Every so often I see a nice piece of fiction where its author adds something (to save the plot, or to make it interesting, whatever) that makes the story broken (usually it makes the world, setting or environment broken). Canonical examples include:

  • unlimited time travel (e.g. in Harry Potter someone could have use the time-turner to kill Voldemort before he became dangerous),
  • super-ultra-hyper-mega weapon (e.g. in Star Wars: A New Hope, Vader could just annihilate both the planet and the moon, he didn't need to wait for the moon to become visible),
  • unconstrained teleport (e.g. in Lord of the Rings, Frodo could have just flew to destroy the ring).

I would like to make a list of features that could easily make the world broken, so that the author should think twice before adding such an element or avoid it if possible. To make it more helpful, some comments on how to make such feature workable (constraints that doesn't prevent its use, but does prevent abuse) would be appreciated, for example:

  • time-machine which needs to be charged before each use, and you can only go back as far as the charge-time was;
  • super-weapon with
    • very high reload time (or even one-time weapon),
    • big resource consumption,
    • limited aiming capabilities,
  • teleport only between linked teleport stations and with some non-zero transmition time.

Sometimes such features are very mundane, for example, weird money exchange rates that would make arbitrage possible (in a story where huge amount of money would solve the main challenge or make it considerably easier).

I would greatly appreciate your ideas!


It feels like I was misunderstood. I don't want to create some infinite (what?!) list of forbidden tricks. As for the survey-making comment, I have no idea what you want to call it, but number of questions from top of Highest Voted Questions are of form "what are good to/about " or "best to do/avoid ". Maybe "what are good features to make your story ridiculous" or "best ways to make your story broken" would be a better description of question I wanted to ask.

Also, it is not a plot holes I am looking for. Things I am looking for induce plot holes, but not every plot hole is what I am interested in. The main difference is that features like unconstrained time travel make the story broken continuously and independently of what the protagonists will do (but for destruction of the time machine). At any point they can do almost anything including complete reorganization of the world (and thus removing any challenges).

Plot hole is usually a single event that doesn't fit, e.g. some kind of "out of character behavior". What I am looking for are things that create a plot trench, where someone ignores a natural and easy solution for a long period of time (usually from feature introduction to the end of the challenge). Often it is not only the main challenge that would be rendered pointless, but also any other similar problems.

  • 2
    This sounds like an open-ended survey question, which isn't a good fit for this site, but if you were to instead ask how to tell if a feature you're considering has this problem, I think that'd be a good question. Jan 20, 2013 at 5:27
  • @MonicaCellio Well, a question "how to tell if <something> has a problem" would create a dozen of "you need to think about what you are writing" or "when I write, I have a plan" responses. I'm not looking for yet another Captain Obvious, but for something that would be really usable and not only by me, but also any other author planning their story. A list of issues with the most popular solve-it-all tools would definitely help, moreover, mass guessing is especially good in not-missing some important bits.
    – dtldarek
    Jan 20, 2013 at 9:11
  • Thanks for the clarification. I misunderstood your first version. Jan 20, 2013 at 17:58
  • 1
    Even with your edit, I don't see how it's not still an infinite list. Yes, time travel, super weapons, magic powers, etc, all have the potential to create such "plot trenches" (catchy term). But I doubt there's any short list of such issues. Maybe you could come up with a short list of broad general categories.
    – Jay
    Jan 21, 2013 at 6:32
  • Commenting on the Harry Potter example: it looks to me that the Harry Potter Universe supports (or maybe requires) 'stable time loops'. Many of what the trio did after they traveled back in time elicited reactions from their past selves, reactions we'd already seen when it'd been their 'present'. Voldemort was already alive, so I think his past can't include him dying in anyway.
    – Mussri
    Jun 4, 2013 at 9:12

5 Answers 5


Superpowers which aren't fueled by anything and have no consequence for using them.

The example which springs to mind is "Heroes." When indestructible cheerleader Claire regenerated, or speedster Daphne ran, they were burning energy. That energy had to come from somewhere. They should have been eating constantly, and even more whippet-thin than the poor girls already were. Claire regenerated a toe in an early episode — where did the mass come from to create the toe? She should have immediately needed to inhale two cheeseburgers or something.

