Hunting Down Story Holes Using a Novel Journal

Hi everyone–I’m happy to welcome author David Stafford to the blog today as he’s tackling something we all wrestle with at some point: Story Holes. Here’s some great advice on how to defeat Story Holes, and a list of the areas they are often found.

holesPlot holes are disastrous. So are inconsistencies in your characters and setting.

These gaps in your story’s logic, or “Story Holes,” invite the reader to quit. They break rules and seriously jeopardize your chances of converting readers into loyal followers and future buyers.

Finding “Story Holes” can be difficult because we’re often overwhelmed by all the elements in our stories, especially if they’re novel-length. Keeping track of details is incredibly important, especially as we work scene-to-scene.

There are common spots where Story Holes like to lurk, so ask yourself questions to ensure the story’s logic holds up.

Seasons: When does each chapter take place? How do you signal the change in seasons? Is the geographic location of your setting stated or easily discerned? Does the temperature/weather match the stated season?

Weather: Are you consistent within chapters or periods of time (It’s raining on page 1 and not instantly sunny on page 3)? Do scenes begin and end with seemingly unannounced changes in the forces of nature?

Time of Day: Does time pass with realistic pacing and flow? If it does, do scenes focus on the important, relevant scenes? Does dialogue that takes 5 minutes to read consume 5 hours of story-time?

Location Layout: Does your story’s setting have a logic to its layout? Will readers be able to draw a map of it based on the details you provide? Is there a balance of geographic terms (north, south, east, west) with imagery? Is this layout consistent throughout the entire story? Does it take an appropriate amount of time to move from one location to another? For example, characters shouldn’t be able to drive across Los Angeles in ten minutes.

Setting Status: Have elements of the setting changed? Has something been destroyed, altered, or improved? Keep detailed notes in your novel journal on how the setting has changed during each chapter’s events.

Different Laws of Physics: Your story may contain different laws of physics, including magic, supernatural creatures, super powers, and so on. However, each of these creations o needs its own internal set of rules. As you write, put these down in writing as a constitution for you to adhere to. Use it when you check for Story Holes to see if character powers have suddenly changed for no reason, or if the rules of your world are being constantly broken. There must be a logic that your reader can follow, anticipate, and own. If you break your own rules, the reader will have no reason to respect them.

Story Holes From Editing: Have you been rearranging chapters? If so, you need to reread the entire section in which you made the switches. Better yet, have someone else read them because his/her unfamiliar eye will be able to spot the subtle ways that this rearrangement has altered the logic of your story.

Changing the Cause of an Action: As you revise, you will often alter a character’s motivation for making a choice. This will change the flow of any dialogue or thought-process in the chapter. I noticed this Story Hole when I edited my protagonist’s goal in early chapters. Large portions of dialogue had to be rewritten so that what he said was in alignment with his new, updated goal.

Character Core Qualities: Do characters maintain their unchanging qualities throughout the story (paralyzed characters don’t suddenly “walk away,” claustrophobic characters don’t suddenly enjoy elevators).

Character Traits: Character traits are more fluid than Core Qualities, but still require internal logic that’s tied to plot. Usually, for a Character Trait to change, the change must occur as a result of an action with significant stakes. If beta readers are questions “Why” characters do things, or “How” they gain or lose or alter specific traits, you may have forgotten to earn that change with a bold action in the story.

With all these details floating around, how can you hope to keep track of them all?

Answer: A Novel Journal.

the-bean-of-life-coverI created a chart for my novel, The Bean of Life, and used the following “fields” (or columns) to diagram the details of each chapter:

  • Chapter # and Working Title
  • Season (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) and Time of Day
  • Days/Weeks/Months since prev. chapter
  • Word count/Budgeted word count (in italics)
  • Character notes (New characters, any changes, major actions, major declarations)
  • Setting notes (changes, alterations, enhancements)
  • Plot Notes (plans or observations on the draft for me to use later)
  • Color-code based on its part in the book, or “tension” in a series of chapters that vary in intensity

With a tool like this in place, it will be easy to track your story’s vital details and hunt down Story Holes with incredible precision and efficiency. Here’s a template you can use!

TIP: When you save your Novel Journal, give it a name like “NOVEL TITLE_PLAN” and put it in the same folder as your manuscript.

Remember, no one gets a story perfect the first time. Prepare for this by investing time in your Novel Journal and reviewing it after each writing session. As your hunting skills get sharper, Story Holes will disappear from your prose until it’s a structural masterpiece.

(And readers will LOVE you for it!)

david-saffordDavid H. Safford is the author of The Bean of Life, the story of a man who decides to save the world with coffee. Read a free preview or get an early-access copy here before the September 20th launch.

