and my memory.

I note whether characters appear physically in a scene, phone in (so they are actually interacting with someone in the scene), or are discussed by someone in the scene.

It doesn’t really matter when the Scene Header is completed, but it is worth my effort to make sure it stays accurate as I go along with the writing OR making sure it is current before revising.

One additional benefit: if I need to write a Synopsis, a list of scene headers reminds me of the major plot points and character interactions to tell the condensed version of the story.

Thoughts?

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

Thoughts?

—–
* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.

Switching pov character: maintaining coherence with Scrivener

One of the things I will do when I’m finished with the current draft is to use the ability of Scrivener to put out different versions by selecting various keywords. I will put together three separate .mobi versions of the WIP, each including ONLY those scenes from the pov of one of the three main characters – and then I will read those on separate days.

What I’m hoping for as I write, more or less chronologically, alternating as appropriate between the three, is that each character’s understanding of the whole story will be a separate strand in a braided story, and that the only one who will really ‘get it’ will be the reader.

By reading the pieces separately, I hope to pick up any subtle changes in tone that warn me I’m slipping out of a character’s mind. “She would never say that,” or “He wouldn’t believe this,” should appear more clearly, as I read, if I never switch.

Right now, while writing and editing the current draft, it takes me a significant amount of time to switch pov when I tackle the next scene, as I almost never have two consecutive scenes in the same pov. This is by design (make things as hard as possible for yourself – it’s good for you): if the setting and characters don’t change, but some amount of time passes, I have learned how to slip that time loss into a transition paragraph WITHIN the scene. Since the writer chooses what gets words and what doesn’t, anyway, the little time-slip slips by the reader if done with a modicum of skill (“She took forever to come out of the bathroom, but the wait for that negligee was worth it”).

I have found other ways of moving the story along if there is a good reason for staying with a single character, say, over a chapter break.

AND I always make sure the reader is oriented to which character is in possession of the scene with the first line or two. The more distinctive the three voices, the easier it becomes to find something only that character would do/think/say, and confirm it with some subtle hint as soon as possible.

For this novel (Pride’s Children) I chose a tightly controlled close third point of view because I want to show the story from right behind the eyeballs of these very different people. I personally find it annoying when the writer uses three first-person points of view, and switches by chapter, as Margaret Attwood did in ‘Life Before Man,’ mostly because first-person ties me so completely to a character that it feels like having my brain-implant links ripped out when the characters switch.

I also find it inconvenient to have to alternate regularly, or to do a full chapter from a point of view – my preferences – so a scene-by-scene switch follows the STORY better.

Reading the three partial-story versions should also point out several other useful things: plot holes; long periods of time where we don’t know what a character is doing; and something very hard to see: unnecessary repetition of a character’s quirks. Fixing these ‘whole book’ problems should help maintain a sense of flow.

Thoughts?

[Thanks to Kate Paulk at MadGeniusClub for the idea.] [Note to self: learn how to link.

Updated 1/27/2013: have learned to do basic links!]

Plot holes and Maximus’ dog – Scene Template, Part 2

Have you had questions when you finished a story? Such as wondering why they made a big deal of the dog following the General before that first big battle? Did you wonder how or why the dog would be important? Whether it had a special relationship with its owner? Whether it might save his life in battle?

In movies this is called a continuity problem. Movie viewers are conditioned to expect that anything given significant screen time will be intentional – and be connected in by the end.

In stories, these questions often happen because the writer set something up – and then forgot about it, leaving a hanging thread on the back of the story tapestry. Not all of these are caught on revision, either, even if the editors are keeping exhaustive notes.

But when a story is exposed to a larger number of readers (this is called publication), the plot holes can become glaring, and the repair job is major.

Extremely detailed outlines may help. But extremely detailed outlines are a pain to change, and many writers (including me) don’t like to do the maintenance required to keep a complete outline current with the story.

I think the reason is that the detailed outlines are meant to cover the whole story – and thus are very long.

My solution is to keep it at the scene level.

Before I write/revise a scene, I make myself fill in/edit a short template for scenes, the pieces of which I’ve pulled together out of a bunch of books.

Many writers create some kind of an outline before they write a scene, but when the scene is written, and that structure skeleton is covered by words, the outline is discarded, never to be used again.

I keep them. And update them. I don’t consider a scene complete unless every line is filled in for the scene template, but I don’t restrict myself to whether the template is filled before, during, or after the writing: just as long as they match when the scene is done. When completely filled in, the template occupies at most a page or two. (I’ll cover the full scene template, and discuss the other entries, in future posts tagged ‘scene template.’)

I put the templates in a parallel file to the actual text labeled ‘Structure’, and one of the main reasons is that two of the entries are:

Question(s):
Unanswered questions:

‘Unanswered questions’ is where I keep track of the questions the reader will have when this scene is over. Beyond the obvious ‘What happens next?’ each one of these questions MUST be answered in a future scene. Somehow. No exceptions. Many of these questions WILL be answered by the upcoming scenes organically, and need no special effort (except keeping track of the answer scene’s number).

The template entry ‘Question(s):’ thus becomes ‘What is the reader going to learn about the story in this scene?’ Simple.

It may seem like a lot of extra work up front.

But when the story is finished, I have a cumulative list of all the questions I left in the reader’s mind – and I KNOW where each question is answered. Keeps me from leaving those irritating lost threads and plot holes.

Such as: ‘What happened to Maximus’ dog?’