Devil’s Plot Advocate: What would happen if…

As a developmental editor it’s my job to poke holes in plot, especially in terms of causality. One of the most crippling things a writer can do to their plot is not ask enough “what if…” questions as they build up to their story’s climax.

Here’s a quick checklist to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls of causality plot holes:

  1. What is the status quo?
    • If the villain didn’t move forward with a new plan, if the hero stayed at home, what would be happening in the world? Would there be spies and informants sneaking around, keeping both sides of a conflict in the loop? Would the hero go to work? Would the villain be taking a day to assess potential new hires or recruits? What does an average day entail? Training? Guarding something? Playing chess?
    • Ex: One side of a conflict has a camp that is fairly safe, but the villain knows where it is. The good-guys know where the villains hide out, too. Neither side invades the other because there would be a lot of casualties, and the loss of life isn’t quite worth it because there’s no for-sure winning. So they just keep an eye on each other. Some things to ponder:
      • What if the good-guys see a group of bad-guys leave their camp? Do they try to follow them? Do they report back to their leader? Does the bad-guy know where the spy is and would they off him before they can sound a warning? If the hero suddenly wanders in, can the spy go get back-up? If the hero talks to the spy, what will they find out?
      • Vice versa: What do the bad-guys do if they see a bunch of good-guys leave their camp? Do they think it’s a perfect time to attack? Do they worry that their plans have been detected and if so, what do they do about it? Do the good-guys off the bad-guy spy? Do they try to sneak out so no one knows that they’re up to something? If a bad-guy gets too close, what happens to him?
  2. What happens if the protagonist / villain / side-kick doesn’t do-the-thing?
    • Not every villain can precisely anticipate the protagonist and vice versa. They can make logical assumptions about each other, but counting on a single set of behavior or choices to get to the climax means you have a dangerously wobbly plot. (There are exceptions to this, if set up properly – usually if the hero has a set code of conduct that they refuse to deviate from. “It’s the only play.” Most times they will need to spell that out to the audience so that it doesn’t seem like a plot hole.)
    • Ex: The hero has something the villain wants. They know the villain wants it. The villain knows they have it. Villain takes something/someone the hero values to threaten the hero with so they hand over the item. As a writer you need to answer BOTH the following scenarios:
      • What happens if the hero doesn’t play ball? Does the something/someone end up sacrificed in some way? What contingency plan does the villain have to deal with the lack of getting what they want?
      • What happens if the hero does play ball? Does the villain just hand over the something/someone in a fair trade? Do they double cross the hero? Does the hero expect the double cross?
  3. What would have happened if the hero wasn’t around?
    • The villain probably didn’t make their plans by consulting the hero, considering the conflict between protagonist and antagonist is what drives the story. But if the villain could avoid opposition, I’m sure they would, since that would more likely get them what they wanted. So what would they be doing if the protagonist didn’t exist?
    • Ex: The hero is a farm boy that gets dragged into a war because his only family was killed by one of the armies. The leader of the [now] enemy doesn’t even know the hero exists, or if he does, he’s not overly worried – it’s just one farm boy. That leader, the villain, already has plans in motion. The good-guy army probably plans to fight them, but they are at a disadvantage. The hero manages to have just the right thing going for them that they are the deciding difference in the fight – their side wins the battle and wouldn’t have won without them. Answer these:
      • What would have happened if the hero didn’t take up arms? What if they had died with their family, or what if their family hadn’t been killed?
      • What if the villain realized before it was too late that the hero was going to cost them their victory? Would they still have fought the battle? If not, what would they have done instead?

There are times where this sort of “What if…” line of questioning can go too far – its impossible to account for every variation in a plot and odds are your readers would find it boring if your narrator explained all the ways that what-is-about-to-happen is also the-only-thing-that-can-happen. Readers are smart. They’ll fill in the gaps they need to. So long as you don’t leave in a glaring plot hole, their suspension of belief will follow for the duration of the story.

Have you ever read a book (or seen a show/movie) that left a large plot whole at the climax? What would have fixed it? How do you avoid them in your own stories? What happens when you find one? The comments are always open.

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