Understanding Plot Holes – Misdiagnosis & Bad Lexicon

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We’ve all been there. A group of friends or perhaps colleagues, at a bar around the block from a cinema or in your office rec room, chewing the cud about movies. One particular film comes up in the discussion, most likely a big release. Conversation turns to debate, since one of your group loves said picture and another loathes it. The more the fan sings its praises, the stauncher the naysayer’s protest becomes. With debate coming close to evolving into an argument, the critic goes for the home run strike by throwing out the gamechanging claim. “It’s full of plot holes” they declare.

Sometimes the fan will be silenced, the other members of the group may nod in agreement or realization. The idea has been planted in their heads, and they would have to go watch the film to disprove the critic. Even if they did, they may come to the same conclusion. He is so assured and certain, after all, and knows his movies. And why else would he be verbally eviscerating such a well received flick, particularly with an accusation that’s a live grenade? He is confident because he thinks he is right. He thinks he is right because he has spotted a flaw. He is blithely unaware that he doesn’t know what a ‘plot hole’ actually is, and that the flaw in question does not constitute one.

Prometheus, renamed 'Plothole: The Movie' by seething fans
Prometheus, renamed ‘Plothole: The Movie’ by seething fans

Language is a funny thing. For all that we teach it in classrooms, refer to dictionaries and perhaps even listen to self-help tapes to increase our diction, our vocabulary only truly increases through practical exposure. Like learning a foreign lingo, the easiest, quickest and most reliable way to learn is to go out in the field and pick up a word here and a phrase there. Context is key; we expand our wordiness not by Googling or research, but by listening to somebody else saying it and putting together what it means based on the way in which it used. One day you are talking to a banker friend, who says that the government’s latest assurances on the economy were hollow rhetoric, meaningless buzzwords designed to buy time. The next day you wake up with rhetoric firmly in your internal lexicon, and know what it means, even though you’ve never researched it. Learning by doing, essentially.

The biggest problem one can run into with this kind of education is misinterpretation. Nobody is infallible to picking things up wrongly. What if you mistook the banker’s meaning and took it that rhetoric can mean lying? So you have a huge argument with your partner, and describe his or her claim that “Sammy is just a friend” as rhetoric. It makes no sense when you know what the word means, but if you think it covers dishonesty, which the banker may well have implied, it fits. It doesn’t denote stupidity, just a mix up. Or perhaps you misheard him and embarrass yourself in a debate by saying ‘rhetornic’. Maybe the usage is wrong, so you end up calling the politician rhetoric, as if it is an insulting adjective.

Ironic meme imageEasy mistakes, all through simple misinterpretation. It doesn’t always end up in a red face however, because there is a good chance the person who hears you misuse the word doesn’t understand the word either, and is going through the same process of learning that you were. They reuse it later, incorrectly, and in the process two more people get the wrong meaning. Four becomes sixteen, sixteen becomes two hundred and fifty six, so and so on. All it takes is one. It’s why so many common phrases mutate over the years, because too many people have misheard it for too long. It’s why we get “all of the sudden”, “try and help” and “I could care less” rather than, respectively, “all of a sudden”, “try to help” and “I couldn’t care less”. It’s why ‘irony’ is mistaken for ‘coincidental’, and why ‘literally’ becomes acceptable as a term of exaggeration. A combination of naivety and repetition draws many to the wrong conclusion, and it will only spread. Add in the common habit of using a term incorrectly in order to find a more emotive descriptive – e.g. depression and migraine – and you have a literal sink hole.

What is a plot hole? The best definition is an inconsistency in a story, an narrative element that contradicts something clearly established earlier and one that, in-universe, defies any kind of explanation. So in the movie, Tom finds out that Harry was the one who killed Sarah. Since Dick was her brother, he sets out on a quest for revenge against Harry. The problem is that Dick wasn’t there when Tom found out the truth, and Tom had no way of telling Dick based on the story’s electrical blackout. Dick’s actions propel the plot and story despite being impossible. A hole in the plot, and one that creates an unsolvable paradox. In fiction, it is the bane of writers and the Holy Grail for critics, since not only is it such a rare occurrence, it is the ultimate embodiment of bad planning. If you can level this criticism at the film or book you don’t like, there can be no comeback. Forget subjective taste or artistic license, it is irrefutable. The story cheated, you caught it, and there’s no excuse. It helps that a viewer or reader who discovers one immediately proves themselves a highly intelligent expert in the field, since they spotted a problem even the writer didn’t.

