The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Basking in the afterglow
The wrap up phase of the book is where a lot of pantsers fall into the trap of thinking that the Big Bad is dead or defeated, the main problem has been resolved, so there’s nothing more to do, right?
Well, no. It doesn’t really work that way. Readers like to see the character they’ve followed through all manner of mayhem actually have a bit of a chance to enjoy the victory. It isn’t quite “and they all lived happily ever after” – although romances tend to demand that someone gets a happily ever after (known as HEA) – but it’s got a lot of similarity to it.
There are a few things to consider with the wrap up: how long it should be, what it needs to have in it, and of course, precisely where you end the thing. My view, for what it’s worth, is that in a flash piece there isn’t any, or at most a line or two. A short story doesn’t need more than a scene. A novel, you’re looking at one to several chapters, depending.
The goal should be to if not tie up all those loose threads you left lying around while you were writing the thing, then to at least offer a suggestion that they will be tied up at some unspecified time in the future. Partial resolutions are okay, as long as they provide a valid partial resolution (I should note that this doesn’t apply to mystery, where readers expect the way the lead solved the crime to be explained in the wrap up; to horror, where you’re expected to finish with a general situation best described as “oh shiiiiiit”; or to anything with a tragic ending, where lingering too long just starts to feel like poking around in an open sore – there it’s better to build to the tragedy and keep the wrap-up to some flavor of the impact on the rest and unless you’re writing literature, how the survivors will be inspired by it to move on). It’s worth pointing out that if you can’t find a valid resolution point you haven’t actually finished the bloody book.
I should probably say that what makes a valid resolution point varies from book to book, but it should at minimum resolve one of the major conflict areas of that specific piece. Obviously if it’s part of a series there’s a larger conflict that still unresolved, but if you’re writing a series you still need to have at least one smaller conflict driving each one, preferably more. The per-book conflicts are the ones you resolve.
For extreme pantsers, this tends to be something that just happens. I don’t consciously decide what the conflicts are. They’re just… there, courtesy a subconscious that operates on a ‘need to know’ basis where I don’t need to know. I just need to trust in the pants and keep writing. Weirdly, it usually works out reasonably well.
So, into a little more detail, once again using Impaler as the example. Impaler is the first book in a series, with two overaching conflicts: the clash of Islam and Christianity, and Vlad’s quest for his own humanity. Neither of these have been resolved – or even, to some extent, fully realized as the core conflicts – by the end of Impaler. The smaller conflicts – Vlad’s uncertain relationship with his oldest son Mihnea, his campaign to reclaim Constantinople as a means of splitting the Ottoman Empire in two and providing him with the resources he needs to be able to eliminate Mehmed II as a threat – have been resolved. Mehmed remains a threat, but Vlad has gained himself some much-needed breathing space and dealt a massive psychological blow to his enemy.
In addition, Vlad has recognized one of the two overarching conflicts and his role in it. He’s realized that he’s effectively the only person in his world who is both willing and either brave enough or insane enough to take on the ever-expanding Islamic empires (quite possibly this is “brave enough and insane enough”).
This effectively sets the stage for the second book (which will probably be titled Kaziklu Bey, and will cover Vlad’s campaign against Mehmed) and the third (tentatively Son of the Dragon, where Vlad aims to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity). There may be more. But Impaler finishes at a point where it could just as easily be a standalone novel – which is the goal of the wrap up.
Since we pantsers tend to be rather at the mercy of our subconscious, it really does help to finish in a way that won’t have readers threatening life and limb if you don’t write the next one now.
A memorable last line helps, although failing memorable, the last line should effectively wrap up the piece. Hamilton’s early books have short – but satisfying – wrap ups with killer last lines. Pratchett tends to shift relatively seamlessly from the climactic sequence to the wrap up, and finish with something that brings in the emotional kick of the book. I’m still pretty crude on this and tend to either use a sledge to hammer in a push pin, or end with something that’s kind of a nonentity, but that’s something that improves with practice. Lots of practice.
So that’s the wrap up. Like this post, fairly fluffy by comparison, but – hopefully – satisfying. Probably the main thing for pantsers to remember is that we usually need one, and to trust our bloody subconscious when it’s supplying the bloody thing. Write it first, fix it later. No matter how good a writer – or how extreme a pantser – you can’t fix something you haven’t actually written.