It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I recently re-read The Hobbit and was relieved that I enjoyed it as much as I did in my last reading. I feel like if you read and write fantasy and haven’t read The Lord of the Rings trilogy eight hundred times and can’t spout off sizable snippets of The Silmarillion then you’re to be instantly shunned. Which is no fun for anyone. But that’s not the point of this little post, for which I’m sure you’re all most magnanimously thankful. There is a point, I assure you, and it goes back to the little matter of a live dragon. We will be delving into the realm of extended metaphor so strap on your reading glasses and get yourself a comfortable cushion. Tolkien is, of course, quite correct in suggesting that you make sure to include a dragon in any calculations should one be nearby. Which is something with which our little Hobbit and crew of Dwarves certainly struggled. They knew there was a dragon guarding the treasure, and they knew they would have to get rid of him, but no one quite planned how.
Which brings us to plot holes. You know, those buzzing, biting, little gnats–or, occasionally, fully fledged dragons roaring and spewing smoke–of story that just don’t quite fit. Sometimes it’s an element or a character that you have in your head and want to bring to life. And maybe he’s wonderful–but maybe your over-sized, drunk, pirate’s first mate doesn’t have any business wandering around your Young Adult paranormal romance set in Kentucky. Or maybe one of your characters has a leopard cub for no real reason other than George R.R. Martin already has the monopoly on direwolves and you wanted him to have a cool beast companion. Unfortunately, readers will notice plot holes–whether your character somehow made it across an entire country on horseback in several hours or ridiculous events occur just to get all of your characters in one place so that you can stop being A.D.D. and switching from character to character (guilty).
I’ve learned some new terms about the way certain people write from the blog community. A plotter is someone who outlines and outlines and takes notes and outlines and plans and plots and schemes (Oh, but plots and schemes are the same thing, aren’t they?) A pantser is someone who does everything by the seat of their pants–no outlining, no planning, just fingers to the keyboard and ready, aim, write. I am definitely a pantser. Outlining sucks the life out of the story IF I do it before I begin writing. I’m a pantser until I get stuck, toes on the edge of a massive plot hole that I can’t seem to fill. Then, I become a plotter–purely out of sheer desperation. As anyone will tell you, it doesn’t really matter which way you write–everyone works differently. However, and I say this with gritted teeth, at some point you need to have a rough idea of where the story is going.
Most of the time, plot holes can be filled by–you guessed it–editing. First drafts are full of holes, you have to go back and make the Swiss Cheese make sense. But, I’m beginning to learn that you can save some time and sanity by trying to check for holes as you go, even if you just outline the next step. Knowing point A and Z are all well and good, but there are 24 other letters in the alphabet that you have to figure out. I guess it all comes down to being able to edit yourself as you go–not every little sentence–but recognize that certain characters and scenarios, while fabulous, may be stowing away in a story where they don’t belong. You never know when a bit character that was fighting you in one piece will end up as the leading man or leading lady in your next work of brilliance.
So learn to recognize the plot holes before you fall in them and know that they have to be filled in–and preventing them is easier than going back and rearranging your whole narrative around them. If you forget to calculate for the dragon, you could find that he is lurking around a corner waiting to light you on fire and send you tumbling down into a bottomless plot hole. And plot holes, unlike rabbit holes, are not something into which you want to fall.