I did National Novel Writing Month again this year, with my project being to get The Trickster Alliance out of it’s doldrums and possibly finished. I hit the default NaNoWriMo word goal of 50,000 words on Nov 22. Since in the past I’ve hit higher numbers, I then went for my stretch goal of beating my previous high word count, was was 66,000+ words. I hit 66,000 on the 29, and got a bit over 68000 on the 30, though apparently I waiting until too close to midnight to post my final number, because my stats don’t show the final word count.
I’ve spent part of the last couple of days figuring out how many of those scenes to transfer over to the book file. I know not all of them. There were several scenes that I wound up re-writing from scratch four or more times before I had a version that actually worked, for instance. I also wrote a couple of scenes that I am 99% certain aren’t needed in the story, but I needed to write in order to figure something else out.
The book isn’t finished, but it is significantly closer to it, and two really big plot problems that had bee holding me up for a really long time were sorted out. Sometimes having a deadline makes my subconcious spit out an answer, you know?
Now I do my annual switching of gears. The Christmas party is only 18 days away, and I have to have the annual Christmas Ghost Story ready by then. Often at the end of November I haven’t yet decided which of my many possible Christmas Ghost Story plots I’m going to work on this year. I have a bunch, and every year I think of at one or three more, so I’m not in any danger of running out of ideas at the moment. I actually started on one of the ideas in late October, so that’s likely to be this year’s tale.
Not all of the plots I’ve thought up for Christmas Ghost stories are set in the same universe as my novels, but the last several years those have been the plots I’ve been going for. I think part of the reason is because it’s easy to transition from working on one of my fantasy novels to a short story in the same universe.
Anyway, I need to get to it!
Several years ago I was on a writing panel at a convention. I don’t remember the exact title of the panel, but it was about what happens when you’re stuck or otherwise can’t seem to get a story moving. I was supposed to have a co-panelist, but they had to cancel at the last minute. The crowd in the room wasn’t really big, so I suggested we do something a bit more interactive. I briefly explained who I was and that most of my writing advice came from (at the time) about 12 years of reading the slush pile for a semi-prozine I was involved with. Then, rather than throw it open for any question, I asked for examples of times they had been stuck, and gave every in the room an opportunity to respond to it if they wanted.
This got a nice back and forth going.
One guy described how he’d had this story he’d been working on for a long time where he kept writing a few sentences or paragraphs about his main character getting the news of a death in the family, which was supposed to kick the plot off where the character would meet another character and they would both get involved in looking into what had happened. His problem he said, was he never knew how to get the main character from getting the news to meeting the other character.
I (rather flippantly) ask, “Why not just hit return and then type, ‘Later that day…’ or ‘A week later…’?”
And he looked stunned. “But don’t I have to explain how he got there?”
“You only have to show the reader things that move the plot forward. You can skip the boring stuff. You can jump past interesting things that happen to the character but aren’t important to the plot. Just jump ahead. Particularly in a first draft. During the second draft if you realize there is something important that you skipped you can add it then. But don’t do stuff like that until you get to the end of your first draft.”
Someone else in the room asked a question about the plot which made it clear that they thought plot was merely a list of everything that happens to the character. So I explained that plot is a problem, mystery, or challenge which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved at the climax by the protagonist’s own actions, and is the thread the ties everything that you write about between those events together. It isn’t that every single thing the character does is part of the story, right? How many action movies show the characters going to the bathroom, for instance?
What a lot of people call writers’ block is a combination of indecision born out of the fear that what you write isn’t going to be perfect. So the first thing you need to do when you find yourself stuck is to realize that nothing anyone writes is ever perfect. Especially in the first draft. Your favorite book in the whole world was almost certainly a terrible mess in the first draft. It isn’t a great book because the author wrote exactly the perfect opening line, and then wrote every single sentence and scene that followed perfectly.
