We’re nearing the end of our intensive look at plot. We’ve got one more topic that we’ll be covering after this installment before we move on to other subjects. It won’t be the complete end of our discussion of plot, as there is a lot of ground to cover on that front. If you have missed a post in the plot series, you can catch up by clicking on the links below:
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 1): The Basics
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 2): Subplots
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 3): How Plot Structures Differ Across Mediums
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 4): Developing Plot
We’ll be discussing today is plot armor and plot holes, two issues we should avoid. We’ll start off with plot armor before moving into a discussion about plot holes.
The Problem with Plot Armor
Before we go any further, let’s start off with our definition of plot armor.
Plot Armor: is a device used in film, tv series, and novels that prevents important characters from dying or being seriously injured at dramatically inconvenient moments. It often denotes a situation in which it strains credibility to believe that the character would survive.
This isn’t to be confused with Superman or Wolverine. They have explanation – fantastical ones – as to why they would survive a bullet to head. The plot holes I’m talking about are ones when the character goes through some big ordeal, either physical or mental, and comes out completely unscathed.
We’ve recently seen this carried out in the last season of Game of Thrones. For example, Jon Snow successfully fought off the ice dragon, and Drogon conveniently decides against killing Jon after finding Daenerys dead despite knowing Jon killed her. We even see Arya escape with barely a scratch when Daenerys and Drogon burn King’s Landing down.
According to an article I came across by TV Tropes, different sub-tropes of plot armor can be used. Some of the most common ones we see are villains that keep coming back (the Joker in Batman), the villains that can’t shoot the hero at all (I’ve seen this done in numerous action films), and everything is thrown at them, but somehow they still come out okay in the end (most The Avengers movies).
Plot armor isn’t always a bad thing. We do need a little bit of it because our readers rely on us to see our main characters to the finish line. So it makes sense to shield them from the harsher realities of their world. We just don’t want it to be so blatant that our audiences roll their eyes or develop a twitch in their left eye due to frustration.
Overuse of plot armor does three things:
- Challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
- Lowers the stakes – it’s hard to get excited about a character who wins all the time.
- Undermines the character – everything comes down to luck rather than skill.
According to Inkdrop Lit, there are two things that we should keep in the back of our minds when things get tough for our characters. The first is to keep an eye on the cause and effects of your story. Make sure that there is a reason as to how and why your main character is spared death – maybe this takes the form of another character dying, or someone else steps in to save the day.
The second thing we should do is plant clues early on in the story that points to how the narrative will be resolved in the end. This idea is known as Chekov’s gun, which goes a little something like this:
‘If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act’.
The lesson behind Chekhov’s gun is that your story should be cohesive. Each part should contribute to the whole in a way that makes sense. It does not mean that every single plot point of your story must be significant. By applying Checkov’s gun to our stories, we make them more believable for our readers.
Overall, we need to remember to make sure everything makes sense and plays into the overarching narrative we’re creating. We need our protagonists and villains to survive for long periods. Still, we should also be aware that our characters are fragile and can come to some sort of harm, giving us an excellent opportunity to further develop them.
Beware of Plot Holes
According to Urban Dictionary:
In a piece of fiction, a plot hole is a completely implausible occurrence or series of events that contradicts logic or previously established events in the story. Includes things such as unlikely behaviour or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements/events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.
Plot holes, by their very nature, are things that don’t make sense. They’re the things that keep us up at night and make our blood boil. There are also five types of plot holes out there, and I’m going to pull on the wisdom of Screencraft to help explain them:
MacGuffin’s are those goals, desired objects, or any other motivators that the protagonist (and often the antagonist as well) is either tasked with pursuing or drawn to pursuing, for whatever reasons. They are the motivating element that exists only to drive the plot and is usually the cause and effect of each character’s conflict that they are dealing with throughout the story.
What happens when we have a plot hole that involves the MacGuffin? Well, your readers are going to start questioning the existence of the entire premise for the story. They’re the least important part of the story – they just push the plot along and have your hero/villain commit to their adventure. You do want to make sure that they have some sort of logic to them, but if you do end up writing a plot hole here, then it won’t be the ruining factor of your story.
