Plot Holes & Outlining by Esther T Jones

Plot holes are something almost every writer deals with at some point.  Today’s guest poster, author Esther T Jones who discusses tackling plot holes and tightening outlines.   Enjoy!

Plot holes and outlining by Esther T Jones. Image: Book with highlighter and glasses

Plot holes and outlining are two different aspects of writing that go hand-in-hand. Right off the cuff, I should mention that much of this article applies to second drafts and onward – not that the advice in here can’t be applied to a first draft, especially when in the hands of a seasoned writer, but I find it’s much more practical to throw the words onto paper first and figure out the details later.

As Terry Pratchett famously put it, “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

I outline as go. I do have a rough idea of where my story starts and ends and what happens in the middle, but my characters have this interesting quirk of taking over and directing the plot where they wish, and I’m left scrambling to fill in events after they happen.

This means I have to keep careful watch over what is going on so that gaping plot holes don’t appear and persist through each draft. Here are some tips I’ve picked up to tighten outlines and eliminate plot holes.

1. Use The Five W’s (Plus One H)

These words: who, what, where, when, why, and how, are six simple but very powerful tools when it comes to tightening up a draft and ensuring that a story makes sense.

Consider: Character A has been given a task and needs to complete it to save the day.

  • Why would they accept this task?
  • How will they accomplish it?
  • What is needed to aid their success?
  • Who will help them? And so on.

These questions should be asked of every character or force that acts upon the plot in your novel, because answering each of these helps to determine whether or not a story works on a structural level, and this method can be applied to entire story arcs as well as individual chapters and scenes.

This plays right into outlining because if you’re like me and outline as you go, you can start to compose a very detailed worksheet for your novel that includes absolutely everything you will need for reference when smoothing out inconsistencies.

I recommend building a detailed timeline and making a list of every single character and what their role is, as well as the date when significant events happen, what clothes your characters are wearing from scene to scene, and what the weather is as a start.

My outlines also tend to include on which days (and at what times) certain scenes are happening.

That way I don’t have to search back through my manuscript for that information when the need arises since I’ve catalogued it in the outline, making spotting inconsistencies much easier with the details so starkly laid out.

Creating (or obtaining if your story is set in the real world) a map to help visualise the distances in your novel is quite helpful as well and can solve a whole host of problems.

In short, you are building less of an outline, and more of an encyclopedia, and as a side note, this can help eliminate unnecessary exposition from drafts and aid in organic revelations of relevant information.

Arrange your outline in any way that makes sense – mind mapping, bullet points, story-boarding, and colour coded tabbed indexes are all valid ways to organize story ideas.

2. Attack Specific Problems

When you are identifying areas that have glaring plotholes, it can be quite disheartening to try fixing everything at once, so instead pick just a few areas to focus on first.

I recommend starting with issues that could potentially force major plot overhauls, and hone down from there. Sometimes these issues require a bit of work to solve, and sometimes the fix is simple, with only a few tweaks required to address it.

I’ll give an example from my first novel, in which I ran into the problem that originally, Tedenbarr acquired a boat, sailed to Sarenji, and went through some very dangerous mountains, when it would have been far easier for him to sail across the Sheana sea.

This forced me to ask “Why” didn’t he just sail across the sea? For plot related reasons, he needed to go through the mountains else the story would have been much shorter, but there was no logical reason driving him there.

After a bit of thought (and consulting my map and outline) wherein I examined my antagonists’ Five W’s, I realised that they were out for revenge, and thus I had the pirates attack a town, scuttle all the boats so the inhabitants couldn’t flee during the destruction, and when Tedenbarr showed up, someone was so desperate to get out of town in case the pirates returned that they stole his boat.

Now Tedenbarr was forced to continue his travels on foot for a logical reason that made narrative sense and fit his characterisation.

3. Solicit Outside Critique

Despite having a detailed outline, plot holes and inconsistencies can still happen. This is when having other people read your work is critical.

Outside readers will find plot holes far better, as they do not have the story in their heads and so cannot fill in any missing gaps with the background knowledge you have.

Be sure to let your beta readers and critique partners know that you aren’t looking for a line edit (fixing grammar and such) at this stage, but whether or not your story makes sense as a whole and at the chapter-to-chapter and scene-by-scene level.

This is where you can suggest and bounce ideas off one another. Have them ask you the Five W’s, and refer back to your outline as you answer, making necessary adjustments as you go.

With these tips, attack your revisions with confidence, knowing you have the resources in your writing toolkit to make your novels the very best they can be. Now go forth and write!

About Esther

Author photo of Esther T JonesA voracious reader, Esther T. Jones has been writing stories in her head since she was five.

She calls the United States her home, and when not writing can be found gardening, playing flute and piano, and designing costumes centred around her novels.

At present, Jones is working on her second novel: Thorunn, an exciting new Young Adult Sci-fi work.

