Why Plot Holes Happen and How Screenwriters Can Avoid Them
Plot (plät) - the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
Hole (hōl) - a hollow place in a solid body or surface.
Plot Hole (plät hōl) - a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot, or constitutes a blatant omission of relevant information regarding the plot. These include such things as unlikely behavior or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements or events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.
We see them every weekend within even the highest quality of movies that come to the big and small screen. And they come in all different shapes and sizes.
Movie Plot Holes specifically breaks them down into three distinct categories:
Some are more tolerable than others. Some genres — horror, science fiction, fantasy, comedy, action — call for audiences to suspend their disbelief in exchange for pure and utter entertainment.
But — beyond the studio's plea for forgiveness or their outright indifference — why do plot holes happen? Aren't these professionals able to sniff them out before the script is shot? Are studios underestimating their audience? Are they a product of bad writing, bad directing, or bad editing? And finally, what can screenwriters do to prevent them?
Why Plot Holes Happen
It's easy — and lazy — to immediately point fingers at the screenwriter. Sure, there are many cases where screenwriters are to blame. However, the process of development and filmmaking as a whole only begins with the written word. There are many filter systems in place before a movie is released to the masses — script readers, development executives, producers, directors, script supervisors, and talent. The blame doesn't just fall on screenwriters.
Too Many Hands in the Cookie Jar
Hollywood likes to over-complicate things. There is a reason that a place called Development Hell exists, and that reason is the fact that there are all too often too many hands in the cookie jar.
When a screenplay is either under consideration or has been assigned to a screenwriter, the writing process doesn't stop there. Development executives and their underlings — assistants and script readers (one in the same) — have the first taste. And they wouldn't have jobs if they didn't have a purpose, so that purpose results in notes. Yes, the term that causes most screenwriters to cower in fear.
Notes are offered ad nauseam. It starts with the development executives and their team and continues with producers, studio executives, directors, and talent. That amounts to dozens of subjective opinions offered by people that have their own vision of whatever implementation of concept is in question.
The screenwriter is pulled this way and that, with everyone believing that they know how the script should be in the end. Screenwriters are tasked to apply the many different notes through many different drafts and then usually additional screenwriters are brought in to enhance certain elements of the script. When that happens, now you have multiple writers with their own creative perspectives. And sure, most of them are clamoring for that 33% or more involvement to nab the heralded onscreen writing credit.
And the irony is that by the time all of this happens, the project has likely been packaged and sold to the studio or financier for the green light, thus, they will be shooting with whatever they have by the time that the set production schedule begins— based off of the overall schedules of the talent involved. So all of their work trying to develop and write the "best possible shooting script" often ends up hurting them in the long run.
Thus, we see different shifts of tone, atmosphere, logic, character arc, story arc, etc. And they're stuck with it because the deadline has come and gone and it's time to shoot.
During any given production and depending on the shoot at hand, as well as the talent involved, things change. Problems arise. Budget cuts occur. Schedules are in jeopardy. Interpretations of the script are at odds. Because film is a collaborative medium, by the time production is underway, many things can change — for better or worse.
Most plot holes that you see in film are a direct result of the final edit and those that came before it. The misconception that whatever is seen in the final cut was written as-is in the shooting script leaves people to point fingers at the screenwriter. However, the edit can drastically change what was in the original shooting script. Pacing, tone, atmosphere, and many other elements shift the edit of the film. Scenes are cut for any number of reasons and when that happens, those small, medium, or big plot holes occur. And once again, there is a set release date and there's only so much that can be done before the editor and director have to hand in their final cut. Barring any reshoots — which now happen more often than not in movies — the studio is stuck with what they have.
And yes, we do need to go back to the screenwriter, now that we've thrown everyone else under the bus. Plot holes are aplenty in the many drafts that a screenwriter can write. They are a product of miscalculation, of bad memory, of complacency, of naivete, of laziness, and of reliance on guru structures and formulas where the screenwriter believes that the process of screenwriting hinges on filling in the blanks of particular story points, structure declarations, and specific page necessities.
And sadly, a vast majority of the screenplays that are funneled through the Hollywood system fall victim to the many ranges of plot holes that can be found within them.
How Screenwriters Can Avoid Them
Screenwriters have no control over what happens to their script after they hand it over to the studio. So forget the many hands in the cookie jar, the trials and tribulations of production, and the editing scissors of the editor. Just focus on you.
Protect Your House of Cards
The final draft of a screenplay is a house of cards. And as is the case with any house of cards, when you remove one card, many will usually fall as a result.
Great screenplays build and build and build to something. And when you build upon elements as you try to reach a desired climax, each piece is not just important, but vital.
If in Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino is tasked to eliminate the character of Jules, the ripple effect within the script would be disastrous. However, sometimes those types of choices need to be implemented.
How you overcome this is by going back and witnessing each and every cause and effect. If Jules isn't there, then it's just Vincent in the car. And if it's just Vincent in the car, how are we able to keep the amazing dialogue about Royale with Cheese and other gems? Do we have Vincent on a car phone talking to Marsellus? Do we have Marsellus in the car with him as Vincent is dropping him off somewhere? If we do that, what is the cause and effect? How does that interfere with Marsellus's timeline?
