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YMMV: Plot Holes Don't Matter

🕳️ ...In My Heart That Can Only Be Filled By You...

There's a fantastic moment in Wonder Woman where Diana first uses her powers. She's surrounded by friends and family and they all react without speaking in a way that conveys that they love her but are also terrified of her. It's a great scene--and I'm a sucker for good "face acting" anyway--and at that moment I knew that I was going to be on board for whatever this movie had to dole out. My wife, however, was not affected the same way, and the movie on the whole just wasn't working for her. Throughout it she would lean over and point out inconsistencies or anachronisms or continuity gaffes (we were in our living room, not a theater; she's not a monster). And the thing was... nothing she said was wrong. I just hadn't noticed any of them and didn't really care. And that was when I realized...

Plot Holes Don't Matter

Blame CinemaSins. Er... well, that's not entirely fair. There's always been a cottage industry of people making fun of artists without criticizing the art on any kind of a meaningful level. It's just that... look, I don't want to say that CinemaSins is the worst thing that ever happened to film criticism, but I can't come up with anything else off the top of my head, so here we are. That YouTube channel inadvertently spawned an entire mini-era of film discussion that was based purely on chronicling whatever the viewer thinks constitutes a mistake. Not towards any real purpose, mind you, you're trying to come up with a high score or something. And I get it. It makes you feel smart. It's fun. But it's not exactly a deep analysis to point out that the brooch on Frodo's elven cloak sometimes points in different directions because every now and then you have to flip a shot to make eye-lines match.

It was very superficial and it was everywhere. And the prevalence of this type of discourse started to affect how actual movies were made. The live-action Beauty and the Beast remake spends an inordinate amount of its runtime trying to atone for the sins of the original movie, explaining why it's not actually unfair that the servants were also enchanted when their master was, because his parents were negligent and they didn't do anything to help him. Or how Belle's fascination with reading is actually Feminism™ and not just a character trait. It all just drags the movie down and none of it matters, because you know what no one did? No one walked out of that award-winning ground-breaking animated feature because they had questions about why no one in a French provincial town had noticed that their monarch had disappeared. Is that a plot hole? Sure, but I didn't think about it when I was watching and neither did you, because if a story is engaging you properly, you aren't going to be thinking about plot holes.

That was the big revelation I had when watching Wonder Woman with my wife. Because it's not that the plot holes weren't there--every story has plot holes. They're unavoidable. But because I was engaged with the story and the characters, I never even noticed them. My wife, on the other hand, was nitpicking because the story wasn't working for her. This makes sense if you think about it, but we've got the reverse ingrained into us, and I'm here to tell you to break that habit. You've got the causality backwards. Noticing plot holes isn't what made my wife dislike the movie. Disliking the movie is what made her notice the plot holes.

So that's pretty simple, right? And it's what the remake of Beauty and the Beast got wrong. It sacrificed story for plot continuity. It would have been far better served to sacrifice plot continuity for story. Because if the story is working, the plot holes don't matter.

Here's my favorite example of this. I'm going to name a movie. You have seen this movie. You have liked this movie. It may even be in your top ten movies of all time. After I name the movie, I'm going to point out a plot hole in it. This is not some tiny nitpicky plot hole either, this is a giant plot hole so big you could drive a truck through it. After I tell you what it is, you will agree that it is a plot hole. But it will not change your opinion of the movie one single bit. You will dismiss it almost instantly. Because, as big of a plot hole as it is, it doesn't actually matter. Ready for it? Here we go!

The movie is Groundhog Day. It is a beloved classic. Asshole meteorologist Phil Conners gets trapped in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over. But there's a very big problem with the ending, plot-wise. A vital piece of information is missing. And it is this: How does Phil get out of the time loop?

Seems like a big deal, right? Right!? Whatever mechanism allows our protagonist to overcome the main obstacle of the story is never mentioned. This is about as big as plot holes get, and it absolutely does not matter. You now know this, and you couldn't possibly care less, could you? It feels almost trivial that I brought it up, despite the fact that this is, objectively, a pretty big freaking gap in the plot. Why doesn't it matter?

It doesn't matter, because the story is thematically complete. We don't actually need to know how Phil got out of the time loop, because we know why. He got out of the time loop because he'd completed his character arc and become a genuinely good person. He learned the lesson that when you can't change your circumstance, all you can do is change yourself. And that, frankly, is enough. Adding a mechanical explanation would make the movie longer, but it wouldn't make it any better. In fact, according to the audio commentary, earlier versions of the script did have an explanation. Phil had a jilted lover who turned out to be a witch and she cursed him. They took that out, because not only was it not necessary, it kind of makes the whole thing worse, right? Imagine the movie with those extra scenes in it--it kind of sucks the life out of it. The implications of this are kind of fascinating, though. Not only do plot holes not matter, but it's frequently beneficial to add them in when they buy you something else, and in movies that's typically pacing.