What isn’t a plot hole? Well, this answer could span leagues if taken literally, so we should concentrate on problems often referred to by this phrase. The following things do not fall under the term’s definition: key events taking place off-screen, implied rather than portrayed; contrived storytelling, relying on unlikely luck or character choices; implausible feats that do not conform to reality; most crucially, events whose explanation does not satisfy the viewer. As long as there is some way to rationalize what has happened then there is no hole. Although it may be lazy to pass off a potential paradox with a line of dialogue that perhaps proves underwhelming, it does fix the problem. It is possible for a movie to get maddeningly stupid without committing this cardinal sin. Yet all of these listed traits are named as plot holes by viewers who either jump the gun in an attempt to gain ‘first’ status or did not truly understand the term’s meaning.

An already bulging Rises required an audience leap to rival Bruce's
An already bulging Rises required an audience leap to rival Bruce’s regarding what happens next.

The term has grown legs and begun a marathon sprint in the last few years, and rather went into a hyperdrive of over- and misuse in 2012 when two major blockbusters were released, both widely and wildly accused of being plot holed to the point of sinking. One of them, Prometheus, was a sitting duck for criticism due to a disjointed story and generally disappointing content, an over-reliance on external sources of information such as promotional material and deleted scenes making many plot strands unclear to the viewer. The other, The Dark Knight Rises, didn’t reach the heights of its predecessor The Dark Knight and was subject to a huge backlash, not helped by some occasionally sticky plotting and a script that, while well portrayed, is rife with numerous problems. In both cases, the vast majority of accusations were false, revealing the common misunderstanding of what plot hole means.

In Prometheus, Guy Pearce’s character Weyland pretends to be dead before surfacing at the end of the second act to meet the Engineers. While his deception is in retrospect silly and unnecessary, it is not a plot hole because it doesn’t contradict any clearly established in-universe facts. There is never any proof that he was dead in the first place, and his actions can be explained, albeit weakly. Similarly, the strange and inconsistent nature of the black goo isn’t a plot hole because it is never established exactly how it behaves or what it is capable of, so the fact that it creates zombies one minute and octopuses the other is in fact the only evidence we get of its nature. Biologist Millburn fearing dead bodies but taken in by a nasty looking extraterrestrial snake? Geologist Fifield becoming lost in a series of tunnels despite having technological assistance? Human error on both fronts, with slim in-universe rationalization. Millburn was trying to impress his new friend and Fifield was running scared. Contrived? Yes. Plot holes? No.

Bane helpfully explains his rather sadistic raison d'etre.
Bane helpfully explains his rather sadistic raison d’etre.

The Dark Knight Rises takes this turkey shoot mass-criticism to a whole new level, however, since many who didn’t favor the film described virtually everything they didn’t like as a plot hole, even when a logical explanation was clearly stated beforehand or during, meaning that the very use of the accusation revealed a lack of attention paid. Bane and Talia waiting for five months before the bomb detonates? This is blatantly stated in dialogue and a key part of the film’s themes, since the illusion of hope plays such a key role in the villains’ vision of true torture of the soul. Thinking things will be OK, only for that to be shattered, is as painful as the prison being so tantalizingly possible to escape. That it gives Bruce Wayne long enough to recover and return is just convenient, not a contradiction.

As for Bruce getting back into Gotham? This is a liberty but not a hole since we already learned of his ability to travel the world without cash or possessions in Batman Begins. Furthermore, we know through his planning throughout the trilogy that he has plenty of contingencies for worst case scenarios. It has also been previously established that Wayne Manor is barely inside the city limits and not within the League of Shadows controlled section of the city, so all Bruce has to do is make his way there. A freighter boarded here, a cargo truck there. We know he can do this because he did it before, without money or possessions. It is then implied that he flew the Bat, still in the batcave upon his return, onto the island and landed it on a roof. And finally, his time frame based on information given by the film is roughly twenty days. We hear that there is twenty three days until the bomb detonates, then Bruce escapes the prison. By the time he gets to Gotham, there is one day left until the blast.

