Mind The Gap!

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Writing tips - avoiding plot holes

Plot holes, those devious little blighters, have a knack of popping into existence just where you least expect them.

I am not the kind of chap who outlines a novel before jumping in to the fun of writing it. Broad brush strokes, a skeleton framework of ideas and then it’s chocks away! My transatlantic friends call this being a ‘Pantser’ – flying by the seat of one’s pants as the story takes one from point to point in a free-wheeling, fast-flowing fashion. Being from the side of the pond where the cucumber sandwich still reigns supreme, the term ‘pants’ has less savoury connotations for me. No, Pantser will not do at all. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Trouserist.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that I don’t have the luxury of writing every day. Much as I would love to, the demands of daily life and a mortgage mean that I often struggle to find the time to write. Progress on the novel is sporadic, at best.

I am a self-confessed Sporadic Trouserist.

And that is where the plot holes worm their insidious way in… (you don’t want holes in your sporadic trousers, I assure you).

The Curse Of The Sporadic Writer
I’m certain many of us find ourselves in exactly the same position. You sit down in front of the screen to dash off another few-hundred words, only to gape in shock at the date on your most recent draft. “Three weeks ago!? How can I not have written for three whole weeks?”

I can rarely remember what I had for breakfast, far less what was happening all the way back in Chapter 4, which by now I probably haven’t touched for nigh on 6 months. If Webster, trusty manservant to Lord Farnsworth, fell prey to the marauding zombie hordes when they first invaded Belchingham Manor, it would be most unlikely if he subsequently popped up with a crossbow to save his Lordship’s skin in Chapter 12. Yes, he could technically be a member of the Undead with a particularly strong sense of duty, but I’m not buying that and neither will any readers over the age of 9.

The subtler nuances of the story are even more likely to have evaporated in the mists of time, leaving it prone to developing more plot holes than a lace doily. Half-forgotten sub-plots sputter out like an engine running out of fuel. Minor characters disappear without trace or purpose. Once-significant plot devices are left hanging without their meaning ever seeing the light of day.

As a Sporadic Trouserist, it becomes very easy to lose track. I once deleted an entire chapter which effectively made it impossible for one of my major protagonists to exist. That was a slightly sticky one to resolve, I can tell you.

Tracking And Eliminating Plot Holes
So, how can we back-fill these plot holes with the gravel of consistency to ensure the narrative can motor on unimpeded to its destination? There are a number of ingenious methods, although all of them (except the most drastic) will require you to have one more read-through of your WIP…

Method One: “Carnage”
Take your manuscript from the drawer, place it a safe distance from you and any dormant pets, douse it in paraffin and put a match to it.

Method Two: “Character Mapping”
Set up a spreadsheet with chapter numbers laid out in one column at the left-hand side. Across the top, list all the characters in the novel, giving each their own column. Now fill in the cells corresponding to the chapters in which that character appears. For added entertainment (if your TV’s broken) give each character their own colour. This is a fantastic way of getting an at-a-glance view of the spread of characters throughout your story. As well as showing where someone who died/emigrated/dematerialised early on suddenly (and possibly impossibly) re-appears, it also illustrates whether a character is just popping up to deliver a plot point then disappearing for several chapters. Or whether there’s an undue focus on one individual at any point. Less drastic than Method One, although just as colourful.

Method Three: “On The Cards”
I used this alongside Method Two when I ran into plot-hole hell with Dark Energies. It takes some time and thought at first, but you end up with a condensed, easily-shuffled, total overview of your story which highlights any glaring inconsistencies. Get yourself a bunch of index cards. Nope, I’ve never really known what they are either. To be honest, I cut up a whole ream of A4 sheets into smaller squares. But if you have a local supplier of index cards, knock yourself out my friends. Next, write down the most important events from each chapter on the cards, making sure to annotate them with the chapter number wherein they occur. You might want to have some biscuits to hand while you do this bit. When complete, arrange them into piles by chapters – Chapter 1 in one pile, Chapter 2 in another and so forth… Eradicate any plot-holes you find during this process.Β Hey presto, you now have a full, chronologically accurate overview without having to re-read the whole WIP each time. Now, if you move a chapter or bump off a character, a quick review of the cards will make any inconsistencies glaringly obvious.

I know other writers who carry out a similar process using Post-It notes. Whilst tempted to try this, I do fear minor characters may well end up being transported around the house on a cat’s bottom. Never a good way to go.

What, my dear chums, are your preferred methods of catching inconsistencies and filling your plot-holes? Pray let me know in the Comments box down there…

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30 thoughts on “Mind The Gap!

  1. Great post! And, you’re so right. I like the carnage bit…and I have considered that path in the past, myself. However, I also use this one–instead of using 3X5 cards (I lose those easily and the dog eats them), I put my stuff in an Excel spreadsheet, for the main parts. I’m definitely a pantser (I’m a woman, so I don’t wear trousers) but sometimes, I do put down a few words about a few scenes I MIGHT use. I do that for my mysteries (under the pen name Andie Alexander) because I can’t remember where I’m going most of the time with those.

    Thanks for posting. You made me laugh and made my day. πŸ™‚

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    • Excel definitely works for a lot of people – I just find I’m generally a bit too random to be that organised. I like to shuffle πŸ™‚ Glad the post made you smile & thanks for letting me know πŸ˜€

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  2. Jon, I like these methods, you Sporadic Trouserist. That’s very clever. I’ve written things I can’t even read again, so carnage. I like #1. I also don’t write often enough. I’m trying to get on a schedule, but you know…life! I used to have a bulletin board where I used index cards, but I don’t where it went. I like the idea of the character sheet. I’ll try that one. Great post!

