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Through the Plot Hole

Like a black hole, a plot hole sucks in everything around it.  Escaping one can be difficult. 

My editor recently pointed out a serious plot hole in my second contracted book.  I wasn’t surprised.  I knew that hole was there, sucking up the energy of my story.  But in my first draft, I tried to cleverly disguise this problem.  I obfuscated with trumped-up emotional turmoil.  I BS’ed my way around it with funny dialog.  I imposed an ending that didn’t hang together very well.

My editor is wise.  She is hip to my tricks.

There is nothing scarier than facing a plot hole.  To fix it, I’ve had to dig deep and come up with something that isn’t a cliché, isn’t contrived, flows out of the characters’ motives, and — in my case working on a very short deadline — doesn’t require a complete redrafting of the book.

I hit on a couple of strategies that I’d like to share with you all today:

I consulted my characters’ Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) charts.  Characters are always a good place to start when trying to fix a story.  I use GMC charts for my characters, and they always help to reminded me of what the characters want, what stands between the characters and their goals, and most important, what the characters have to learn in order to have a happy ending.  In the case of my hero, I realized I had a problem in his character arc.  I knew he needed to grow up some before he could get the heroine, but I hadn’t thought deeply about what it means for a man to grow up.  Deep thinking ensued as I studied my characters more closely.

I upped the stakes.  In page turners, the stakes for the hero and heroine always get higher the closer one gets to the book’s crisis.  I knew my plot problem occurred in the scenes leading up to the crisis, and in the way I resolved the black moment.  So I made a list of a dozen things that could test my hero’s mettle as a grownup man.  The tests got progressively more interesting the more I thought about it.  I finally realized that my hero needed to confront his relationship with his father, because every boy must do that as a passage to manhood.  I had shied away from this confrontation in the first draft, because it meant going deep into my character’s pain and anger.  I took the short cut and tried to be clever.  Big mistake.  Going deep is always a better choice.

I revisited the subplot.  Hope’s rule for getting out of a writing jam:  figure out what the minor characters are up to and find a way for them to totally screw up the lives of the hero and heroine.  I had some room with the word count, so I decided to go back and take a plot layer that was already in the story and develop it into a subplot in which various minor characters force my hero to confront his feelings about his father.  This makes the eventual showdown between father and son much more meaningful. 

I hope my editor likes the changes I’m working on.  I think the story is stronger in this draft, but I’m way too close to it right at the moment to know for sure.  The revisions are due in six days, so I’m still working hard on this. 

That being the case, I’m all ears if you have additional thoughts on strategies for addressing plot problems.  I could use all the help I can get.

70 responses to “Through the Plot Hole”

  1. Heather Snow says:

    Hope,

    I don’t have any words of advice, particularly not this late at night…but I did have to stop by and say–I LOVE that you used the word obfuscated 😉

    Good luck with the revisions. I’m sure you’ll plug that hole right up.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Alas, you have found me out. I do crosswords puzzles.

      I’m sure if I used the word obfuscated anywhere in my manuscript my editor would have something to say about it. We’ve already had a discussion about the words: “nadir” and “fey”

      🙂

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      • I had to object when our garden columnist used the word “bifurcate.” (I also had to look it up. From the context I was pretty sure it meant “forked,” but if I had to look it up, you know other people did, too.)

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  2. All I can say is trust your story. When stuff like this crops up, I realize the story is like Prego–it’s in there! Sometimes it just takes a while for me to see it because, as you said, I’m too close.

    I think you handled this perfectly. I’ll bet your editor feels the same. 😉

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Talk about too close to a manuscript — I’ve been working on this particular story on and off for about ten years. It’s been through something like 10 different versions and they are all getting totally confused in my addled brain. This is the book that finaled in the 2010 Golden Heart. I sometimes wish I’d canned this book and started fresh.

      I just want to make an end of it.

