What Matters in Storytelling: Plot Holes and Other Nonsense
I thought this issue would be something I could make fun of on Twitter and then forget about, but it continues to show up online and offline. At this point, I just want some selfish catharsis. More than ever, I see people focus their criticism on parts of stories (read: anime and movies) that simply do not matter or, at least, matter so little as to be inconsequential. This has always been an issue and probably always will, but I say “more than ever” because I think the kinds of anime and movies that are getting the most attention lately have set themselves up for these kinds of vapid criticisms.
I divided these criticisms that “don’t matter” into two types for the sake of organizational ease. They could (and should) be broken down even further, but since I’m not trying to wage intellectual war or anything, I left them as broad categories. I will be mentioning certain creators by name in this post, but that’s mostly for the sake of example. I’m more concerned with the arguments than the people making them.
I’m presenting the following list of “what doesn’t matter” as factual because I believe it is factual. That doesn’t mean that people are “wrong” for pointing out things that fall under these categories, but that–however true what they’re saying is–it ultimately doesn’t matter for the function of a story. If you want to deny what I’m presenting as fact, that’s fine too. I’m just expressing the rules I follow, not decreeing law. Although it would be cool if I could make it law…
Anyway, here’s the list.
This is the big one, the one that has frustrated me since the beginning. Honestly, I tend to side with Alexander Mackendrick’s idea that plot itself doesn’t matter. If we define plot as a sequence of events connected through cause and effect, how many stories thrive mainly off of plot? I find that characters, style, presentation, etc. are what make audiences give a damn. The events of a story, independent of these other features, are almost always dull or nonexistent. You can sum up the plot of The Bell Jar and Lolita in one boring sentence apiece, yet they’re two of the most emotionally impactful stories ever written.
We mostly see truly plot-driven stories in the classics. And I mean the mythological/Biblical classics. When I think of stories of the past several hundred years that excite me simply by what happens, I only come up with The Count of Monte Cristo. Most stories feel so dependent on the interplay between characters and plot, or between creator and audience. There’s an abstract quality that makes a story engaging and fulfilling that is difficult to pin down to specific elements. That quality is what makes you say you connected with a story or that a story hit you. You’re not pulled to the edge of your seat just because a character is in danger, but rather because of who that character is and how you’re shown that they are in danger. Plot becomes a backdrop to a combination of other elements.
Yet, regardless of if any of the above is true (perhaps I’m not well-read enough in plot-driven stories), plot holes themselves surely do not matter. In fact, pointing out plot holes is the most insignificant form of criticism possible. To be completely harsh and arrogant: focusing on perceived plot holes is a sign of an inexperienced writer. It takes inexperience to believe such slight incongruities in plot structure have any tangible impact on the quality of a story. It takes even more inexperience to believe it’s possible to avoid plot holes.
As a fun exercise, try reading some reviews of truly terrible stories. You’ll find almost no mention of plot holes. I don’t believe there was ever a story panned for its abundance of plot holes (except maybe a few unintelligible mysteries). If narrative comes up at all in reviews, it tends to be in criticism of disastrous pacing, formulaic progression, or outright confusion. For example, a lot of people hate Suicide Squad. The reasons people hate Suicide Squad are for its dull or abrasive characters, its terrible jokes, its uneven tone, and so on. The problems with its plot have nothing to do with holes, but with nonexistence.
Admittedly, pointing reviews of random bad movies doesn’t exactly prove my point. The reason these supposed plot holes are construed as being make-or-break for a story is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how a story sells itself. Fiction is not a machine. When you press the “A” key on your keyboard, you output an “A”. When you create a cause in a story, you don’t always receive the same effect. There is a writer (or team of writers) thinking up what effect to produce out of an infinite number of options.
If a writer has someone murder the protagonist’s father, any number of effects can occur. The protagonist may become traumatized; they may go and seek violent revenge; they may decide to become a police officer. All these options are valid, and can be either dependent on or determinant of numerous qualities beyond cause-and-effect plot structure. The effect could be dependent on setting: violent revenge is more likely to occur in chivalric England than modern New York. The effect could be dependent on character: someone known to have a strong sense of justice would be pushed to become a police officer. Yet, the effect could also be determinant of character: someone we know nothing about may become traumatized by the murder, thus beginning their characterization for changes later in the story.