It’s great because the writer blundered along through the first draft until they had the skeleton of the story laid out before them—but not with all of the bones in exactly the right place. Then, during rewrite, the author got the bones arranged properly, added flesh to the bones, and eventually they had a living, breathing story that was ready to grab some readers and say, “Come one! Let’s have an adventure!”
Don’t let that fear of the imperfect prevent you from plunging in. Just start writing. And then keep writing until you reach the end.
Shakira – Try Everything (From “Zootopia”) [Official Music Video]:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once more. If you don’t know what that means… well, in the past I have quoted from the NaNoWriMo website to describe what the event is, but during the last year they migrated their old site and forums to a new host (and in the process did a re-design), and there is no nice way to say this: they have really messed up their web site. It took me a very long time poking around the website to find where they have moved the “What is NaNoWriMo” information to… don’t get me wrong, there are links called that in their menus, but if you don’t already have an account set up, those links don’t take you to pages that actually answer the question. The closest I could come to the old information is this:
…each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. You may know this mass creative explosion by the name National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo
The basic idea is that thousands of us all over the world will, starting on November 1, attempt to write 50,000 words of either a brand new novel, or to continue one started previously, or to revise one started previously. People who sign up for accounts can join regional forums, set up NaNoWriMo buddies to encourage (or compete with) each other, attend in-person or virtual write-ins, and so forth. It can be a lot of fun, particularly if you jump in with the notion that you’re just trying to get the first draft—no matter who bad it is—down so that you can edit and rewrite later.
Another thing about the migration is that everyone’s Buddies have disappeared. I went through the archive site and sent invitations to people I used to be buddies with to try to re-establish my old network. But a lot of folks haven’t logged in, yet, this year.
Anyway, I have set up my project for this year. If you are doing NaNoWriMo this year and want to add me as a writing buddy, please do so! My username on NaNoWriMo is “fontfolly” just as it is here at my blog and on twitter.
Let’s tell some stories!
Back in 1954 writer Sylvia Wright proposed a new word: mondegreen, meaning a mishearing or misinterpretation of a word or phrase in a poem or a song. Her idea for the name came about because when she was a child her mother frequently read to her from a book of poetry, and one of her favorites was a specific Scottish ballad that referred to the murder of an Earl by his enemies “and they laid him on the green” — in other words, put his body on display as a warning to other enemies. But Wright had always thought the line was “and the Lady Mondegreen.” So she had always thought that two people had been murdered.
One of my oldest friends used to tell how back in the day her Mother had thought that the Bee Gee’s hit from 1977, “More Than a Woman,” was actually “Bald-headed Woman.” And I’ve written before about how I had completely misunderstood a lot of the lyrics of the song Doris Day was most famous for singing.
I listen to music a lot. I have literally thousands of playlists, and I like to have background music when I’m writing, or working, or doing just about anything. Particularly in my writing playlists, some songs appear again and again. There are some songs that I think of as themes for some of my characters, for instance. Others just really go well with certain kinds of subplots. And the song is one that is currently in my draft NaNoWriMo 2019 playlist, which I’ve been fiddling with for a bit over a week.
Sometimes I like a song really well, but there are a few of the lyrics I’m not sure of. You can’t hear some words as clearly as the others for various reasons. For instance, there is a song that has been in a bunch of playlists for two or three years, now, “Dancin’ with the Devil” by Lindsay Perry. And I like the song quite a bit, but there is one line that I’m slightly unsure of. In the chorus there’s this sentence, “Cause there’s nothing much more for me to do, but go dancin’ with the devil in these old soled shoes.” Or at least that’s what it sounds like to me.
Except, I’m not sure what “old soled shoes” means, exactly. I mean, all styles of shoes have soles, and it the soles are old, one presumes the entire shoe is old, right? It’s just a weird phrase. There is a brand of children’s shoes called “Old Soles” but they are children’s shoes (and expensive), so not really in keeping with the rest of the song where the character portrayed in the lyrics is at the end of their rope because they made a deal with the devil that has turned sour as those deals always do.
I kept thinking that I must be misunderstanding her, so I finally decided to see if lyrics to the song were posted anywhere.
