Why Doesn't the Dog Bark?
If you have read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
– and possibly even if you have not read them – you may be familiar with a
particular point noticed by Holmes: The dog that did not bark during the
As writers we are usually concerned with what happens in our stories.
However, we can often improve them by being concerned with what does not
Plot points or plot holes?
Sometimes what does not happen is a crucial plot point, as it was in that
particular Sherlock Holmes mystery (“Silver Blaze”). If it’s a critical plot
point, then there should be no problem, as you, writing the story, are aware
of it and are already dealing with it. However, there may be other
unanswered questions that you do not notice. And these can lead to the
dreaded plot hole.
Let me give an example from the fourth book in J K Rowling’s Harry
Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now, let me
say that I adore her novels, which brim with rich characters, tricky plots,
and marvelous, magical settings. But The Goblet of Fire has a serious
plot hole (beware: spoilers follow). In my opinion, the whole Triwizard
Championship is unnecessary. If Lord Voldemort wants to get Harry Potter to
grab hold of a portkey, it would be far easier to trick him into touching
another object – rather than arranging for him to participate in, and then
go on to win, the Triwizard Championship. In fact, the Triwizard
Championship seems like a convoluted, complicated, and most unreliable
method for Voldemort to achieve his goal. I can’t help asking: “Why didn’t
the Dark Lord try something simpler?” This particular plot hole could have
been resolved with a single paragraph, but as far as I can tell, Rowling
never addresses it in her book.
Types of plot holes
Plot holes can arise from various issues. Here are several common ones:
Out of character: You need a character to do something – or not do
something – but it is “out of character.” For example, say that Jane always
tells the truth, but at some point your story requires her to lie. The
question then becomes: “Why doesn’t Jane tell the truth?” There are many
ways you could resolve this. Jane could be misinformed and believe she is
telling the truth. Jane could be hypnotized and not be responsible for her
own actions. Jane could have a reason for lying that is so strong that it
overwhelms her hatred of falsehood. Someone could pretend to be Jane so that
it is not Jane speaking. Or you could rearrange the story so that Jane can
continue to tell the truth – or alter her character earlier so that lying is
not problematic for her.
Incomplete communication: Often much could be resolved by a simple
conversation between two characters. If that’s true, you should have
compelling reasons why they do not have that conversation. For example,
frequently two characters are falling in love with each other but they don’t
communicate this important piece of information. The question becomes: “Why
don’t Jack and Jill confess their love?” Perhaps Jack says nothing because
he believes Jill loves another. Perhaps Jill says nothing because she
believes she’s not worthy. Perhaps a third character deliberately interferes
to thwart the communication.
Strange timing: Often, for a plot to work, you need the events to
happen in a particular order. However, that order may not be logical. The
trick is to make it logical. Perhaps you can’t have Joe appear on the scene
for a while, so the question becomes, “Why isn’t Joe on time?” You can use a
trivial delaying tactic, such as making Joe’s tire go flat.
Why ask “why not?”
Looking for things that would normally happen – and figuring out why they
don’t – can greatly enrich your story. Let me give you an example from my
current project. My co author and I are working on a trilogy about the life
of Niobe (the first volume of the Niobe trilogy is just coming out in Greek,
so if you want to read it in Greek,
look here ). We’re in the
process of writing the third volume, and one of the daughters, Chloris, is
not yet married near the end of the book even though she’s in her
mid-twenties. But back then - Bronze Age Greece - girls married sometime
between ages thirteen and eighteen. Chloris is beautiful and a princess so
she does not lack for suitors. Our question was: “Why isn’t Chloris married
We batted this question around for months. We came up with several
possibilities, such as an engagement that failed because her beloved died,
or her being a lesbian who refused to marry all men. But for various reasons
these ideas weren’t satisfactory. Finally we hit on the following
explanation: Chloris joins a cult, the maidens of Artemis, and takes an oath
of virginity for as long as she is in the cult. This approach requires some
poetic license, but not too much, as we borrowed from other groups devoted
to other deities, such as the Vestal Virgins of Rome (they were permitted to
marry upon retirement); the Maenads of Dionysus; and the women devoted to
the mysteries of Demeter. So making her a member of a cult devoted Artemis
was plausible. Furthermore, the solution, “Chloris doesn’t marry because she
takes a temporary oath of virginity in order to serve the goddess Artemis,”
has opened up many great plot possibilities to us. It also made our Chloris
character much more interesting, much more alive. The question frustrated us
for months, but we believe our out-of-the-box solution has significantly
enhanced our story.
Identifying plot holes
It takes skill, practice and patience to identify plot holes, but you can
start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are things happening when they should, given your story’s situation
and characters? If not, why not?
- Are people behaving logically, for their personalities, place and
- If it’s important for characters not to know something, do you have
reasons why they don’t know?
- If you need for things not to happen for a while – or not at all –
do you supply your readers with reasons for the procrastination or the
Your answers do not have to be so ground-shaking that they change the
whole plot of your book. The reasons can be trivial. The important thing is
that you deal with them somehow.
I hope this article has convinced you that it can be useful to ask, “Why
not?” In the meantime, if you want to use it, or if you have any comments or
questions or if you want to complain about my daring to complain about
Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire (and certainly J K Rowling is a far
better writer than I), feel free to contact me at grossackva at yahoo dot
Until next time!
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the
Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called
the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry
of Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Odes to Olympians poetry contest, featuring
Ode Form Contest.
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.