Contrived? Hugely. A paradox? Absolutely not. For similar patchy writing that saves itself by establishing key facts first, look at Gordon’s kidnapping and encounter with Bane, a sequence that is short on logic but doesn’t break the rules of its own narrative. Gordon goes into the sewers personally because he is gung ho and frustrated by years of peace. Blake knows where he will end up because of his previous dealing with a dead orphan. Though this is weak, it is solid enough not to be an anomaly. While Rises is open to criticism on a basic plotting level, and of course has been since the film was released, it is not what some say it is. It never breaks that one rule, despite wearing it thin.

One of cinema's most infamous plot holes has a simple solution
One of cinema’s most infamous plot holes has a simple solution

In fact, this is true of many of cinema’s most famous ‘plot holes’. It may be tough going, it may require leaps and reliance on circumstantial evidence and it often exposes manipulative or suspect scripting, but many a hole can be explained, and the moment the defense put forward makes more sense than genuine error it is saved. Case in point would be Citizen Kane’s infamous Rosebud paradox, whereby nobody is actually around to hear Charles Foster Kane’s final word. Except, this isn’t true. His death scene is filmed in such a way to suggest he is alone when it happens, but almost immediately after we learn that one of his servants heard him say the word. This would mean that the moment is filmed in a symbolic manner, to represent Kane’s isolation and discontent, that he’s dying alone, but was written far less stylistically. There is somebody else in the room, we just don’t see him. The fact he heard ‘Rosebud’ and is stated to have been present at Kane’s death rather proves this.

And that’s the key point. You might not like the explanation, and may feel let down, but you also can’t refute it. Oftentimes the accuser is fully aware of what the term means, but refuses to loosen the grip on the film they are decrying. The briefest hint of plot hole is enough to convince them, then to see them stubbornly refuse any counsel otherwise. It’s the same headstrong conviction and willful blindness that saw many interpret the ending of Lost as ‘they were in Purgatory the whole time’ even though the finale explicitly states otherwise, right down to Christian Shephard telling his son Jack that “everything that’s happened to you is real”. There is no ambiguity here, and yet many continue to perpetuate the myth. For one count of misunderstanding, add one count of deliberate ignorance, fingers in the ears. For both counts read legions of misinformed casuals.

For every plot hole, there are a hundred wrong diagnoses. Numerous famous ‘plot holes’ can be easily explained and thus solved. Keyser Soze never intended to get caught, hence why he shows his face and concocts a story that can be debunked the moment he leaves the police station. Han and Leia’s time spent traversing the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back presumably takes longer than one realizes, explaining how Luke had enough time to train with Yoda so thoroughly. Sixth Sense’s Malcolm Crowe doesn’t question why nobody but Cole ever talks to him because, as Cole himself states, he only sees what he wants to see, and given he is a ghost we don’t know the mechanics of his existence. All we see is what he sees, essentially. Andy Dufresne is able to reattach the poster covering his tunnel behind him by carefully climbing under it and then reattaching it from behind, surely a plausible task given the amount of time he has had for planning and practice. There are many, many more, with the solutions varying from inspired to annoying.

SuperCypheragilisticexpositiolidociousplothole! The Matrix bent its already bendy rules for the good of the narrative
SuperCypheragilisticexpositiolidociousplothole! The Matrix bent its already bendy rules for the good of the narrative

Despite this apparent argument that plot holes can be easily explained away, they still happen. There are occasions when page after page and hour after hour of discussion, analysis and outsider thinking cannot resolve the problem. What you are looking for is a question that, when answered, results in two more questions. Every time you think you have explained it, another issue appears, and keeps appearing until eventually you reach a brick wall. You are looking for an impossibility. Strangely, two of the best instances of this occur in two of the most celebrated films of the 1990’s, films which otherwise are admirable.

The first is The Matrix. The film firmly establishes the rules on humans entering the matrix, the procedure for entry and exit, how it always requires at least two people. Though some can read code, they cannot interact with the program from the outside. So how did Cypher enter to broker his deal with Smith? He was alone at the time. If he weren’t, surely the second party would be aware of what he was doing. If they weren’t, wouldn’t they be suspicious of why he was entering the matrix alone without a solid explanation? Does Cypher not require clearance from Morpheus to take such an action? If it is possible to essentially interact with the program without entering it, why do people need to be jacked in? Would it not make more sense for everybody to be trained as an operator? After all, if you are killed in the matrix you die in the real world. If you are sitting at a monitor reading scrolling numbers you don’t have this issue. So how did he do it?

