The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 384 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to talk about plot holes and why sometimes you’re better off leaving them than trying to fix them. We’ll also be answering listener questions about things that screenwriters notice that normal people might not. And sequences and outlines and sort of where to fix those problems when they come up.
Craig: Mm-hmm. So it’s pronounced plot holes and not plotholes. It looks like plotholes.
John: So I was looking at the word plot holes and I realized today, and maybe I’m just dumb and never noticed it before, it’s based on pot holes, like pot holes the holes in the street.
Craig: Is it? Is it?
John: I bet it is. I bet that is the derivation of the word.
Craig: You think, because to me even if there weren’t pot holes there is a hole in your plot. It makes sense. You might be right. I don’t know. Who can answer this question for us?
John: I think John McWhorter can answer this question for us.
Craig: Oh, god, I would love to have him on the show. You know I’m like obsessed him?
John: You are. Because he’s also obsessed with musicals and you guys are pretty much separated at birth.
Craig: Musicals and language and language usage. He’s the one that turned me on to the whole – what is it – I can’t remember the word he used to describe it, but it’s the thing where people will add an “ah” at the end of a word to indicate emphasis, like No-ah.
John: Yes. Stop-ah.
Craig: What are you doing-ah?
Craig: Love that.
John: It’s that extra little shwa, that little shwa.
Craig: So weird. Anyway, he’s a genius.
John: He’s a genius. We also have news. So our news is about three upcoming events.
Craig: Wow, that’s almost too many.
John: The Princess Bride, January 27 at 5pm. So, I think the rules are that the doors will open at 4:30 in which case WGA members can go in and get their seats. At 4:45 everyone is free to get their seats. The movie will start at 5pm at the WGA Theater. And then afterwards we will discuss it in a very classic let’s take a deep dive on this movie, except we’ve just watched this movie. So, that is the plan for January 27th.
Craig: Awesome. I think that’s going to be – and it’s going to be fun. And it’s in celebration, of course, of the great William Goldman. I happen to love the movie. I think most people do love the movie. It’s one of those movies that a lot of people sort of memorize, but I love digging into these things and finding these little bits and bobs that are just so gorgeous that make it work the way it does.
John: I agree. We have a live show coming up in Seattle. It’s long been rumored. It now actually has a date. It is February 6 at 7pm. It’s going to be at the Northwest Film Forum. There’s information in the show notes about how you get tickets, if there are tickets, or if you just show up. We’re recording this ahead of time so I don’t really know what those rules are, but Megan will have the information and those will be in the show notes. But we look forward to seeing Seattle on February 6 at 7pm.
Craig: Yeah. That’s going to be fun. I love Seattle.
John: Seattle is great. I love it, too. Finally, this second Arlo Finch book comes out in February and there’s a launch event February 9 here in Los Angeles at Chevalier’s Bookstore. It is at 12:30pm. And you should come see me and I will sign your books. It’s your first chance to buy the book in Los Angeles. And you can come. I will probably read a chapter from it. And I’ll offer answers to questions that might come up. So come, bring kids who might be able to read the book, but also just come and say hi because I’ll be there and I’ll happily sign your book.
Craig: I mean, I kind of feel like when people see you in real life there’s a little bit of squealing now.
John: There might be. A little bit. I might spark joy for certain people.
Craig: For certain people.
John: Certain people. Not all the people.
Craig: No. Select people.
John: Select people. I’m going to segue into sparking joy for just a second because I blogged this week. I don’t blog very often. And I’m going to spoil who actually said this. There was a project that I was considering doing, it was a pretty big project that would be more than a year of my life to do. And I had a phone call about it and I was thinking about it and Megan, our producer, asked me, “But does it spark joy?” She’s using the Marie Kondo phrase. And I ended up blogging about this. And I thought it was actually exactly the right question. Because when I admitted to myself that while I admired the project and I was intrigued by it, it didn’t actually bring me joy. And if I were to lose the project I wouldn’t really feel that sad. It was a good signal to me that I probably shouldn’t pursue the project. And so my new thing when I’m considering a project is asking myself if it sparks joy.
Craig: It’s a great idea. And I’ve been going through this a lot myself. The danger is that sometimes if you’ve been working for a while without concern for joy sparks, you know, you’ve been working because it pays well, or because you felt it would kind of move things forward to a place where you could work on things that are just joy-sparkers, then you almost are unfamiliar with how to measure your own potential joy in something. The other issue that I have always, and have always had, is my joy, my spark of joy, will always be followed by a spark of panic.
So, I love something, I’m so excited about something, and I can’t wait. And then about two days later I’m suddenly suffused with dread. That this thing that inspired joy in me is now this dead thing. Just lying in the street like a big, I don’t know, dead side of beef and I want nothing to do with it. This goes on all the time – this may just be me.
John: No, it’s not that way. There’s instantly a kind of regret, like once you’ve gotten the thing, it’s the dog who is chasing the car and finally catches the car. It’s like, oh no, oh no, is this really what I want?
John: And it was recognizing that if I had caught this project I might not really want the project. And I remember a conversation with you, this was off-mic so it was maybe before we were recording an episode, there was a very, very big property that was coming into your universe.
John: And you asked my advice – you don’t often ask my advice – but I said the equivalent sort of thing is like but do you really want to be writing blank project? And is that a dream of yours? And you’re like, oh no. Then that’s your answer.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I asked a few people advice on that one because I was really unsure of my own instinct I think. Because it seemed a little crazy to say no. And I asked Rian Johnson as well and I got, I think, halfway through the title and he just went, “No.” And by the way that’s the kind of advice I like. So it’s just like, oh good, you’re not actually even giving me advice. You’re just providing me the comfort of your certainty. I like – thank you. That’s really nice.
But that’s a great example of something where it seemed to me that I would not experience joy. And, in the end, you’re not simply protecting yourself. You’re actually also protecting everyone else. Because in the end they are relying on you to carry them through this incredibly important phase, writing, with your passion. And if you run out of it they can smell it pretty quickly I suspect.
