plot holes

How to Fill the Holes Between Major Plot Points in Your Story

Running out of plot for your novel? In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I’d like to share this excerpt from my workbook, The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, on how to fill in the holes in your story.

It’s not unusual to have some difficulty figuring out what happens in your story. What can you do when that happens?

It’s common to figure out some of the big story events first, and then go back and figure out how to connect them. The brainstorming we’ve already talked about is a great way to generate those big events.

How do you figure out what happens in the gaps between those big events?

Let’s say that your protagonist is an archaeologist, and you know that he’s going to discover a lost tomb containing a magical artifact that he’ll have to risk his life to retrieve.

And you know that later, your antagonist is going to ambush him and steal the artifact.

How do you get your protagonist from the tomb to the site of the ambush?

First, ask yourself: “What is the aftermath of the first event?”

In the process of retrieving the artifact, did your protagonist injure himself? Lose something important? Learn something new about the artifact or the danger he’s in?

How does he feel about having violated the ancient tomb? What does he intend to do with the artifact? Does he believe in the ancient curse that was inscribed on the wall of the tomb?

Does he have to go somewhere to get medical treatment or can he patch himself up?

Did he attract the attention of the antagonist, and if so, is the antagonist doing anything in response that might affect the protagonist?

Is there really a curse, and if so, what’s happening as a result of it being focused on the protagonist?

How is his concern about being cursed affecting his behavior? If he doesn’t believe in the curse, do those around him, and if so, does it affect how they treat him?

Now that the protagonist has the artifact, what does he plan to do with it? Get it to a museum? Have a wizard neutralize it? Sell it to someone who will use its powers for good?

Second, ask yourself: “What has to happen to set up the second event?”

Your protagonist has to have a reason to be in the place where the antagonist will ambush him. Why’s he there? Is he trying to show the artifact to an appraiser or a wizard or another archaeologist? Is he trying to get the curse lifted?

Also, how did the antagonist know he’d be there? Is the contagonist or some secondary character spying on the protagonist for the antagonist? Does the antagonist have the ability to track the artifact with magic?

How did the protagonist get to the ambush site, and what could go wrong on the way? Could the curse be causing problems that slow him down? Could his superstitious belief in a curse cause him to take a less-than-optimal route? Could he be betrayed by someone along the way? What dangers lie along his chosen route?

Does the protagonist know that the antagonist wants the artifact? If so, is he preparing to defend it? Or trying to find out what the antagonist is up to as he travels to the ambush site? Does he have allies he can visit to request help?

If you think about the fallout from the first event and how your character might react to it, as well as the things that have to be set up for your next big scene, you’ll start to get ideas for filling in the holes in your plot outline.

Also, there’s no rule that says you have to write every scene of your novel in order. If you need some time to figure out a story problem, it’s okay to put in a placeholder scene, and write it later once you’ve solved the problem:

[Clark escapes from Frank’s basement, and steals the Etruscan artifact.]*

Don’t forget to put an asterisk next to your placeholder so that it’s easy to search for when you’re ready to come back to it.

Problems as Inspiration

A story where things happen randomly to the characters tends to be episodic and unsatisfying—it’s crucial that readers understand why each event in the story is happening. If the events of the middle aren’t connected to the events in the beginning of the story in some way, your story will lose cohesion.

Mystery author Raymond Chandler used to say:

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

In other words, if you don’t know what happens next in your story, give your character a new problem to solve.


…make sure that this new problem arises in some way from what’s already happened. The man with the gun in his hand might be someone that the protagonist frustrated in a previous scene. Or someone that the antagonist hired after learning about the protagonist’s earlier actions. Or a third party who found out about the protagonist’s intentions and decided to intervene.

Continuing our example from before, maybe the man with the gun is an antique dealer who learned about the artifact when the protagonist came to him for information about the tomb. Or maybe the man with the gun is one of the tomb’s guardians, brought back to life by the curse that the protagonist activated by stealing the artifact.

If you think of a cool problem to throw at the protagonist that doesn’t arise from what’s already happened in the story, make a note to yourself to add the necessary setup scene when you revise your novel.

Keep the Ideas Flowing: Cultivate Inspiration with Active Incubation

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”
– Peter DeVries

Great quote, right? But what if you sit down at the keyboard every morning at 9 a.m. and nothing happens?