Examples of MacGuffin plot holes:
- Dorothy’s shoes in The Wizard of Oz. If the Good Witch knew that tapping the heels of the ruby red shoes would send Dorothy home, why wouldn’t she have told her that? Well, if she did tell her that we wouldn’t have had a story.
- The Microwave Emitter Device in Batman Begins. It destroys everything that contains water, except for humans who are made out of 70 percent water… It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we can definitely skip the nitpicking and find a reason as to why it doesn’t work on humans.
This is the one that can really polarize your readers, according to ScreenCraft. This type of plot hole can pop up when you break the rules of your universe. To borrow from ScreenCraft’s example, in Star Wars, there is a lot of fire in space as ships explode. We know from science that this is an impossibility, but due to the genre of the series, which is science fantasy, we have a new set of rules – and we expect our writer to follow those rules. Let’s say that the next movie didn’t have those fires and explosions, then we’d have a massive plot hole emerge.
An excellent example of this comes out of the third Harry Potter book/movie. We have the emergence of the time turner, which allows Hermione to get to all of her classes. Now a lot of people kept asking, “well, why didn’t they just use that and then stop Voldemort before anything else happened?” No one knows for sure why J.K. Rowling didn’t use the time-turner to save the day before it came to ahead.
But if you’re in the camp that thinks the third books should’ve been the last, here’s a video for you: (Oh, and it has a logic plot hole in it.)
Basically, the rule of thumb here is to follow your own established rules consistently. Changing them for convenience isn’t cool and will cause people, like me, to rant about it for a week straight.
These can be big or small holes that carry a variety of repercussions.
Perhaps the most noticeable are those that deal with the choices that a character makes. These are often attributed as general logic, so they could fall under the Logic Plot Holes umbrella, but these are specifically attached to characters and the decisions they make.
I’m going to go back to the last season of Game of Thrones for this one to the Battle of King’s Landing in particular. The people of King’s Landing have surrendered to Daenerys and her forces, yet she goes on to burn the city down for no apparent reason. It also goes against her character development of the previous seven seasons.
In this same episode, we also see Jamie go back to be with his sister and lover, Cersei, after spending seasons moving him away from that relationship and the man he once was. It just didn’t make sense.
Another example would be the series finale for How I Met Your Mother. Ted ends up going back to Robin in the end after they spent years of trying to get him over her, all because they wanted to use the footage they shot in the first year to ensure that the children didn’t age. They also ended a season-worth of the lead up to Barney and Robin’s marriage in about 30 seconds. It was painful to watch.
This is known as bad writing and here’s why:
The writer has set up their character in a certain way. Without any hints to the surprise coming up, then there is no logical explanation of why a character diverges from their true identity. Let’s look at Screencraft’s example of the agent and the nerd. The agent is a badass and fully capable of protecting her charge – the nerd. For the nerd to be able to just pull out a can of whoop-ass on the villains without any training stretches the imagination because there was no lead up to his “newfound” skills.
As Screencraft puts it:
Special skills, abilities, or knowledge that a character has cannot be utilized at the drop of a dime during the perfect part of a situation where such skills, abilities, and knowledge are needed most. It’s a cheat. It’s lazy writing.
And the same can be said for character backstories that are not set up in creative plants and payoffs or foreshadowing. If one character is dealing with alcoholism and we suddenly find out later in the script that their companion character had a father who was an alcoholic — without any plants for foreshadowing — it’s a dramatic cheat. Again, it’s lazy writing.
These are plot holes that have to do with your overall story. They occur when there’s a gap or inconsistency in the storyline. They can be big or small and can directly affect the logic established within the plot, or it can be a glaring hole that halts the audience’s engagement of the story as they question it.
Star Wars has a big one – for me, at least. Why is everyone hell-bent on destroying the Empire? What have they done to cause this much hate? (Seriously, though, if you know, please tell me.) Yeah, they seem to be a bit oppressive, but for the most part, all the different worlds seem to function alright. You’ve got your poverty-stricken or corrupt planets that want to raise their circumstances, but other than that, everyone else seems to be okay. They’re fearful of the Empire, but there’s absolutely no explanation as to why they need to be afraid, and this prevents me from getting into the story. I spend most of the movie trying to figure out why everyone hates the Empire.
Other examples provided by Screencraft include:
- The Karate Kid. During the climactic tournament scene, we are repeatedly told by the referee – no kicks to the head. How does the Karate Kid win? With a kick to the head.