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  3. Good luck with your revisions, Hope! I think you’re on the right track with your strategy–and you’ve given me good ideas on how to save my wip, too. I’m with you on raising the stakes. I think this runs along the lines of making your little darlings suffer, right? It’s all for the good of the story.

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  4. Carla says:

    Glad to hear you patched up that plot hole! Can’t wait to see the finished results! I wish I had some advice for you, but more often than not, you’re the one giving ME advice, so I’ll just shut up and say good luck!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve completely patched that hole. I did go back to my villian and make him a bit more villanous. And he does pop up just as everything is heading toward a nice happy ending and does something heinous. But I’m still not totally convinced that his motives are rock solid, or that my heroine’s reaction to what the villian does is believable.

      It was the best idea I could come up with, short of rewriting the entire second half of the novel.

      *sigh*

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  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    —> Characters are always a good place to start when trying to fix a story.

    So true, Hope. I’ll go one step further and say that, for me, characters ARE the story, and the plot exists only as a method to drag them through the emotional wringer. An author who crafts great characters has me as a reader for the long haul.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I totally agree. For me, plot always evolves entirely out of the characters.

      I’ve listened to that whole debate about plot driver versus character driven stories, and I personlly think that’s bunk. I don’t know about anyone else (and I love to hear comments), but when I’ve finished a great book, it’s not the plot that I remember. It’s always the character.

      We remember Jane Eyere, and Mr. Darcy, and Captain Kirk, and the Wicked Witch because they are wonderfully drawn characters. Their authors made them real for us, until these particular group of characters have become icons.

      In my particular story, I can see, now, that I had two character problems: The hero, whos problem I’ve outlined in my blog post, and the villian, who was not nearly nasty enough to carry the end of the story to a satisfying conclusion.

      Many hours of GMC chart editing later I think I’ve got a better ending. We’ll see what the editor says.

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      • Elise Hayes says:

        I’m a plotter, so delving into characters is always painful for me. But it’s so, so necessary. Because, as you say, it’s the characters I remember in the books I’ve loved. When my plots have gone awry, it’s because the plotter in me is forcing my characters to do things they would never, ever do. So trust those GMC charts…and keep working on that villain!

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  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great advice, Hope! (And, incidentally, I’m all for obfuscated, nadir AND fey!)

    I’m also struggling with a plot hole issue around the Black Moment in my Golden Heart book (Regency heroine refuses to marry the hero, though she loves him, for reasons that apparently aren’t quite solid enough for readers). I like the idea of going deeper and seeing where that gets me. The tip about letting secondary characters make trouble is also a gem! Thanks!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Find a second plot in your story. It will get you out of every corner.

      Like when you’ve been writing along on the first draft and you’ve just finished that big turning point scene and you have NO IDEA what comes next, even though you’ve plotted out your turning points…

      That’s when you start the next scene from some secondary character’s point of view and try to give them something to do that will make trouble for everyone around them — especially the hero and heroine.

      In Welcome to Last Chance, I had no problem with the Black Moment. Two important subplots, carried by secondary characters, converged to create utter mayhem for the hero and heroine. The Hero’s best friend, a guy with special needs that the Hero feels responsible for, created one set of problems for the hero. And the heroine’s ex-boyfriend (and the villian) arrives on the scene to create another huge problem that sucks in the entire town of Last Chance. These subplots automattically raised the stakes to a point where they were literally life or death.

      In Home at Last Chance — the book with a hole — I didn’t have a convergence of subplots, because I had resolved the main subplot too soon. I had to find a way to extend that subplot, which involves the company the heroine works for, all the way to the final page. The heroine’s boss needed to create more problems for her at the end. In addition, I realized that my hero didn’t have a secondary plot line that affected him as deeply as it should. He had a bunch of plot layers that were interesting but no single one of them was really big enough to give him heartburn. I needed to take one of those layers and give it a secondary character to carry with a POV. Then I had to use that secondary plot to create more trouble for the hero — trouble that ultimately triggers his confrontation with his father. The confrontation is important because it’s during that conflict that the hero suddenly “gets it”, and his getting it leads to the resolution.

