MOVIE REALITY, Pt. 3:
Previously we've discussed coincidences, and impossibilities. Each of these features of movie reality are indispensible to the movie experience. To become truly effective, you must learn to master them.
Now it's time to talk about the kinds of things that can hamper or even destroy your screenplay. It's time to talk about plot holes.
A plot hole is a gap in the logic of your screenplay. Any inconsistency which goes against the story as it's been established.
There are three main types of plot holes:
1. Fudge -- details that are fudged or omitted because they are not important. Certain genres are more tolerant of fudge -- fantasy, for example.
2. WTFs -- details so incongruent, they immediately take the viewer out of the story, and stretch or snap the suspension of disbelief.
3. Flaws -- missing structural supports, resulting in an unstable plot structure destined to collapse.
Fudge is generally pretty easy to spot. The fact that the T-1000 could go back in time -- even though he's solid metal -- is a fudge. It's a missing bit of unimportant justification that you have to just let go, or the rest won't work.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, did the Genesis Device also create a star for the Genesis planet? In Princess Bride, how did Fezzik know Count Rugen was the six-fingered man?
This is fudge. If the explanation would result in a WTF, and it's not particularly important to the story anyway, then these are things you can just let go.
Naturally, you want to keep your fudge to a minimum. Too much, and your script will never make it past the gatekeepers. But if you play it cool, you can get away with it. Especially if the rest of the story is so awesome or fun that the fudge is lost in the shuffle.
WTFs are really pretty easy to spot, when they're in someone else's story. When it's your script, they can slip by. This is why it's important to run your script by as many people as you can -- so that these kinds of glitches can be spotted and eliminated.
The WTF category includes gratuitous moments that can often show up in a movie because the premise demands it -- or because the egos of the creators demand it.
The boat race in The Social Network, for example. Totally unnecessary. It's a WTF. But it is interesting. Often, WTFs can become cherished moments in a movie. They can be part of your unique appeal as a writer (see the work of David Mamet for some great examples). Provided you use them with full knowledge of what you're doing!
Flaws -- true holes in the plot -- are the most damaging kind of plot hole, and should be avoided at all costs.
A story is like a building. You set the foundation, then affix a frame of loadbearing girders to the foundation. You build it up, keeping it stable, making sure that every element braces every other element, and that the thing doesn't collapse under its own weight.
You built it up to the roof -- the climax of the script -- then you step back, invite people in, see if it'll stand on its own. It probably teeters a bit, and there are missing beams here and there, and the floors are a bit rickety -- so you go back in there to repair it. Over and over, until you've got a building that can support a throng of moviegoers.
Since a story is horizontal, on pages, you can get to the end even when it's flawed and ready to collapse. Perhaps it'd be easier if stories were built from the bottom up, liable to fall like a house of cards if they didn't work. Architects get only one chance to make a building stand up -- we writers can fail repeatedly, and still not wind up with something that stands on its own.
That's why we have to learn to be good building inspectors.
Flaws generally take the form of missing setups. Writers generally work through a draft from beginning to end. So it's inevitable that they might insert something into the later pages, and forget to go back and add the corresponding setup. Imagine a story of a mild-mannered middle-class American businessman fighting corporate corruption -- set upon by ninjas late in the script, he defeats them with kung fu. How is it that he knows kung fu? And why ninjas?
These are things that need setup. In any movie the first act is wide and spacious and full of setups -- loadbearing walls forming a sturdy ground floor, on which the rest of the load will rely. Any given setup is a foundation for something that occurs later -- without that foundation, the later thing winds up floating in mid-air. Defying the laws of physics and drama.
There are precious few examples of obvious flaws in movies that have made it to the screen, because armies of people search for and eradicate them. The movies may wind up with plot holes of the first few types, but vanishingly few actual structural flaws. Even the biggest direct-to-video turd has a story that stands on its own.
This shows you just how important a solid plot is. A movie doesn't get made without one. Usually, they don't even get bought without one.
You can actually use fudge and WTFs intentionally, to create effects in your screenplays.
Sometimes you'll fudge a detail, to confuse and mislead your audience -- then come back to it later and have the plot turn on that detail.
Sometimes you'll use WTFs to spice up your screenplay and astonish your reader. Go too far, knowing that they'll cut it when they buy it. It's a valid tactic, used by many working writers over the years. And it can help the neophyte get some surprise heat.
But nobody uses flaws in their screenplays. Even the appearance of a flawed story can prevent it from moving up the food chain. And gatekeepers are on the lookout for flaws more than any other script defect.
So seek out and destroy structural errors, so that your plot flows smoothly, with no gaps in logic or consistency.
Read more screenwriting articles at the StoryPros Article Archive!
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