Ack! I have a plot hole! Techniques to Solve in an Early Stage

download (5)So, last time I truly posted, I was taking a blogging hiatus to work on the sequel to MUST LOVE BREECHES. I’ve since then finished the first draft and have been working on high-level revisions since. I love plot and am a nerd about finding different ways to tackle looking at it. I definitely needed to find a different way to handle this one, because it had problems, and I knew it.

The biggest problem? I knew the ending before I ever started writing it, so my plot points just before the big Crisis were pushed to make this crisis happen. Result? It lacked believability and motivation. So much so, readers would’ve likely thrown the book at the wall.

Also, some of my major plot points were tied with the specific time period and I wanted to make sure the history was sound.

The first thing I did was make a spreadsheet with my scenes and it helped me a little–I saw gaps and plugged in new rows for scenes that needed to be there. When I thought I had it figured out, I transferred it to a Word Document that I created, where I just gave summaries of what happens in each chapter, a Chapter Outline. This I sent to one Welsh historian and a couple of Beta readers. Because of the possible plot problems, I didn’t want to wait until I had a readable full-length draft. I got great feedback and took that and revised the Outline again and sent it to a couple of other historians who helped me shore up the historical plot points.

But the Crisis? Yep, everyone came back and said it didn’t work–wasn’t believable. But it was the one thing in my whole plot I couldn’t throw out–it was the image I had in my head when I first started noodling this WIP around for possibilities and I also knew it was a strong image. So, it had to stay.

Back to the drawing board. I really worried each time I sat down to try to solve this that I wouldn’t figure it out. I felt like I was so close but couldn’t quite get there.

I could also tell that the Outline, while it helped as an instrument to gain feedback from others in an early stage, wasn’t helpful to me to try to make sense of it; I couldn’t play with it. Then I remembered my plotting board and fondness for stickies that I’ve used on other WIPS, so pulled it out and went to town.


It helped me a little, some of the smaller plot issues I was able to see and fix by adding new stickies and moving others around. But the Black Moment leading up to the Crisis was still a problem. So I went to my trusty Beta partner Jami Gold and sent her my bulleted list of events leading up to the Crisis and she came back with a wonderful idea for the motivation, but also helped me look at the Black Moment I had and came up with some other suggestions for how to have it play out. This got my mental juices unblocked and at the plotting board I began making stickies, rearranging scenes, and then also saw how I could tie her idea in with the Antagonist and pull it all together. I also then saw that having a change of location helped raise the tension and stakes. I was then able to see how the heroine’s personality could be tweaked to make it even more impactful. Excited, I typed up version 3 of my Chapter Outline and sent it to Jami and some new victims for feedback.

But I can feel it–I can feel the story works now. My gut wasn’t wrong when I finished that first draft, and I’m so glad I listened to it and found a way to get valuable input in such an early stage. I really dreaded revising this WIP with my gut feeling that way, worried that I’d go to all this trouble revising and polishing and then have my gut proved right when Beta feedback came back and pointed out the plot problems. Now I feel much more confident going into actual revisions; the framework for the story is much more solid. Now I can work on all the other fun stuff I like to do during revisions and get this revised and polished. Now, hopefully, my Beta readers will be able to help see smaller issues instead of pointing out big macro issues that should’ve been firmed up before I ever got to that stage.

I also liked working with an outline and fiddling with it, not touching my prose at all. It was much easier to see, without running the risk of overreading the WIP too early.

So, to distill this for others that might be in the same boat (I’m a “plantser” –someone who does some pre-plotting but pantses the rest of the first draft):

  • Take your first draft and make a chapter outline. Mine came out to ten pages.
  • Just like in the Beta stage, get a variety of folks to look at it. I had historians who knew nothing about the writing craft, as well as others who did. Evaluate their comments just like you would on a full manuscript. See a pattern? You have a problem.
  • Fiddle and revise. Go back to any tools you’ve used in the past to help you look at your manuscript differently (for me it was the plotting board)
  • Get someone who is deeply familiar with plotting and structure, and that you trust to be honest with you, to take a look at it

How have you handled plot problems in the past? Have you also pulled in outside eyes at this early stage? Has it helped you? What techniques have you used to look at your plot in a high-level way?

DISCLAIMER: I don’t watch Dr. Who, so I have no idea if the image I used is a fair assessment of that episode, but I thought it seemed appropriate to the post to illustrate a problem common to many writers when working out their plot. Plus, appropriately enough, it deals with time travel 😉

29 Replies to “Ack! I have a plot hole! Techniques to Solve in an Early Stage”

  1. OMG, Angela, you just terrified me. I’d run screaming if I had to make a spreadsheet or a sticky board. Somehow my characters just come up with things, or suddenly another character shows up, or does something unexpected. I’ve actually written what I though was the end, but it turned out not to be.

