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Forgotten abilities and plot holes

Ozoneocean at 12:00AM, Feb. 22, 2019

This is an eternal problem for readers. Writers don't really tend to care about it too much, but readers HATE it!
What am I talking about? Basically, it's when a character gains a power, acquires an item, learns some info or a spell, meets a magical person or whatever: they gain something that makes them very powerful or is exceptionally useful and it helps them get out of a jam but then they never use it again! No matter how easily they could use it to get out of a tricky situation or how easily they could beat the villain with it, they've totally forgotten that they have it. This is especially an issue in sequels because writers like to pretend their characters start with a blank slate.

As a reader (or audience) you become invested in the character and the world they exist in, so this sort of ability forgetting is especially galling. You mentally scream at the character “USE THE THING YOU IDIOT!”, but to no avail because the writer forgot about it and so it causes a pothole.

Why does this happen?
99% of the time it's bad writing. Not extremely bad writing, it's just the normal, every day bad writing that we're all prone to. It's like obvious spelling or grammar mistakes: you check your work over and over and see nothing wrong, you're completely blind to it. That's exactly what happens with these plot-holes, as a creator they're invisible to you, but to the reader they stand out like a bloodstain. They're so easy to miss so they rarely get fixed and if the creator does find them it's usually too late anyway because it would take too much work to change things.

But why do these things cause plot holes in the first place?
The answer is even worse writing. The creator needs a McGuffin to get out of a problem, or an easy climax because audiences LOVE characters to gain small victories, so they introduce a thing without thinking ahead about what that could “really” mean for the story or all the different ways the character could use it. The creator is lazy and flying by the seat of their pants… like many of us webcomicers are prone to, and this causes big issues down the road.

What are some ways to get around it?
This happens a lot any time you have an overpowered character who gets even more powerful. In Doctor Who it was the “Sonic Screwdriver”. The device was a lazy McGuffin but gained even more powers as the series went on and the writers got lazier. They solved it by simply writing it out in the end- though they continued to reintroduce it later for fans. The trouble with McGuffin's like that is once you have them they can be very hard to get rid off. In superhero comics Superman is a great example with all his many powers and magically massive strength. The way they fix that is through a number of strategies: having him lose powers, having enemies nullify them, wiping out timelines and just forgetting he has them. Goku of the Dragon Ball franchise is always gaining strength and abilities because that's the format of the series. The way they get around it is by always matching him with enemies of greater power… which is a very flawed solution for too many reasons to mention.

Another method is for the writer to belatedly acknowledge the forgotten ability and make a joke out of it, “Oh, if only I'd used that thing I found back in the tombs, that could have saved all this trouble. Too bad I forgot about it till now, DOH!”. Others will retconn in reasons, “It was lost”. This is bad and readers rarely buy it.

The best approach is to think ahead
Don't just throw in powers, abilities, useful connections and devices willy-nilly, think ahead. Not just in terms of your current plot but future stories, think about how it'll change things for the character, what will it take to nullify in order to make your story interesting again etc. In some cases you'll find that generates great ideas for new storylines and plot-points, in others you'll realise it's just too much trouble to bother with, but as long as you've thought ahead you can easily and simply make the character lose the thing after it's done its job and therefore totally avoid a plot hole. :)

This won't help you avoid all plot holes
I'm only talking about those caused by forgotten powers and abilities. 😉

Why don't the writers (usually) care?
Because we're lazy which is why we used those tricks to begin with, and it's too much trouble to fix the issues most of the time so we just pretend they don't exist.



irrevenant at 2:27AM, Feb. 26, 2019

PS. In the modern series the psychic paper serves a similar function - it lets the show get into the meat of the story faster.

irrevenant at 2:26AM, Feb. 26, 2019

The sonic screwdriver gets a bad rep for this and IMO it's largely unfair. When used well - and it mostly is - the screwdriver is a tool to get past the boring parts into the interesting ones. It might not work for a lot of series, but it fits the show that Doctor Who is - a fast-paced SF drama that's often cramming a ton of concept and story into a single episode. The screwdriver can't solve the MAJOR problems and it gets you quickly past the minor ones. That's a win in my book.

Ironscarf at 4:22PM, Feb. 22, 2019

I don't think the sonic screwdriver qualifies as a McGuffin since it's not actually 'driving' the plot. It's abilities have been annoyingly variable and all encompassing at times it's true. Thank goodness the Daleks can counter it with their consistently evolving sink plungers.

Kou the Mad at 3:05PM, Feb. 22, 2019

Things like this mess with my OCD. I'll yell at my screen "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST USE 'insert thing here'!?".

usedbooks at 12:23PM, Feb. 22, 2019

I was so happy to find out that Alex Hirsch wrote Gravity Falls the way I write. He looked back at meaningless throw-away items from previous episodes and found glorious ways to call back and reuse them, creating the illusion of masterful planning.

usedbooks at 12:20PM, Feb. 22, 2019

The reason I can't watch Bones. Not only poorly-written but inconsistently written to a laughable degree. It's like the writers have never watched or read an episode.

bravo1102 at 9:56AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Half the fun for me developing the Robofemoids plot lines is doing planning the measure -- countermeasure in the development of the weapons system. That theme runs throughout whole saga this far.

JustNoPoint at 6:32AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Most of the powers in my story come from LATER stories so I have to figure out interesting ways to use the chars till they flesh out more and gain said abilities or learn how to use them better. Most of my funnest stories in the future are BECAUSE I made up a crazy power and wanted to see where it'd lead.

Ozoneocean at 5:46AM, Feb. 22, 2019

The sonic screwdriver even as far back as the 4th and 5th doctor it was being re-purposed to do extra things.

Ozoneocean at 5:45AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Hahaha, love that button idea :D

KAM at 5:34AM, Feb. 22, 2019

As for my own comic, at the end of the Crossover Wars, Gertrude is looking through her helmet of holding trying to find something and one of the things she tosses out is the Easy Button, which she describes as a "deus ex machina plot device" indicating that she could have ended the Wars at any time, but didn't because she either forgot about it, or was having too much fun to end it the easy way. ;-)

KAM at 5:28AM, Feb. 22, 2019

As for the Sonic Screwdriver I think the classic series kept it mostly believable. The Second Doctor only used it to loosen and tighten screws. The Third Doctor expanded what could be done with it, but the writers mostly kept it restrained to a device that could send out sonic waves. The Fourth and Fifth Doctors didn't use it in ways it hadn't been used before. The new series expanded it into working like a Star Trek tricorder and even a Star Trek dermal regenerator. (Yeah, it makes sense the Doctor could have devices like that, but forcing them all into the Sonic Screwdriver is ridiculous!)

KAM at 5:20AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Sometimes the problem is the series has multiple writers & Writers B, C, etc., don't know, or forgot, what Writer A created.

Ozoneocean at 4:52AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Yeah, the Yammato reboot kept the wave motion gun from being a "win every time" solution in some ways...

bravo1102 at 12:59AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Probably one of the best treatments of the super weapon that doesn't always work is the Wave motion gun in the Soace Battleship Yamato reboot.

bravo1102 at 12:56AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Oh so true. That's why I have those little sayings to remind myself. *Proper planning prevents piss poor performance. * Unless half way through you throw out the ending because it's too slow and put in the Mcmuffin (it's time for breakfast) to just end it already. Like they always had it, but didn't know -- or it's just such a pain in the ass to use -- or it's in their other pair of pants-- or countermeasures. It can't work twice because the enemy knows how to counteract it.

sphinx8k at 12:02AM, Feb. 22, 2019

Yah...Very correct

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