They are. But it soon becomes clear that every site hosting them is copying them from a single site where a fan with really bad hearing has made a guess at the lyrics. I say this because there are lines that are quite clear and unmistakeable earlier in the song that this attempt at transcription gets wrong. For instance, the line in the song “It was the devil in disguise with his hazy eyes, I should’ve known better from all his lies.” But the web lyrics render it as “He was the devil in disguise with his eyes of ice. Should I know better from how is last” Which makes absolutely no sense at all.
Plus there are other, worse mondegreens later.
The line I am slightly uncertain of they render as “go dancin’ with the devil in its handsome shoes” which I know is wrong, because, for one, everywhere else in the song the devil is referred to as he/his, not it. And frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone could get handsome out of the phonemes there.
Well, I’m not completely sure I’m right about that one bit of lyric, so do I really have a right to judge someone else who thinks it’s something that, to me, makes no sense at all?
Maybe you can hear it better than me.
Lindsay Perry on Sonny’s Porch / Dancing With The Devil:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I woke up Tuesday morning in an extremely dark room with the feeling that something was wrong. I rolled over to squint at the red large print display of the alarm clock to see that it was after 10. I exclaimed a swear word or three and scrambled to get out of bed, since I have a 9:30am meeting every day at work which I was now quite late for.
I wondered why my alarm hadn’t gone off and glanced down at my wrist. I was still wearing my Apple Watch, so I hadn’t remembered to put it on the charger. I could see the hands on the face stopped at about 3am and realized that the battery must have run down. I turned on the light so I could find the charger, and was a little confused because the furniture in the room appeared to have been moved around. And I had no idea where my phone was.
I left the room, having to pass through the small master bathroom with the large whirlpool bath, through the big storage room with all the creepy furniture under dusty sheets, through the cramped kitchen with the weird stove and the red and white cabinets until I reached the living room, where the large dark brown shelves were stuffed with old photos and knick knacks, the coffee table with the book shelves built in sat in front of the turquoise couch, where I finally found my phone, which I needed to use to call my boss.
That was about the point when a corner of my brain that had been pointing out all the incongruities managed to be heard over the total panic I was having to point out that none of the things I just described actually exist in my house…
And I opened my eyes again, finding myself curled up in my recliner (I sleep the first part of most nights in the recliner because of the chronic reflux and the subsequent bleeding ulcer that very nearly killed my 18 years ago). I could read the glowing display of the cable box (right next to the charger with my actual Apple Watch—you know, a device that if the battery was dead you wouldn’t be able to see the hands since they are just pixels on its screen—was charging). It was 6 am, not 10-something.
Since I don’t normally remember more than a few snippets of dreams, I got up and checked around the house, figuring that I had been in the middle of a deep sleep and an unexpected noise had interrupted. But I couldn’t find any obvious problem. My husband had already left for work (as is usual for that time). It was just a weird dream, I guess.
I double-checked that the watch was charging and that the alarms were still set to go off at the usual time, then crawled into bed hoping to get another hour sleep.
And I got thinking about some of those details in the dream, because many of them have appeared in many of my dreams over the years. The crowded master suite bathroom with the whirlpool, for example. The kitchen with the weird stove. The enormous dark creepy store room. And so on.
Some of the details of those rooms I understand. The red large print alarm clock belonged to my first husband, Ray, when we first started dating. I kept it for many years after he died in 1997, even though most of its functions (the actual alarm, the radio, and the battery backup) had stopped working long before. The dark book shelves crammed with knick-knacks and photos used to actually exist in my great-grandmother’s den. The coffee table with bookshelves (holding an encyclopedia set) and the turquoise couch were both in my evil grandmother’s living room. One of the places my nice grandmother lived for a few years when I was in grade school had those red and white cabinets (but not the weird stove). But I have no idea where many of the other details come from. I’ve never lived in nor do I remember visiting a home that had that big whirlpool bath, for instance. Yet it appears in my dreams again and again and has been for decades.
