It’s time we talked about the much-dreaded “plot hole” — it’s a term audiences crave, screenwriters fear and critics throw around with reckless abandon; but what is a plot hole? We’re going to explain what a plot hole is and why it’s such a contentious term by looking at screenwriting examples and critical discourse. By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of plot holes and how to avoid them in your own writing. But before we get into our examples, let’s quickly review why plot holes are so important to writing and film criticism.
What is a Plot Hole?
First, let’s define plot hole
Let’s break down a plot hole by exploring the most basic elements of a story.
- Plot: The events of a story
- Hole: A hollow opening within a structured form
In this “make-believe” story, the protagonist can’t swim. It’s explicitly stated that they can’t swim in the script’s first scene. Fifty pages later, the protagonist chases down a criminal, jumps into a river and swims in order to catch him — that’s a plot hole. The story set a parameter for its protagonist, then abandoned it without any explanation — we can all agree this is a plot hole.
So how do we fairly say that something is a plot hole? We’re going to break down how to correctly identify plot holes, when it’s valid to critique them and how to avoid writing them in your own scripts. But first, let’s formally answer the question: "What are plot holes?"
PLOT HOLE DEFINITION
What is a plot hole?
A plot hole is an unexplained gap between the pretense of one plot point and the contradicting result of another. In other words, it's a mistake made by the writer either based on logic, the rules of the story world, or in the characterization. Say your protagonist has an allergic reaction to peanuts and then later eats peanuts with no reaction — that’s a plot hole. Oftentimes, plot holes can be explained away with a line of dialogue or a simple action; such as “the protagonist was given a miracle drug that rid him of his allergies to peanuts.”
Types of Plot Holes
- Narrative (Logic) Plot Holes
- Logic Plot Holes
- Character Plot Holes
- Deus Ex Machina (to a lesser extent)
Biggest Movie Plot Holes Explained
Narrative plot holes and critics
Today, plot holes have become a “catch-all” term for bad storytelling. Oftentimes the criticism is well-warranted, but sometimes it feels more revisionist. Just because a story has a logic gap doesn’t mean that it has a plot hole; and just because there's a plot hole doesn’t mean it’s the writer’s fault.
Movies change throughout all stages of production — the script may have filled in the gap on an issue, but if it was cut in post then there’s going to be a plot hole. Plot holes have become an incredibly contentious issue within the film community. For more on this divide, check out the video below.
In film criticism, there are two warring perspectives on plot holes: the first is that it’s valid to criticize a story based on perceived plot holes; the second is that plot holes are often misnomered and inappropriately applied.
So which one is right?
Well, both… and neither — as with most things, rationality lies somewhere in the middle. This next video explores the other side of Patrick Willems’ argument on plot holes.
So how do we fairly say that something is a plot hole? We’re going to break down how to correctly identify plot holes, when it’s valid to critique them and how to avoid writing them in your scripts.
Examples of Plot Holes in Game of Thrones
Logic plot holes are irksome
The simplest and most common type of plot hole is the “narrative” or “logic” plot hole. This is when something in a story-arc occurs that’s incongruent to what we’d expect. But why do we “expect” certain things to happen? Well, that’s kind of a tricky question — but characterization, conflict and context all play an enormous role. Before we look at a specific example of a narrative plot-hole, let’s look at one that treads ever so close.
The final season of Game of Thrones is littered with bad storytelling. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it — there’s no point harping on it. But the reason I bring up this example is to demonstrate what not to do when thinking about characterization, conflict and context.
Let’s break it down:
- Characterization: Daenerys is a calculated tactician. We see her use strength and intellect to rise to power.
- Conflict: Daenerys is at war with Euron Greyjoy. She is constantly mindful of the threat his Iron fleet imposes.
- Context: Daenerys’ dragons have been pierced by long-range projectiles before. There’s an established precedent for their danger.
So, when Daenerys abandons her tactical ways, disregards the power of Euron’s fleet and neglects the danger her dragons are in, we can say that her actions are incongruent to what we’d expect.
This isn’t a plot hole per se, but it is an illogical leap from one point to another. So, how could this situation have been avoided? Well, we can look no further for inspiration than... Game of Thrones.
Take Hodor for example; a character that only says the word “hodor” throughout the show. Why? Check out the video below.
Make of this moment what you will, but there’s no denying that it’s a strong example of a congruent plot. By connecting one plot point to another, the writers do a great job of building continuity, and paving over hollow-ground.
Plot Hole Meaning in Characters
Character plot holes & how to fix them
Character plot holes are frustrating and often result in us saying, “that character would never do that.” It’s not ludicrous to suggest that a screenwriter should know their characters better than anyone else. So, when a character does something that goes against their grain, we sometimes feel betrayed.
The good news for writers is that actions can be explained with just a little bit of context. Say your protagonist generally stays calm and controlled but then “inexplicably” explodes with rage.
A moment like that might seem jarring to viewers, but through plot (aka the connection of events in a story) they can be justified. Without needing to know anything about Better Call Saul, you should pick up on how allusions to the plot justify Jimmy’s outrage in the clip below.
I bring up this example to show how masterclass writers use the combination of plot and characterization to avoid the pitfalls of character plot holes. All writers can learn from the great character building in Better Call Saul.
Examples of Plot Holes via the God From the Machine
Plot holes via deus ex machina
If a plot hole is an unexplained gap between the pretense of one plot point and the result of another, then deus ex machina is its ever-so-close companion that relies more on suspending disbelief than logic.
But what is deus ex machina? We define it thusly: “Deus ex machina is when a hopeless situation is suddenly solved by an unexpected occurrence.” If there’s NO explanation for how a hopeless situation is solved by an unexpected occurrence, then we can say there’s a plot hole.
But oftentimes, however circumstantial, there’s an explanation for how a situation comes to be. For more on this subject, check out the video below.
Perhaps the most famous and contentious example of deus ex machina is the “eagles scene” in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In this scene, it appears that all hope is lost, but then at the perfect moment, the eagles arrive. Now here’s the million dollar question: did the plot establish whether or not the eagles were en route to save the day?
Well… no, at least not in the standard cut of the film. Avid Tolkien fans will argue that the eagles’ heroic timing is more justified in the book, but alas, it’s never clearly foreshadowed in the films.
Movie cliches and tropes to avoid
Plot holes may leave the audience without proper resolution, but nothing is worse than the contrived feeling of a bad cliche. In this next article, we look at how to avoid cliches and tropes, with examples from Star Wars, Twilight and The Avengers. By the end, you’ll know exactly what kinds of cliches and tropes make audiences roll their eyes.