John: Yeah. So I want to circle back to one thing you said is that at certain points in your career that question of like does it spark joy is not going to be the most important question. The most important question at certain points in your career is will they pay me money, is this a paid job I can take and actually deliver. And so I don’t want to sort of skip over that because that is such an important part of your early career is chasing all those projects and landing those projects even if they’re not the ones you really love. And you have to fake that you have that spark of joy on a lot of projects to land those projects. That is totally valid and true.
John: What I think we’re both recognizing though is sometimes you can get so caught up in chasing things you start realizing like, oh wait, I shouldn’t be chasing these things anymore. I should actually probably doing the things that are meaningful to me.
Craig: Exactly. You know, John Gatins has such a great term for this, because he recognizes that there are times when you write things that you are in love with and then he says there are those other jobs that are Geisha work. And I love that. It’s Geisha work. Meaning it’s not just tawdry. It’s not this kind of empty thing. There’s an art to it. There is a care. There is a craft. There is a loving attention. But it’s not love. It’s Geisha work.
John: Yeah. It’s Geisha work. Let’s get to some follow up. So Joel wrote in to say he was hoping we could do some follow up on something we mentioned in a recent show. “In Episode 383, John while discussing the film Mortal Engines, said something like, ‘They set themselves some interesting story challenges.’ I found that an intriguing idea because I often wonder how much of the work that people do can only be appreciated by fellow crafts people. Can you name some other films or TV shows that fall into the category of interesting challenges that might go unnoticed by the general public?”
And I thought it was a good question because there definitely are things which we talk about in terms of like, oh wow, that was a really hard thing to try to do, and you might not notice that if you’re just watching the film. Some things which occurred to me that I saw, things with very limited dialogue because as a screenwriter if there’s not much dialogue it can be very hard to externalize ideas. And so A Quiet Place has very little dialogue in it. The Hush episode of Buffy has very little dialogue.
Likewise, shows that have too many characters or movies that have too many characters. So the first Charlie’s Angels is a huge writing challenge and I don’t think people noticed that enough that you have three characters who each have their own storylines that have to fit into the bigger storyline. They still have their villains. There have to be twists and reveals. So to keep all those balls in the air is a real challenge that you wouldn’t have if you had a single protagonist.
You worked on the next Charlie’s Angels movie, so you encountered the same thing.
Craig: Yeah. It’s definitely an interesting thing to keep those balls in the air because you feel, well, I think if you’re doing it responsibly you feel an anxiety when a particular character hasn’t spoken in a while. And I think we talked about this in the last podcast. And you also feel an anxiety if the characters have these little arcs that are either too small or too out of whack with the other characters or not interlacing with the other characters. So there is a lot of craft that goes into that stuff.
That said, I would rather write a movie with a group of three or four “normal” people than another spoof movie where one of the biggest challenges in writing spoof is your characters have no internal life whatsoever. And there’s never a moment where anyone just stops and thinks. Ever. It is excruciating. It’s like taking away – we say to people you’re going to run, just remember to breathe. And with spoof it’s like you’re going to run, also you can’t breathe. Not allowed. It’s really annoying.
John: No breathing is possible. Another movie with a lot of characters which I think screenwriters really acknowledged was a real challenge was The Big Short, because The Big Short you have a ton of characters who have to give really important information. They need to feel like real people because in some of the cases they are based on real people. And yet you don’t have time to sort of give meaningful inner lives and challenges that are going to be resolved in a normal way. So it’s making sure that those people feel like they have weight even though they’re not going to do normal movie character things over the course of the two hours.
Craig: Yeah. And in those movies, too, you have a certain challenge of instruction. If a movie does this well, or if a show does it well, you don’t notice. That’s kind of the hallmark of these challenges is that when it’s really nailed you don’t even realize that they’ve done something incredibly hard to do.
I don’t think when people first saw, I don’t know what the first Disney animated movie was that had that multi-plane technology to it, but I suspect that they didn’t realize just how difficult it was to get that small bit of depth, that little bit of parallax motion. It was enormously difficult. And that’s a sign that they did it well.
John: And so I think narratively sometimes we don’t recognize that like, oh, there’s a lot of work happening to make it feel like – so you don’t notice that this thing is happening in front of you.
Craig: Which is good, because I mean in the end that’s a big part of our job is making it look like nobody did a job. You know? But it can be tough. Certainly when I see a movie like The Big Short I really admire the way that they went about instructing us, but instructing us in such a manner that they knew confidently we would understand.
Craig: And that was pretty great.
John: I could have put this under limited dialogue, but shows and movies with limited characters can be really challenging. So, Castaway. So often you have to externalize Tom Hanks’s thoughts, and so you create Wilson, you create other ways to sort of get us into his head even though he has no other character to talk with. So, if it had been a book then we could be just directly in his head. Because movies don’t let us do that, they have to find ways to externalize those thoughts.
Same with Gravity. So much of Gravity is just Sandra Bullock. So how do we know what she’s trying to do, what she’s feeling, what the next thing is for her? That’s a real storytelling challenge. In addition to all of the technical challenges of making that movie, the storytelling challenges are great in a movie like Gravity.
John: And then Alfonso Cuarón’s latest, Roma, is a similar kind of thing in a weird way because even though there’s plenty of characters and there’s plenty of dialogue, your central character is not a classic protagonist and it’s kind of from her point of view, but it’s also kind of from an omniscient point of view. It’s a really – he created really fascinating challenges for himself in how he was letting us into this world. It’s almost the place is more the protagonist and we’re following a character but not necessarily seeing the world through her eyes. And I thought it was brilliantly done, but a really difficult choice.
Craig: You know, it occurs to me that a lot of the challenges that you’re describing in live action are things that animation has a very easy time with. For instance, expressing internal thoughts. Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse was able to kind of create a little bit of a new animated language so that you could see and hear people’s thoughts as they desired. But then of course in animation the problem is just making someone take one step is incredibly painstaking.