Quickly, it becomes obvious how complex the cause-and-effect structure of plot can be. Plot is never an equation where 2+2=4. Plot is instead a loose string of events or non-events that only needs to achieve a bare minimum of believability. It just needs to set dramatic or comedic moments up and then execute them. That’s all. It can do more, but it never needs to. Plot’s only responsibility is to make the audience think, “Yes, I appreciate what is happening on the screen/page right now.”
Plot cannot aspire to find one true answer where each event proceeds mechanically from another like a science experiment where mixing X and Y compounds always yields the same amount of Z compound. The nitpicking of plot holes is an attempt to force plot into this mechanical framework and say with false objectivity that a story doesn’t function, that a story is broken and therefore bad. Plot holes are a way for those incapable of expressing their criticisms of a story to claim logical authority over those who praise a story. Instead of analyzing why a dramatic payoff fails to impress, they point to inconsequential details and claim to have found the error in a Q.E.D. that doesn’t exist.
This is the CinemaSins style of criticism, where you just watch a movie focused on finding any gap in logic whatsoever, ignoring the fact that film is fantasy. If artists were capable of constructing perfect verisimilitude or completely logical stories, we’d all be living our lives in perpetual virtual reality. The fact is that every story has plot holes. The Shawshank Redemption is a giant asspull because any high security prison would’ve thoroughly checked behind a prisoner’s posters during cell inspection, thus disabling Andy’s escape. But no one pans the movie or book for that because it doesn’t matter. We watch movies for miracles, not painstaking reconstructions of the logical limitations of our dull reality.
If a “plot hole” is large enough to make a story incomprehensible, we stop calling it a plot hole and start spending some brain power thinking about what issues it causes. If a character does something completely illogical to their goals or personality, we criticize that action for being out-of-character or unmotivated. No one ever spends any energy analyzing plot holes, however. They just point them out as magical evidence of their critical genius. Congratulations, you removed yourself from the experience of a story so much that you can now point out that Character X wouldn’t have had time to mow his lawn while all that other stuff was going on.
I’ve seen this endlessly in “criticism” of Your Name. The comments I’ve linked in this post could pass for parody, but they’re the genuine article. It’s almost unbelievable how quickly people turn their brains off after noticing a supposed plot hole. They point their fingers and then mentally check-out. It makes me wonder what would happen if I sat such people down in front of their favorite movies and pointed out every plot hole in those. Would they suddenly change their opinion of those beloved films? Would it happen as instantaneously as their supposed distaste for plot holes in other films? What an insane ability that would be–to change someone’s tastes at the snap of my fingers. I’m tripping on a power fantasy just imagining it…
Before I get carried away, on to the next point.
What You Want
That phrasing is probably going to ruffle some feathers, so let me explain. A story can only do so much, and should not be criticized for not doing something it wasn’t meant to do. This rule can be applied to two qualities of a story: genre and theme. Although audiences rarely criticize stories on the basis of the first quality, I felt I ought to mention it anyway. An iyashikei should not be criticized for its lack of battle scenes (though if it somehow pulled one off, that could be cool). Like I said, no one tends to hold stories to standards outside of their genre (although sometimes there are misunderstandings about what the standards of a story’s actual genre are…).
The real problem comes when people attempt to impose their own thematic interests onto a story with wildly different ones. I’d hate for this to turn into a defense of Your Name, but since GoatJesus’s (GJ) recent video on the film convinced me to include this section, I feel I should use it as an example. GJ makes the bold assertion that “a movie is better when it has thematic threads that run through it,” and although this revolutionary idea makes my old soul a bit nervous, I find myself agreeing with him. Which is why I became confused when he criticized Your Name for not “hav[ing] anything to say about dreams.”
I had assumed that the bold intellectual GJ would want a film’s themes to be woven through the whole experience. Given his earlier assertion, it would be strange to want a film to explore themes that aren’t actually part of its scope. GJ describes how Your Name does not feature much trippy animation or editing like Satoshi Kon films, and thus doesn’t evoke the feeling of a dream. I have to say, most of my dreams feel oddly grounded in reality (almost as if they’re triggered by and attempt to recreate real situations…), so most movies that aren’t made by Kon do feel like dreams to me. However, I’m willing to accept GJ’s argument that Your Name lacks any dreamlike qualities.