    1. That happens to me too, during the first draft stage (and did with this one), but when I finished, I just felt like there was a major problem with some of my turning points, hence letting the other side of my personality tackle it 🙂

  2. I’m a plantser too! But with writing a series, I’ve had to tame the panting a lot, and start playing with my plotter. I’m a visual person, so the sticky board works best for me, if I think I have a problem. That being said, I’m always doing the chapter outline, just so I can “see” the book in my head.

    I do have a few beta readers, and I’m so grateful for them. One of them was brave enough to see a macro problem in my plot that others didn’t see or were too polite to comment on. And it was a big problem. To sum it up, I just wasn’t taking enough of a risk in my writing. I wasn’t being as bold as my characters needed, as my plot needed. I needed to suck it up, and stop playing safe. I haven’t officially given my book a release party yet, that’s April 19th, but so far I’ve gotten amazing reviews. And I know it was because, as scarey as it was, I went all out bold.

    1. I hear ya! I started out as a total pantser, but after going through so many revisions where I was fixing stuff that could’ve been caught early on in the process if I’d only done some plotting had me start flirting with plotting. Now I try to do as much as I can before (turning points, etc) before my other half screams in protest and I just have to write to see what happens. I’m visual too, and I think that’s why I love my plotting board.

      Beta readers you trust are so invaluable, glad you have one who could see the macro problem! Good luck with your release!

  3. Great advice here. You’re lucky to have someone like Jami who has both the knowledge and the honesty to really help.

  4. My only question is why don’t you watch Dr. Who? It’s epic. Just sayin’. 😀 Also, congrats on ironing out the plot. I sincerely wished I’d done way more preplotting. I’m 5 revisions in and still tweaking, so your methods sound like a time saving heaven.

    1. I’m one of those that feels like they have to see the whole thing, and the thought of going all the way to the start has given me pause. I briefly tried watching it when the leather jacket Dr was on, and liked them, but I was too lost.

      Yep, going through eighty-gazillion revisions with MUST LOVE BREECHES had me totally wanting to find ways to shortcut that process.

  5. I’m with Ella on this one–my anxiety level got higher and higher reading this post, Angela! Isn’t it AMAZING how differently we all write. One of the problems I’ve faced in the Blood Vine Series is keeping all the character trajectories intertwined, since I have such a big cast. In my first draft of Blood Entangled, they were running in parallel and it lowered the stakes for all their actions.

    Still, I can’t seem to think so analytically about the plot–my sense it’s not working comes from the gut. The only thing that helps me is what we learned in the class with Shannon Donnelly when we first met–synopsis first, and if the logic doesn’t make sense in the synopsis, I know there is a problem. Now I’ve got a complete draft of Blood Vine Three (still no title-alas!) and it’s probably a good time to do the chapter outline you’ve described, to make sure it all works.

    1. LOL, yep, it’s so different for everyone. I’m still trying to find my ideal process, but I’m also starting to wonder if it’ll be a little different each time, because the genesis of the idea is not always the same. Sometimes it’s a premise, or an ending, or a character that sparks it, and I’m finding how I get at fleshing out the rest is different each time because I’m having to go at it differently. But yep, I think at the end of a first draft, stepping back and taking a look at it on a macro level can only help. And congrats on finishing 3!

      1. “I’m also starting to wonder if it’ll be a little different each time, because the genesis of the idea is not always the same. Sometimes it’s a premise, or an ending, or a character that sparks it, and I’m finding how I get at fleshing out the rest is different each time…”

        Yes, THIS!!! Every single story has been a bit different for me. I’m a pantser, but sometimes that means I need ZERO idea of the bigger picture and sometimes I want to know some high-level stuff before going in.

        You have your plotting board and I have my planning sheets. 🙂 The whole “plotting/planning for pantsers” workshop I developed was exactly because -I- wanted a way to plan, but only as far as I needed to, and then I decided to share my tools with others. LOL!

  6. Someday I may become brave enough to try planning as much as you do, Angela. I can see definite advantages to it, but so far my current methods have worked for me. I envision myself trying this for something new and different (for me). As it is, I’m almost afraid to mess with my current system.

    Oh, and I can’t wait to read this. I’m on the beta-waiting list, right?

    1. I say, if your process works, stick to it. I keep fiddling, because I hate wasting time during revisions and am trying to cut that time down. And yep, you’re on the list!! Thanks!