      Secondary plots are your friend.

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      • Hope, have you been reading my most recent ms? Because this:

        “He had a bunch of plot layers that were interesting but no single one of them was really big enough to give him heartburn.”

        …is totally what’s happening to my hero, too! Thanks for the tips and in-depth look at how you’re solving your plot hole. I love the variety of posts we do on the RSS. Some days I forget that I’m a part of this group, I feel like such a fangirl.

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        yeah, the “big enough to give him heartburn” line is what jumped out at me too. A great yardstick for whether conflict is large enough!

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  7. Great advice, Hope. I love the idea of letting secondary characters perform the useful service of pushing the characters along the necessary plot path. I need to go right back to my WIP and see if any of my secondary characters can help me out! 🙂

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      See my comment above. Yes, definitely! And think about how you can take one secondary character and give them a point of view that pushes the secondary plot along. That will give the book more complexity and give your reader more characters to root for.

      I have heard from several early readers of Welcome to Last Chance that my secondary character, Ray, the best friend’s hero, is a character they love and root for. And Ray has his own lovestory and his own plot line. He creates nothing but trouble for the hero. 🙂

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  8. Oh, thank you for this post today, Hope. I really needed it. As part of the NaNo last month, I started a new book – a book I’d been itchin’ to write. Of course, the NaNo doesn’t allow for much “deep thinking” time, and after exhausting the plot ideas I’d come up with in October, I really had to scrounge the last few days to meet that last 8,000 words or so. I skipped to the end, where I had a much better picture of how things turned out.

    So now I’m faced with a 40,000-word hole in the middle (well, several smaller holes, really), and I didn’t want to face the plotting I’d have to rework to make the whole story work.

    But now I’m getting excited again. I love the subplot I have going. And I’m looking forward to going back and reading what I have and plunging deeper within the characters’ psyches. And since I write RS, upping the stakes definitely has a place somewhere there. In fact, that’ll be the majority of this second bout of writing to finish the rough draft – throwing everything I’ve got at the characters and watching them muddle through. 🙂

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Anne Marie,

      It’s my pleasure to help. So how many words did you get written in NANO? I’ve never been a success with nano. I don’t write slowly, but I have to think things through before I can put words on paper. So, I always feel naked when I check the internal editor at the door. The idea of writing 50K words in a month scares me. But I’m always so impressed by people who do meet the goal.

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      • I tend to write in spurts, and have several weeks of productivity in a row before I take a break for a couple weeks, probably mulling things over deep in my subconscious – or at least that’s how I justify taking time off from writing.

        I was able to complete the NaNo, but just barely. Had 7500 words that last day, and my knuckles felt swollen by the end, but it felt good to finish. It only works for me if I have enough ideas ahead of time to write about, which is why those last few days are quite a challenge. And now it’s time for me to get back into plotting and analyzing what parts of what I’ve written worked and what didn’t work…

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  9. This is a great post, Hope!!!

    I always have a problem with internal and external conflict for BOTH of my lead characters. I have to take a step back and take a look, and almost always I’ve weighted the conflicts with one character, leaving the other one fairly conflict free. Happy campers do not make good stories. Once I have that solved, often times the story will iron itself out.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      No happy campers. That ought to be some kind of mantra or something.

      Yeah, I’m afraid my campers were having way too good a time and I had to remedy that.

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  10. Rita Henuber says:

    Don’t know if you want advice from one who is frequently obfuscated and not working under a deadline. My plot problems come because Frequently I give all the problems to one character and the other one is breezing along. Or, I create so many problems I can’t tie up the loose ends and have to let some fall away. For me making it simple with a plain vanilla solution no one sees coming is the solution.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      I love this idea, but it’s so hard to do!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Oh Rita, you raise an important issue. The KISS principal.

      Keep it Simple Stupid!

