This happens to almost every novelist who ever lived, and it’s probably happened to you:
You wrote your novel the best you know how. You did everything right. The story flows. The characters rock. The setting shines. The theme pulses with life. You set the manuscript aside for a few weeks to let it cool. Then you come back to it and…
And you find that your characters sometimes do illogical things. Or they are more clever than anyone could possibly be. Or crazy coincidences ruin their plans.
In short, you have holes in your novel.
The Two Horns of the Dilemma
At this point, you have only two choices:
- Fix those holes by adding more stuff to your story.
- Ignore the holes and be true to your vision.
- Throw the manuscript away because it’s flawed.
I know those are three options listed, but you’re a real novelist and you would rather swallow crushed glass in a gallon of bat urine before you’d throw away a manuscript you sweat blood on. So option 3 is not an option.
But what do you do? Fix the holes or leave them alone?
What Happens When You Fix the Holes
You can and probably should fix the holes in your story. Generally, this is not hard.
If your characters are doing illogical things, you can make them logical by adding more information to the story that makes it clear that it’s actually the best choice in a bad situation. Or you can change their reasoning process so they use better logic to get to the right action. Or they can do something more logical.
If your characters are more clever than anyone has a right to be, then you can give more information so their cleverness is more plausible. Or you can add another character, which helps because two brains really are better than one, so their cleverness is now more plausible. Or you can just have them choose a less clever solution, which will probably add complications to the story.
If you’ve got crazy coincidences that seem too unlikely for words, you can add some reasons to make it clear that it’s not really a coincidence after all. Or you can just add more events, so that you don’t need a coincidence to bring two people together at just the right time.
When you’ve done all this, your novel is probably going to be longer. Because every way to fix the holes in your story requires you to add information to make the holes go away. It’s almost impossible to fix story holes by making the novel shorter.
After You’ve Fixed the Holes
Once you’ve fixed the holes in your story, you’ll do the right thing and set it aside. You’ll wait a few weeks and come back to read your masterpiece. And now there’s a problem …
There are new holes in your story. You fixed the old ones, but the fixes created new holes. Hopefully you have fewer holes in your story. Hopefully, they are smaller.
But you’ve still got holes in your story, and the same two horns of the dilemma. Only now, your novel is longer than before. More complicated. More pages to print. And pages cost money.
You can repeat the process if you insist. You can fix all the new holes, exactly the way you fixed the previous batch. Go right ahead. Do it all again.
And when you reread the manuscript after a suitable pause, you’ll find a whole new round of holes. We hope they will be fewer and smaller than before. But maybe they won’t. And for sure, your manuscript will only get longer. And meanwhile, the clock is ticking. You are getting older. Your readers are drumming their fingers waiting for your next book.
The Sweet Spot
There is a sweet spot here. You want to fix the most gaping holes, yes. But you can’t continue the process forever, no. You need to get the book out.
Seth Godin, the legendary marketing genius, is famous for saying that you need to ship your product. Whatever it is, there comes a point when you just ship it, even if it has a few flaws.
This means you will get reviews complaining (rightly) that your characters do illogical things—they are too stupid to live. Other reviews will complain (rightly) that your characters are incredibly clever—an unrealistic “Mary Sue” who can’t possibly exist.
Please note that some reviewers will make both complaints, maybe even about the same character. Your way-too-smart Mary Sue is also too-stupid-to-live. Yes, really, somebody will say that.
Other reviewers will note the implausible coincidences in your story.
And yet other reviewers will complain that your story is too long.
You did your best to hit the sweet spot, and you may feel like you failed. But did you?
No, you wrote a novel. All stories have holes. Yours does too. The best you can do is to shoot for some balance. If the complaints about “too stupid to live” are roughly balanced by “too smart to be plausible”, then you probably got it about right. If the complaints about “too many coincidences” are about balanced by the ones about “the story is too long” then you’re good.
So you hit the sweet spot. Congratulations.
Now go write another novel and do it all over again. You will never write a novel without holes. And that’s OK. Just ship.