When he’s not brewing his next pot of coffee, David coaches writers and travels to mountainous realms where his soul can finally rest. You can find him on twitter, too!

Confession time: What was your biggest logic gaff? Tell us about a story hole you discovered and how you fixed it!

Image 1: Efraimstochter @Pixabay









Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Description, Editing Tips, Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized, Writing Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Hunting Down Story Holes Using a Novel Journal

  1. Jay Hicks says:

    Thank you! Perfect timing for me. I’ve got scrawled notes in places I can’t even remember and think (hah) I can remember everything as I work through my second/third draft. My house and writing space is too small for sheets of butcher paper, or wall charts and whiteboards,so this chart is the perfect solution. What’s more, it’s an encouraging visual of progress, so will be satisfying. Great post.

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  3. karen Hallam says:

    Oh, I love this. Thank you. I’m printing up the template. Can’t wait to use it. 🙂

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  5. Thanks so much for sharing this, David. I still write novels as I go along with too much kept in my head but this will encourage me to redraft and edit them more carefully!

  6. Very helpful post! I do a time line which helps me a lot.

  7. This is very useful!! I’m on draft 3 of editing and I can put this to use with the next draft to catch plot holes, hopefully. Thank you!!

    • Congratulations on your third edit! It takes a lot of commitment to get that far. Give the template a try on this rewrite, and try to use it consistently on your next project. Hopefully it’s a huge help!

  8. I have an entire manual for my historical story, with tabs for Characters, Maps, Structure, and a Timeline—plus an entire folder on my computer with files for different areas of research. As an editor, I also learned to use a Style Sheet to keep track of character and place names, unusual spellings, abbreviations, etc.

    Wish I had had your template at the beginning, too, though. I’ve learned a lot that will save me time on the next novel.

    • Those tools sound AWESOME! It’s amazing how swollen our novel journals can get – it’s also fun to look back when we’re done (or mostly done) and see the journey the story has taken from draft to done.

  9. Celia Lewis says:

    I focus too much on dialogue and forget about seasons, months, etc. So I began to label a spreadsheet yesterday to finally wrestle all those details into line!! Your template looks very useful – thanks so much for the reminders. As a newby writer, I am often shocked at what I have missed. Thank you very much!

    • You’re welcome! I learned this the hard way when I wrote a play (a murder mystery) and then directed it – and found all sorts of holes in where people were, who had certain weapons, who was revealing key pieces of information (and how they knew it to begin with), and so on! I highly recommend a murder mystery as a way of cutting your teeth as an author – it really tests your ability to manage information!

  10. ya, I canNOT rearrange chapters!!! Can’t write them out of sequence, either. I did, however, take the final section from my prologue and move it to its chronological location in the story—and had to make some key adjustments to it.

  11. I’m constantly on guard for inconsistencies in my manuscript. Recently, I read a novel in the police procedure genre. Every time there was need for police backup, that unit was magically there as if it had been just around the corner – plausible but not every time. It was irritating. That is why I really don’t mind paying for an excellent editor to catch those kind of things. I think not enough credit is given to good editors.

  12. Ruchama says:

    What a great idea. I have spent a good deal of research time making sure the moon was actually full on a historic date and whether wooden fences or rock walls would be on the edges of fields. And, the journal can be useful on it’s own if personal notes and impressions are included as the work progresses, as in a diary type journal. I have a published copy of Steinbeck’s Journal for East of Eden.

    • I know with Scrivener you can have both documents in one – the manuscript AND your journal. I’m still learning Scrivener, and many pros swear by it. Did you ever hear about how Neil Degrasse Tyson is responsible for a corrected night sky in the blu ray of Titanic? Yeah – people obsess over this little details, and you’re on the ball for obsessing over them yourself! Good work!

  13. HR Sinclair says:

    I did a similar thing when I was in edit mode. The amount of time was a big one. I found I had stuffed so much into one day that my MC would have to fold time to do it all! Too bad it wasn’t a sci-fi. 🙂

  14. Kessie says:

    That’s one of my pet peeves, when authors contradict their own setting/weather/seasons. And then I turn around and do it to my readers! That’s why editors are so necessary–they see those holes and call you on it.

  15. My novel’s story is centered around a lake, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted the lake to be the north or south border. I flipped it 3 or 4 times, and one of the last clean-up things I had to do was a manuscript-wide search for “north”, “south,” and so on, making sure my compass was right. Probably not a major thing to worry about, but definitely something that could pull my reader out of the story!

  16. I was just this minute fighting with my timeline. And my setting. And my process-oriented brain was thinking, “I should make a spreadsheet.” Thank you for getting me started. I think you saved me an entire day’s work!

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