      Not to whine or meep, too much, but not only do I have to punch up the conflict at the end of the book, but I have to change the locale of the action to suit my editor. I had ended the first draft in the heroine’s home town, Boston, and not in the main locale of my stories, Last Chance, the hero’s hometown.

      The heroine is running away at the end of the book and it made sense that she would run home to Boston when the going got tough. How was I supposed to keep her in South Carolina?

      There began a lot of teeth gnashing and ranting and raving and frantic calls and emails to critique partners, who happily provided one contrived situation after another.

      Then my DH, lovely man that he is, says, “Well she’s in South Carolina and she has to get an airplane flight home, right?. What are the chances that she’d be able pack her things and get on a plane that same afternoon?”

      Duh!

      Simple solution. There are no flights available to Boston. She’s in South Carolina and the hero has about 24 hours before she leaves to figure things out and go maker her his.

      So, yeah, KISS. Find the simplest solution, while ensuring that your characters are thoroughly miserable, and avoid all contrived solutions.

      Not so easy, but so true.

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  11. Diana Layne says:

    Hope, I think you’re on the right track, good luck and heel clicks!

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  12. Vivi Andrews says:

    Can I ask a really, really stupid question? What do you guys mean when you call something a “plot hole”? Is it just a weak spot? A leap in the action that doesn’t make logical sense? A place where the momentum of the plot dies? This is one of those times I feel like I’m not familiar with the short-hand everyone else is using.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Vivi,

      For me a plot hole is a place where the momentum of the story fizzles, and the conflict falls flat.

      A plot hole like this can be caused by any number of factors: You’ve put something in the wrong order, you’ve got a character doing something that’s not well-motivated, you’ve added something contrived — the old aligator over the transome trick, you haven’t required a character to change sufficiently, or you’ve just not ramped up the stakes sufficiently and put enough barriers between your protagonists and their HEA ending.

      In my case, the hole at the end, where the tension of the story fizzled was created by two things:

      1) An incomplete character arc for the hero, and
      2) I tied up the external plot involving corporate shinanigans too soon, thereby ramping down the stakes at a time when the stakes should have gotten higher.

      Because of these problems, I got to the Big Black Moment and it just wasn’t very black, and the resolution required very little growth on the part of my hero.

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    • Think of it as a canyon (or very large pothole!) in the middle of your story road. You need to get to the other side, but there’s no bridge, not even a log across. So you try to scoot around, but the hole remains like a big, gaping zit in the middle of your story and your vehicle doesn’t fit well on the edges around. You’ve a tire hanging, the whole mess is set to tumble in.

      So you need to take bits from your travels to build a bridge to get you, your vehicle, and all those lovely characters across safely and logically.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Now I’m sitting here trying to figure out if I don’t have problems with plot holes or if I just don’t *know* that I have problems with plot holes. Nothing like a fresh shot of paranoia to wake you up.

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      • Hope Ramsay says:

        Uh oh!

        With your body of work I would not worry. I really do believe that if you pay attention to story pacing at all, then the plot hole ultimately become obvious.

        As noted in my blog, I halfway knew I had a problem in the way this first draft ended. My editor really did help me to see the root cause of the problem.

        Many days of weeping, meeping, whining, teeth gnashing and head pounding later I think I’ve found a way out. (And it was good for blog topic, too.) 😀

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      • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

        Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      I’ve heard people describe a plot hole as the middle of their book.
      I think of it like this. An agoraphobic woman finds a friend murdered. She sets out to find the killer. No mention is made of why she didn’t call the cops? How she gets over her agoraphobia so fast and why did she thinks she could find the killer. Plot holes!

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I think it’s like all the problems you find with my manuscrips, Vivi. Like when my H/H go into their nesting phase where nothing bad happens.

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  13. Hope-

    Your topic was very timely. I’m writing the synopsis for my next book and having a hell of a time. I’ve always written the book first then the synopsis afterwards. I decided to do it differently this time since I always run into plot problems mid-way through.