Tedenbarr of Have Lath

Book cover - Tedenbarr ofPeople keep telling Tedenbarr, “Don’t go to Aistes.” But with the Sheana sea seized by bloodthirsty pirates, there’s no other way home. Not if he wants to see his friends, family, and the woman he loves ever again.

Jones’ debut novel, “Tedenbarr of Have Lath” follows the perilous travels of the titular character after a pirate attack leaves him stranded on the far shores of the Eastern Kingdom, forcing Tedenbarr to embark on an arduous, harrowing journey from East to West with only his wit and will to survive the many trials that beset him along the way.

“Quite the adventure, filled with changes in location, action, adventure, danger, and laughs. Esther T. Jones knows how to set a scene and keep the reader entertained while juggling a huge cast and many scene changes. She’ll be an author to keep an eye on.” – LT Anderson, authors of “Absorbing Lives.”

Connect with Esther

Website   |    Twitter   |   Instagram   |   GoodReads   |   Facebook   |   Amazon

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Big thanks to Esther for her insight into outlining and plot holes.  Please check out her various links and if you have any questions for Esther, drop them in the comments below 🙂

Happy writing

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28 comments

  1. Thanks so much for being a guest poster, Esther and thank you for checking in on the comments and replying to fast to everyone. You are always welcome back on my blog 🙂

    1. Thank you, Ari! This has been a great experience, and I’m happy my article gave people some food for thought as they’re working on their novels. I’d be happy to guest post again in the future, and again, thanks for this wonderful opportunity! ❤️

    1. Hi Lorraine, I replied from the App before, so I don’t know if it sent you the feedback correctly, (so I’m posting again just in case) but my above comment “Happy to hear that the tips in the article resonate with you. Good luck with your edits! 😊” was for you!

  2. The one thing that stood out the most was attacking specific problems. I do not like to let things linger. If something about a story is bothering me I want to attack it head on.

    Excellent tips. Thanks you.

    1. You’re welcome! Identifying what the issues are that may be bogging down a story is always a big first step – it’s difficult to fix a problem you can’t name, but once you’ve figured out why a specific arc or plot isn’t working, it’s definitely easier to tackle solving it.

  3. An excellent post. Interestingly, I read a post last week where someone (I’m afraid I can’t remember whose blog it was, sorry). was talking about something like this. The post was actually about writing your book in one draft. It essentially said ‘Write, say, 1,000 words and go back and edit. Then write a plan for those 1,000 words.’
    Sounds a bit similar to your proposal, although without the first bit.
    Great idea for someone like me who hates the thought of sitting down and planning my work chapter by chapter before beginning. When I get an idea, I want to start to get it written asap.
    Thank you for the suggestion of post-writing planning.

    1. The marvel of editing! Once you get over the pain of killing your darlings, going back and revising what you’ve got is some of the most fun parts of writing I think. It’s like carving or working with clay – you start off with this big block, and mould and refine it until you see the shape you want. As Jodi Picoult said: “You can’t edit a blank page.” 😊

  4. First time I’ve heard of someone else who does this. I call it retrospective outlining. I’m not quite as detailed, but write notes about significant plot points or foreshadowing that will need following up. I do date the chapter headings in a way relevant to how much time will pass throughout the story.

    1. “Retrospective Outlining” I love that term!

      I know some writers feel they’ve wasted a lot of time if they don’t outline the entire story first, but (especially for young/first time writers) pinning down every single detail before beginning can be a little daunting, so writing first and then revising the outline to fit can really help to remove creativity blocks.

  5. A well done article, Esther!
    I haven’t outlined any of my books at all, but I do like using a mind map/thought diagram sort of thing and a timeline when I’m setting up to write a book. I like the flow of those better than the standard outline.

    I see your new work is a YA sci-fi. You might want to connect with my good friend Yuan Jur who is in the middle of his epic sci-fi series Citadel 7 – on FB at https://www.facebook.com/C7Superverse/ and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/yuanjur/
    He’s a great author and a great person too. 😊 Tell him “Pearl sent me.” 😉It won’t get you any freebies (I don’t think . . .) but he’ll get a kick out of knowing.
    Good luck with your books! 👍😃

    1. Thank you Pearl, I’ll be sure to look him up!

      I love that there’s no one way to organise an outline/plot a story. I like the standard bullet points myself (I’m a very list oriented person) but I also love to create sketches and such to help myself visualise my worlds, and I strongly encourage writers to experiment with all sorts of different organisational methods until they find what works best for them!

      Good luck with your stories as well. 😊

  6. This is a lovely article, quite knowledgable and really gonna help weird people [haha…, authors]. Specially “W5H”, that section is really good. While writing sometimes the flow is like we forget about these and keep writing. But that normally is the moment when we need to stop, take a moment think about W5H and then carry on once again.

    You both guys are awesome.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment, and then look back and realise something doesn’t work at all. Thankfully, that’s when editing comes in handy. 😊 I believe that as long as you have a solid writing plan, everything can be unsnarled eventually!

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