When Plot Holes Don’t Matter

The sheriff’s intervention comes under the heading of what we have discussed many times before: “Why don’t they go to the police?” I’ve always replied, “They don’t go to the police because it’s dull.”

-Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock by Truffaut: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock

This quote is from a 1965 interview of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, talking about why people don’t contact the police in thrillers. It really encapsulates the true storytelling reason that characters don’t reach out to the police in thrillers or horror movies. If they do make the rational decision here and contact authorities, the movie ends. And, back in the 1960’s when Hitchcock was making the movie, that was an acceptable answer.

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Hitchcock disapproves.

However, we don’t live in the 1960’s. We live in the 2010’s, bordering on the 2020’s. We live in an era when creative works, especially stories, are put under a microscope and dissected and analyzed to a degree that has never before been possible. Things can go from being created, to being dissected, to having the dissection dissected, to backlash against the dissection in a matter of weeks. Books and movies by popular authors or filmmakers are broken down to their component tropes on TV Tropes in a matter of hours after release.

And then there’s Cinema Sins.

Let me be upfront about something. I love watching Cinema Sins. I have a Sins video playing right now in the background as I write this post. It’s usually funny, it’s nice to see bad movies get broken down, and it’s overall interesting. I can easily binge their videos for hours on end, and they make a great background for writing since you can tune in and out of them and still catch some good jokes. They also let me understand the basics of what happens in movies I’d never want to actually watch, like the 18th Fast and the Furious movie (Faster and Even More Furiouser), which allows me to not be completely lost when people start talking about them around me, for which I’m eternally grateful.

That being said, I hate Cinema Sins. Not for anything they’ve done. The people behind Cinema Sins have been very upfront that they are not critiques, they’re – to use their own word – “assholes” that pick apart and dissect and nitpick every detail of a movie. They’re also insanely popular, having millions of subscribers on YouTube. Some of their videos – such as the Kong: Skull Island video – even get responses from Hollywood directors. Intentionally or not, they’ve shaped the pop culture discourse around analyzing works to one of intensive nitpicking.

This is not an inherently bad thing, but it’s paralyzing as a writer.

Now, some kind of plot holes are bad. These are the plot holes you want to catch and fix in a book. If your supposedly “smart” hero misses an important clue that the audience catches, it’ll break immersion and ruin the experience. Those kind of plot holes have to be fixed, and they’re not the ones I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about the other kind of plot hole.

Why didn’t they use the Time Turner?

That question is one I see brought up fairly often in discussions about Harry Potter. In book 3, they introduce the Time Turner, a device that Hermione uses to manipulate time, allowing her to literally take more classes then there are in the day. It features prominently in the climax of that book, and then is never mentioned again.

time-turner
Nope, can’t think of any other uses for this thing.

In a lot of critiques of the later books and movies, you’ll hear people snarkily comment ‘boy, a Time Turner sure would come in handy right now.’ And they’re absolutely right! If you’re going to give the protagonists the ability to manipulate time, you probably should address – at some point – why they don’t travel through time again. Now, we all know the real answer – because it would fundamentally change the books into being a time travel adventure, and that’s not what the books are supposed to be about – but that problem could have been fixed by a throwaway line. Dumbledore could have said “It appears using the Time Turner for this has caused some damage to reality. It’ll be decades before it can be done safely again.” Boom. Plot hole plugged.

That’s an example of a plot hole that should be filled. It should be filled because it can be safely fixed with a one sentence explanation, and because not fixing it takes people out of the story.

There’s another plot hole in Harry Potter that people bring up often: “Why are the adults so worthless in these books?” There are so many instances, especially in the first four books, where children are solving problems that there are plenty of adults around to resolve, adults who were nominally more intelligent and experienced than the children who are dealing with the problems are.

There’s no good fix for this problem, because it’s not actually a problem. The reasons the adults rely on the young wizards in Harry Potter is because it’s not that kind of story. It’s a story about Harry Potter and his magical friends solving problems and that’s what we, the reader, are here for. No one came to a book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone looking for how Albus Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard in the world, obliterated Professor Quirrell and solved the problem of Voldemort in a month.

Yet more and more, critics are focused on those plot holes. You can’t fix the “why didn’t the adults solve the problem” question in a single throwaway line. You’d have to make them all bumbling incompetents or spend pages upon pages of boring exposition on why Harry being super special is what solves the problem, and in either cases, you’d raise more questions than you’d answer.

Plot holes don’t matter when fixing them would cause more problems.

And now we’re at the point I wanted to make with this blog post. Plot holes are not a problem when they don’t break immersion, because those holes are required for the story function. No one reading a cyberpunk story really cares how the cybernetic augmentations are powered. If you come up with an interesting answer for it, then please, by all means explain away – if you can work it into the plot. Otherwise, Hollywood, let it go.

For all our joking, we don’t really need to know why the Eagles don’t carry Frodo to Mount Doom because we know there’d be no story there. We don’t need to know how your time travel works, Terminator franchise. We definitely, absolutely, did not need an origin story for the Xenomorphs, Alien: Covenant. We certainly do not need an explanation for why Predators are coming to Earth besides big game hunting, Predators, and we definitely, absolutely, under no circumstances wanted a reason for the alien invasion in Independence Day, yet Independence Day Resurgence felt a painful need to continue explaining it.

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No one needed this

And those last three are the real problem with an over obsession on plugging plot holes. Some things work better when you don’t explain it. Yet I feel like this culture of overly nitpicking is directly responsible for this plague in storytelling of over explaining. Everyone is so afraid of people going “why didn’t the characters do X?” or “What’s the reason for Y?” that they shove reasons for everything down our throats.

The problem is, when you explain everything, then anything you don’t explain becomes even more annoying for the audience. By explaining the mechanics of time travel in more detail, Terminator: Genisys reminded us that they weren’t explaining why Old Man Terminator was sent back in time in the first place. By explaining the origin story of the Xenomorphs, Alien: Covenant reminded us that they weren’t explaining why David the magical android was doing this in the first place. By explaining why the aliens were invading in Independence Day: Resurgence, the movie reminded us that they weren’t explaining why we needed a shitty sequel to one of the greatest blockbusters of all time. Oh, and everything with the “good” aliens, too.

It’s okay to say “this happens because it’s what’s interesting.” It’s fine to say “they don’t call the cops because it’s dull.”

If you can plug a plot hole with a single sentence, do it. If you can’t – if you need to break your story to fix a plot hole – ignore it. Focus on writing a good story, and we’ll ignore it.

Except for Cinema Sins. They’ll sin it. And that’s fine – that’s what we watch them for.

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Although Hitchcock would not approve.

Check out Weird Theology! It has fairly few plot holes, I promise!

2 thoughts on “When Plot Holes Don’t Matter

  1. You’ve made some great points here!
    Regarding the Time Turner specifically, I wish that Rowling had never introduced it in the first place. Personally, I thought it was a little bit of a cheat, and given that, as you said, it never came up again, I can’t help feeling like it was a convenient (dare I say lazy?) way of resolving a difficult plot problem.

    Liked by 1 person

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