    After reading your blog, I realized, one of my proposed scenes doesn’t ring true to my main character’s conflict.

    Thank you!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      You are welcome.

      As an aside, let me say that I am a devout plotter, these days who has outline and GMC charts and what not in hand before even starting a book. But this particular manuscript was written back in the days when I swore I was a pantser. (Silly me!)

      The book finaled in contests and had a dynomite premise that everyone loved. So it was included in the book proposal that sold the series — although it was not the finished manuscript that made the sale.

      Why? Because the story always had problems. And I’ve gone through ten drafts trying to solve these problems. I would have been wiser to shove the offending manuscript onto the highest unreachable self of my closet, and start from scratch with an outline and carefully crafted characters.

      If anything has made me a more devoute pre-planner, it’s been my struggles in taking this old manuscript and whipping it into shape.

      Pantsers beware — this could happen to you.

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      • As a devout pantser, I can say, Yep, it will. Unfailingly, but as I said before, I’ve learned to trust my story. If I look, the clues are there for me to find. The trick, of course, is finding them! LOL

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  14. Katrina says:

    Hope, this is something I’m struggling with right now, so this is really useful (and well timed!). My secondary characters have helped me out quite a few times, but I keep forgetting the part about raising the stakes. I know it seems obvious, but it’s never my first response for figuring out a plot hole. So tomorrow morning I’m having another look at my plot, and the stakes.

    Thanks!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Katrina,

      There is a little exercise that Donald Maas has in his Workbook on Writing the Breakout Novel that I use in order to brainstorm the issue of raising the stakes. Here’s how it works:

      Take a piece of paper and write down your heroine’s main EXTERNAL goal in the story (You’ll need to consult a GMC chart for this, or have a good sense of what it is that your heroine wants more than anything else at the beginning of the story, or what problem she is trying to solve.)

      Now write down ten things that could happen that would make this goal matter more to her personally.

      When you’re finished with that, then write down another ten things that could make her goal (or problem) matter to the community at large — her friends, family, church, London society, whatever is relevant for the community of people in your story.

      Finally, write down another five things that could happen that could make your heroine’s problem or goal matter so much that someone’s life might be put in jeopardy. Either her’s or someone else’s.

      I guarantee that at the end of really working with this — and you might want to get your CPs involved — you’ll have more than 25 things that could happen in your story that ramp up the stakes. And often the most interesting things will be the last things you put on your list.

      When you’re done with your heroine, do the same thing for the hero and for the villian of the piece.

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      • Kylie Griffin says:

        Listing the obvious and predictable to the more twisted or unexpected turns that are more appealing/high stakes. Great idea pushing your limits when brainstorming so many ideas. Good suggestion.

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      • Katrina says:

        Ahh! I have that book! (gathering dust) I’ll blow the dust off tomorrow morning. Thanks so much for reminding me!

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  15. Kylie Griffin says:

    Hey Hope,

    Not exactly what you’re asking for but I thought this might be useful anyway.

    The best piece of advice I’ve received, particularly with “sagging” middles, was to kill someone off, preferably someone who mattered to either the storyline or a main character.

    You could call that upping the stakes, I suppose, as well as testing the main character/s mettle/response etc.

    As per usual I’ve passed this link on to some writing buddies – your advice always makes for a good read, Hope. 🙂

    Kylie

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Kylie,

      Sage advice indeed.

      In the third book in the series I intend to bump someone off right in the middle just for this reason. And my decision to bump this character off, informed my solution for the 2nd book.

      I realized that I had more story than I could handle for the 3rd book of the series, which is 3/4 finished. So, when deciding on which plot layer in book 2 to develope into a full subplot, I chose a plot layer that will carry on into the 3rd book.

      And I set the hook for the death that will take place in book three. I didn’t actually kill the character here, but I started the ball rolling in that direction.

      So yes, killing someone, or putting them in mortal danger is always good. See my comment above to Katrina.

