How to Avoid Plot Holes in Your Writing

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Photo Source: “Game of Thrones” Courtesy HBO

If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show and felt like something doesn't quite make sense, or that a series of events doesn’t work out logically, you likely encountered a plot hole. Depending on the nature of the error and how it relates to the larger narrative, a plot hole can range from being mildly amusing to disrupting the entire viewing experience. This article defines plot holes, shares examples, and offers screenwriting tips and tricks to avoid falling into the dreaded plot hole yourself.

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What is a plot hole?

Titantic door plot hole“Titantic” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

In any type of fictional media—film, TV, video games, and literature—a plot hole is a narrative inconsistency that goes against the storyworld’s logic. Plot holes are nearly always unintentional. While development executives might point out plot holes early in a production, they often go unnoticed until a project has been released to the public.

Every story has an internal logic, which may or may not mirror that of the natural world. Plot holes disrupt the audience’s experience by defying this logic, interrupting the suspension of disbelief required for a fully immersive viewing experience. That special feeling of being swept up in a narrative journey dissipates, which can make it more difficult to enjoy the rest of the production.

Plot hole examples in film

Star Wars plot hole“Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith” Courtesy Lucasfilm

Here are a few examples of plot holes that cause inconsistency, contradiction, and disruption in films.

“Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith”: Because the Star Wars franchise was created out of order—with Episodes IV, V, and VI written and released before episodes I, II, and III—much of the characters’ history was invented years after the original films became legendary. This led to a logical plot hole when, at the end of “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith,” Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are shown going to great lengths to hide twins Leia and Luke Skywalker from their villainous father, Vader—but they neglect the simple details of changing Luke’s recognizable last name or distancing him from relatives. Many viewers found this flummoxing. 

While this plot hole did not affect the box-office success of “Star Wars: Episode III,” it does demonstrate the challenge of seamlessly adding details into a story after the canon has been determined. 

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”: In a cinematic allusion to the ancient Greek convention of Deus Ex Machina, hobbits Frodo and Samwise Gamgee are rescued from Mordor and taken to safety by the Great Eagles after destroying the One Ring: 

As fans were quick to point out, if these saviors of the sky had existed all along, couldn’t they have provided a safe journey to Mordor in the first place, preventing Frodo and Sam from facing countless perils on their journey? This plot hole sparked debate amongst Lord of the Rings aficionados, with some going so far as to decry the franchise, with others delving into deep textual analysis to defend the choice, citing details culled from J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast fantasy world. No matter how high this plot hole flew, it did take many viewers out of the movie magic experience.

 

Plot hole examples in television

The Office continuity error“The Office” Courtesy NBC

For TV, writers don’t just need to think of consistency from scene to scene; they also must brainstorm ideas that follow the show’s internal logic over the course of an entire season, and in the case of a long running series, possibly even years. A show with a deep, rich storyworld must make sure details are consistent across episodes, lest the audience be reminded that these beloved characters are, in fact, fictional. These shows let a few plot holes slip by.

“The Office”: Fans of the workplace comedy were quick to point out a tiny inconsistency (a plot eyelet?) that proves how closely the audience is watching: In the fourth season of “The Office,” Pam claims that she used to get out of playing volleyball in school by pretending to have PMS, while one season later, she brags about her long history of playing the sport competitively. 

“Game of Thrones”: Viewers practically made a sport out of identifying plot holes through the span of the blockbuster fantasy show, especially in its abridged final seasons. This includes the seventh season episode “Beyond the Wall,” in which a character runs several miles, sends a raven to Winterfell, and has Daenerys fly in to the rescue seemingly in the span of a single night. The latter received extensive backlash because fans felt that the hurried timeline served the broadcast schedule above the story they had become invested in over years.

What are some common types of plot holes?

Old film plot hole“Old” Courtesy Universal Pictures

As you begin your journey as a writer, it’s important to keep an eye out for these common types of plot holes. 

Unexpected character developments: One of the most common plot holes is a character doing something that feels unexpected and, worse, unearned. If one of your characters has never touched a gun in their life, they shouldn’t be able to suddenly hit a target a mile away. If you don’t build up to moments through character development and foreshadowing, they can feel fake or disingenuous.