John: Lastly, I think the thing to talk about is movies that involve animals or children. So there are huge production challenges with animals and children, the number of hours they can work, or sort of the trainers that do that. But when you think about those as a writing challenge it’s how do we get in the head of this dog that is in front of us or this young character who may not be able to speak, so so much is going to rely on us looking in their face or their eyes and what we’re setting up about the world around them, how people are interacting with them. The order of events is going to be dictating our understanding of who these characters are. And those are narrative challenges that you probably don’t recognize until you actually have to do it and you see what the work is on the page to get you there.
Craig: I mean, just a simple thing like a drama in which a child witnesses a terrible event. Well, can they be there on that day? Will they actually see the terrible event? If not, how will they know what to say or do if they don’t know what the terrible event is? Do you describe it to them? Are you the first person to describe to a six-year-old what sexual assault is? These are real issues that people tangle with all the time when they’re making movies or television when you’re dealing with children because children are being asked to portray other children who have gone through some sort of trauma, sometimes. Not all the time.
John: A classic example is Kubrick on The Shining. And so he knew he was going to have these horrifying images. He also knew he was going to have this young kid. And so he would have conversations with the young kid about like, so, you’re seeing this thing. He wasn’t describing what the actual cutaway shot was going to be, but the thing that would get the kind of reaction that would be appropriate to intercut with. And that’s a thing you do all the time. You do as-if kind of substitutions for those things.
You can’t do that with a dog or a cat. And so you have to figure out what you’re going to do to get you into that place.
One of the biggest writing challenges I had was a movie that was never made called Fenwick’s Suit. And the central character in Fenwick’s Suit is this suit that comes to life. And so I had to think about like, well, how are we going to know what the suit is thinking? It has no face. It has lapels which can sort of function like ears. We can see its general body language. But it was a real challenge. And it would have been a challenge for the director and special effects people, but like to show that on the page was really tough because he couldn’t talk to anybody. And so I had to be able to find sentences that would describe exactly what the action was he was trying to do and how people would understand that.
Craig: Well, you know, that’s something that we might be able to help you with post-facto when we start talking about breaking rules. Because I’ve been thinking about that very topic a lot lately.
John: Cool. All right. Let’s get to Jim’s question. Do you want to take that?
Craig: Jim writes, “I’m 82 nonlinear pages into a script that features seven notable characters. Altogether they’re split across either three or four threads within the story. I’m trying to tie everything up while giving the characters their appropriate exposure and screen time. Would you, John August, have any advice from a technical standpoint on the best way to map out stories like these? Do we know how they tackle the stuff on Thrones?” He means Game of Thrones, by the way.
John: Game of Thrones. Talking the lingo.
Craig: Jim, go ahead and say Game of Thrones next time.
John: Just a few extra syllables. So, I would say the script that Jim is describing is probably an ensemble piece, there’s multiple characters doing multiple things. They may be in different timelines. It may be more like Go. It may be a more straightforward thing. But he’s describing a situation where different characters have different goals and different agendas and we’re not following a single character through the whole thing.
I think this is a situation where you’re using cards or a whiteboard or some other form of visually displaying who all the characters are and what they’re trying to do and figuring out where they intersect. Because if you could pull back and take a look at it you might see like, oh wow, this character doesn’t have enough to do. It’s not feeling rewarding. And you might be able to find some good balance between the characters.
The toughest thing you’re going to probably find in getting all these storylines to fit together nicely is that every time you’re cutting from one character’s storyline to another character’s storyline that it really feels like progress and that you’re not just like putting a pin in that and going off to someplace else.
John: I’m sure I don’t know the Game of Thrones writing process, but I’m sure quite early on in the breaking of stories they’re really thinking about like, OK, what is it going to be like to have these two scenes back to back and how is one scene going to inform the next scene? Might they switch some things around in post? I’m sure they do. But in breaking the script they’re always thinking about like what is it going to feel like to go from this character’s storyline to this character’s storyline and what are we gaining by making that cut right there?
Craig: They’re also making episodic television and it sounds like Jim is maybe making a feature because he’s 82 pages into a script, singular. So Game of Thrones can just simply stop following a character for two episodes. They can just stop and then they can come back to them later and sort of catch up. In a movie, not really. You can’t just stop. I mean, you can take a break. It’s a small break. But then you’ve got to come back.
So, one thing to ask yourself, Jim, is does your script actually feature seven notable characters or does it feature four notable characters and three sort of notable characters? Can you compress? Obviously if you can’t compress then you have to kind of stack your characters in terms of importance and complexity. Maybe character six and seven are just sort of thin, maybe a little bit more types as opposed to full people that require a lot of attention.
But the best way to map out stories like these, I believe, is to map them out the good old fashioned way from the point of view of your protagonist, or if you have a dual protagonist, two people, what they want, what they need, what’s wrong with them, what do they have to become. How does your plot help them or hurt them? And then these other people involved need to be looked at as allies and enemies and obstacles and assistants.
John: Absolutely true. And if you are doing something that is sort of more chapter-based, like Go is chapter-based, do that for each section and really think about like, OK, who is the equivalent of the protagonist in that section and what is their arc going to be over the course of that section. But if it’s a movie there’s going to be an expectation of progress that gets you to a certain place.
Unless you’re doing The Big Short, like we talked about before, and that’s a real challenge. And in that situation maybe you’re not worrying about sort of the balance of the characters and who has the most screen time, but are we telling the overall macro story well enough and am I using the characters that I’ve picked to tell that story as well as I can.
Craig: Exactly. John, do you want to see what Cade from Boise, Idaho wants to say?
John: Cade from Boise, Idaho writes, “Today I came across Episode Three—“
John: Episode Three. Way back in the vault.