I can accept this so easily because the film is not at all about dreams. The film only uses the word “dream” (I actually haven’t gone through the whole film and seen if “yume” is always the exact term used, but it’s usually translated as “dream” so we’ll roll with it) as a placeholder term for the out-of-body experiences of the Miyamizu women. It’s really just one of a dozen words that could be used to describe how strange living someone else’s life would feel, and how quickly our memory of history seems to deteriorate once we take our eyes off it. The word might as well be a metaphorical adjective. As GJ says, there’s nothing else in the film to suggest the story is about dreams.
The rational response to viewing a film with only a minor and metaphorical mention of dreams would be to not stake its thematic value on whether or not it explores the importance of dreams. You may think, “Ah, I wish this movie was about dreams instead of what it was actually about,” but you would be irrational to think, “Wow, this movie is bad because it failed to be about what I wished it was about.” The rational thought implies you didn’t like what the movie was about, the irrational one implies the movie was bad at being what it should’ve been about. And, unfortunately, you don’t get to decide what a movie is about.
Comparing Your Name to a Satoshi Kon film is like comparing Borzage’s 7th Heaven to The Communist Manifesto. Sure, Chico in 7th Heaven is a sewage worker who starts the film out oppressed by a capitalist economy, but the movie is about romance not the class struggle. There is simply not enough in the film to view it as an exploration of class politics. That’s a criticism of your approach, not of the film. It would be ludicrous to watch twelve minutes of beautiful character development and romantic tension and then attack the film on the grounds that Chico and Diane’s living arrangement doesn’t have enough to say about the bourgeoisie.
A story functions independent of what you want from it. Sure, thousands of potential thematic threads exist in every story. Stories are meant to depict life in some way, so naturally there are lots of little details that let you make connections to your own reality and experiences. But what you want–the connections you’d like to spend more time with–don’t matter to the story. Your criticisms of a story should focus primarily in what is there, not what isn’t. Your analysis should be grounded in aspects of a story you can point to. What isn’t there should always be secondary, and only criticized with the utmost care.
Complaints of what isn’t done are only enlightening when they display the flaws of what is done. The easiest example is the death of a character the audience knows nothing about. Obviously, if the story presents that death as dramatic, we can criticize said story for not developing that character at all beforehand. It is therefore useful criticism to point out what wasn’t included in the story. What would not be useful is interpreting that character’s death as a metaphor for how humans are treated like nameless numbers in modern society, and then blaming the story for not delivering upon this false promise. That doesn’t help anyone think about the story in a new way; that just attracts a few YouTube views.
I don’t expect this post to influence anyone who thinks in the ways I’ve criticized to reflect on their thought processes (as much as I’d like to be, I’m not really in a position to tell anyone how to think), but I do feel there is benefit to having my ideas written down here. For one thing, I got to organize my own annoyances into a coherent explanation. For another, maybe it will quell the fears of someone trying to write their own story.
It can be intimidating to create something when you’re too aware of the criticisms other people can make of your work. I think it’s counterproductive as a creator to value most people’s opinions. Sometimes it’s necessary to quickly dismiss a critic and move on with your own work. Sometimes people focus–accidentally or otherwise–on things that don’t matter. Especially when we enter a story with the explicit purpose of criticizing it, we follow critical frameworks that have been carved into our minds (stories need a “hook”; characters should have a “save the cat” moment; blah blah blah) and wind up seeing issues that don’t actually affect the success of the story.
I even found myself falling into this trap when I taught creative writing. When a student hands you their piece for criticism, it’s hard to break away from those overly prescriptive frameworks you’ve had drilled into you. As I dished out cookie cutter criticism to each writer, I soon realized how useless I was being. It took a thought revolution to break past my mechanical reactions to a student’s work and truly explore what is and isn’t working in a piece. The less mechanical I was in my feedback, the more improvement I saw between student drafts.
Since the title of this post refers to “what matters” in stories, I hope someone out there can equate that to “what matters” when creating a story. Obsessing over the wrong details is going to halt your creative progress and turn your story into an anxious mess. It’s abundantly clear when a writer’s eye isn’t on telling their story and instead on meeting arbitrary mechanical standards. If nothing else, hopefully this post convinces someone to focus their efforts on what they want to accomplish, instead of what they’re afraid they won’t accomplish.