Buzz Lightyear; cocky Space Ranger, apparent clairvoyant
Buzz Lightyear; cocky Space Ranger, apparent clairvoyant

The simple hard truth is that he did but couldn’t. It’s impossible by the film’s own set of rules. It slips you by when watching due to the pacing, editing and the audience’s ‘fish out of water’ standing, nifty tricks covering up the hole, but it’s there. The script needed a scene revealing Cypher as a traitor and outlining his plot to sell out the crew, but couldn’t find a way to make it work, so it broke its own rules to make the interaction happen, which was necessary for the plot to continue on its trajectory. It cheated, we fell for it, and the film was able to carry on as normal.

Much the same happens in Toy Story, when all of the toys freeze upon Andy entering the room. All of them…including Buzz Lightyear, who doesn’t believe he is a toy. In fact, if we are to look at this scene from Buzz’s perspective, Andy would appear to be some marauding giant who grabs the fear stricken toys and shakes them down, abuses them essentially. Since Buzz not only thinks he is a spaceman, but also that he is an intergalactic warrior, shouldn’t he be trying to evade the monster or fight back? He has a laser and can fly, to his mind at least. Well, he must have been adapting, seeing the other toys submit and taking this as the means to survive. But when has Buzz done any adapting up until this point, or afterward for that matter? He is incongruous by his obnoxious disdain, all piss and vinegar. Further, why would he think that simply playing dead would work? And why does he take this course of action so instinctively? He doesn’t see the other toys drop and follow their lead, he reacts in the same way at the same moment, defying his beliefs and convictions and somehow knowing what to do ahead of time.

A popular explanation is that the toys have an innate reflex to go inactive when humans are in their presence, which would explain Buzz not thinking, just falling. But is this an instinct that can be overridden or resisted? It would have to be, since the toys reveal their sentience to Sid during their little garden revolt. So why does Buzz not do the same when Andy grabs him since to his mind this would constitute a life or death struggle? He certainly doesn’t view Andy as a God or something to submit to in the scenes after the encounter, so why didn’t he resist? It’s because the script couldn’t have Buzz reveal his being alive to Andy, and didn’t have any suitable means to make it happen. So he just goes down. Only after watching the film again do we question how he knew to. Once again, it is well masked but not completely hidden.

As if Man of Steel didn't have enough problems...
As if Man of Steel didn’t have enough problems…

We’re not asking why Buzz played dead, we’re asking how he knew to. If you find yourself asking ‘Why?’ and cannot find a good answer, you have poor characterization or plotting. If you find yourself asking ‘How?’ and again come up stumped, you have a plot hole. An off-shoot of the term, ‘Minor Plot Hole’, also has to follow the same rules, albeit in a smaller manner that isn’t necessarily integral to the plot. A major contrivance to the plot isn’t a ‘minor plot hole’ in the same way that punching somebody in the face up doesn’t constitute manslaughter if they survive. For example, in Man of Steel we see a young Kal-El running around his back yard with a cape, pretending to be a superhero, despite the fact that he is seemingly emulating himself (Superman) and referencing events that haven’t happened yet (adorning a cape and flying). This is a minor plot hole, because while impossible it doesn’t really matter.

Of course, none of it really matters as such. These problems don’t diminish the two films referenced. It is merely an exercise in using genuine examples to illustrate what a plot hole really is. Absurd and unfair it may be, but we are far more likely to forgive such oversights if we like the film in question. If it is a five star knockout, a game-changing classic and iconic slice of cinema, we will let it go. On the other hand, if it is a film we hate, suddenly a plot hole is the worst thing imaginable, so loathsome and disgraceful that we forgo ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and begin priming the gallows. It is a double standard and reveals the final explanation for why this hot potato is so in vogue.

So take one count of not understanding the term’s meaning. Add one of being too quick to a conclusion. Throw in unwillingness to accept an explanation you don’t like. The secret ingredient, however, is an attempt to rationalize your dislike or even hatred for a film that others rate highly, by any means necessary, whether it be self-righteousness or self-justification. You don’t have to be an idiot to fall into this trap, you could just be miss-informed by the potential ambiguity of lexicography or too desperate to make others feel the same way you do. Personal taste is wonderful and all, but might make you feel alienated if yours doesn’t conform. Rather than fit in, you try to make your view the norm. It’s a doomed enterprise, whether you confuse meaning or not. Perhaps it is best than you just be. After all, illogical characterization technically isn’t a plot hole either.

This has been a Strange Interpretation…

Scott Patterson


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