I started thinking about this topic recently when discussing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with my EGMR friends. If you’re wondering how on earth an unreleased movie could relate to plot holes, let me just say that it’s almost inevitable when talking about the new Spider-Man movies to make a few quips about how bad the infamous Spider-Man 3 was, and naturally when talking about my gripes with it I referred to one of its big plot holes and some of its idea recycling.

That got me thinking about the topic of plot holes in narratives. To briefly remind anyone who is unsure, a plot hole is commonly described as an inconsistency in a story that goes against previously established logic – basically the story contradicts itself. Usually, relevant information is blatantly omitted or something just doesn’t make sense in the story. It can relate to the actual story as easily as it can to characters. An example would be it gets established that character ‘A’ is afraid of heights, yet minutes later he’s scaling buildings without fear. Typically, more serious plot holes can include illogical or impossible events, things happening for no reason whatsoever or events that contradict a story entirely.

Now, often the notion of plot holes is met with an audible gasp of horror as if it’s some dirty phrase, but similarly to the word “disappointing” I feel it gets exaggerated quite often. People often forget that plot holes can be minor or significant, and in the end it’s all about levels and how said plot hole affects the enjoyment, logic and believability of the story. Plot holes can be so minor that you can even miss them, or major to the point that you gawk in disbelief at how a writer could have not noticed said flaw. As always, a topic like this is best approached with examples.

Here’s where Spider-Man 3 comes into the picture. For me, this is an example of one of the worst kinds of plot holes you can get, because it was seemingly brought about by laziness and just for the sake of plot convenience more than anything else. Do you remember when Spider-Man went off to face Venom and Sandman, and Harry Osborn refused to help him? Then, during the fight, Harry’s butler comes over and gives a nice little inspiring speech, finally revealing the truth to Harry that Spider-Man never killed his father – Norman Osborn had been gutted by his own glider. He had discovered this when cleaning his wounds after his death at the end of the first movie.

Hold. The. Freaking. Potato.

This is a ridiculous plot hole for one simple reason. If this butler knew that Spider-Man had not killed Norman Osborn from the very first movie, why in God’s name would he leave Harry to grieve for two movies, develop a deep hatred for Spider-Man, become obsessive and bitter and basically become the next Goblin himself?

This is not one of those plot holes you can just shrug and ignore, because it results in the story ceasing to make sense.

On the other hand, there are plot holes you can more easily forgive, especially those that you don’t even notice unless you’re looking really hard. More recently, The Dark Knight Rises brought back the big plot hole debate, due to there being numerous ones in the story. Granted, despite being a Batman-obsessed freak, I can admit it wasn’t the perfect movie and did have its fair share of flaws. But people went quite crazy with its plot holes and many a debate was carried out for and against them.

But to me some of them were pretty acceptable. Some people would think that there should be no plot holes whatsoever in any story, but sadly we’re not in an ideal world and when you have these massive stories with human minds behind them there is room for error – similarly to how books can have typos, video games can have bugs and errors and movies can make mistakes. Of course plot holes can exist in all three mediums on top of that.

An example of an acceptable ‘plot hole’, and I use the term quite loosely in this particular context, was when people questioned how Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City despite its lockdown. A fair question, but there the audience could accept it because the moment in the movie wasn’t so much about how Bruce had returned, but rather that he had actually returned. Sure, the movie could have thrown a five minute scene in to explain it, but personally it didn’t feel necessary, and many fans were happy to accept that “he’s Batman” and go with that.

I say that this is acceptable because it didn’t destroy the movie and I hardly think it’s difficult to accept. If you have to over-analyse or nit-pick to find plot holes in narratives, then they probably aren’t that big of a deal to begin with.

My general rule of thumb is if a plot hole is totally blatant, severely damaging and/or illogical, you’re then stepping into the problem territory. An example I can give is the infamous Mass Effect 3 saga. In one of the downloadable content packs, called Arrival, it was established that if a Mass Relay were to explode, it would cause a chain reaction that could have devastating results on the universe. Yet at the end of Mass Effect 3, a large amount of Mass Relays simultaneously explode, to no detriment of the galaxy. It took the “Extended Cut” DLC to correct that plot hole.

When done badly plot holes can be just small-to-large annoyances or potentially narrative-breaking events. But you do also get those that are acceptable or even completely unnoticeable without a magnifying glass. I believe it’s about severity, and how hard you have to scour over the plot before you find them. If they’re practically screaming at you to be noticed and make you want to pull your hair out in frustration or horror, then it’s another matter entirely.

In conclusion, to answer the headline question, I believe plot holes can be both. They can be forgivable quite easily, yet they can also be really tragic. Ideally, you don’t want any plot holes in your story or your audience to say “why couldn’t they just do this or that?”, but it’s not a perfect world and every writer can make a mistake.

Whether those mistakes are forgivable or tragic comes down to context.