I don’t remember any house with a huge store room full o furniture under dust cloths, though such rooms appear so often in movies—particularly horror movies of a certain era—that we can probably assume it’s just lifted from those movies.
And this is not by any means the first time I have tried to figure out where the weird stove comes from. It sort of looks like it was designed by Escher? It’s so hard to describe. There are burners where you couldn’t possible expect a pan to sit on them, for instance. And it has a bewildering array of levers and control knobs.
The truth is that our subconscious has more than a few ineffable processes. So while we can try to figure out where some of those images and notions come from and what they mean, there is no objective way of verifying the validity of those conjectures.
Which is something I find myself saying in a different way again and again to some friends and acquaintances who bemoan their inability to come up with “good ideas” for writing. There is almost no such thing as a bad idea for a story. I mean, you can build stories on bigoted or hateful premises, and that isn’t exactly a good thing, but generally speaking, any idea, no matter how mundane or surreal, could be turned into an interesting story with enough work.
The truth is that almost any story that you can name that you think of as great, was almost certainly a mess and barely readable in the first draft.
It’s okay if the idea doesn’t feel great when you start. Get the first draft done, no matter what those voices of doubt say. Set the story aside for a while. Then pick it up and start editing.
The problem with stress and exhaustion is that stress makes it difficult to rest and rejuvenate from the exhaustion, while exhaustion makes it difficult to process and recuperate from the stress. It is a vicious circle that can be extremely difficult to break.
Every now and then some clever jerk writes an article or blog post claiming that if you aren’t sitting down at the keyboard and writing every single day, you aren’t a real writer (or you’re not serious, or you’re lazy, et cetera). And because so many of them say this, every writer out that has heard that so-called wisdom and (whether they meant to or not) internalized it. Which means that if one has a day such as one I had earlier in my current bout of bronchitis and sinusitis where:
- I was coughing so severely through the night that I got almost no sleep,
- consequently when the alarm went off I was groggy and in pain and barely able to thing,
- knowing I couldn’t afford to take a full sick day, made a doctor’s appointment and notified my boss that I would try to work from home,
- but first collapse because of the complete exhaustion and slept for a couple hours,
- then logged into work and tried to be productive for a few hours,
- until it was time to get dressed and drive to the clinic,
- where I thankfully didn’t have to wait long for the exam, and
- with diagnosis and prescriptions in had drove to the pharmacy,
- then finally returned home with various medication, and
- after explaining what all was happening with my husband, ate a simple dinner after which,
- I literally fell asleep at my person computer keyboard until the severe coughing returned,
- so I took the newly prescribed codeine cough syrup which knock me out,
- until my alarm went off the next day.
I didn’t get any writing in that day at all, nor for the next several days. And that’s not because I’m lazy, or not professional, or not serious. A particular kind of jerk will argue that since I managed to make myself work for a few hours, I could have made myself write. The problem is, in our current stage of capitalism, if you don’t work you don’t eat, can’t afford a home, and can’t get medical care.
So, the first thing that I want to say to any writer, artist, or other creative person out there who has experienced self-doubt because you’ve been told there’s something wrong with you if you can’t write: don’t listen to those jerks. They are wrong. Life happens. Besides, an important component of the creative process is living your life.
You’ll also find a lot of articles and blog posts out there they claim the writer’s block doesn’t exist. And some of them have some valid points in their argument, but many of their points are just as wrong the point above. The ones that aren’t wrong are really playing with semantics. They will point out the everyone gets stuck every now and then, but that being stuck is actually part of the creative process. They will usually then advise that you use the time being stuck to do things that nurture the creative process. Read, for example. Pick out an activity that requires some creativity but uses different skills than writing. Paint something. Clean out and organize a closet. Sing along to your favorite song. Listen to some new music you’ve never hear before. Go dig out and replant those flowers in that one part of the yard you’ve been meaning to get to.
