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 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!
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A 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
People 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
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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 🙂