Tag Archives: serial stories

That’s not a plothole…

Plot hole. I do not think it means what you think it means.
A classic…
Frequently when people are trying to explain why they don’t like a particular movie, series episode, or book, they will refer to a plothole. They will express great frustration about this problem in the story. And they will get angry at you if you don’t agree with them that this plothole was a horrible mistake that made the whole story worthless. I get it. When I really dislike a movie or book I find it hard to believe that other people—particularly my friends who have common interests—find any redeeming qualities in it. Now there is an entire other essay’s worth of discussion about how different people feel that different parts of a story are important than others; that’s not what I want to talk about today.

A lot of people use the term plothole incorrectly. And the people who are most likely to use it incorrectly are also the people that believe that a plothole trumps every other aspect of the story. So, what is a plot hole?

Plothole A gap, inconsistency, or contradiction in a storyline that breaks the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.

As a writer, plotholes are the bane of my existence. When I find a contradiction in my story, it sometimes makes me want to tear my hair out. Sometimes a plothole isn’t very difficult to fix, once you find it. But others do indeed make the entire story fall apart. The existence of that latter type is why some people think that anything labeled plothole completely invalidates the story.

There are many other kinds of gaps which people confuse with plotholes. Those include:

  1. things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
  2. character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
  3. things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
  4. things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
  5. things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,

Let’s tackle these:

Things you wish didn’t happen. I have great sympathy for this issue. There are almost always things that I wish didn’t happen in any story I read or watch. Characters you wished to live are killed, or characters you thought should get together don’t, or a villain you thought should suffer more doesn’t. It can be very upsetting when a part of the story you care about doesn’t go the way you want. But that isn’t the same thing as an actual plot contradiction. And if it makes you feel any better, often the author is just as upset about the direction a story goes as you are. Seriously. When I was writing the first draft of one of my books, there was one scene where I was bawling my eye out while typing, because I didn’t want that character to die, sacrificing himself so his daughters could be saved, but everything in his story had led to that moment, so that’s what I wrote.

Character doesn’t behave the way you think they ought. When a story grabs us, we usually find ourselves identifying with many of the characters. And we’ll imagine a version of the character based on what we see in the early stages of the story. When we don’t realize is that we are also basing the character on things that aren’t actually in the story, but that appeal to us. Sometimes we overlook hints of things in the character’s personality that are less pleasing to us. So when that particular aspect of the character’s personality become a major plot point, we yell “out of character!” and “that contradicts everything we know about them.” Sorry, no it contradicts things you imagined into the character, not what was actually in the story. A subset of this problem is that sometimes we forget that humans are impulsive and make decisions based on emotion and hunches. Humans make mistakes. No one in real life is 100 percent consistent, so we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be, either.

Things that contradict your political/moral preferences. One of my favorite movies is a silly comedy released in 1991 called Soapdish. The story contains, among other things, a supporting character played by Carrie Fischer that is my favorite thing she’s ever done outside of Star Wars. I laugh myself to tears every time I watch it… except it has one problem. A major running sub-plot is resolved in a quite transphobic way. Even in 1991 I was a bit troubled by it. More recently, I have to brace myself for it, and I no longer recommend to movie to people without a content warning. But, despite that thing being problematic, it isn’t a plothole. It is perfectly consistent with the rest of the story. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy the movie less because of it, again, yes. In this case, I’m able to enjoy the rest of the movie despite this problematic bit. I understand perfectly if other people can’t. But, it isn’t a plothole. It’s a failing of the narrative and demonstrates that some of the characters are a bit less open-minded that I would like.

Things that the author plans to explain later. For example, in one of my works in progress, one of the protagonists is a shapeshifter. But they don’t advertise the fact. At different points in the story, their hair (color and other qualities) is described in different ways, because their hair changes slightly with their mood. It looks like an inconsistency early on, but it is eventually explained by the end of the book (and there is one big hint in the opening chapter). Other dangling unfinished bits you notice at the very end may be intended for a sequel. If the unfinished bit doesn’t invalidate the resolution of the main plot, then it isn’t a plothole.

The author thought your critical thinking skills would fill in the gap. Not everything has to be spelled out. For one thing, trying to do so would add hundred of thousands of words to any book. The author has to make some judgement calls about things the readers will figure out, and things that need to be explained. The author will never guess correctly for every single reader. If, when you explain your plothole to a friend, and they immediately say, “Oh, I just figured that Y happened because of X,” you’re probably dealing with something the author thought you would figure out on your own.

Any of these reasons, of course, are a valid reason for you to dislike a particular story, movie, show, or book. But it does not mean the authors left a big plothole in the middle of the narrative road. And it doesn’t mean that the story is inherently, objectively bad.

The serialist’s dilemma

My lynx plushy seated at my laptop.
I wish I looked as cute sitting at my laptop as my lynx plushie does.