John: “In which you discussed the process of outlining. I’m writing a spec TV show for which I recently finished the outline but there are oh so many problems with the story. I don’t know how deep I should go revising based on an outline. What are the things you look for to rework at the outline stage?” Craig?
Craig: The outline stage is the story stage, so you don’t stop until you feel quite confident that the story makes sense. That it holds together. This is if you are kind of outline conscious and I am. Some people don’t really like to outline and their process is one more of discovery. But for me I’m a big outliner and this is the time where I get to acid test the story before I go through all the effort of writing the script.
So, if there are so many problems with the story you’ve got to take a step back, ask yourself why, and then maybe start again. It’s just an outline, right? It’s just index cards. You haven’t built a house that you realize now is leaning slightly to the left and you have to demolish the whole thing. It’s just index cards. Don’t be afraid. Do it. Just start again.
John: So here’s what’s confusing about the term spec. And so what Cade is referring to as a spec TV show probably means an episode of an existing TV show for which he’s writing an episode for which he’s not being paid. So basically if he was writing an episode of Game of Thrones, a spec episode of Game of Thrones means it’s an episode of Game of Thrones. Versus a spec script in general means a script that there’s no underlying material. It’s confusing and we should have picked different words, but that’s sort of what it means.
So, I think particularly if Cade is writing a spec episode of Hawaii 5-0 that outline has to be tight and flawless and it needs to completely make sense because that’s a show that is entirely based on the plot of the episode. And so if the plot isn’t making sense on an outline level it’s not going to make sense in the finished script version. So, fix that now.
The outline phase is great for tackling logic problems, for like this just doesn’t make sense. It needs to make sense that way. The outline is not going to get you to sort of the more subtle emotional problems. That may not really become clear at the outline level. So, don’t kill yourself to write the perfect emotional outline because that’s just not the finished thing. And sometimes you’ll find in the development process if you are writing outlines for people they keep pushing for all this emotional detail that just doesn’t make sense on an outline level. So be mindful that you’re not trying to fix problems that just can’t be fixed in that medium.
Craig: Yeah. You certainly can’t achieve the emotional complexity of the screenplay. There’s no question about that. What you can do with an outline I think is build and investigate the function of the emotional pieces, like the big gears. If this person feels this way and then this happens and then they end up with that person does this make sense that they would feel the following? Would we feel something there? Has the story and the interactions between these two led to a moment that would create a feeling? That’s something that you could probably figure out from an outline and during outline. It’s certainly something I work on in outlines.
But the deeper stuff, yes, at some point you can just simply remind people, well yeah, you know, this is an outline. And for yourself as well, if there’s a little thing that’s kind of bugging you about it, sometimes you just let that go because in the writing you find a solve.
John: Let’s get into our feature topic which is plot holes and I think that ties in very well to this issue of outlines versus the finished product. So let’s talk about what plot holes even are because I think there’s a wide range of things we could describe as plot holes. But for today’s conversation, I’m going to go to the Wikipedia definition, which is of course the definitive definition of anything should be a community-generated webpage somewhere.
Craig: Of course.
John: They define, “In fiction, a plot hole is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot. Such inconsistencies include such things as illogical or impossible events, statements or events that contradict other events in the storyline. The term is more loosely also applied to ‘loose ends’ in a plot. Sidelined story elements that remain unresolved by the end of the plot.”
Another definition of it which I found, there’s a site called MoviePlotHoles.com, and their tag line is where suspension of belief comes to die.
Craig: Well at least they know who they are.
John: Yes. And so basically what we’re looking for when we’re talking about this conversation of plot holes are things in the finished product that just feel like, OK, there’s a mistake there and this mistake could bug people. And we’re going to get into whether it’s worth trying to correct this. But in a perfect world, I guess, these things would not exist and sort of where they come from, let’s talk about sort of the general shapes of them and sort of what you do as you encounter plot holes.
Craig: Yeah. And these are the things that drive us crazy as writers, of course. They are, fair warning to all of you out there who want to be professional, they are also things that studio executives and producers and actors and anyone on set are very capable of seeing immediately. There are things that no one else sees that we do. A lot of times people say, “Why don’t we just move that over there?” And everyone goes, “Yeah, why don’t we?” And then there’s one person in the world, the writer, going, “Oh god, you don’t understand what you just did.” But everyone – everyone – can see plot holes and they will come at you with them.
They will come at you. There will be a third assistant in the costume department will walk up to you and say, “By the way, I have a question for you. Does this make sense blah-blah-blah?” And you go, OK, it does. Here’s why. But you think – see, everyone feels entitled to discuss what they perceive as a potential plot hole.
John: Yeah. And so sometimes these are things which wouldn’t have been reflected in the script anyway, but they do have a bearing on story. So for example like that character was carrying their gun in this scene so why don’t they have their gun now? And so these are things where it’s the props department is going to be – as they’re reading through the script is going to be asking that question at every point so that they are not creating these plot problems.
We’re going to focus on it from the script level, but know that every department is going to be thinking about this and trying to make sure that they’re consistently logical. So, it’s not just your responsibility, but you’re going to get blamed for it. So, let’s talk about what this is.
Craig: [laughs] Yes.
John: So, general categories of plot holes – I would define one is problems of information. Which is when characters have knowledge that was never passed to them. So somehow magically they know something that the audience knows but it’s never quite clear how they learned it.
John: Related is characters who don’t know something which we know they should know, or they seemed to know before, or they knew last week. There’s a show that I love very much but one of the characters is a doctor and yet she doesn’t seem to know some very basic things which is frustrating.
Craig: Like where the heart is?
John: Yeah. And so it’s like – or like they encounter something which is like but we already saw you do that, so this is not a new thing for you. This should not be a challenge for you at all. So, anyone in their position should know how to do that thing. So that’s a problem with information.
Often you find problems of time and geography, so multiple days seem to pass or didn’t pass and it wasn’t quite clear – the timelines just don’t match up. There are eight day weeks. Something is grossly wrong here. The sun never sets or it sets twice.