Doing stuff like that will help your subconscious work through whatever it is that has you stuck. Living your life and doing things you enjoy (or that just give you a satisfying feeling of accomplishment once finished) helps the writing process.
And it doesn’t have to be elaborate! When my eyes were swollen in another bout of illness earlier this year so that looking at a screen hurt, and trying to make letters on a paper page focus also hurt, I lay in a dark room and listened to an audiobook that had been in my queue for a long time. Later than week, when I was a bit less sick, I managed to write a new scene in a story that I had been banging my head against before I got sick. It was only a little bit, but it helped.
Sometimes it is hard to tell whether we are procrastinating or we’re really stuck. Just as it is sometimes difficult for someone outside your head to tell the difference between you performing vital chores that have to be done to keep your life moving and procrastination. And that is because there is no objective difference between those states of being.
Which leads to the second thing I want to say to every creative person struggling with feeling stuck or being angry at yourself for procrastinating: don’t beat yourself up! Because it is subjective, you can decide that the time you spent doing other things were part of the process of getting unstuck. If you can accept that being stuck is part of the creative process, then you can take a deep breath and get back writing (or drawing or whatever).
And I don’t necessarily mean you have to sit down to the project that you’ve been stuck on. Maybe trying writing something else, just to prove to yourself that you still can write. For instance, sit down and write a blog post about being stuck and how you feel about the unhelpful advice that you found yourself thinking about while being irritated at yourself for not having written all week.
Which is what I just did. Right now, you’re reading it. Took my less that 40 minutes to write more than 1100 words. And I don’t know if any readers will experience but about the five paragraphs back, I realized those voices of doubt in my head telling me that I’m a failure for not getting things written lately, for not having decided what I’m going to work on for NaNoWriMo and so forth got a whole lot quieter and much less intimidating.
So, I gotta go. There’s some stories that need my attention.
So, first, the misunderstanding. They are all upset because “It was a dark and stormy night” seems to be a good opening line to any story. And you know what?
They are right.
Those 7 words are a great opening line. Edgar Allan Poe and Madeleine L’Engle both used the same seven words as openings to stories that went on to acclaim.
So what’s the problem?
There are a lot of contests out there where people are challenged to compose a horrible opening sentence to a fictitious novel, and those contests are named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, because of a horrible opening sentence he wrote for a novel called Paul Clifford published way back in 1830. The problem is that Baron Lytton didn’t put a period after night… his actual opening sentence went on for a whopping 58 words total.
Fifty-eight words! With at least two parenthetical clauses (depending on how you count, it can be four or five!)!
Full disclosure: I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest for an opening line to a fictitious sci-fi novel, and I am personally acquainted with two other people who won such contests.
So, let’s look at the actual opening sentence, shall we?
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
If Lytton had just allowed his editor to change that semi-colon to a period… except he would have had to re-word the following phrases a bit, too, and he refused. So that’s the real problem. He wouldn’t concede that his opening sentence should have been both 1) multiple sentences, and 2) re-worded.
The most egregious sin in the sentence that Bulwer-Lytton insisted on, in my opinion, is that “(for it is in London that our scene lies)” because it breaks the fourth wall (which no other part of the novel does). Plus there were much more elegant ways (and with fewer words!) to convey the information. For example, consider this as an opening:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Rain fell in torrents—interrupted at intervals by violent gusts of winds. The winds swept up the London streets and rattled the housetops—fiercely agitating the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness
I’m not the greatest editor in the world, but my first attempt at cleaning up the fifty-eight word run-on sentence to three sentences totalling forty-four words. And not one single nuance was lost with that reduction in word count!
My rewrite represents a reduction of words to about 76% of the original. And my primary skill set is developmental editor. I suspect a grammatical editor could reduce the word count by at least another 25% without losing a single instance of meaning.
And that is the point of the Bulwer-Lytton contests: quite often succinct is far superior to verbose. And a lot of people mistake elaborate vocabularies as being superior to concision.
