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What potholes can teach you about plot holes

I defy you to look at that picture and not think “what kind of idiot would drive his car into a pothole like that?” Maybe not in those words, but be honest: your first thought upon seeing that picture was probably some kind of reflection on the driver of the car.

If not, you’re a better person than I am.

Why should this be? The driver didn’t put that pothole in the street. He or she didn’t fill it with brown water making it look like nothing more dangerous than an enormous puddle. It’s hardly the driver’s fault, so why do we so quickly jump to conclusions that blame the driver for falling into the hole?

We do it because situations are rarely so simple as to have a single cause.

Chain of causality

Most situations, or at least the interesting ones, have a chain of causes behind them. Remember that old children’s rhyme about “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost?” The one that starts with a horse losing its shoe, and ends up with the loss of a kingdom? This goes for plot holes too, except in reverse.

The driver drove into the pothole. Yup. He did it. But before that, some rain came, or—ooh! even better, maybe a nearby sewer pipe leaked raw sewage into it—thus obscuring the hole. But before that, before you can even have the possibility of there being a sewage-filled pothole, you have to have a road. So somebody had to build the road, which means some surveyors and soil engineers and so forth came, poked around, and decided it was ok to build a road right there. One of those guys must have missed an underground stream that sucked the soil away from under the road, thus allowing the road to collapse in a giant hole. It was that guy’s fault. Or maybe it was the fault of the people on the planning commission who decided there ought to be a road there in the first place.

You get the point. It wasn’t really the driver’s fault. The ultimate fault lies much further back in time, along a chain of causality that the driver can’t possibly have been aware of. There’s a whole system of causation that led up to the driver half crawling, half swimming in abject misery, out of a sewage-filled pothole.

But systemic causation, as it’s called, is hard to understand. At the very least, understanding it requires some thought and effort. In real life, and in the act of reading a novel, it is always much easier to lay the blame on the most proximate cause of the situation. We blame the most immediate link in the chain.

That’s why we blame the idiot driver, even if it’s not his fault.

Plot holes make your characters look bad

What’s true for potholes in the road is also true for plot holes in your novels. They make your characters look like fools. Only as a secondary effect do they make you, the writer, look amateurish and unskilled. That’s embarrassing for you, but it’s fatal for your characters. By the time your readers work their way far enough back through that chain of causality to find the root cause—you—the damage has been done. The reader has already had those negative thoughts about your characters.

You can’t take those thoughts back. You know how in a courtroom, when a lawyer says something out of bounds and the judge directs the jury to “disregard the prosecuting attorney’s remarks?” Who are they kidding? The jury isn’t going to forget it. It’s exactly the same here. By the time the reader gets around to realizing they ought to blame you for the plot hole, it’s too late. The jury is tainted. The reader has already become prejudiced against your character because of the plot hole.

Two kinds of holes to watch out for

Strange actions: The first is when you make a character do something inexplicable. Something that may well achieve an obvious story objective for you, but which is difficult to reconcile with what the reader knows about the character’s motivations and state of mind. If you leave the reader scratching their head, wondering “why would he do that?” then you’ve got a problem.

You may be entirely correct, from a story structure perspective, to want the character to do that thing. That might be absolutely the right thing to happen in the story. The only problem is that you’ve created a nonsensical moment for the reader because you haven’t done the work of putting the character in a frame of mind where it makes sense for him to do that thing.

That is, if you want your character to suddenly throw a turkey drumstick at the bride while she’s taking her wedding vows, you’d better set it up ahead of time so the reader will understand, at that very moment, why your character would do such a thing.

Thankfully, most writers understand this, and I don’t see a lot of this type of plot hole in my clients’ work.

Strange inactions: The second kind of plot hole, the kind I see much more often from my clients, is when the writer fails to let a character do something that makes obvious sense to the reader within the context of a situation. I see this all the time, I really do. Writers set their characters up with all sorts of nasty problems to wrestle with, but they fail to notice that the situations they’ve crafted still permit their characters to take obvious actions that would solve the problem.

This happens because writers want their characters to take more difficult paths towards the solution. And rightly so: difficulty equals drama. Where they go wrong is that they don’t first eliminate all the obvious strategies. They just make their characters jump straight to the difficult way of doing things.

Worse, they also usually fail to let their characters even consider taking any simpler steps to solve the problem.

Take the turkey drumstick guy again. Maybe he doesn’t want the bride to marry that particular groom, because you’re writing a romance novel and romance novels thrive on unrequited love. If he’s sitting in the audience, he’s got a problem. How to break up this wedding? Chances are he doesn’t actually have a turkey drumstick to chuck at the bride—that would just be weird. So what’s he going to do? One obvious thing would be, when the minister says “speak now or forever hold your peace,” for him to stand up and say something. It can be a total lie, that doesn’t matter. Surely he could think of something to say—"she’s carrying my baby!"—that would prevent the ceremony from getting to the kissy part.

If the reader watches this character let that moment pass without uttering a word, and without even thinking about uttering a word, then you’ve got a problem because you just allowed your character to let an obvious solution to his problem pass right by. Maybe that’s on purpose, because you want the guy to have to really fight to win her over. Having her be married certainly raises the level of challenge—and thus drama—he faces. Good instinct.

But you can’t leave the reader wondering “why didn’t he say anything?” It’s fine that he doesn’t, so long as you make it make sense. Maybe at this point he’s not sure yet he wants to fight for her. Maybe he’s being all noble, letting her have what she seems to want. That’s fine. Give the reader a reason so his inaction makes sense.

But you can’t just let the moment pass un-remarked upon just because you’re too eager to get on with the solution you have in mind. Sure, you the writer have already picked a solution. But a real person—which you want your character to be—would try, or at least consider, many possible solutions along the way.

Strange and inexplicable inaction, even more than strange actions, demands justification.

You might get lucky

As it happens, there is a third kind of plot hole that doesn’t reflect badly on your characters. So take heart: If the stars align in your favor, you may be dealing with this third kind. These are the plot holes so horrible they make you look bad directly. Typically, this third kind is when you make your characters do something they shouldn’t actually be able to do, but that they obviously wish they could. Like, when your character discovers he’s out of ammo, but then a couple of pages later fires two more shots at the bad guy anyway.

Outright errors like that can’t possibly be the character’s fault. This kind of plot hole only makes you look bad. Lucky you!

But most of the time, you won’t get lucky. Most plot holes are more subtle, more insidious, and much more damaging because they involve the choices and actions your characters make or fail to make. This is one of the hardest parts of learning to write effective fiction because it demands so much from the writer.

Controlled schizophrenia

To avoid damaging your characters through these kinds of plot holes, you must become skilled at a kind of controlled schizophrenia. You must be in many heads at once. You must be in your own head so you can keep the story moving where you want it to go. You must be in the heads of every character in a scene, so you can keep their choices and actions consistent with their goals. And, on top of all of that, you must also be in the reader’s head, so you can spot when a character’s action or inaction will seem strange.

That’s a lot to keep track of. Yet you must do it because ultimately you are responsible for the entire chain of causation of the situations in your novel. The whole chain of causation is your creation, but never forget that readers will blame your characters first when something in that chain goes awry.

April 15, 2010 18:02 UTC

Tags: character, plot holes, action, inaction, choice

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