  • That's an example of what I am looking for, thanks! Do you know where I could find more of these?
    – dtldarek
    Jan 20, 2013 at 9:02
  • 2
    TV Tropes is, frankly, a good place to look. SF has some relevant places to start. Or you could look on nitpicking sites like moviemistakes.com or get the Nitpicker's Guides to Star Trek and extrapolate from there. Jan 20, 2013 at 13:28

I'm afraid "infinite lists of items" are not really welcome here. OTOH, links to resources containing such lists are okay, so...

Fridge Logic,

Plot Hole

Warning, TVTropes links.

  • Also: Applied Phebotenum and all sorts of MacGuffins. When overused or when their introduction (even if mid-story) is obviously a 'Deus ex machina'.
    – Mussri
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:32
  • 1
    @Mussri: NOT McGufins. By definition McGufin has no impact on the story beyond being desirable. The moment you exploit the mass of the Maltese Falcon to bludgeon Cairo on the head with it, it ceases to be a McGufin.
    – SF.
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:39
  • It could. If it's always employed to give the heroes something to chase, it would break the story. For me, anyway.
    – Mussri
    Jan 18, 2013 at 17:19
  • @Mussri: In this sense anything can break it because it can be used for poor storytelling. The only downside of mcGufin is that it's generic, unoriginal. Still, aforementioned Maltese Falcon is a great story and the fact the titular object could be anything else of comparable value does not influence it adversely. Sure you can make the object troublesome, or dangerous, or powerful, and thus give the story extra "oomph" but a generic mcGufin has less potential of breaking the story than any other "item of desire".
    – SF.
    Jan 19, 2013 at 18:40
  • It is not only a plot hole what I am looking for, see the edit. Anyway, thanks for answering!
    – dtldarek
    Jan 20, 2013 at 8:57

Trying to build a list of all the possible "excess magics" that one could put in a story is probably a hopeless task. For one thing, the list might well be infinite: You could list a thousand things and someone could come up with one more. For another, there are plenty of things that exist in the real world that could provide easy solutions to many plots.

For example, I don't know how many stories I've seen where I just want to yell at the screen, "Why don't you just call the police?" or "Why don't you just tell her you love her?" or whatever. What I find particularly grating about many of these is that a writer with a dime's worth of imagination could toss in some explanation of why the obvious solution doesn't work. Like, the hero calls the police, a policeman comes ... and then it turns out the policeman has been paid off by the criminals and so he just calls back to headquarters, "No hostage situation here. Just some nutjob who wants attention."

And yeah, many many time travel stories, I find myself saying, Why doesn't the hero just go back in time one hour and try a different solution? Why doesn't he go forward to the day before he left and tell himself what he's going to encounter so he can prepare?

As to plugging the plot holes: I think the trick is to make the plug not sound arbitrary. Like in many time travel stories they "explain" why the hero can't go back and prevent World War 2 or save his friend's life or whatever by saying, "We can't change history". But the whole point of the story is that they went back in time and changed things. Why can they change some things and not others? I might buy it if at the beginning of the story they set out some coherent rule of what can be changed and what can't, or if in the course of the story the characters discover this rule. But of course the real rule is, "You can change things that make the story more interesting and you can't change things that make solving the hero's problems too easy."

I heard a lecture by a mystery writer once where he said that he spends a lot of time putting doors in alleys. He explained that what he meant was, if in chapter 10 the hero is chased into an alley, and then just suddenly conveniently finds a door through which he can escape, it looks awfully contrived. But if in chapter 5 he has the hero go to that alley and notice the door and go through it and see where it goes, and THEN in chapter 10 the hero gets chased into the alley and escapes through that door, it doesn't look so contrived. I think that's a big part of the trick. If you bring something up that creates a problem or solves a problem just when you need it, it looks contrived and the reader feels cheated. But if you bring it up a couple of chapters earlier, and then it's there when you need it, the reader feels like he's been given fair warning.

