13 January 2023

Have Caulk Will Travel

Alfred Hitchcock called them “icebox scenes.” Movie viewers stay riveted for 90+ minutes, dazzled by the story they’re watching. Only when they get home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox (Hitch’s imagery, not mine) do they realize that something about the storyline doesn’t quite make sense. When a producer pointed out the implausibilities in the script of the soon-to-be-shot Casablanca, the Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz reportedly shrugged them off, saying, “I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

Plot holes are every writer’s bane. While I’d love to be the kind of writer who trusts that he can make the story zip along so fast nobody notices, the written word suffers from one fatal flaw that movies did not share until the invention of rewind and freeze frame. A reader can always choose to read slowly or reread a scene a second time.

My experience has been that I’ve gotten better at noticing problems in my stories and nipping them immediately, either in the first draft phase or on a second or third read. I draw a vertical line in the margin of my hard copy, and scrawl the word “fix.” That’s usually enough for my subconscious to get to work writing me out of that particular box.

When I was younger I used to fret more when I spotted these sort of problems. I took them as a personal creative failing that could easily upend the premise of an otherwise tight 3,500-word story. But as I witnessed myself seal up one hole after another, my confidence grew.

Plot solutions present themselves in one of two ways. The classic pops into your head when you’re doing a completely unrelated activity. You’re squeezing peaches in the produce aisle. You’re in the shower. You’re flossing. Whatever. The solution presents itself, often solving a problem you didn’t yet realize you had. Those moments feel like magic; the closest I’ll ever come to a lightbulb moment.

The second solution scenario is far more prosaic. The idea comes to you while you are immersed in the creative process, writing your story. You notice the problem, you ignore it for now, you type a few hundred words more until it’s time to take a break. You circle back a few grafs to see how things look, and you suddenly you know exactly how to fix the damn thing. And that feels wonderful.

The only method that doesn’t work is sitting with a sheet of paper and pencil and telling yourself: “I need to fix this plot hole. Time to brainstorm.” In that situation, my brain is useless. In fact, it’s more likely to cough up an idea for a new story than solving the problem I have in hand.

Novels can be far more problematic. More words, more plotlines, more characters all add up to more ways to screw up. In some cases, I have ignored an acknowledged hole for weeks and weeks, knowing I had to fix it but not quite sure how to do so. I have officially hit the Wall of Insecurity. The problem festers, and takes on disproportionate power in my mind. It begins to feel like avoidance not to deal with it.

You know what batters down that wall? The same two techniques: either the idea pops into my head full blown, or it occurs to me while I am again engaging creatively with that problematic scene.

The first time I handily fixed a problem scene in a novel, I was so stunned that I’d come up with a solid solution that I scoured my desk notes, wondering if I had scrawled the fix down and forgotten that I’d done so. How could it be that an idea that never occurred to me should suddenly pop until my head, free for the taking, while I was actually writing?

This question is laughable, of course, because it summarizes the essence of all creative work. Nothing exists until we make it. Duh. But it’s a lesson I have had to learn and relearn again and again.

I’d love to brag that I’m confident in my ability to fix holes that pop up, but the record shows that there’s such a thing as being too confident. A few years ago, I told myself I could easily circle back and fix a problem I’d spotted early on in a novel I was working on. When I circled back at the end of the first draft, the problem refused to budge. In fact, it was such a major hole that it sank the book. That manuscript is entombed forever on my hard drive.

Writing gives me life, but writing is not life. A while back we discovered that the previous owner of our home drilled holes in the exterior brick to attach some object, which was later removed. But the holes remain, and offer shelter to returning insects summer after summer.

“Are you going to caulk those holes?” my wife said.

“I’m thinking about it,” was my cagey response.

I have mulled over plugging those holes for seven years. Strangely, this has not fixed the problem.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


  1. Joe, don't worry about it so much. Here are two classic, and I mean CLASSIC, examples of holes from Victorian times:
    Wilkie Collins, in his "The Woman in White", had the crux of the plot revolve around a specific period of time - which he got wrong:
    "The most well known error of chronology is that first described in The Times of 30 October 1860. The plot relies on the fact that Laura’s departure for London took place the day after Anne Catherick had died under Laura’s name. In the book edition the date of that death was 26 July whereas as the reviewer points out ‘…we could easily show that Lady Glyde could not have left Blackwater Park before the 9th or 10th of August. Anybody who reads the story, and who counts the days from the conclusion of Miss Halcombe’s diary, can verify the calculation for himself.’
    This was corrected in future editions, and has never spoiled my fun with one of my favorite books.

    And in Anthony Trollope's "Doctor Thorne", the crux of the plot is that no one in the entire village, nor any of the local Squire's family, with whom Dr. Thorne has placed his niece, Mary Thorne, for an education, have any idea that Mary is the bastard daughter of Dr. Thorne's sister and an alcoholic stonemason - and by the time the story commences that stonemason is the richest man in the county. This is simply unbelievable. I only moved to Madison, SD in 1990 and even I know a couple of really juicy illegitimate stories from the 1950s with it's ongoing repercussions.

    So you're not the only one!

  2. You are a caulking gunslinger!

    I finished watching Echoes on Netflix, which poses the question: How can the actors do such a fine job (especially Karen Robinson as Sheriff Floss) and the miniseries be so awful? Plot holes for one thing, huge ragged, gaping ones. I'm not sure the plot could have sped up enough to leap those holes. It would have taken a caulking gun the size of a howitzer.

  3. Leigh - worst plot hole of all time (imho) in a "thriller" is in "A Simple Plan" - where no one, not even the sheriff, checks to credentials of the so-called FBI agent. Complete BS, because no sheriff, in any rural area I've ever lived in, would EVER do anything without making sure that this stuck-up jackass from Washington is who he says he is.

    BTW< I don't mind plot holes in things like the Indiana Jones franchise, or any other pure fantasy movie.

  4. This is a delayed reply, sorry, but I've found talking through plot holes with other writers can be helpful. Sometimes someone else will see an obvious solution that the author doesn't because she's too close to the matter.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>