Sometimes choices like these are made as screenwriters go from draft to draft. Sometimes there are too many characters and you need to meld three into one. Sometimes that dramatic sequence slows down the pacing of the second act, so you need to consider showcasing that drama within a fast-paced sequence.
Editing your script isn't just about cutting and pasting. It's about protecting that house of cards by carefully going back and seeing the cause and effect of every choice you make, whether those elements will be big or small.
Read Previously Written Pages Before You Write
This is perhaps the most vital element of ensuring that there are little to no plot holes in your script and it is certainly one of the most overlooked practices in screenwriting.
How can screenwriters possibly stay on the same page with themselves if they are not ever aware what they have written — and how they have written it — the writing session before?
Perhaps some of the worst advice given to screenwriters is to just write in a blaze until you get it done. What this philosophy does is force the screenwriter to have to go back and face multiple personalities of their script and story. Pacing, tone, atmosphere, and character portrayal is often vastly different, depending on the mindset that you the screenwriter are in on any given writing day.
Instead, consider rereading the previous pages leading up to that blank page and blinking cursor. If you write ten pages the first day of writing, on that second day be sure to read those ten pages before you write more.
Some writers like to rewrite as they go, and this practice can certainly fall in line with that. Others don't want to hinder themselves by having to take the time to do that before the first draft is done, but at least they'll be on the same page with themselves day in and day out as they write — IF they reread what was written before.
When Day Two is over and you now have twenty pages, come Day Three you should be reading pages one through twenty before you continue on with twenty-one and beyond.
When you do this, your mind will have each and every detail ever-present as you write on, thus you'll be less likely to miss out on those bigger or smaller elements within the story and character arcs, the action, the build-ups, and the eventual payoffs.
Read what you've written before you write and you'll always be on the same page with yourself to catch those minor or major plot holes.
Salt and Pepper Your Script
When you've reached that final draft, take the time to go through the whole thing from Page One to The End with your metaphorical salt and pepper shakers to season the story, plotting, and characters.
Make sure that you've crossed your T's and dotted your I's.
Find any and all opportunities to offer foreshadowing earlier in the script to set up moments later on. Foreshadowing can be the ultimate plot hole fix, because you're well aware of the major and minor plot points as you do so, thus you'll be more apt to ensure that things are connected, even if it is just a matter of inserting clever and fun visuals, lines of dialogue, etc.
Salting and peppering your script only makes your story and characters better. And it makes the read of it all the more memorable because the reader will recognize the fact that you've paid attention to the finer details.
Choose Your Requested Suspension of Disbelief Wisely
It's okay to ask the reader or audience to suspend their disbelief in exchange for entertainment. Logic shouldn't always be applied to film because film is fantasy. Even films based on true stories have to adhere to the fact that, in the end, there are only two hours (give or take) to tell a story that could amount to a lifetime in the real world. It's fantasy. And it's entertainment.
That said, a reader or audience will only give you, the screenwriter, so much leeway in that respect. If you don't offer any logic within your story, you'll lose them fast because that means the script doesn't have any stakes.
If Superman doesn't have Kryptonite, he's impossible to stop.
If he doesn't have the love for humans that he has, then there's no other weakness beyond Kryptonite. Then there are no stakes.
It's just Superman flying around beating the bad guys up with his multiple God-like powers.
Set the Rules and Stick to Them
If you have stated that a character has a heart condition that prevents them from running at high speeds for a long duration of time and then in the climax you have them chasing down the bad guy in an epic foot race, that's a plot hole.
In Lord of the Rings, if you have shown that a certain wizard character has the ability to conjure giant eagles to fly characters to safety and you fail to utilize such capabilities in the most drastic of times as a Hobbit struggles to climb to the top of a mountain to throw a dangerous ring into the fire, that's a plot hole. And even if fanboys have an explanation for why those eagles couldn't take on that task, you need to have at least some dialogue explaining such rules.
In Highlander, we know that all of the sword-wielding immortals live by the declaration that there can be only one in the end. However, when the sequels manage to go against that very important rule by having more and more immortals challenge "the one" that was Connor McCleod, those are huge plot holes that will disengage audiences.
You, the screenwriter, are the Lord of the Story. Suspension of disbelief is fine, to a degree, as long as you showcase the rules of your universe and stick to them. When you do that early, the audience will have no choice but to accept the rules and go along for the ride. If you break them, you're instantly creating a vast black hole that will suck audiences in with no hope of them returning.
Keep It Simple Stupid
KISS. The greatest stories are often told through the most simple of plots.
A giant shark is terrorizing an island community and a chief of police, fisherman, and marine biologist are tasked to stop it.
One of the greatest and most suspenseful films contains one of the most simple plots in cinema. The chief needs a boat and he needs an expert. He can't do it alone. That's all this story is, yet it captures us and takes us on an amazing journey. We didn't need to know where the shark came from and why it was wreaking havoc. It's a giant shark and it likes to eat. And that's bad for the community. That's it. Time to go shark hunting.
Over-complicating stories with multiple A plots, B plots, and C plots almost always leads to inevitable plot holes. It's unnecessary nine times out of ten.
Keep it simple and you'll avoid the deep, dark depths of plot holes.
Guest blogger Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as two writing assignments with Larry Levinson Productions, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies