Plot holes are arguably the most important thing to address first in your novel. Luckily they can be one of the easiest things to prevent, if you pay attention to your book as a reader would.
First, let’s look at what a plot hole can be.
Are descriptions accurate? Does your character act in accordance with her personality, and interact with others appropriate to her personality? Does she feel like a real person, or too “good” or too “bad”? Is your protagonist consistent in her personality, or does she seem to undergo a change from scene to scene? (This is reaction outside a character’s arc, which should be a gradual change over the course of the novel.) But pay attention to more than just your main character–are your supporting characters consistent and believable too?
Illogical or out-of-order events:
Does your character kiss a boy and then later say they never kissed? Or does she develop a crush on a boy that a girl with her personality should never like? Or does she discuss someone that she said she doesn’t know or never met but after she’s already met him? Pay attention to small details like that, but also larger, illogical events. Is she alone with the killer when she is way too savvy to end up in a one-on-one showdown with a strange man?
Dropped thread (I.e. Subplot):
Does that career subplot that started off strong in Chapter 2 just as suddenly go by the wayside? Best to fix that. Make sure each subplot you begin is adequately tied off. That means romantic, career, personal, family, friend, etc. You don’t want to have a lot of lingering questions, especially if they constitute a subplot. Even if you’re writing a series, you want to be careful with leaving loose ends, because too many and they can antagonize your reader to feeling manipulated to pick up another book just for answers. Too few, and your reader may not care to read on. Balance and moderation.
Is the protagonist’s room in Chapter 1 painted green, and in Chapter 32 pink? Or do you have your characters start off a scene in one setting and then show up in a new setting half a page later? Or does your character say she’s never been to a place, only to show up in that place later on and know her way around like it’s her own home?
Do they each have arcs and resolutions? Do they have distinct personalities, way of speech? Or could one minor character be another and no one would care? Although this many not be a true “plot hole,” it’s well worth paying attention to inconsistencies in your supporting characters and make sure that they, like the main characters, are playing according to their logic, personalities, and rules.
Is the defeat (or victory) of the antagonist likely? It can be (and arguably should be) a twist and/or surprise without defying rules of logic. In fact, upon inspection, it best be a logical, reasonable defeat–in retrospect–for the reader. If you have the antagonist defeated by something completely out of the blue, the reader may not buy it.
Okay. So now that we know what type of things we’re looking for (basically anything that doesn’t make sense or has been forgotten during the writing of your first draft), what are the steps you have to take in order to catch these plot holes?
1. Reread your novel as a reader, but with a sticky pad handy.
And try to enjoy it like a reader would. (This is why letting your story rest is so important.) Where are you rushing through to get to the “good” stuff you know’s coming? And where are you slowing down, either to savor or because nothing is happening? What feels unimportant to you?
Note all those things and anything else that feels off to you as a reader. You have a lot of things on your mind with revision–so write it all down and make sure you have some level of organization. You never know when you get distracted and have to put your revisions aside for awhile before you can get to them. So make certain that you have a spot where you write down all your thoughts and observations, and file it somewhere you know will be safe, either a physical notebook or a digital one, etc.
Now once you reach “the end,” make a note on how you feel setting it down. Did it leave you with the emotions you were aiming for? Yes? Good. Consider if you could make the ending even stronger. No? Time to ponder why not.
But let’s back up a bit first. Before we look at your novel as a whole, let’s consider some more tips for what to pay attention to while you’re reading:
2. Focus on the big stuff.
This is a very important step–and it’s vital that you do not get caught up in the sentence changing, fine-tuning process. Instead, remind yourself to focus on the novel as a whole, and the scene as a whole scene, instead of word choice or sentence structure. That can and will be addressed at a later date.
Right now, the only thing that should be on your mind is getting your plot solid. (It’s not even about story structure–yet.)
Is the midpoint or turning point natural for your character? Or is it a forced decision that you, the author, is making for her? Does anything else seem unlikely? Too coincidental?
This used to be incredibly hard for me. The perfectionist in me cringed at every misused word, every rough sentence, every imperfection that I could find as I read the story I’d written.
I used to edit each paragraph and sentence every time I edited my WIP. Finally, after editing one of my WIPs to death, and getting so discouraged and tired of the story, I made the conscious decision to STOP IT. Stop the madness. Seriously.
3. Remove yourself from the ability to change your sentences.
As I said above, I used to be a hardcore, sentence tweaker. I wasted a lot of time on editing paragraphs and pages that I ultimately trashed. Now when I reread a work that is first or second draft stage, I do not fine tune. In fact, I remove myself from the ability to change sentences as I go–this means I put it into an ebook format where I cannot edit as I go. I can make comments (see #1), but I cannot physically rewrite the sentence. (On occasions, perhaps 5 times a book, I permit myself to suggest a “perfect” sentence that comes to mind as I read. But I try to keep that down.)
So how do I remove my ability to edit? I convert my manuscript into .mobi, .epub, or a PDF. I then open my manuscript on my iPhone or iPad and, like I am reading any other book, read it. Using an ebook app instead of printing out my manuscript makes writing comments difficult and annoying. Every time I highlight and have to write a note to myself, it is cumbersome; I have to really weigh the value of doing so. Is it worth the fifteen seconds I need to wait for the highlight to pop up, select the “note” option, then type and retype and fix typos on my iPhone as I read? Sometimes not. So I may leave a highlight (if that), and then move on.
I also ask myself if it’s something I will catch when I reread the book later. Is it a misspelling or an awkward sentence? I’ll catch that when I reread later. Is it a repeated word? Well…maybe. If I’m paying attention, I’ll catch the repetition. But most of the time, I’ll highlight the instances of the repeated words so that I know there’s something amiss.
4. Consider each scene with a critical eye.
Does every scene pull its weight? Does every scene pull double or triple duty? Does it advance plot but also reveal your character and create conflict? Now’s the time to check.
If your attention is wandering during a portion of your book, ask yourself why. Is it lacking action? Is it wandering from the plot? Are your characters too boring? Do you need to pump up the conflict?
But most of all, ask yourself if your story really needs this scene. What happens in it that makes it essential to the book? How, if you removed it, would your plot line suffer?
5. Consider your characters.
Sometimes characters don’t develop in the way we, the author, wants them to. Sometimes we try to force them into a square shaped hole when they are most obstinately not square shaped. No, they’re more like star shaped, especially some of those minor characters who steal the show.
That plain Jane on page 5 may be anything but that; instead she steals the spotlight from your MC. Now in some instances, that’s fine. A scene-stealing minor character can be great fun and provide comic relief or can distract from the plot and theme you wish to impart on your reader.
You may want your minor character to steal a scene and deflect from the MC in a moment when the MC is less than amazing or less than likable. However, you probably don’t want that to continue throughout the book. In most cases, your MC’s character arc should be the one whose arc takes front and center. And if this “minor” character is a sidekick, you run the risk of the reader caring more about the sidekick than the protagonist.
In nearly all cases, you don’t want your sidekick to be a better protagonist than your actual protagonist. So reevaluate your characters as you read, and make sure that the focus is where you want it to be: on the main story.
6. Consider the antagonist.
Yes, the antagonist is a character, and could fall into number 5. But he’s more than a character. He is everything your MC is fighting against.
As you read, keep your antagonist in the back of your mind–always. Is he there, wrecking havoc even when he’s not on the page? Is there a way to make his effects (and presence) felt more?
There is a lot to consider during revisions. That’s why there’s no way you’ll be able to address everything in one revision.
But don’t get discouraged. Multiple revisions are a name of the game, and if you get stuck, have a writing buddy read it for you and help point you in the right direction.
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