When we experience a story we enjoy—whether it’s a novel, movie, episode in a television series, comic book, whatever—it’s natural to want to feel that enjoyment again. This need can often be satisfied by re-reading or re-watching, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Maybe there was a supporting character that we become particularly enamored with and we just wish more of the story had focused on them. Or perhaps it was a subplot that really intrigued us and we’d like to see more of that particular dynamic. Or it could be a single line of dialog that alluded to a past event that sounds very interesting and we’d like to know more about what happened. Or it could just be that we want to know what happened next. None of those desires can be satisfied merely by repeating the original story.

In any case, we wind up clamoring, “More! More! Give me more!”

When you’re the storyteller, this is a very flattering thing to hear. The audience liked your story! They love your characters! They want more…. Continue reading The serialist’s dilemma

…is just a red herring

Lupo via Wikimedia Commons
Real herrings are never this red.
When a writer (particularly a mystery or detective story author) places details in a story to distract the characters and/or the readers to a false conclusion, that’s called a “red herring.” For many years, dictionaries and other references claimed that the origin of the phrase was a reference to a technique that used to be used to train hunting dogs to stay on the trail and not be distracted. When certain kinds of fish are preserved by being smoked and/or brined, the flesh of the fish turned a brownish red, and they often had a very pungent odor. Such “red herrings” or kippers supposedly could be used to throw a dog off the scent.

That origin is now generally accepted to be apocryphal, with the actual origin being from a political article written in 1807 in which the author said that he once distracted a dog with a red herring, and then accused other journalists of having been deceived in a similar way by a rumor. There is no indication of any actual hunters or dog trainers making it a practice to regularly use such fish in the training of hunting dogs.

But the apocryphal story remains useful in explaining the figurative meaning: distract the reader by placing a hint that appears to lead to something interesting in her path.

For the red herring to work in any type of story in which the characters are trying to solve a puzzle, it isn’t enough for the red herring to be a distraction. The red herring should point the characters (and the reader) toward a plausible alternative solution. When the trail turns out to be a dead end or a wrong solution, the trail itself still has to be something that plausibly would happen in that world.

It’s been annoying me about a lot of series I’ve been watching lately. Characters have a problem to solve, some information is found that points in a particular direction, when suddenly, blam! a supporting character that is loved one of one of the protagonists is attacked mysteriously. For the rest of the episode, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off accusing people that have absolutely no motive at all for being involved in either problem. Eventually protagonist is confronted by the very person that clues which were seen before the distraction pointed to in the beginning. And here’s the part that’s crazy: either the mysterious attack is never explained, or it was done by some random person completely unrelated to the bad guy who is revealed three episodes later as a new big bad, but no rational explanation for why the new big bad attacked that character three episodes earlier is ever given.

I’m not sure if the problem is that most shows are written by teams where there may not be a clear “coordinator” with a strong artistic vision of what the story line is supposed to do, or if they simply think that throwing random stuff at the reader/viewer is what you’re supposed to do, or if they’re always in a rush without time to think things through. Or maybe they have fallen into that trap of thinking that, since sometimes meaningless things happen in real life, it’s okay for a story teller to do it, too.

It’s not okay. It shows that you are a bad writer. Yes, random things happen in real life. And you can even have some events happen in the story where the explanation in the story is that it was just dumb luck. But you are the story teller, and it’s your story. You have chosen to show this random action happened to your character. You need to have a reason, a reason that furthers the story or reveals something about the characters, for showing the bad luck to the reader/viewer.

It is okay if a red herring occasionally leads to a laugh without furthering the plot. If you have previously established one supporting character as being a bit of a dork or a goofball, for instance, you can one clue that leads to something completely unrelated to the plot that this funny character is doing. But it needs to be something that the readers/viewers will immediately think, “Oh! That’s so like him.”

Let’s say your current puzzle involves someone apparently attempting to kill a teacher by leaving some sort of deadly device for him. While the protagonists are following up clues, they discover that the teacher’s car in the parking lot is sparkling clean, as if someone wiped down the entire exterior. You can have the characters waste time trying to find a bomb of something on the car that never turns out to be there. Eventually, another supporting character finds video showing one obscure supporting character who is a student lurking around the car earlier. Eventually, the protagonists find out that said student, but realize that he’s failing said teacher’s class, and has been trying to curry the teacher’s favor.

It was suspicious behavior, it leads to a dead end, but it also makes sense within the story and is completely believable as something that could happen independently of the real stalker. Good writing.

On the other hand, having two supporting characters shot by a mysterious person off screen, who leaves them huddled together, holding each others wounds while waiting for an ambulance, and then never showing who shot the characters? Not so plausible. Or, showing who shot the characters three episodes later, but the person who did it is someone the audience would expect to want to kill the characters who were shot, and there was absolutely no reason for her not to have finished the job three episodes earlier? Bad writing.

It’s your story, yes. But you need to tell it the best it can be told.