April 3, 2019

Editing Advice Part 2: Plot

Part 1: Continuity
Part 3: Rewriting
Part 4: Copyediting

Last time, I discussed the importance of editing for continuity in the categories of time, place, and people. This week, we're going to focus on the plot-centered issues of internal consistency and plot holes. The line between these two categories is vague at best, but I'm still going to discuss them separately. For our purposes, let's say an internal inconsistency is a problem with the world building and a plot hole is a problem with the plot (as the name implies).

Internal Consistency

I'm not of the belief that you need to know every single thing about your fictional world—when the agricultural revolution happened, how ALL of the economic systems works, etcbut you do have to know enough for it to make sense, and you have to realize when it doesn't. Even if your setting isn't consistent with our world, it needs to be consistent with itself, thus the phrase "internally consistent". You can't break your own rules.

You should be thinking about internal consistency throughout the writing process, but, well, some people don't, so editing is your last shot. Ask yourself, does everything that you have chosen to include in a story follows naturally from how you've built your world? Is there something you don't talk about in your book, but that needs to be mentioned for the world to make sense? If you were a reader, is there anything that would strike you as "off" or unbelievable about the world, even in (or specifically because of) the setting it's in? 

For example, in the the setting of Leigh Bardugo's fantasy books, known collectively as the Grishaversehomosexual relationships are considered as normal as heterosexual ones. Yet, in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, there's this whole subplot about how Wylan's father thinks he's unfit to inherit his mercantile company because Wylan can't read; the father has already divorced/disappeared Wylan's mother, attempted to have Wylan murdered, and remarried so he can get a "better" heir. But, um, why? In a setting where gay relationships are the same as straight ones, there would have to be systems in place for non-bloodline inheritance. Otherwise, homosexual relationships would be seen as a burden by families, since gay heirs wouldn't be able to have heirs of their own without all sorts of weirdness (which I hardly think the families or the heirs would be okay with!). Bardugo has two conflicting societal norms: homosexual relationships are considered normal, and bloodline inheritance is a necessity. She needs to deal with one of those two things, either by explaining it (maybe Wylan's dad cares about blood when no one else does) or getting rid of it (nix the entire subplot with the new wife and have Wylan's dad trying to set up some adopted son or trusted coworker to be his successor instead). Otherwise, part of her world just doesn't make sense.

Internal consistency requires that you think about how everything is connected and affects everything else. No man is an island, they say; no world building factoid is an island, either, I might add. If you want your world to be taken seriously, you have to take it seriously by stepping into it and seeing it as a place with history, culture, sociology, natural history, cosmology, and so on. This is true regardless of how close or far removed your setting is from our own. If you make even one change—vampires exist, no one lives past the age of thirty, the North lost the Civil War, etc—it will have ripple effects across society and the world. Take some time to think about wether or not you've thought those effects through, and wether they might impact something important in the rest of your setting.

If everyone in your society is put into a warrior caste, lawmaker caste, scientist caste, and un-person caste, who grows all the food? Maybe mention that at some point. If you have a space fairing civilization, why would weapons dealers be the richest people and not fuel manufacturers. Maybe switch that around (Last Jedi, I'm looking at you!). If there was a widespread conflict between magic users and non-magic users, can you justify the people who can't wield supernatural forces as being the winners? If wizards have always lived apart from muggles, as evidenced by their robes, feather quills, parchment, and candles, why do they also use locomotives and buses? Why not use pens, paper, and lightbulbs as well? These are the types of questions you should answer at some point, and the editing process is your last chance to do it.

Plot Holes

Plot holes are easier to spot, yet they find their way into published works more than any other inconsistency, probably because peoplewriters, editors, those who should know bettertend to get so caught up in the story that they overlook things that don't quite make sense. You owe it to yourself, your story, and your readers to keep constant vigilance concerning holes in the plot.

One common plot hole is when a character has some ability or item that could easily solve some problem, but... they just don't use it. Why? Because the plot requires it! Another example is when the villain insists on carrying out some complicated scheme instead of the much simpler option because... plot.

