Books that overuse adverbs or are in present tense never bother me. On the other hand, plot holes and weak plot devices are annoying, especially in Science Fiction. Yet, despite the fact they distract readers, and sometimes break the suspension of disbelief, novels with blatant problems may still become best sellers.
I’m not talking about smallish things like the ones in The DaVinci Code, where most of the puzzles were easy to solve (like anagrams), making me wonder why they baffled people through the ages, or getting the number of glass panes wrong. It’s about major logic flaws that you keep hoping will be explained at any moment, but you finish the book and there’s no closure, leaving you with the feeling that you forgot your gas oven on while in the middle of a road trip.
Disclaimer: I rarely (if ever) finish a novel I don’t like. The books I mention below may have problems but I finished them all. Also, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
Time Travel and Parallel Earths Are Hard
It’s easy to find plot holes in time travel stories due to the difficulty in avoiding paradoxes. In Scott Meyer’s Off to Be The Wizard, we’re told changing the past doesn’t seem to affect the future at all, but you somehow can go back and talk to yourself a few minutes ago. Couldn’t you tell your old self to buy some lottery tickets? Also, a lot of the problems could be solved by more time traveling. Why not go back in time to figure out who’s trying to kill one of the main characters in Spell or High Water? More importantly, why can’t we use time turners to stop Voldemort? And if you’re saying time-turners can’t go that far back you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The fact is that:
we’re more forgiving when time travel is involved.
Still, Timeline by Michael Crichton (also the writer and director of the original movie Westworld) ends with a scene that should be impossible. Time travel is achieved by jumping to parallel Earths that follow the same main timeline events as in our Earth, but their date is offset from ours. The characters may jump to a parallel Earth in any point in the future or past, and in the book they show up in one that is in the middle ages.
But it’s a completely different Earth, so they should never be able to send a message to their home, in the future. To my surprise, this is exactly what they do. If you want to salvage the story, a possible complex explanation for that would be:
- There are infinite and parallel Earths;
- Someone comes from yet another one to our homeworld;
- This person also sends the message in our own Earth, completing the cycle.
However, this makes the parallel universes plot device unnecessary. Just create a time machine that goes back to the past and be done with it.
Even without time travel, it’s relatively easy to end up in a situation that makes your whole novel nonviable. Dark Matter has a fantastic and fun twist near the end, but soon you ask yourself why the implications of the twist didn’t happen at the beginning of the book, or even earlier. True, Blake‘s book would be unreadable if that was the case, so my second point is:
sometimes we must sacrifice consistency to have a good story.
I promised myself I wouldn’t mention how Superman went back in time, so I won’t.
Deus Ex Machina
This is a pet peeve of mine, and it happens a lot more often than I’d like. From wikipedia, Deux Ex Machina is:
And there are many, many examples of it in books and movies. Perhaps the most famous appearance of this plot device is in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana is literally saved by God (Deus), and the outcome of the movie would be exactly the same even if he wasn’t in the story at all.
Or imagine your main character is in mortal danger with no escape, and out of the blue a mythological bird drops a hat containing a sword, saving him. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is how one the books of a successful series ends.
One of my favorites series of all time – Redrising – practically relies on Deus Ex Machina solutions to move the story forward. Sevro keeps saving Darrow like there’s no tomorrow, and when there’s absolutely no escape or plan (think dying alone in the snow, love interest captured and imprisoned in an impossible to reach place), he somehow, against all odds, saves the day and beats everyone.
Doing it Right
Once in a while, though, you find a novel with an extraordinary puzzle where most of the pieces fit. One of my favorite books of all time is Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Although some may argue it still has an undesirable paradox, and if you ignore the sexism common in works of that time, Asimov creates an incredible but consistent time travel story spanning millennia that has a satisfying ending. More importantly, at no point additional time travel would be able to solve or invalidate the main conflicts, a problem most stories that allow changing the past fail to address.
Also, although I’m usually not a fan of fantasy (and it often bothers me that Science Fiction and Fantasy are grouped together*), there is one series that impressed me: The Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia. Set in an alternate timeline created when magic first appeared on Earth, Correia‘s world has well-defined and self-contained rules, and while the ending of the first book (and the series) is well done, it ties up with the story as a whole.
*I’ll be darned – my debut novel is both Science Fiction and Fantasy!
In the end, we can write a perfectly logical novel that we formally verify and prove everything is correct, but if readers don’t like it, it’ll fail. And, on the flip side,
the better your story is, the less people care about inconsistencies.
Despite the problems with Redrising, Pierce Brown‘s trilogy touched all my emotional buttons. Harry Potter may have its problems, but like Hard Magic, it’s one of the few fantasy series that forced me to get out of the house to exercise, making me addicted to audio books.
So, should I throw reason out of the window and just wing it, writing by the seat of my pants? Well, maybe, but if by that you mean you shouldn’t care about consistency, the obvious answer is a resounding no.
Plot holes weaken your story. Making sense is still important, and while some are better than others in that regard, we should always aim for coherence. For my own novel, I spent most of the time developing the world and trying to solve logic problems before I even began writing it, and I think I did the right thing.
- We’re more forgiving when time travel is involved.
- Sometimes we must sacrifice consistency to have a good story.
- The better your story is, the less people care about inconsistencies.
- Still, we should always aim for coherence.
Thanks to my lovely daughter for the timeline drawing.
Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.