How can you make sure that you’re inspired on a regular basis?

You’re probably already familiar with the technique of incubation, where you set a project aside and give your subconscious time to transform your ideas and experiences into something new. Sooner or later, your subconscious makes connections that your conscious mind didn’t, and voila, you’re inspired.

But waiting for inspiration–known as “passive incubation” to psychologists–wastes a lot of time. While you’re waiting, it’s easy to get frustrated and start worrying that the muse has abandoned you. Frustration and worry can block your creativity, delaying inspiration. The longer it takes to get inspired, the more frustrated and worried you get. Next thing you know, you’re in a downward spiral and haven’t written for weeks. Or longer.

Active incubation to the rescue!

Thomas Edison was a master of active incubation. He discovered early in his career that inspiration struck much sooner if he:

  1. Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
  2. Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
  3. Once he was sure he’d considered all the angles, he deliberately set the problem aside, ignoring it while he slept or worked on other things.

By pre-loading his mind with a clearly-defined objective and a mass of data, he was often able to incubate with a twenty-minute nap and wake up with the solution he was looking for. I can’t promise it’ll be that quick for you every time, but active incubation significantly shortens that frustrating waiting period.

So how can you apply active incubation to fiction writing?

Here’s the two phase process:


Start with whatever you know about the story. Maybe all you know is that you want to write a novel set in that castle you visited on your trip to Scotland. Or maybe you’re sure your heroine is a demon-slayer, but you’ve got no idea why or how she came into her unusual career.

Dig deeper. What captivates you about this idea? Is it the possibility of discovering secret passageways and finding ancient treasure sealed up in a castle wall? Are you fascinated Scottish history?

Do you have a yearning to write a kick-ass heroine who believes that she’s damned? Does your demon-slayer have a magic sword you’d give your left arm to own?

Are you dying to write about something that happened to you, exploring how you might have handled it if you were a different person? What emotions do you feel when you think about this idea? How does this character or setting relate to you and your life?

Now broaden your thinking. What other story elements might be appropriate for this setting/character/etc? Does your initial idea suggest a certain type of plot or theme? Have you read books with similar story elements, and if so, how would you like yours to be different?

Identify what you know and what you don’t know, but don’t worry that you don’t have a complete picture yet. When you feel as if you’ve explored the story idea as completely as you can right now, set it aside for the rest of the day.

Sleep on it. Your brain uses sleep time to process everything you were exposed to during the day, and this is when your subconscious gets busy.

PHASE TWO (repeat daily until inspiration arrives)

Keep your subconscious on track. Take a few minutes to review whatever notes you made, and if a new idea pops up, jot it down. As soon as you feel ready, pull out your usual story development tools—conflict grid, GMC charts, ten-scene plot diagram, whatever works for you—and fill in what you can without forcing it.

Reserve a few minutes each day for quiet time, to listen for inspiration. If your mind is filled to overflowing with the mundane details of your life, your thoughts can drown out the voice of inspiration. Schedule five minutes of “muse time.” Meditation, daydreaming, a contemplative walk, and freewriting are all ways to clear your head and bring messages from your subconscious up to the surface, where your conscious mind can access them.

Seek out new information related to what you already know about your story while you incubate. If your heroine’s major trauma is that she was molested as a child, read a book or article about the psychological effects of childhood molestation on adults. If your hero is a kendo master, watch videos of kendo tournaments on YouTube. Research how castles are built or take a class on life in medieval times. The more relevant information you can give your subconscious to work with, the richer your story will be.

Give yourself some encouragement. Before you go to sleep, thank your subconscious for working on your story overnight, and let it know that you’re looking forward to seeing what it comes up with. Don’t forget to keep a notebook and pen by the bed, so you’ll be ready if inspiration hits in the middle of the night or when you wake up in the morning.

Be patient with the process. Trust that inspiration will come, and don’t let yourself fall back into the old habit of passively waiting. The more consistently you practice the phase two techniques, the sooner your subconscious will have all the pieces it needs to construct that killer idea you’re looking for.

Make it a habit. Don’t wait until you get stuck. Incorporate active incubation into your routine now to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid future blocks to your writing success.

Is there any aspect of your work-in-progress that you’re stuck on or unsure about right now?  

How might you apply the process of active incubation to get clearer on that aspect of your story?