The plot relies on two things happening simultaneously but the characters couldn’t have anticipated those things were going to happen simultaneously. There’s like a coincidence that just doesn’t make sense.
This is the thing that bugged me all the time on Alias which is a show I genuinely loved, but Sydney Bristow could somehow fly to Asia and back in the course of a day. She has supersonic teleportation powers.
Craig: Yeah. No one is really good about that, are they?
John: Yeah. And I think this is a Too Fast, Too Furious, my friend Nima will correct me if I’m citing the wrong Fast and Furious movie, but there’s an action sequence that’s taking place on a tarmac where a plane is taking off and it’s like a 17-minute action sequence and the plane is moving the entire time. And so that runway would have to be like 40 miles long.
John: So, just to like – is that a plot hole? We’ll get into that. It’s a thing you have to suspend your disbelief in order to get there and some people can’t suspend their disbelief.
Craig: Yeah. I think that there’s a line between, you know what, we’re just going to break the rules of reality to achieve something, and a plot hole which is we messed up. We actually legitimately screwed up here. They shouldn’t be able to do that inside of the logic of our own. You know, in Fast and Furious the logic of that world, the physics of that world, you could have a really super long runway and time is elastic.
But, you couldn’t have something in the Fast and Furious world where somebody simply didn’t know something that they knew 30 minutes earlier and we saw them know. You can’t have a character see someone and then later say honestly, “I’ve never seen them before.” That’s a plot hole.
John: That would be a plot hole. Or like they can’t change a tire. You know what, that’s going to come with it. You’re going to be able to change a tire.
And some of what you’re talking about is like, you know, your movies bend the world in certain ways. So Charlie’s Angels, like physics was sort of optional. They could do things that – it was heightened and so you had to sort of go with the heightened nature of it. Many years ago I wrote an article about Spider Man 3 called The Perils of Coincidence and I’ll put a link in the show notes to that because there are premise coincidences which are – you get one of those for free. Like almost every movie relies on some coincidence that’s why this story is taking place now. But there were so many coincidences in Spider Man 3 that I needed to sort of acknowledge that like stacked together they form a plot hole because no, no, no there’s just too much happening here. It’s just all too arbitrary that these things all happened in the same time.
Craig: Yeah. If you put too many together it starts to take on the meme of a plot hole because what I think we presume even if we don’t presume it deliberately is that plot holes happen because the writers got stuck and needed to do a thing and didn’t know how to do it without breaking something. And that is also why I think coincidences stack up. We presume it’s because the writers needed something to happen and they didn’t know how to do it without breaking something.
John: Yeah. And in general, we’ll get into fixes later on, but anything you can do that your hero is actually creating the situation gets you out of that coincidence problem.
John: If something happens because of your hero, then it’s just not random. Or if it something happens because the villain, then it’s not random. So just finding ways to match character motivation to events gets you through most of those situations. Or, if it’s still a little unlikely, you buy it more because you saw a character do it.
Craig: Yeah. And generally that works in your favor because it feels like it’s tightening things up. It is creating a sense of harmony and the audience gives you credit for it.
One of my favorite kinds of plot holes is the kind that negates the need for the entire story to have happened at all. I love these. And I’m just calling it problems of over-complication, because I don’t know what else to call it. But the idea is that your plot needs to exist so that your movie exists, but it doesn’t need to exist for the actual events of the movie or the goals of the movie or the character. And one of the classic examples is a movie that you and I love that we have talked about many times on the show and that’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it goes a little something like this.
Once Indiana Jones discovers that the Nazis are looking in the wrong place because they don’t have both sides of the medallion, all you have to do at that point is nothing. Just do nothing. They will never find it.
Now, you can argue, of course, well he’s compelled to find it because he wants to see this thing. It’s part of who he is. And that makes sense. But the movie never really says that, so like in a perfect plot hole address somebody would say, “That’s it, we’re done. Let’s go home.” And he says, “No, I can’t. I just can’t.” And then you would say, OK, at least the movie understands that that’s a thing, right? But what they went for in Raiders was no one is ever going to comment on that, let’s just keep going, as if it makes sense that we’re still trying to stop the Nazis who have no idea and never will know where this thing is.
And I love that. I just kind of love that.
John: Yeah. And I would say this problem of over-complication often ties into villain plots and villain plans because there’s so many action movies particularly where – or thrillers – where if you step back it’s like, wait, was that really the easiest way to get a million dollars? That was really complicated. There are so many simpler ways to do that that wouldn’t have involved most of what we saw in the movie, but then you wouldn’t have a movie.
And so you can try to sort of lay the track to make it clear why it needed to happen this way. But sometimes in trying to lay that track you are making the answer more important than the question in many ways. Like make it seem like, oh, this is really important. Like, no, no, I was just trying to explain it away. In trying to get rid of the problem you actually made the problem worse.
Craig: This comes up I think all the time. When you are in development and the studio or the producer spot a plot hole, their instinct which I think is a normal human instinct is to pave it. Let’s fill the hole. But as writers we understand that that is a treacherous at to undertake because in filling that hole or fixing the hole, patching it over, you can create a problem that is actually worse than the existence of the hole in the first place.
John: Yeah. So, before we fix all plot holes let’s bring up a couple more issues of why these plot holes happen, because it’s not enough to say like oh this was a plot hole, but like where did that come from? I think probably the biggest cause of plot holes in movies is like there was a scene or there was something that addressed that issue and so what you see in the final film doesn’t make sense but that’s because something got cut or changed in the process. So either scenes were reordered, which is why the timeline doesn’t make sense, or they just took something out and that is the reason why this happened.
An example I found online was The Lost World: Jurassic Park when the T-Rex is on the ship, he’s in the cage but all the people on the ship are dead, so how did he kill everybody and then get back in the cage and lock the door? And the answer apparently is that there was supposed to be this velociraptor stuck on board and there was a whole scene and it just got cut.