An example that combines both of these hole types is Voldemort's plan in Goblet of Fire, in which the entire plot of the book is predicated on not using a Portkey in a timely fashion. Hear me out. We are shown that Portkeys (items that teleport people who touch them) can be made from anything, even trash. We are eventually shown that the Triwizard Cup is a Portkey, as it is used to teleport Harry to the spot where Voldemort uses his blood for magical resurrection fuel. We learn that Barty Crouch Jr. has gotten close to Harry so that he can manufacture Harry's win, so that Harry can be the first to touch said Portkey. I repeat: he gets very close to Harry, pretending to be his teacher. Harry trusts him. And Portkeys can be anything. Anything.

Do you see my problem? Why not make some random classroom item the Portkey? "Potter, go fetch that book on my desk. The purple one." BAM! Harry's in a graveyard and Voldemort can do the ritual. No need to make sure Harry's name gets in the Goblet of Fire, or talks to Hagrid, who takes him to see Charlie's dragons, in the hopes that this information might give Harry a leg up in the contest, maybe, and then do all the other convoluted things that might, hopefully, ensure that Harry has a head start into the final challenge. I mean, I love Goblet of Fire, but its plot absolutely does not need to exist. The fact that Barty Crouch Jr. doesn't just smack Harry with a Portkey while passing him in a lonely hallway or something is a huge, gaping plot hole.

Another sort of hole is when writers change the rules for certain characters for the sake of the plot. Again, let's look at Harry Potter (if it seems like I'm picking on Rowling, it's because I was absolutely obsessed with her books as a teenager. I nitpick because I care!). In Deathly Hallows, Rowling established that to become the master of the Elder Wand, you have to "defeat" the previous owner. Malfoy defeated Dumbledore with Expelliarmus, then Harry defeated Draco by physically grabbing Draco's wandnot the Elder Wand, mind you, but Draco's own wandso that Harry is now the Master of the Elder Wand. But we're to believe that Voldemort, then, doesn't become master of the Elder Wand when he Avada Kedavra's Harry in the forest? Why not? How does basically killing someone not count as "defeat" when disarming someone or stealing their stuff does? Because Harry's the Chosen One, I guess? And the plot required it.

Let me be clear, I'm not saying you have to fill in every plot hole, but you definitely have to address them all, in one way or another. Let's go back to our two examples.

Option one, of course, is to fix them. In Goblet of Fire, maybe the resurrection ritual has to take place during an eclipse, and wouldn't you know it, the final challenge of Triwizard Tournaments also takes place during eclipses, and maybe Barty Crouch Jr. has to actually be present at the resurrection ritual so he can't slap Harry with Portkey on that day... or something. For Deathly Hallows, maybe nix the Deathly Hallows (and thus the Elder Wand) subplot from the story entirely, since they add nothing to the plot (in a later post, I will argue that they actually derail the plot), which already involved finding and destroying Horcruxes.

Option two is to keep the plot hole, but explain why it isn't a plot hole. We already know Voldemort could have used any enemy's blood in the resurrection spell (no, really, he says this in the book!) but he has an obsession with Harry. Perhaps this obsession could lead him to forsake the obvious course of action I outlined and instead focus on producing a "worthy" enemy by having Harry "prove himself" in the tournament. As for Deathly Hallows... I mean, I guess you could say Voldemort didn't defeated Harry in the woods, but defeated a piece of his own soul, but that's still pretty weak, in my opinion (just stick with option one and get rid of the Hallows!). Anyway, for this option, the writer has to acknowledge that the plot-hole does exist, but that there is a reason for it to exist, and thus isn't really that much of a plot hole.

A final option is to hang a lantern on it. This means that you leave the plot hole in and point out how big of a hole it is. This works better for comedies or stories where characters are meta-aware of tropes than in more serious works (so, not Harry Potter). For example, have someone wonder why so-and-so didn't use that super useful item back there. Well, he's an idiot, so he forgot! Or maybe someone points out how incredibly unlikely it is that a certain character showed up at exactly the right time and place the other characters needed them in, and he says, "Well, that's a funny story, actually..." before being interrupted, and it is never brought up again. If you're writing such a story and come across a plot hole, feel free to have your characters point it out and move one, as long as you can do this in a way that feels natural to your writing style.

Of course, both world building and plot are so central to any narrative that fixing them may require more than a simple tweak and instead, a complete overhauling of large parts of the story. Next time, we will discuss how to tackle these and other issues during rewrites!

Part 1: Continuity
Part 3: Rewriting
Part 4: Copyediting

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