      At this point, to be honest, I would love to bump off the entire cast of characters. But that wouldn’t do, would it?

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  16. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    I address plot problems by curling up in a fetal position with my thumb securely in my mouth. If that doesn’t work, I bake cookies.

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    • Shea Berkley says:

      Baking helps me, too. Or taking a shower. You can tell how many plot problems I’m having as to how waterlogged my skin is, or how developed my food baby has become. Ewww. That doesn’t sound attractive, huh?

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      LOL This must explain why I played hookey yesterday and went Christmas shopping. When the going gets tough the tough go shopping…

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      • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

        Seriously, when I get my edits I shut down and get depressed and focus on what I did wrong, not what I did right. And every comment from my ediotr, I imagine she’s yelling at me and pulling her hair out.

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        • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

          I did not mean ediotr. I meant editor (jeez, I almost spelled it wrong again).

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        • Hope Ramsay says:

          You know I think that’s human nature. My editor told me the first have of this book was so good she was wondering if she was going to have anything at all to say about it. Until she hit the hole and fell in.

          And, of course, then she had a lot to say. And while she said it nicely, it still didn’t make me do any happy dances.

          But I tell myself that she is a gem, and she’s going to make this book so much better by standing there pointing her finger at me and reminding me that I can do better.

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  17. liz talley says:

    Very timely for me too. I’m currently not working on a book which I supposed to be working on. It’s been giving me the dickens of a time for a while mainly because I had a plot hole that had to do with the heroine’s motivations. I spent a good deal trying to climb into her skin and finally I figured out my conflict was lacking because I hadn’t properly motivated my gal. The GMC chart is a key to writing a tight story. And you have to pull it out and remind yourself as you go otherwise you can mosey down a path that ain’t all primrosed. And then you have to find your way back.

    Thanks for the good tips !

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  18. Shea Berkley says:

    Most of the plot hole problems I see in stories happen when the author tries to make their character do something out of character. Nothing screams “what the…” more than an egomaniac dishing out supper at the local foodbank just because he thinks it’s a nice thing to do.

    Great post, Hope. I love the tricks you use. They’re in my writing tool box as well.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Yup, when you can’t dazzle them with writing brilliance, resort to trickery.

      Of course I couldn’t trick my editor into ignoring my plot problem…

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  19. Cate Rowan says:

    OMG, Hope, I hear you!

    One of my books has a premise that everyone seems to love and did beautifully in contests, but I just can’t get from Point C to Point D in a believable way. I’ve put it aside for now in the hopes that the next time I look at it I’ll have solved the problem. Wishful thinking, maybe, but sheer concentration (and frustration) couldn’t solve the problem for me. I’m glad it looks like you’ve found a way to fix yours (and in time for your deadline, too). Woohoo, good luck!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Thanks Cate. I am happy I sold this sucker, but there have been times when I felt like I was going to break my brain finding a solution to the ending. It’s better than it was, but to be honest I’m still not 100% happy with it. But there comes a time when you just have to hand it off and hope for the best.

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  20. Good luck, Hope. Sounds like you’ve found the solution to your plot problem. Enjoyed reading your strategies and realized I was guilty of all of them. Thanks for the reminder we have to dig deep!

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  21. Kim Law says:

    Great post, Hope! I’m a total character person and so often have plot troubles. The good thing is I usually recognize the holes (though I have been known to pretend I don’t see them), but I routinely struggle to find the right solution. They unerringly revolve around the conflict toward the latter part of the book. I’m always looking for suggestions on how to resolve them, so thanks!!!!

    Good luck with your revisions and deadline!

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  22. Hope, You’re a doll. I’m working through my first draft, trying to avoid the black hole and you’ve just helped me side-step it. I need to look at what a few of my secondary characters are up to.

    Good luck with those revisions.

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  23. Destiny says:

    Hi there Hope,

    Just came across your post. I wanted to tell you how informative and helpful it was, pushing past blocks and plotting issues, including all the discussion. Thank you so much!
    D

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