Beware plot and pot holes in your fiction!
by Ruth Harris
We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.
Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.
These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.
You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.
1. Lapses in logic.
Your MC is stranded on a dry planet in a far galaxy but when the villain suddenly appears bent on revenge and brandishing a nuclear ray gun, said villain falls into a deep puddle and drowns.
Your cute, adorable if somewhat ditzy heroine is a lousy, horrible, terrible cook. The reader falls in love with her—until she cooks a four course gourmet dinner for her hunky new boyfriend.
Your MC has just broken her leg and is lying helpless in the middle of the road waiting for an ambulance but suddenly gets up and kicks the you-know-what out of her antoganist. Uh. Really?
“&$#%!!?” thinks your reader as s/he throws your book across the room.
In cases like this, the lapse is the result of inadvertantly omitting the necessary set up. Go back several scenes and let your reader know that—
The dry planet in a far galaxy experienced a once-in-a-century-torrential rainstorm. Residual puddles, deep and dangerous, lurk and your villain, who we now know is color blind, thanks to your new, artful set up, does not see the beautiful, shimmering but deep and dangerous turquoise blue water.
Oh, and did Ms. Ditzy, win a course with Monsieur Master Chef in a cute and adorable contest? If you go back and insert such a scene, why, yes, of course she did. Got at A+, too!
Your MC thinks quickly and, despite being in excruciating pain, fashions a splint out of a nearby fallen branch, thus allowing him or her to get up and kick the bleep out of the antagonist. That is one MC not to be messed with!
2. Mean girls (and boys).
Your heroine, Sally, is madly in love but falls even mad-lier in love when a handsomer, richer, sexier, guy comes along and catches her eye (plus other parts of her anatomy).
Could be the basis of a suspenseful/comic/sad situation, but if bf #1 is never mentioned again, if Sally never gives him another thought, or never has even a transient moment of regret or what-if, you’ve got a heroine so self-centered and maybe even narcissistic that no reader can relate.
Not just girls, either. Just read the headlines to find plenty of examples of guys who are far less than stellar. You really expect a reader to stay with this kind of guy for very long? Their wives divorce them, their girl friends dump them and so should you.
Check your characters for basic decency or, in extreme cases, mental health, but don’t forget that even villains must have a redeeming quality.
3. Info dumps.
Blah,blah, blah. And then this happened and after a while that happened. Blah,blah, blah. Then they went from here to there and that’s why blah blah blah.
Info dumps stop the plot in its tracks. They are boring to read and, in fact, boring to write. Readers hate them and writers should, too.
You should be on info dump alert whenever you review your manuscript and see long, dense grey blocks of text or lengthy paragraphs of narrative. You should also pay attention whenever you bore yourself writing. Trust me, it happens. 😉
Serve in bite-size pieces. Instead of one long, boring info dump, create several interesting scenes sprinkled throughout the book that convey the needed information in an interesting, provocative, dramatic, suspenseful way.
Speaking of boring—
4. Do nothing, go nowhere dialogue.
“Not much. Bought new windshield wipers for the car. You?”
“Just got back from the dentist.”
Bored, aren’t you? Just imagine your poor, defenseless reader.
Ye olde trusty delete button. (This is a great place to use the kind of indirect dialogue I talked about earlier this month…Anne. 🙂 )
Or, if you absolutely positively need to have Bill and George meet, you need to give us a reason and make the encounter riveting. Bill is dating George’s ex and wants to warn him that she is Very Bad News? They’re competing for the same job and are secretly sticking the shiv in each other? They’re on the same Seal Team and are joining up to assassinate the world’s worst Bad Guy?
5. Where are we?
Your MC goes on a Caribbean vacation but, after enjoying a rum punch on a terrace overlooking a crescent of white beach, opens a suitcase containing a wardrobe better suited for the slopes of Vermont. Because you began with the idea of a sexy ski holiday, but changed your mind in mid-manuscript when a YouTube video of white sands and turquoise water beckoned?
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and, in fiction, a scene that starts in the Caribbean ends in the Caribbean. Your MC can go to Vermont next week.
And don’t forget—
- Your MC is swanning around in a Chicago penthouse in Chapter 1. In Chapter 4 s/he is homeless and living in a dumpster. In January. And not in Australia, either, where January is summer. Let’s keep it in the Northern Hemisphere and explain what happened.
A scene that starts in the kitchen ends in the kitchen. Unless you tell the reader why the characters are suddenly in the basement of a haunted house. Here’s where a transition sentence or, even better, a scene break is essential.
A scene that begins on the phone ends on the phone and, by the way, unless they’re on Skype, characters on the phone cannot see each other. They can hear each other shout, whisper, or coo sweet nothings, but they cannot see raised eyebrows, reddened faces or piercing green eyes.
PS: How do I know? Been there, done that, and not so long ago, either. 😉
6. Huh? (It’s called continuity in the movies.)
Movie fans love to point out bloopers like this. Book readers will notice,too.
- A blue eyed demon when introduced. Brown eyed devil half a dozen chapters later.
- MC works in Starbucks. She’s there every day. We never see her anywhere else. She’s a World Class barista. Then why is she suddenly a new hire in the electronics section at Best Buy where her boss is chasing her around the displays of headphones, routers, and TVs?
- Chase scene starts with the guy in a Ferrari and the gal in a junker. Ends with her in the Ferrari and him in the junker. Huh? How come? Wha happened?
Your style sheet to the rescue.
What’s a style sheet?
Funny you should ask. Here’s where Ruth tells All.
7. Dropped subplots.
Self explanatory: A character or situation is abandoned or left dangling in space.
Jane and Jake, your MC’s sister and best friend, hate each other but, against all odds, on one dark night, they share a sizzling hot kiss. Then what happens?
They fall in love and live happily ever after? They join opposing intelligence services and swear eternal vengeance? The next morning, they shrug, say meh and mark it down to too much craft beer? Or do they make plans for a second date?
We last saw Jim when his car was skidding out of control on an icy mountain road in Alaska as he is escaping the evil clutches of Mr. Nasty. The car lurches wildly, careens over a cliff. Then what happens?
Jim’s amazing driving ability allows him to right the car before it crashes? Or it doesn’t and the car is totaled but Jim is rescued by friendly locals? Or are they maybe not so friendly? And, by the way, it’s not a dream. It’s a real situation and Jim absolutely has to get out of it.
Do NOT leave your reader in the lurch, wondering what happens next.
Complete the arc and let the reader know!
However, if we’re talking about minor characters like Jane and Jake, go to the nuclear option and delete. (Keep the kiss in a Future File. Might make a good short story or even morph into another scene in another book.)
8. TDTL: Too Dumb To Live
The detective who sees Mary Z. with a bloody axe leave a murder scene but never suspects Mary Z is the killer.
The wife who finds lipstick on her husband’s tighty whiteys but believes his obviously ridiculous story about working late reprogramming a malfunctioning robot.
The superhero who can fly over the tallest buildings but is such a klutz s/he can’t get up the stairs to save The Love Of His/Her Life from the dastardly villain.
How do characters like this remember to breathe?
Readers will not care.
Please, do yourself (and your character) a favor, and give him or her an IQ over room temp.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) February 25, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Does your plot have holes? Or continuity issues? Does your WIP need some road repair? Which of these problems are you most likely to fall into?
Anne is poisoning people again over at her book blog. This month she’s talking about mercury poisoning.
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