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  3. I do use index cards for one of my stories, though most of the time, I write outlines. And more outlines. If I don’t have time to write the book itself, I at least have time to make enough outlines to know the story backwards and forwards. And if anything escapes my eye, well, there are beta readers for that.
    I do like the idea of the Character Map, though. And carnage, but who doesn’t like setting things on fire?

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    • I really wish I could work with outlines. I’d love to be able to sit down and just write, having already worked out all the details of the plot. I envy people who have the ability to do that. A spot of limited pyromania is always fun.

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  4. Gwen Stephens

    I suppose as a Sporadic Trouserist, one must do what’s necessary to patch the holes. I tried pantsing my way through a novel once. Disaster. I’m rebuilding it now with an outline — gah! It’s not so bad, really! I get to write incoherent thoughts and sentences that only make sense to me, go back and change things, highlight what needs attention later, and none of the sloppiness matters, since it’s “just an outline.” It’s very freeing, actually.

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    • Next time round, I’m definitely outlining first, for exactly those reasons. In fact, it’s already under way. It’s less terrifying to be working within a defined structure, even if quite loosely defined.

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  5. Loved this post! I’ve tried outlining with 4 books but my pantser/skirter personality always interferes with the process by Chapter Two. And so do my characters who seem to run amuck although they are very entertaining. I always outline after the first draft but I like this notecard/scrap of paper approach. Now off to Tweet your tips.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, thanks for commenting and thanks for re-tweeting. Wow, thanks! πŸ˜‰ I really enjoy having the freedom to let the characters go where they want and find out what the story wants itself to be, without feeling I should stick to a rigid outline. It’s their story after all.

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  6. As a fellow who also writes the story as the characters live it, without benefit of map or outline, as well as suffering from the occupational malady of a full-time job that isn’t writing, I find myself reading the manuscript from the beginning on frequent occasion. Painful but necessary, and effective.

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  7. Outlines are like contracts: you read and sign them once and hopefully never look at them again. The novel I recently finished had an outline which I looked at once, and then it was off to the races. I tried the index cards, but once again, they got all of a nanosecond’s worth of my attention. Excelβ€”are you kidding? That’s for accounting.

    I keep it all in my head. It’s the safest place.

    Well, nothing is safe in my head. Maybe “sure” is the right word….

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    • I’m very visual, so the Excel layout works for me, particularly with colour-coding. Blobs of colour spread across the chart help me track who’s appearing where and how often. I’m kind of with you on the index cards though; I’ve tried it a few times but it takes rather more attention-span than I’m generally capable of. Thanks for taking the time to read & comment.

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  8. I like to think of myself as a Plotter-Panster … or, erm … a Plotter-Trouserist. It’s like a compromise between the two sides. I make a super rough, super vague outline at the beginning, basically having my beginning, foggy ending, and foggy large two plot points (the two Doorways or Turning Points). Then as I write and the story becomes more concrete, I write a paragraph summary for each chapter, usually a few chapters out from where I’m at. Ex] I’m currently writing Chapter 20. I have Chapters 21-22 outlined in pretty good detail. Chapters 23-29 are still extremely vague. I adjust the outlines as needed as I go, to incorporate new ideas and usually because my chapters end up being a lot longer than I think, so I have more chapters in the end than my original outline predicted. Does that make any sense at all? πŸ˜›

    At the moment, I have an index card plot line painters-taped to my bedroom wall next to my writing desk. πŸ˜‰ When I do my first read through of the finished draft, I will modify that at the same time to be sure everything is up to date before I begin editing. Also, since I use Scrivener, I write notes to myself in the margins of each chapter when I realize I totally forgot something from a previous chapter, and plan on going through the MS and jotting down all these notes BEFORE I even start my read through, so I can insert the necessary elements in their proper place. For instance, I often forget Pavel’s left arm is still injured, so I have to write “REMEMBER PAVEL’S ARM STILL HURT HERE!” Also things like, “OMNIPAD NOW CALLED OMNI” in the first few chapters since I just changed the name randomly at some point.

    Aw man. It’s going to be fun organizing this thing …. πŸ˜›

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    • Good Lord JRF, that is extraordinarily organised! Sounds like a great system, I may have to ‘borrow’ it… My editing process mainly consists of piles of printouts with pencil notes scrawled all over them and new chapters/amended paragraphs scribbled all over the backs. Honestly. Which is probably why I have to keep reminding myself where Dan has a limp and by when it’s healed up – I’m sure at some points he’s now limping before he sustains the injury. Although, with the quantum nature of the storyline, that’s actually quite appropriate πŸ˜€

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      • Oooooo….. “quantum nature of the storyline” eh? I am extremely intrigued!!!!

        But yes, feel free to borrow this system if you wish. πŸ˜‰ Also James Scott Bell has a book on Revision and Self-Editing for Publication which supposedly gives you pointers on how to keep the process under control and keep it from being a total overwhelming mess, which I will need! I haven’t read it yet (though I own it) since I’m not to that point yet, but a friend of mine has read it and said it was very helpful.

        As for tracking the overarching plot points and character injuries though (as well as timeline!!!!), the wall-sized taped plot line works WONDERS! πŸ˜€ (Also, Scrivener makes outlining and organizing REALLY REALLY easy, you should check it out! Just Google search it!)

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