John: That happens. And that’s a classic thing and you and I both have movies where like there really was an answer there, but the movie was running long, that wasn’t an important scene, it got snipped out. And so whether it’s timeline problems or some logic problems or like how that person got that piece of information, where was that phone call, we never saw that phone call, it’s because it wasn’t interesting and therefore it got dropped.
Craig: And I would argue that maybe 80% of legitimate plot holes that you spot in movies are not the writer’s fault. They were addressed or dealt with and then either there was a legitimately good reason that a scene had to come out of the movie. It was infected with a bad performance, or it just seemed to not really be what the audience wanted at that moment in the movie. Whatever the reason is, it had to go. And so everyone watches a movie and presumes that every single piece of film that was shot is in the movie. It’s not even remotely the case.
And I would say also there are times when the problem – in movies in particular – the problem is that the director made a mistake. Directors change things all the time in features because they are entitled to by our system. But occasionally, oh so very rarely, they do so in a capricious manner that actually does overturn an apple cart and cause a plot hole to occur.
John: Yep. It can be a situation where, oh, I really wanted this scene to take place at night rather than daytime, because it’s going to look better in this location. And maybe that makes perfect sense and maybe it truly does look better, but if these people are supposed to be on two sides of a phone call and they’re in the same time zone, why is night in one place and daytime in the other place? That happens all the time.
Craig: Happens all the time. Or, you know what, I want this guy to stand here when he sees him come in there because it looks awesome. And then later the writer watches and says, “Um, if he’s standing here and they’re standing there, neither one of them can see this third person that they’re both supposed to be noticing.” So there’s a plot hole now. We saw them not see that person and later they’re going to say how they saw that person in that place. Plot hole. Yeah.
John: Plot hole. Another reason plot holes happen I think sometimes, especially in series, is when it’s a moving target and so Harry Potter is the classic example. They started filming the movies before the books were all finished, so there’s some things which show up in the books that don’t quite match up to things that are going to happen later on in the books. They sometimes have to explain around that. So even though JK Rowling was involved in both, she was ultimately more responsible for making logic happen within her books and she didn’t necessarily know that that one thing that was happening in movie two was going to be a very difficult thing to pay off later on. The rules of where you can apparate. And they would need to do some things – they would need to make some choices that weren’t going to be paying off later on. So, characters could show up in places that didn’t make sense or an adaptation might establish one relationship that is not actually the same relationship in the books.
So the moving target of it all is a real problem. So you see that in both series but also in movie series.
Craig: It is a shame that series and movie series and television series that do this well I think get extra penalized when they stumble.
John: Yeah. True.
Craig: I mean, JK Rowling created this remarkably consistent world over seven books. Very few what you would call plotty mistakes. You may not enjoy a certain aspect of her plotting, but it was well thought – it was really carefully well thought through and done.
Similarly Game of Thrones, right? I mean, they have all these characters. They’re all interlocking/interlacing. And then, OK, so there’s one scene where a dragon shows up somewhere a little too quickly and people lose their mind.
Craig: Because they are relying in a sense, they become comfortable with the notion that they’re in good hands. That the show is going to take care of them. And so when you have a movie that’s a little more fast and loose with things no one really cares. They’re just like, meh, you know, it’s fine. It’s all good.
John: Yeah. Finally, I would say that some cases the reality would be either not cinematic or would be really gruesome. A thing I found online was pointing out that like when Ant Man is tiny, when he punches people, the force with which he would punch people would be more like a bullet. It would rip flesh and bone. So it shouldn’t knock somebody down. It should rip through them. And they could choose to show that in Ant Man movies. But that would be gory and disgusting, so they don’t do that.
Sometimes the expectations of the genre steer you towards certain solutions that aren’t entirely logical but are logical for the kind of movie you’re making.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the physics of all of it is absurd. They will play around and say, “Well, you know, we’ve got the physics of him doing this,” but you look at it and you go if you are going to jump from there to there, or if you’re going to push off and fly from there to there, you will create this massive crater under you because for every action there’s an equal–
Craig: Like when there’s a moment in one of The Avengers movie where – maybe the first one – where Tony Stark is falling as regular Tony Stark out of his skyscraper and then the suit catches up to him and he turns it on and repels upwards about 20 feet above people. And I always think they’re dead.
John: They’re dead.
Craig: They’re dead. Forget even heat. Even if you have a heat-less thing, the fact that it is stopped that amount of acceleration means that they would be crushed. Crushed.
John: Yeah. Crushed.
John: All right. So let’s take a look at fixing plot holes. If we have identified plot holes let’s fix some of them.
So getting back to that earlier question, the outline stage is the perfect place to notice some of these plot holes and fix them before you start writing. You will do yourself so many favors if you recognize like, oh, these things are supposed to be simultaneous so therefore it needs to be daytime both places. Or how would she get from this place to this place? If you are outlining this is a time where you will catch a lot of those things.
The third Arlo Finch I outlined much more extensively than previous ones and I did save myself probably a week’s worth of work of torture about how to fix some things because, oh, on an outline I can see this is going to take this amount of time. I can fix some of these problems before I write the problems.
Craig: A hundred percent. I don’t have problems when I’m writing a script that are torturous for me ever because I’ve already tortured myself in the outline phase. And I will. I will walk around for weeks trying to solve a problem because it feels wrong and it’s so brutal. But then when you solve it you feel great. And you know you’re going to be OK when you write.
Don’t think for a second when you’re outlining that the cleverness, brilliance, beauty of whatever it is you are imagining is going to be able to overcome the plot hole that it is creating. It will not.
John: Nope. It will not. Another general piece of good advice I’ve tried to implement in sort of everything I’ve done, especially when I’ve gone and done rewrites on things which you’ve sensed some plot holes there is whenever possible take away the question rather than trying to pave over it.
