When I was in school, one of my teachers loved word games. She loved puzzles of all sorts but she seemed especially fond of word games.
One of the best games we played was called “Stories With Holes”. In reality, they are called lateral thinking problems, but Stories With Holes sounds way more fun.
Anyway, the object of the game is to figure out which part of the story is missing. Someone would read the story aloud (and then look at the answer), then the rest of us would take turns asking questions. The trick is all questions had to be answerable with a “yes”, “no”, or “irrelevant”.
He definitely has two hands? Irrelevant!
As with all things, some of the stories were awesome and some were absurd. Some stories had logical answers, easy to guess answers, or satisfying answers. Others were so far fetched we were left wondering if there had been a misprint. But all the answers had one thing in common (yes even the terrible ones), the answer always seemed blatantly obvious once we knew it.
I loved Stories With Holes. What dastardly clue was missing? How did those people wind up dead? Why did she have long hair? Was it the cat? Do they even have a cat?
The answer all players dreaded. It meant a wasted turn. A dead end.
It meant I wasn’t looking at the story from the right angle. It meant I was focused on all the wrong parts of the story and completely missing the giant plot hole staring me in the face.
Plot holes. Who needs ’em?
So I was thinking about Stories With Holes and it suddenly hit me that this
frustrating soul-crushing brain altering wonderful game was a perfect analogy for writing.
Writers are often told they’re too close to their work to see the flaws. Too emotionally tied to this thing they created to ever think it’s anything less than perfect. Maybe some writers are, but I know a lot of writers (myself included) who agonize over their work and tear it to shreds and then offer it up like a sacrificial lamb for a (hopefully exceptionally critical) critique.
I think swapping manuscripts and having a fresh pair of eyes on your work is wonderful. I love critiques, but this post is not about critiques, at least not about critiques from other people. It is about being able to see the holes in your own story.
I do think there’s something to be said about writers being too close to their work, but I don’t think the fault lies entirely in emotional attachment, rather it’s from knowing the whole story.
As a writer of fiction, I have inside knowledge about my characters and plot. I know why a character cries when Barney sings, loves cats riding roombas, and never wears socks to bed, but sometimes, because I know all these things, I might assume everyone else does too.
You have a character named Gary and you’re really stoked about his rainbow shoestrings. So stoked, in fact, that it’s easy to forget to mention how much Gary hates blue M&M’s, but such information plays a pivotal role in the plot three chapters later.
Sometimes, I forget not everyone knows my characters like I do, and something that appears blatantly obvious to me in the story, is actually terribly confusing for someone without insider knowledge. It’s like watching the Harry Potter movies without reading the books…you may not have completely understood Horcruxes, among other things. People who read the books, loved the movies (as much as anyone can love a movie after reading the book) but they had insider knowledge. When the movie glossed over certain aspects of wizarding lingo, their brains just plugged in the plot holes with information pilfered from the vast Harry Potter library.
Without even realizing it, my brain glosses over these same holes in my own writing.
I realized this was a thing my brain did after coming across an old writing in progress. It had been so long since I’d worked on the piece that I barely remembered the characters and scarcely recalled my intended direction for the plot. It was like reading someone else’s work. I was intrigued.
Hey, this is pretty good! Wrong.
I was kicking myself for not making an outline because I was really curious how the story ended, but my main takeaway was that I didn’t really know what was going on. It was only the beginning of what was expected to be a much longer piece, but it got me to thinking about all my other writing where I struggled to make things fit together….stories where something always seemed to be….missing.
I was writing Stories With Holes and didn’t even realize it. Sometimes the holes were small, and sometimes they were huge! How in the world did I not see that the reader would not understand Gary randomly tucking a blue M&M into his pocket in chapter one meant he would later use blue M&Ms to tame the the terrifying hunger of the dragon in chapter seven, who just so happens to LOVE blue M&M’s. Oh I also forgot to mention Gary hates wasting things. He hates throwing things away so he keeps the blue M&M’s in jars in his closet.
Oh hey, but did I mention his rainbow shoestrings?
Do I think authors are too close to their work sometimes? Yes
Do I think the reason they overlook flaws is always because they love their work so much? No
Do I think my dog makes a terrible writing coach? Irrelevant!
Writers are often told to step away from their work for a while so when they look at it again they will see it with fresh eyes. I’ve always loved this advice but maybe for the wrong reasons. I thought if I stepped away, I would grow less attached and love the story less, thereby allowing me to make objective judgments concerning its worth when viewed again.
Now, I think time lets you forget some of the things you know, lets some of the details slip from your brain. And when you look at your story with this new fresh brain, you are incapable of filling the holes.
You have to figure out what’s missing on your own. It’s like reading your very own Story With Holes, and you need to figure out which questions to ask. Are you asking the right questions? Is it clear what motivates your characters? Is the plot driven by the characters actions?
Did it rain three times in one day, somewhere, once?
Cheese should have holes, stories should not.
Hopefully this story didn’t have too many holes. If it did, feel free to ask me a Yes, No, or Irrelevant question in the comments. I think I’d prefer Irrelevant questions actually 😉