- The Usual Suspects. Keyser Soze is a mysterious character that has never shown any person his face who has lived to tell about it. However, it’s quite clear that he — in the form of the character Verbal — has shown his face to many police officers, including the detective. If there’s one place you don’t want to be when trying to hide your physical identity to authorities, it’s a police station while having your picture taken in a lineup and while hanging out in a detective’s office telling tall tales — and then leaving that detective alive.
Deus Ex Machina:
The last one revolves around an unsolvable problem or situation that is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. This is also, in part, one of the causes of plot armor.
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy (as well as The Hobbit trilogy). Giant eagles suddenly appear to rescue Gandalf, and then later to rescue Frodo and Sam from the side of Mount Doom. Yes, Aragorn needs to set a distraction at the gates, but with this power, it was unnecessary to force Frodo and Sam to risk their lives throughout three films when they could have been flown to Mount Doom.
- Independence Day. David manages to figure out a way — never fully explained — to upload a computer virus into an alien ship computer. How is this possible beyond merely needing a way for humans to defeat the aliens? This is both a Logic Plot Hole and a Deus Ex Machina Plot Hole.
Identifying and Fixing Plot Holes
You are almost always going to have some sort of plot hole in your story. There are nitpickers everywhere. Regardless, you should look into shoring up some holes in your work. First, let’s cover some tips on how to find them:
- Edit with objectivity. This means take a break from your story before you start to edit it. Go back to it with a clear mind and a critical eye – you’ll catch more mistakes this way.
- Write an outline. Check out more on this in my Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 4): Developing Your Plot post.
- Read your story and take notes. Pretend like you’re picking up the book for the first time to see if anything pops out at you. Question the logic of your plot. Do the events in your story build upon those prior? Do instances of conflict have meaningful consequences? Do your characters make choices that are true to their personalities and beliefs? If you find things, write it down and then fix them later.
- Stay true to your characters. Don’t forget to develop your characters and to hold to those developments. Don’t have them do something because it’s convenient for you.
- Don’t forget to check your subplots for plot holes. These can go by the wayside if you let them. So don’t forget to make sure the narrative is sound here too.
- Know the laws of your world. If you want to have areas where gravity doesn’t take place on parts of the Earth, then make sure that each time your characters go to those areas that they remain gravity-free. If gravity is present, there better be a sound (“logical”) reason.
- Work with a beta reader or editor. These guys aren’t attached to your story as you are, which means they’ll catch mistakes and inconsistencies faster and more accurately than we can.
Now that we’ve identified all of our holes, we have to go about fixing them. The consensus here is that there isn’t one set way that you should go about fixing your holes. Thankfully, there are some things to keep in mind as you go through the process:
- Don’t be afraid to do the work. Sometimes we find out that our plot holes require a lot more writing than we originally planned. Some plot holes have to do with a lack of character development, and we have to go back in and make them more dynamic and round. Other times, we can’t just slap a bandaid on them with a quick two-line explanation, making it easy for us to go back into our story to write some more. Unfortunately, plot holes can make or break a story for a reader, which can affect whether we get published or not. So get back in there and make your writing shine!
- Keep an open mind. As you’re editing, try to keep an open mind as you are going to have to rework things. The good thing is this allows you to think outside the box and explore different plot outcomes or events, which could lead to something really unique that you may not have considered otherwise. Just make sure that you factor in character motivations before diving down a particular rabbit hole.
- Go back to the basics. Big books with complicated plots bring plot holes with them. If this is the case, it might be time to start looking at simplifying things. This may include cutting out characters, subplots, and events in your story, but if this helps you eliminate some holes, then it can be worth it.
This is all well and good if you’re in the editing phase of your novel, but what if you’re still in the writing process and want to try to nip things in the bud before they get out of control? There are some things to keep in mind while your writing, like many of the tips that I’ve outlined in my plot series. The Creative Penn has also written an article about the things that you should keep in mind when writing to avoid those pesky plot holes.
That’s it for me this week! I hope everyone has enjoyed my ranting and gained some excellent tips for avoiding plot holes and plot armor. Next week is the last week for our plot series, where we’re going to wrap everything up from the previous few weeks.
Until next time!