Potholes and Plotholes

crater city

Engaging Stories Have Creative Plots Without Holes

I’ve found there are generally three levels of plot generation when you’re coming up with a new story idea. They proceed with greater difficulty and commensurate reward:

1. Modifying

The focus here is on someone else’s story. You like it enough to copy it, or you think you can tell it better. When we develop a story by making changes to an existing story we run the risk of plagiarism or writing fan fiction. But if you make enough changes, you can steer clear of legal danger. Existing at this level are works like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, an update of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and every star-crossed-lovers tale since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, including two of my favorite sci-fi films: “The Space Between Us” and “Avatar.”

If the modifications are substantial enough, it’s possible the author was not consciously aware of the connection to a previous story. I had finished my novel Cursed and Blessed for months before I realized it had a lot of similarity to the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty: My character is a gay man instead of a teen princess, an evil fairy curses him to die at 25 instead of 15, and a good fairy tries to soften the curse a bit with her blessing.

2. Riffing

The focus here is not a story in any medium. It is something random, like a pothole, a strange melody heard on a subway platform, or a shoe whose lace is tangled on a high tree branch. The riffing method of story evocation usually starts with some version of the question: What if?

What if the pothole were big enough to swallow a city? Or the city were built at the bottom of a huge pothole or crater? Or the pothole was a metaphor for a gap in the space-time continuum, or some other hazard your chosen character had to repeatedly avoid?

What if there were a song that had the power to make listeners forget betrayals, or any sorrow? What if instead of the shoe being tossed up into a tree, the wearer might have been levitated into the sky and was desperately trying to hook her foot on an anchoring tree branch to stop herself?

My novel The Lever arose from one of those What If questions. I was looking at some statistical analysis that suggested that the birth rate would decline as the global standard of living rises, and I wondered how the military would respond when their prime recruiting pool dwindled to a trickle.

3. Building

At some point, inspiration has to come from somewhere. Even stories we develop from dreams or meditations have large doses of our experiences and previous stories in them. The process of building a story for me often happens in the middle. I have to look both forward and backward from the part that would ordinarily be chapter one. It may start with a scene or an idea, and then I ask myself: What happened to get us here, and where does it move from here on out?

When I was conceiving of one of my more complicated novels, Time Bump, I started with just the idea of somebody being pushed out of 3D reality into 4D reality. (I had recently seen a video in which Carl Sagan explained the fourth dimension with an apple and some cut-out shapes, so it was a bit of a riff.) I thought back to who might push an ordinary person into a dimension where time was just another part of the landscape and why they might have done it. I thought ahead to what problems that might cause. I imagined the main character’s whole life history, his education and work, his family and friends, and his habits. (He always obsesses about having a bagel for breakfast, for example.) I thought about what sort of elements I most enjoyed in time travel stories, and made sure I included as many of them as I could. I just let the story surprise me in where it wanted to go. It took three years, but I finally finished it.


This methodical practice of prewriting, worldbuilding, and plot outlining has a much higher likelihood of being truly unique, and runs less risk of plotholes. Plotholes are like potholes in the road. They are things you have to fill in for anyone that will be traveling along after you. You may think you can lead someone around the hole without filling it in, but someone later is eventually going to fall into it.

Readers who fall into plotholes will question things like:

“How did she know he was going to be there?”

“Where did that weapon come from?”

“What were they doing when all this was going on?”

“How did he learn to pilot a spaceship, if he’s never been off Earth?”

What Did You Forget to Mention?

If you are careful in building your plot, you know what the offstage characters are doing and how those actions will affect the plot. Sometimes it means that when you need a character to be holding a weapon, you go back and explain why he picked it up earlier. Sometimes we see the heavy handed manipulation of characters by the author, keeping characters offstage when they too must continue reacting, planning, and acting at the same time as your onstage characters. And sometimes authors will have a piece of worldbuilding or a character’s back story in mind, but they forget to tell the reader.

Sometimes, when you’re really unlucky, you will steer clear of the plothole, your agent and your editor will miss it, and maybe even the copy editor will miss it. But somebody will eventually stumble onto it, so get lots of people to read your manuscript before it gets published. Few things signal an amateur author more blatantly than a plothole.

And on that note, I have a small cadre of beta readers for my stories, and I could always use a few more . . . in case you know someone who likes science fiction and fantasy.

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