  7. You’re so much more dedicated to the nitty-gritty of plotting than I am! I don’t think my brain would let me organize that much in advance. But I do relate to the experience of knowing something isn’t right and working on it until it is right. It’s a painful but necessary process.

    Also, what do you mean you haven’t watched Doctor Who??? You would love it. 😉

    1. Well, a lot of this was done AFTER the first draft. But for previous WIPs, I did use the plotting board to try and get at my turning points… Re: Dr. Who, I know, I’m just one of those that has to watch ALL previous episodes and the thought of catching up on all of it has put it off for the time being…

  8. Great tips! I’m just finishing up my first draft, and I know there’s a problem I’ll have to fix as well. I wish I had Beta readers . . . where did you recruit yours from?

  9. Hm, Plantser. I like it. I think that’s me. I pants it for the first 75% with only minimal charting and outlining (I live by my character development chart, so much of plot is simply what HAS to happen to get the character to grow). The last 25% is much trickier. I must plot. I outline. I synopsize. I pull my hair out. I draft. I hate it. i draft again. Then I bring it to my critique partners and they often help me with ideas when I get stuck. I HATE writing the last 25% of any book, but you have to do it or you’re not a writer. I just tell myself to suck it up and get busy thinking!

    Thanks for the post, Angela. I love your sticky chart.

    1. I only wish I was that organized in writing. Planster may even be too much structure for me to handle, something rather to aspire to! LOL I generally have a loose flow in my head (but with age that’s not working so well anymore, the memory is faltering) and I just write. Problem is, I write into a lot of corners, or go off on tangents, or… a whole host of other things. I always admire those of you who have logical-sequential thinking skills. When I was a senior in high school, we had to write a term paper on an aspect of Shakespeare – but a month before the paper was due we had to turn in an outline for the paper. I couldn’t do that… I had to write the entire paper (a month ahead of time) and then derive an outline to turn in from that. First time in my life, I think, that I didn’t procrastinate on a paper! LOL

      I have found a form of that to be helpful, though. I’ve been taking the chapters I’ve already written and doing spreadsheet outlines from them similar to what you described having done in your post, Angela. And seeing it that way (already done) helps me refine the flow in my head going forward. That’s about as close to discipline as I get, it seems.

      Great post topic, though – it always interests me to hear the processes that work for writers.

    2. I do some character development first (I try to get at my GMCs and their arc at least) and then try to come up with my major turning points before I start, but then I have to write. Sometimes I have to stop and reanalyze along the way, especially fleshing out the characters once I’ve gotten to know them. But I can’t seem to write the last bit. So actually my First Drafts don’t have endings. That’s when I stop and go through tightening up plot like I’m doing now, get characters nailed down in all aspects, and fill in scenes in the outline that I’m missing and nail down the ending there…

  10. Yay! So happy I could help. 🙂

    You know I love all your stories (I’m still *dying* to read the rest of NOT ANOTHER DARCY), so I’m here anytime you need me. 🙂

  11. Hey Angela, I’m with you on plot problems. I had to change mine and the changes are so deep, I have to rethink the whole manuscript. What previously happened in Chapter 4 now happens in Chapter 1, so the incident in Chapter 5 is no longer relevant. Know what I mean?

    But in the end, it’s worth it, because the story gets stronger.

  12. I always have plot problems but in screen writing class we were given a chart – would work for a novel also. It’s pretty complex. My main problem with the class is plot first and I’m a panster so a bit un-nerving. And me too please to beta read for you 😀

  13. That is an excellent summary of that Doctor Who episode. And if you’d watched it, I’d definitely spend another twenty lines pointing out all the other truly ridiculous things in that episode, like the idea that if something is written down, it must always come true — um, fiction, anyone? You know the show’s got problems when even devoted fans can’t muster the needed suspension of disbelief.

    Speaking as someone who started Doctor Who late, though, and dropped in and out for a while, it’s quite watchable if you start with the episode “Rose” in what Netflix calls Doctor Who Season 1. I spent months just sort of seeing it now and then when my son was watching and the basic idea — alien who looks human with machine that travels through time and space — is really all you need to follow most of the storylines. And the squishy parts, where you inevitably have to say, “wait, what just happened? How does that make any sense? Um, excuse me?” are just as squishy for long-time fans.

  14. I’ve had plot problems too, but it’s always worth it to restructure a book and radically rewrite parts of it. Everything has to be consistent, both with the story arc and with the characters. Sometimes you figure out issues before you get to that point, and simply write the black moment or other events a bit differently.

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