I mean, knowing lots of words is cool, and sometimes elaboration is better than minimalism. So I get it. But no one is saying “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad opening line. On the contrary, we’re saying that Bulwer-Lytton should have stuck with that and moved on.
Finally, for full disclosure, this is the sentence with which I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest:
Lance Lace, skulking in the shadow of a spaceport warehouse, checked the charge on his blaster and wondered—for not the first time that night—what all of this had to do with the pair of pliers and water-soaked lace panties found in the pockets of the murdered Rigellian.
My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.
So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?
But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.
And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.
A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.
Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.
Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.
Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!
Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.
There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:
- A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
- A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.
Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.
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:
- things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
- character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
- things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
- things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
- 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.
An informal survey I conducted many years ago among acquaintances at a gaming event proved that a substantial number of people were certain that a petard was part of a sailing ship, and so the image they all had was of people being hooked on some sort of winch and raised into the air. One could argue that that is close enough, but it is definitely a different image than the evil bomber who is taken out by his own bomb.
Someone else suggest that the phrase “chock-full” fell into the same category because many people don’t know what a chock is. And… well, it is probably true that a lot of people don’t know what a chock is, but the noun, chock (meaning a block or wedge of wood) didn’t enter the English language until the 1700s, where it derived from a French word meaning a log. Whereas chock-full was an English word more than 400 years before chock, and it has no connection to the noun.
chokkeful Middle English crammed full
The earliest written version is from the year 1400, but there is reason to believe the word is older than that. And it has always meant “crammed full.” Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. The only thing that etymologists aren’t sure of is whether it is a derivative of the Old German (and Saxon and Old English) word chokke which as a noun originally meant “jaw or cheek” and as a verb meant to grasp a person by the jaw, or if it comes from on Old French word choquier which meant to “collide, strike, or crash.” If the former, than the image our 15th century ancestors was imagining was a mouthful. If the latter, the image was of someone forcing more things into a container than it ought to be able to hold.
Now, if the argument is that one must imagine the exact same physical manifestation of a word for it to be meaningful, I guess you could say people ought not use chock-full, given that some people think it has something to do with chocks. But if that is the standard, than no words can ever be used. Besides, I abide by a slightly different school of thought. Chock-full hasn’t been a simile for at least 600 years. It is simply a word that means “crammed full” and since that meaning has been the same for all that time, well, the only native English speakers who are going to be confused by it are those that are over thinking things.
If chock-full is a word that you use in every day speech, then if it seems to fit in something you’re writing, use it.
The problem with making word choices while writing isn’t whether a specific word would be defined exactly the same by every reader, but whether the word flows naturally in the narrative. For a lot of people, “hoist with his own petard” is an affectation that has been inserted into the narrative to emulate Shakespeare. And every writer goes through a phase where they are trying on styles and phrasings of writers they admire. If you do that, the reader will seee that inauthenticity right away.
So the first rule is: is it a word that you use yourself without having to think about it? If so, it fits your style and is probably okay to use. The second rule is, is the way you use it one of the commonly understood definitions, or it is jargon—is it a specialized meaning of the word that is only understood by members of a particular profession, sub-culture, or clique? Well, then maybe limit its use.
Of course, there is a difference between word choices in the narration than words used in dialogue. Maybe your character fancies themself a Shakespearean hero and is constantly quoting (or misquoting) lines from famous plays. Of course a character like that is going to use the phrase “hoist with his own petard,” and you, the author, will likely have another character ask what it means or correct him when he says it wrong (and I have heard so many people, probably because they think a petard is a winch or similar rather than a bomb, say it “hoist on his own petard”). That works just fine!
There is also the choice of audience. Maybe you intend your story primarily for members of a particular community. Even then, I still point back to rule number one: stick to words you use conversationally yourself. And if you’re not sure, read the whole scene outloud. Any phrase or sentence that trips up your tongue needs to be re-written, because if you can’t say it without getting tongue-tied, it isn’t written in your voice.
Don’t choke on the vocabulary, don’t shove in pretentious phrases, and don’t get cheeky.