  • It is not only about arbitrary. Creating some door in chapter 10 might be out of place, but doesn't necessarily make the story broken. However, the time travel, even if introduced in chapter 5 probably would if handled incorrectly. See the edit (and thanks for reply!).
    – dtldarek
    Jan 20, 2013 at 9:01
  • My intent with the last paragraph wasn't to say that as long as you foreshadow adequately that the problem of such inconsistencies goes away, just that's it's one possible solution that works sometimes.
    – Jay
    Jan 21, 2013 at 6:28

Well, here is the short and full answer: You violate the laws of physics or Nature.

That's it. Virtually any violation of the laws of physics results in a paradox that can be endlessly exploited for wealth or power.

So no magic (that could not be done by Penn & Teller), no FTL travel. No time travel, even a few minutes of time travel leads to unlimited wealth; I could make a fortune in the stock market every day.

No weather control, you cannot summon a Hurricane or Lightning (either would be an infinite source of power). No precognition: That is an unlimited source of wealth, if allowed. No immortality. No instant regeneration.

All you are allowed is hard (very hard) Science Fiction. And no super AI, that is fantasy, not sci fi.

Good luck. Personally, I think suspension of disbelief is a critical skill for viewing any kind of fantasy, horror, or scifi. If you can't do it, I wouldn't try to write it. Stick to non-fiction and reality based fictions that do not violated the laws of physics or Nature.


I've been writing a story which eventually ends up involving a shrink/growth ray device, and after a bit of thinking, I realized that fits perfectly into this category. You could, say, expand a bar of gold (infinitely), and then cut that up, and repeat. Then sell all your newfound riches, and make Elon Musk look like he's living on the streets! Luckily, such a device cannot exist in reality.

There's also the obvious issues of, say, where does x mass come from, or where does it go when shrinking. And while some answers, such as it comes from energy using E=mc^2, or it comes from/goes into the air, work, but they are very impractical. One, air has little density compared to solids, so that would become a huge part of the atmosphere. Two, the air would have to contain every element ever, which it obviously doesn't. As for the first one, it took only a couple of atoms to wipe Hiroshima off the map, imagine what a few trillion could do. The third is that we simply shrink the atoms and everything themselves. This could work, but it falls apart because of simple force requirements, and the quark-pair law.

And yes, I just went into quantum physics on Writing SE. You're welcome.

And ignoring the metaphysics, if you shrunk a person, they would instantly explode due to, 1, being in a vacuum left by where the rest of them used to be, and 2, blood pressure. Not only would it be made greater by the fact that it must fit into a smaller space (it's mainly water, which cannot compress), but it also has thinner walls containing it. And, plus, most of our senses, including sight and hearing, would cease to function in a smaller body. And while we may be able to use our irises to fix the sight thing (we would no longer have any eye color!), since it's caused by the pupil becoming far too small, it won't be quite the same. Oh, and our lungs would stop working, so there's that, too. Once you stop breathing, bad stuff happens. Simply put, shrinking yourself wouldn't work well!

But nonetheless, it would also break a lot of stuff, assuming everything is normal. A single bottle of water isn't much to a full size human, and is practically nothing to a giant, but to a 3-inch tall person it would last years. The economy would inflate massively, leading to tons of stock crashes. Many jobs would become either exclusive (making a single car for a tiny person) or rare (such as making full size cars if there's a ton of people shrunk, and similar things). A single person could do the trash collection for a town of 3-inchers, but it would take a whole fleet of trucks to collect for a single giant. And, of course, there's naturally the fact that you would have to make all brand-new stuff (either way, big or small) for those who changed size. Of course, many of these are avoided if our ray thing affects objects (in my story it does. I really need to rethink this whole concept, don't I?), since you could shrink a bottle of water to make it fit for an 3-incher, and/or make it giant size. Which definitely adds to the brokenness.

Also, new personal record for longest answer! Normally I try to keep mine brief, but I've thought far too much on this. Luckily, as I've learned numerous times reading Sci-fi, if you can convince people it could happen, it doesn't matter much if it's really feasable!

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