Leaps in logic: Any event that doesn’t follow the narrative’s interior logic may create a plot hole. For example, if your story is set in medieval times and characters can only travel by horseback, no one should travel across the country in a day. Similarly, if your far-future sci-fi story establishes that characters must be wearing a helmet at all times due to toxic planetary conditions, you can’t leave in a moment where anyone does away with their headgear. 

Issues in continuity: Continuity errors can create highly disruptive plot holes. Viewers will feel jarred watching a period piece that shows characters driving a car that won’t be invented for another twenty years.

How to fix plot holes

The Dark Knight Rises continuity “The Dark Knight Rises” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Create a clear, comprehensive outline: Creating an outline allows you to consider your story linearly, telling your story in beats, which greatly reduces the chance of an accidental inconsistency. An outline can help you figure out where your story is going before you get too caught up in the details.

To outline a script with plot holes in mind, break your story down into its acts and write out what takes place within each. After ensuring that character and story arcs make sense in terms of character choices, events, and continuity, it’s time to flesh it out into a screenplay draft.

Establish the rules (and stick to them): A plot hole only exists if the rules of your world are broken. The good news is that those rules can be anything you want, as long as you make them clear and consistent. If your first and second acts ground the story in a realistic setting, the introduction of a gravity-defying car in act three will feel incongruous at best. However, if you have already set up a sense of magic realism, the audience will be primed to accept the supernatural. 

Plant and pay off: Familiarize yourself with the concept of Chekhov’s Gun and don’t leave details and plot threads hanging. In both the outline and drafting phases, watch out for setups in your story’s early stages that don’t have a payoff by the end. Conversely, take a look at the resolutions in your third act; is there anything you can add to the first act that will make that arc more satisfying? 

Ask others to read your draft: The best thing you can do to avoid falling into a plot hole is to bring fresh eyes to your project. Since you’ve been working on your idea for some time, you may not realize which edits or rewrites create new plot holes. You can do everything in your power to spot and fix plot holes, but the only way you will ever truly know is that you let other people read it and tell you. 

Peer review is an excellent way to identify plot holes and patch them up before the project’s release.

Revise: When you eventually send your script out to agents, managers, and producers, they're going to try and poke holes in it. But if you have followed these steps and fixed every plot hole, you will deliver a tight draft and your project’s chances of garnering interest go up. Take the time to meticulously go over every plot hole and potential plot hole and resolve them—the result will be worth the effort..

Re-outline: Finally, outline your revised draft according to its updated structure and elements. After ensuring there are no more glaring plot holes, carefully review the outline for any minor continuity issues, and revise your draft accordingly. 

Do all plot holes need to be fixed?

Avengers: Endgame narrative device“Avengers: Endgame” Courtesy Marvel Studios

Although it may seem counterintuitive, not all movie plot holes need to be fixed. For example, in M. Night Shyamalan's “Signs,” aliens invade a planet covered in water despite presumably knowing it could kill them. Although the plot hole has been endlessly debated, the water leads to great emotional payoff for viewers, which overshadows the relatively minor annoyance of the plot hole. 

Another unresolved plot holes that audiences nevertheless seem to embrace appears in “Avengers: Endgame.” At the end of the film, protagonist Steve Rogers goes back in time to spend his life with past Peggy Carter, which should (but doesn’t seem to) alter that universe and the entire future timeline. “Audiences are left to wonder about the mechanics of time travel in the MCU,” writes Laura Sirikul for The Hollywood Reporter. “If future Steve had stayed to be with Peggy, wouldn’t that mean the existence that she created with her unnamed husband and their two children would be erased? Could that even mean that the MCU now exists on an alternate timeline?”

Despite this continuity error, many viewers were so pleased to see Steve and Peggy reunited that they found the plot hole inoffensive. 

These examples highlight a double-edged sword of plot holes: they can break the logic of your world and potentially distract audiences, but if they serve the emotional investment your viewers have made in the project, leaving one in might just be worth it. 

Like all screenwriting “rules,” the end goal is to craft the best story you can. The only way to do that is to get writing.