So, don’t have a character give an answer to something. Try to preempt the question so the question is never asked. So the audience will never ask that question. And so there was a very complicated thing I was doing that involved time travel and I needed to have a character quite early on establish one rule that took away 90% of the questions that would come up. And so, you know, if you can eliminate questions it’s much better than answering them.
Craig: And this is an area I think people who come in to rewrites have an unfair advantage over people that have written before them because when you come into rewrite you have license to say, “You know the solution here is to just get rid of this entire thing. Everybody apparently has fallen in love with it and is dancing around it like it’s the golden calf, but it’s destroying everything around it. It’s creating this need for endless explanations and bendings and contortions to justify it and cover up the damage it’s causing. How about you just get rid of it? And then you have problems whatsoever.”
Nothing feels better than a movie that moves in a nice, clean, elegant way without ever stopping you in your tracks to go, wait, wait, hold on, what? Nothing.
John: Nothing. Another good solution sometimes if you are looking at a cut of a movie and there’s a plot hole is to always ask yourself could I solve this with a single shot. If a single thing was there and inserted would it take care of it? And this comes from the women who edited one of the Star Trek movies. They were talking about how there was a thing they were encountering in one of the movies and they just pulled out their iPhones and shot one shot and it’s actually apparently in the movie but it solved an issue. It was like a cutaway to a thing, I don’t know if it was a sign that said something, but it made it clear like, oh, it connected some pieces. And sometimes it’s just a single shot or two, three really quick shots to get you over that hump so like, oh, that thing happened. Basically I’m asking for what is the simple solution that gets you through it so you don’t have to explain more.
Craig: Yeah. And I think that sometimes what you can do is take a look at the plot hole you have and ask yourself does it even have to be a hole? Maybe this is plot help. Because let’s say – for instance I’m working on something right now and in the story I got to a point where I thought you know what would be very helpful story wise in terms of establishing rules, boundaries, difficulty is if a certain thing were true. The problem is that that thing feels a little plot holey. So, I thought about it for a while and then I thought, OK, I’m going to have somebody say this like it’s true. And I’m going to have the character question it. And in the end we’re going to find out that it was a lie. But I get all of the benefit of having it.
Craig: And the lie also made sense, like why this person lied about it. And then you’re the winner. The plot hole suddenly is not a hole at all.
John: Yep. So the TV Tropes people will call that a Hand Wave, but it’s actually a very specific Hand Wave. So Hand Wave is when somebody says something that distracts you from the problem and it makes the problem go away. And it sounds like you did an Advanced Hand Wave which is it was distracting you but then ultimately it paid off that the character was lying. So, brilliant. And that’s why you win all the awards.
Craig: [laughs] That’s yet to happen, but I did essentially have the character express what I thought the audience would be expressing at that moment which is you know what you’re saying doesn’t actually make sense. And somebody going don’t worry about it, I’ve thought it through, trust me. Which I think for an audience they go, OK, if the character on screen that I’m identifying with is questioning this the movie is aware. This will be explained at some point. And it is.
John: Yeah. A related term which Jane Espenson will use, you’ll see in TV Tropes, is Hanging a Lampshade, which basically is like having the characters call a thing out and point out the unlikely nature of it. Basically saying like this is one of those premise kind of things that this is – you got to give me this one, because without this the story doesn’t make sense.
Craig: Right. And what you are playing is a psychological game with the audience. You’re saying to them please beat me up a little bit less over this because at least I’m admitting it. I’m not trying to fool you. I’m not insulting your intelligence. I’m just saying, “Hey look it’s happened.”
Now, it is not even close to being as good as not being there.
Craig: But it is preferable to suggesting to the audience that what you just told them makes sense when it clearly does not.
John: Agreed. Final bit of advice on plot holes is often you are better off just ignoring them. And so rather than trying to fix them it’s acknowledging that some things that a certain percentage of your audience will point out as mistakes, most of your audience will never notice and trying to fix it will actually cause more damage.
We said before when you try to fix things you can sometimes call more attention to them and the audience will assume that that patch is more important than the actual material around it.
John: And fixes often just feel like fixes. You and I are probably particularly attentive to looped lines, ADR. We’re looking at character B, but character A says something even though they have their back to us. And it’s clearly just a line that was thrown in there to address some problem. Sometimes it can be done really well and it’s seamless and smooth. But, man, sometimes you just really feel it.
Craig: Well, best option is get rid of plot hole. Second best option is turn plot hole to your favor. Third option is fill plot hole somehow. And you’re right, sometimes it’s better to just leave it be, depending on the size of it.
The danger, and you will see outside people – non-writers – do this almost exclusively is you decide that the way to fix the plot hole is to layer it with other stuff that solves the immediate logic problem. It’s as if they’re saying we have a problem right now not in the movie but in this room that we in this room don’t believe this moment. What can we say in this room to solve “that problem?” And you can come up with something, but it stinks.
Craig: And therein is the danger. Because you can begin filling these things only to realize you were in it and you’re burying yourself under these layers of solution that have absolutely nothing to do with good storytelling, emotions, intentions, theme, adventure, feeling. They literally exist only to answer some dumb question. And if you even sense for a second that’s what’s happening, stop immediately.
John: Yeah. You and I have both been in rooms with filmmakers who have made really good movies and a lot of movies who do get tripped up on really frustrating things that they should not be getting tripped up on and are asking for solutions to things that aren’t problems. And that is just really disheartening but it’s also the reality. And so you hear them, you talk through it, you try not to fill the perceived plot hole, but actually design a path that’s not going to take them where they see that plot hole and we’ll still deliver the movie to where it needs to go. It’s really frustrating.
Craig: It is. And this by the way is actually one of the more annoying parts of writing anything. Because we are attempting to create a simulation of reality and reality is really complicated. And also reality is reality. So, it is not here to deliver narrative excitement or drama on any given day. It’s here to just function the way it normally functions. So what we’re doing is doubly hard. We’re trying to create reality and we’re trying to create reality on a crazy day.
