Gaping Plot Holes


I see the term “Gaping Plot Hole” bandied about quite a bit, and thought I’d devote my first couple blog posts to the topic.

First, a disclaimer. I’m always up for a critique, and anything that can make my work better is welcome. I regularly encounter valid criticisms and pay attention to them, so the following is not meant to be a defense. It’s a discussion about what sorts of critiques are valid, and what sorts aren’t.

Wikipedia defines a plot hole as: “A gap or inconsistency in a storyline that creates a paradox that cannot be reconciled with any explanation. These include such things as illogical or impossible events, and statements or events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.”

So it seems that plot holes would be pretty rare, doesn’t it? “Cannot be reconciled with any explanation” is a very high bar. Even if you spend time thinking about the problem, and allow yourself to be creative – there’s still no explanation that makes sense. Well, plot holes that meet the above definition are actually quite rare. But most people have a more relaxed definition: “A plot point that seems extremely unlikely or tenuous.” By this much broader definition, every story has plot holes. Stare at a story long enough, you’ll find the plot hole. Is that just because all story tellers are bad? No, it’s because real life itself has plenty of unlikely things.

Go research the events that led up to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, which in turn sparked one of the bloodiest wars in human history. If you encountered that in a story, you’d deem it very unlikely. Human history is full of such tenuous events. No way that Hannibal could have won that battle at Cannae! But he did. Aside from conspiracy theorists, no one questions these events, because they happened. (And let’s be honest – the conspiracy theorists tend to believe stuff that’s more unlikely still.) So a story about sapient beings is likely to have some pretty unlikely events and turns in it – or else it would be a boring story of automatons moving through pre-programmed paces.

So does this mean that readers just have to accept all sorts of unlikely events because they could have happened? I don’t think so. It is natural to want your fiction to exist in an ordered, rational world, since fiction is an attempt to relate human experiences in a way that makes sense – and the random, unlikely events of life are part of what keeps the real world from making sense.

If we have to have unlikely events to portray the universe as it exists, but we have to impose some sense of order, then how do we decide what level of coincidence or unlikeliness is acceptable? The answer is subjective, but to me it’s all proportion and importance. If a story contains a high proportion of unlikely events, or all the key moments turn on coincidence, then there is a problem. But readers/viewers/players do need to embrace the idea that some unlikely things will happen in a story.

The last decade or so has seen the rise of a “Gotcha!” mentality in which people try very hard to find anything unlikely in a story, then go online and yell about it. I suppose that’s one way to get your entertainment, but I actually like stories for their ability to transport me, not my ability to tear them down. If a story bends believability to the point of breaking, I will notice, and be disappointed. But beyond that, I roll with it, and try to enjoy the ride.

After all, if you just want to critique the unbelievability of something, why bother with fiction? There’s always politics!

Next time, my plot hole rant will continue.