The Trouble of Consistency)
Plot-holes are potholes. They take what might have otherwise been a smooth and pleasant ride, and violently shake you out of the moment. The worst thing is that they can come up in a story that you were thoroughly enjoying, and want to keep on enjoying, but now that you’ve seen the glaring error you can’t unsee it. Plot-holes are very difficult to avoid though, and the more imaginative and fantastic your work of fiction is, the more likely that you’ve introduced systems and rules which collide with one another in unintended ways.
I discovered this first-hand with my short story: Revelate. This was a sci-fi/fantasy piece in a world of automata creating and destroying one another. There were four main characters, each of which I composed separately, and then tried to weave together in one overarching narrative. As if all that wasn’t enough, I designed the story to exist in one large cycle, the final scene literally concluding where the first one began, like one of those ancient epics that used the eternal rounds of the gods to try and explain the repeating seasons.
And, to make a long story short, it has plot-holes. I knew they were likely, I spent a great amount of time finding and ironing them out before publishing the piece…but a few weeks after I finally posted the story I still found one that remained. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.
Tied in Knots)
In writing that story I found that my greatest source of inconsistencies came when I started bending the story to fit through a desired narrative beat. I imagine that this is the case for many other story-tellers as well.
You really want this particular confrontation to happen in a particular way, and you go to great lengths to make sure that it happens. But as you tug at the corners of your story to make them fit, you inadvertently tear the fabric somewhere else.
That tear might occur in a total plot-hole, or it might occur as a hand-wavy-don’t-think-too-much-about-it convenience. In either case, though, the tapestry is comprised in the name of narrative intrigue.
It’s an understandable failing, but here are two techniques that can help to avoid it.
Match Complexity to Scale)
A large reason why I struggled with plot-holes in Revelate was because it had a very small scope, with only a few characters and scenes, and yet in that small space was filled with many dense systems, with a lot of intersections between them all. The more a story is bursting at the seams with ideas, the more likely it is to have some incongruities between them.
I won’t name names, but I think we can all readily call to mind examples of this in popular media. A story exists first as a book, then is extended in the movie adaptation, gets a spin-off television series, and every remaining gap in its timeline is filled with comics. The result? A world that is so saturated with ideas that they are bound to contradict one another sooner or later. Many popular franchises start off coherent, but then began to buckle under their own weight further down the line.
An example of a story that chose a level complexity that matched its scale is that of the Disney animated classic The Sword in the Stone. This is a rich and magical story, where the viewer is regularly treated with fanciful delights. A particular favorite of mine is the bit where Merlin magicks all of the dishes to start cleaning themselves.
In all, I can think of seven magical segments, which might seem pretty dense for an eighty minute film, but none of these sequences ever contradict each other. The secret to this is that actually there though there are seven magical sequences, there are actually only two or three unique ideas that are then cleverly dressed up in different ways.
Merlin and Arthur turn into squirrels, fish, and birds. There is also the transfiguration battle Merlin has with Madam Mim. Each of these encounters repeat the same basic rules established with the first. Each feels distinct because the story is at a different place in each, but the mechanics are exactly the same. Similarly, the inanimate objects that come to life in Merlin’s home follow the very same procedure as the inanimate dishes that begin cleaning themselves later in the story.
Thus the writer’s cleverly limited themselves to very few systems, and kept the world into a manageable state.
World First, Narrative Second)
The other solution to managing a convoluted tale is to flip the script that normally gets writers into trouble: i.e. coming up with the story beats first, and then twisting the world to fit it. Instead, spend your time developing the world and its systems first, keeping all in perfect harmony with one another until the sandbox is complete. Then, and only then, ask yourself what sort of story could be told within these confines, and vow to never break the systems to make a narrative point. If your world is interesting and complex enough, then it should be able to support any number of different stories within it.
Isaac Asimov seemed understood this trick well enough to admit when he had not adhered to it in his “robot series.” Of those stories he said that they “offer a kind of history of the future, which is, perhaps, not completely consistent, since I did not plan consistency to begin with.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, on the other hand, spent years developing the world of Middle Earth, its cultures and languages, its factions and wars, before he ever penned the work that would become Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire volume everything remains remarkably consistent because of his world-first approach.
In my new story, Raise the Black Sun, I am endeavoring to adhere to both of these principles at the same time. I intend to show quite a number of new and interesting mechanics over the course of the story, and so I am setting it a world that is extremely vast and expansive, to ensure that the complexity will not overrun the story’s scale. A new idea might be used once, and then the story will rush so far away that there is never an opportunity for that mechanic to intersect with the next. By not trying to fill in every hole I don’t have to deal with the problem of two pieces not fitting together.
At the same time, I decided to take a world-first approach to developing this story. The entire idea for Raise the Black Sun was to just spit-ball about all sorts of crazy fantasy ideas that shared a similar vibe. There was no plot, no arc, no character whatsoever. Only after I had a clear idea of what sort of world and systems I wanted, and only after I had ensured there were no contradictions among them, then I considered what a short story in that place might look like.
Come back on Thursday, where we will see a few of the novelties I have planned for my story. Pay careful attention to how I space them out from one another, and how they suggest a work that is crafted by the world first and story second.