Craig: And so therefore we want crazy things to happen on the crazy day. But when crazy things happen in reality they happen in accordance with reality. It’s incredibly frustrating. Reality is slow. It unfolds in real time. People aren’t changing in the middle of it. Sometimes there is no particular challenge. It doesn’t care about our storytelling needs. And so we have to figure out how to tell a story in a matrix that doesn’t care about our needs as writers.
John: Absolutely. Craig, it’s time for our One Cool Things. What’s yours?
Craig: Great question, John. Very, very simple thing that I find myself using constantly. And I don’t know if you do. It comes with the iPhone. It’s the Measure App. Have you used it?
John: I’ve used it only once or twice. I always forget that it’s there.
Craig: Exactly. You always forget it’s there. Many, many times I’ve gone hunting around my house looking for the tape measure, looking for a ruler. In fact, the Measure App is better than both of those things. The Measure App, which takes about I would say 15 seconds to kind of get going because you need to move your phone around to let it orient itself in space and time, allows you to just place a dot anywhere you want and then you just start walking. And it’s just making a line on the screen using your calendar to lay the dot of the line over reality, AR style. And then when you reach the point where you want to know, OK, how far is this from my first dot, you hit it again, and it tells you.
You don’t need another person at the end with a tape measure. You can measure anything this way. It is incredibly useful. And I don’t think it existed until this recent iteration I think of iOS, or nearly recent. So, I use it all the time and I think now that I’ve put this bug in your ear you will too.
John: I probably will use it more and more. My belief is that some version of it existed from a third party developer and then Apple just made their own and Sherlocked it. But I agree it’s a really well done thing.
My One Cool Thing is an article in Lifehacker by Nick Douglas called Install These Apps on your New Mac. And it’s just a list of the apps you should maybe consider putting on your new Mac. And I liked it because I use most of these apps and it’s a convenient way for me to show some useful things that people should try to put on their Macintosh and at least experiment with.
So obviously we use Slack for everything around the office. Dropbox is essential for me. I feel like we need to do a little sidebar on Dropbox at some point because I see people who use Dropbox but they don’t use it to its maximum capability. So I think we’ll save that for a special topic bit. I cannot imagine my life without Dropbox.
Craig: Yeah, no, neither can I.
John: If you use multiple computers it is just–
John: Incredibly important.
Craig: And we all use multiple computers because at the very least–
John: Our phones.
Craig: We have a phone and a tablet at a minimum, right? Or a phone and a laptop. So, they are computers and I was very happy to see my beloved 1Password on there as well.
John: Oh yeah. Crucial. And so I only was aware of this article because he uses Highland2 for writing and so that was the little new alert that showed up. But I thought the whole article was good. So, anybody who uses Highland2 for their main writing is clearly a genius and so therefore you should take all his other suggestions to heart.
Craig, you have a change in your life that you wanted to talk to our listeners about.
Craig: I do. I have a big life change coming. I have been in my office here in Old Town Pasadena for I think seven years.
John: Your office is terrific. I love your office. It feels old fashioned in the best way.
Craig: Well, I need a little bit more space for some things that are happening. And I love this part of Los Angeles. This is Old Town Pasadena. I found a new office just a few blocks away that is even more kind of old school and nifty and LA detective circa 1938. And so I need to help the folks who have this building, I need to help them rent the place that I’m leaving. So, hey, do you want to rent Craig’s office? You can.
If you are in the market for an office in Old Town Pasadena, it’s about 500 square feet. It’s got two rooms, separated by a door. You could do worse.
John: You could do worse.
Craig: So if you’re looking for something like that go ahead and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we’ll connect you up with the folks that are showing the office. I will not be in it, so don’t expect to see me there, but that’s sort of the good news. You won’t have to deal with me.
John: It’s very, very good news. And it is a beautiful office and I think it would be good for a writer or writers who wanted to use it for offices, but it would also be good for like a psychologist or somebody. Because it has a front waiting room and then a closed back office. So it’s good for that.
Craig: Exactly. It can be all sorts of things.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by James Llonch and Jim Bond. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions, or requests for Craig’s office space.
For short questions we’re on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a comment.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com, which I think will be redesigned by the time this episode comes up. We did a big relaunch of the site. So if it’s not up Tuesday when this drops, it will be up shortly thereafter. It will look nice. I think you’ll like it.
Craig: It’s going to be a whole new johnaugust.com?
John: It’s pretty different, so I think you’ll enjoy it.
Craig: No, I don’t like change.
John: No change at all. So here’s one of the things I’ll say one of the goals. Because Scriptnotes posts are so big it just looked like a site that was only about Scriptnotes. And so Scriptnotes have their own column but they’re not the main topic of the site.
Craig: Hmm. Feels backwards to me. I think it should be all Scriptnotes with a small, tiny digital ghetto for whatever your personal musings are. But, yes, I believe Scriptnotes – I have a new vision. Somebody must own Scriptnotes.com I assume, right?
John: They do. Yeah.
John: Jerks. But on johnaugust.com you’ll also find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all the back episodes at Scripnotes.net. And you subscribe there and you get all of the back catalog episodes. The first 381 episodes of the show. And the bonus episodes.
Craig: I mean, what a deal.
John: What a deal. Thank you for another fun week.
Craig: Thank you, John. I’ll see you next week.
- Join us for the WGA’s Princess Bride screening on January 27th.
- The Seattle Live Show is on February 6th!
- You can now preorder Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon or come to the launch event on February 9th.
- Scriptnotes, Ep 383: Splitting the Party
- Scriptnotes, Ep 3: Kids, cards, whiteboards and outlines
- Plot Holes on Wikipedia and TV Tropes. You can find examples at Movie Plot Holes
- The perils of coincidence
- Measure App on iPhone
- Install These Apps on your New Mac by Nick Douglas for Lifehacker
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Outro by James Llonch and Jim Bond (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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