One of my favorite films is That Thing You Do!, about a band that are one-hit wonders in the 60s. It's light and fluffy, but there's great banter. Anyway, because of the era in which it was released, there's an extended cut of it on the blu-ray. Watching both cuts is educational. The movie ends with Guy Patterson, the protagonist, deciding to stay in L.A. even though the band is through, and convincing his love interest to stay with him. What precipitates this is an impromptu jam session he had with one of his musical heroes, jazz legend Del Paxton. In the extended cut, however, there's several minutes of interim material. The jam session creates an opportunity for Guy to interview Del and some other jazz legends, and he successfully pitches this to a radio station where he and his band had been interviewed earlier in the film. This gives him the connections and some seed money that he'll need to make it as a drummer in L.A., and it ties up a number of plot threads from earlier in the story. But in practice, all it actually does is make the ending start to drag. It absolutely belongs on the cutting room floor, because while it may add to the verisimilitude of the story, it is inessential to the emotional journey of the protagonist.

This was a lesson I learned a long time ago, in my first ever attempt at collaborating on short fiction. The other author, who was quite a bit more seasoned than myself, had traded off scenes with me and we were trying to figure out the ending, and I got it all clicking in my brain. It was exciting, it worked, it solved the problems. I outlined it and presented it to my co-author... and he didn't like it. He told me that I'd come up with a mechanical solution to an emotional problem. And he was absolutely right. So I scrapped it. The story we ended up writing together... had other problems--our writing sensibilities clashed too much for us to make it work. Regardless, that feedback he gave me was invaluable, and I go back to it regularly. Emotional conflicts have to have emotional resolutions, or they aren't satisfying, and trying to solve this with plot mechanics misses the point.

Put another way: Plot is a concession to reality, but stories are stronger than reality. You should always err on the side of story, and you have more leeway with this than you think you do. Audiences are willing to overlook a lot if the story if vibing properly for them. This is especially true in genre fiction. Why do we take it as a given that spaceships can travel faster than light in science fiction? Why are we cool with no one's cell phone working properly in the haunted cabin? How is this cozy town where someone was just murdered able to support a main street where the stores only sell very niche items and have so little customer traffic that one proprietor is able to devote all of her time to amateur sleuthing? Do these constitute plot holes? Maybe, maybe not--literally no one cares.

Now, sometimes a story veers so far into plot hole nonsense that you can't ignore it, even though you really want to. And you know what? It still doesn't matter. When that happens, the reader will actually start doing the author's work for them--that's what head-canon is. "The holes were too egregious to overlook, so I fixed them for you in my brain." Or you just decide to consciously ignore them. The first time I watched Knives Out, I really struggled with the premise of a character who couldn't lie without vomiting. I just couldn't buy into it. And then when I finished the movie, I decided that for the purposes of this film, I would buy into it. It was so good that it overrode my inability suspend disbelief. To be perfectly honest, my first viewing of any Rian Johnson movie has me asking questions that I consciously ignore on subsequent viewings. Every single one is too far-fetched for me in one direction or another but before the end of the movie I have given up on caring because it was necessary to tell the story he wanted to tell. This may be why he's one of my favorite directors.

So why do people get so worked up about plot holes?

It's because they're noticeable. Character arc and theme are important, but they're also much less visible than plot. When you think about Star Wars, you think about laser swords and blowing up the Death Star. You don't think about Luke's journey of self-actualization that he achieved by setting aside technology and embracing spiritualism. Because that theme--and yes, that's the theme of Star Wars--is just a lot less noticeable than the laser swords. But if that character journey were missing, if that theme were incoherent, then no amount of laser swording would make the story interesting. And we know this, because of several other movies also called Star Wars.

Now, let's have a little perspective. Embracing plot holes don't matter isn't a license to never fact-check anything. You can't just set a story in Atlanta, North Dakota, and expect the audience to not blink an eye at it. What I'm saying is that, at the end of the day, there is a tension between what makes a story dramatically compelling and what makes it feel like it could exist in the real world. This is necessary because the real world is shockingly boring a lot of the time. It's awful storytelling--the plots are unrealistic, the characters are inconsistent, and the pacing is just all over the place. That's why we read books and watch movies and tell ghost stories around campfires. Stories are supposed to be unreal, that's why we prefer them to reality.

Because stories are stronger than reality.

That said, we do live in the era of clickbait, so here's everything wrong with this essay in seventeen minutes or less.

Next week, we pivot towards dialog. I've spent the last few posts talking about things you can learn from movies. How to write dialog is not one of them...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.