The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Building to the Big One

So, you’ve successfully navigated the treacherous, kudzu-infested legs of the middle of the pants, and you can see light at the end of your leg. You can feel the big one coming, and you’re taking the deep breaths before you run the marathon that’s the final part of your story. How do you handle it?

Well, if you’re me, you write like a madwoman on speed and do nothing but write and think about what you’ll be writing next until you’ve got that last part of your story done (usually it’s a sequence that takes about the last quarter of a novel, including buildup, climax, and wrapup). I’ve written simple end sequences and complex ones – for Impaler the end sequence started with Constantinople, and it all had its own momentum there. Of course, that book actually had two climax/resolution sets: the military one (which happened first) and the personal one. It was possibly a little too ambitious for my skills at the time, but we’ll see. The sequel is likely to be even more complex that way.

Back to the topic… To write the final sequence for ConVent was pretty simple. It flowed. ConSensual took more work. For that I have a spreadsheet with what the various groups and specific characters were doing at each phase of the sequence, so that my main character could observe the right things. Even then, I still managed to forget someone and badly miscue something – that will be part of the editing that’s going to be starting soon. End sequences vary a lot.

Every end sequence has three broad phases: the buildup, the climax, and the wrapup or resolution. Where the buildup ends and the climax begins can be a bit difficult to tell: sometimes the two have a lot of overlap. Resolution and wrapping up is a lot easier to distinguish – but more on that in another post.

So… the buildup part of the end sequence. This is where everything is coming to the site of the final battle, your hero and villain are positioning themselves for the final battle, and you’re – hopefully – building the tension to where something has to give, soon.

Things are at their blackest for your hero, and it should look as though the villain will win. To take an example from the movies, this is the sequence from the arrival at the rebel base, through the start of the attack on the Death Star, up to when the Death Star is preparing to destroy the rebel base, the rebels trying to take down the Death Star have been mostly picked off and exterminated, and Darth Vader’s TIE is about to blow Luke to pieces. (The actual climactic sequence of this movie is quite short – but others would place the entire battle as the climactic sequence).

I should point out that the blur-over between buildup and climactic sequence is such that you can talk to a dozen authors and get twenty opinions on it… so don’t take this as gospel. It’s just my take.

The starting point of the buildup is a fairly slow point, pace wise, and an emotionally neutral or hopeful one – that is, your heroes know they have a big task ahead of them, but they think it can be done. At this point, you, the extreme pantser, must know what the climax and resolution look like. It doesn’t do you any good to climb the mountain if it’s the wrong mountain. I often find myself delaying at this point of a book while I sort out mentally what’s going to happen in the final part of the story.

Some of the things you need to know: what form the confrontation between hero and villain (or hero and obstacle) is going to take. Is it a one-on-one confrontation, a mega battle of armies, some combination of individual and group, will it involve combat at all? Is the climax primarily physical action, primarily psychological, or somewhere between? Who changes, and how? And that’s before you cover the mechanics of the sequence.

For a detailed example, I’m going to use something I’m familiar enough with not to forget something critical, and that’s been out long enough that hopefully enough readers here know it – my first novel, Impaler. I’ll follow that example through the climax and resolution sequences.

I place the start of the sequence with Vlad’s army reaching Constantinople and setting up for a siege. He’s got all his plans in place, he knows what he’s doing, and he’s hopeful he can take the city before the Ottoman Sultan is able to muster a counterattack (not least because the sections of wall that were destroyed when the Ottomans captured the city 24 years early haven’t been rebuilt so they’ve been replaced with makeshift fortifications). He’s got ongoing problems with his oldest son Mihnea, but he’s mostly hopeful that the several days he needs to get his explosives positioned and bring in naval reinforcements will be trouble free.

The preparations for siege and destroying the city walls start. Vlad demands the city surrender, and is rudely told what to do with his demand by the city’s governor. Tension starts to build: he knows he’s now in a siege situation and must break through quickly. His secondary strike forces aimed at taking down the customs fort on the Western Bosphorus and the island fort in the strait must succeed, or his naval support won’t be able to reach him, and the force taking the other side of the harbor has to be able to take down the chain that prevents hostile ships entering the harbor. He can’t afford any delays.

Next, disaster: Mihnea is abducted by traitors within Vlad’s army and taken to the enemy governor – who will return Mihnea a piece at a time if Vlad doesn’t decamp immediately. This is the emotional low point, with Vlad in a position where no matter what he does he will lose. If he leaves, he loses Mihnea, and most likely his life and everything else later. If he stays, he loses Mihnea and has to suffer the evidence of his son being tortured to death.

Then the decision: He stays. He endures the results with as much stoicism as he can. His army boosts their efforts, speeding up their mining and doing everything they can to get ready for the attack before plan. At this point, the tension is ramped even higher: Vlad has received his first ‘gift’ in the form of a severed finger. He knows there’s a good chance Mihnea will die even if everything goes right when he attacks the city.

The last climb: Everything is in place. Vlad goes to the gate where he plans to enter the city (it having been bricked up to silence rumors that a Christian crusader would enter that way to liberate it from Ottoman rule – a legend Vlad intends to use). He signals for the coordinated attack to begin, and his team set off their bombs to blow the wall open. At the emotional level, Vlad has gone from despair to driven, and the tension is about as high as it can get – this is Vlad’s only chance. If he fails, he’s got no future.

And that is where I personally place the end of the build up, and the start of the climactic sequence. The tension is as high as it can possibly go, the heavy action is about to start, the pace has been building throughout, and the emotions have shifted from the lowest point to determination to see things through. This is what I consider the top of the mountain, and the point where the climax starts.




  1. Oh, yes. VERY much guilty of the “delay at this point until …” part. Although, occasionally lightning strikes during the waiting. In HTBF, the whole part that the story ended up being *about* — the rainbows and things-that-go-bump part — showed up as a diversion while I was dithering, trying to sort out what I had originally *thought* the ending was … and the same is in the process of happening again, for the story I’ve been working on lately. All I have to do is hang on, until it’s time to keep up. 🙂

    1. It’s part of being a pantser, Stephen. Endings won’t happen right until you know what has to happen. Sometimes it isn’t anything like what you thought it was going to be.

  2. When I was writing Forever Young: Blessing or Curse, I built a climax scene, but since it’s a thriller, I decided it wasn’t enough. When I read a thriller, I always expect another something bad or scary to happen after the climax to rev up the tension again. That’s why I added on more problem for my heroine to overcome. Then I let the reader down easy.

    Morgan Mandel

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