Films and TV shows have been getting grittier and more nuanced in the last decade. Even superhero films like The Dark Knight have taken the plunge. Campiness is over. We want to feel like what we’re watching could really happen. However, in many of these stories, there are plot holes both minor and major that are glossed over by viewers and critics alike. I understand what a challenge it can be to balance the realism with storytelling momentum. The question is, when does it reaching the breaking point?
I don’t have a problem with unlikely events or million-to-one chance occurrences. Those can actually happen. Just look at Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson. I’m talking about more mundane and prosaic details that don’t fit in the real world as we understand it. As an author I spend a lot of time thinking how important it is to maintain realism in thrillers.
Adhering to realism may be less a problem if you’re writing a mystery or police procedural. I don’t think Michael Connelly has any trouble keeping the story elements close to what detectives actually do for their jobs. But I write big adventures with huge action set pieces and world-threatening stakes. I strive to keep my plots in the realm of plausibility, though the combination of events would be extremely unlikely. To me, that’s what makes a story worth telling: a scenario that would almost never happen.
Yet I still want to believe the story—that if these people were thrust into this situation, it might actually turn out the way the story is told. That’s true whether I’m the creator or consumer of the tale. It should feel real.
Realism for its own sake, however, can be super boring. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Castle would take forever if the police had to wait for DNA testing to come back in the amount of time it takes in the real world (months) instead of TV time (hours). On TV, captains get impatient if it takes more than two days to bring in the killer, but in the real world it can take weeks or months to gather enough evidence to make an arrest, if they ever do. And the DNA evidence on TV is always exact and decisive, to the point that actual prosecutors now have to routinely remind juries that such evidence is rarely definitive. Many viewers don’t understand that we simply accept these unrealistic accelerated timetables so that we can get to the good parts of the story.
The blockbuster action-adventure movies seem to get away with bigger plot hand-waving. You won’t find a bigger James Bond fan than I am, but I’m perplexed that for fifty years Bond has flown around the world with his trusty Walther PPK pistol. How? It’s never explained why he can breeze through airport security carrying a loaded weapon in his luggage. Is it plastic? Does he have diplomatic immunity? Does he pay off the TSA agents? Never mind that he’s a member of the British Secret Service who tells just about everyone he meets what his real name is. The real secret is how he isn’t nabbed by authorities the minute he gets off the plane.
In The Dark Knight,the Joker stuffs two ferries with hundreds of drums of explosives. When did he find time for that? How did the crew overlook them? And how does the Joker roam around Gotham City with that hideous makeup on and no one ever notices him?
In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds a large cache of weapons and technology in a railcar outside of Moscow. Every law enforcement agency on the planet is looking for him and his team for blowing up the Kremlin, yet he shows up in Dubai a day later with the full load of guns and ammo in a hotel suite. The audience is just expected to accept that Hunt has a way to smuggle all of that contraband thousands of miles while on the run from the authorities.
I wonder whether novels are held to a higher standard than other media when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I don’t think a novelist could get away with those kinds of plot holes without being called on them by readers. I think the difference is in how the media are consumed. When you’re watching a movie, it doesn’t give you time to think about the plot holes until it’s finished, and by then you’ve already formed your opinion about whether or not you liked it. But it takes six to ten hours or more to read a book, sometimes over the course of weeks. The reader has plenty of time to think about potential plot holes, and if they’re glaring they may even make the reader put the book down for good. On the other hand, a movie has to be pretty bad for me to stop watching halfway through (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin).
The acceptance of plot holes may also have to do with how we use our imaginations in the different media. With TV and movies, the visuals and sounds are supplied for you in a constant stream, and we accept them as the reality of the story. However, with novels we generate all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our minds. Creating all of them from scratch requires effort on our part, and if they don’t fit into the logic of the story, it becomes much more noticeable. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been able to convince readers that Indiana Jones rode on top of a submarine for two days to that island where the Ark was taken if it were a book? In the movie we see a diving montage and a map sequence showing a 500-mile trip, but due to selective editing Indy is ready to beat up Nazis as soon as they come into port—starvation, thirst, and hypothermia be damned (not to mention holding his breath for two days).
Without those quick cuts in a novel, readers would have the time and imagination to realize Indy isn’t Aquaman. That’s why I put plenty of thought into potential plot holes. I may not eliminate all of them, but I try to make them as tiny as possible. The process takes up a good chunk of my writing time, and my beta readers still bring many to my attention. So if you’re a writer, I highly recommend that you have a few people read through your book as a logic consultant. You may be surprised at how many plot holes they find that you thought you’d plugged.