You’re screwed! There’s absolutely no motivation for your villain to kill this hapless victim, but you need him dead. Do you create some contrived deus ex machina intervention or introduce a new character to ‘off’ the poor soul? Meanwhile you need the hero to be in two places at once and the death beam on the alien moon already discharged two chapters ago. You’re running out of ideas and everything seems over-plotted. What can you do?
Here’s what I do:
1. Fill plot holes with potholes: OK, that was pretty hokey but I live in Rhode Island, where VW Bugs go missing on the highway. Despite the potential wheel damage, when I’m stuck on a plot point I get on the road and drive. There’s something about the distraction of highway driving that allows your mind to focus on solutions better. I always keep my (hands free!) phone set to voice texting, and I send myself ideas. Yes, I know there’s probably ten better tools available but it’s what works for me. But make sure to drive alone. And turn off the radio or listen to something ambient with ignorable lyrics. Oh, and avoid traffic. Anger and brainstorming make poor bedfellows.
2. Look to history: Do a little research. Study past news for conditions or locations similar those in your story and you just might stumble across a solution that has already occurred historically. But don’t just copy it – adapt it in a plausible way. This works especially well if your story takes place in a unique setting. In the second book of The Order Series, ‘Eden’s Revelation’, I needed a justifiable reason for the US military to occupy a ready-made base in the Greater Middle East, and I wasn’t super-familiar with the region. I researched the history of military bases in the area and, voila! Enter the Kyrgyzstani Transit Center at Manas, an air base that the US once occupied until poor relations and an expiring lease with Kyrgyzstan forced us out. It worked perfectly as a mechanism to stage US forces in the region under a new, fictional agreement with the Kyrgyzstanis. It also provided the motivation I needed for them to stay in the region despite pressure from the Chinese.
3. Condense the plot on index cards: I’ve used cards or scraps of papers to help myself out of plot holes before, especially when sequencing is blocking me. I’ve written down character names, chapter numbers and even event blurbs so I could lay them out on the table and order/reorder them. This helps visualize the plot holes spatially and better resolve how to fill them. The holes become gaps, and the solutions become bridges. And honestly there’s something cathartic about condensing your plot into manageable chunks and moving them around.
4. Talk it through with a friend: Confession – my wife helps me write my books. I’m constantly running ideas by her to see if they pass the “red face” test. Many do not. Often she’ll suggest alternatives, and even if I don’t latch onto some of the ideas they make me think outside of my own box and set me on a different path.
5. Flip the script: Sometimes, despite best efforts, every solution you’ve tried seems contrived. If that’s the case don’t just give up – try changing elements of the current plot. A rework can strengthen the plot and create a solution you never would have considered. “What if this character simply died three chapters ago – what would happen? What if the heroine never entered the building at all?” Thinking through the fallout of a significant plot change can be a good exercise that leads to something greater. And don’t be afraid of the work of restructuring the plot. You’re a writer, dammit – you’re used to pain.