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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.


  1. “Write it first, fix it later.”

    Oh that’s the problem. [Wink]

    Seriously, I have this story working in my mind where I know the ending but can’t figure out how the start the story (especially to start it so readers want to read more). [Sad Smile]

    February 2, 2012
    • Paul, I often start way early, and write down a whole bunch of the worldbuilding and finally get down to the action. Knowing the ending gives you something to aim for, so the middle part doesn’t flop around to no purpose. _Then_ you go back and figure out where the actual story starts. All that front stuff you’re chopping off goes into the “World of____” file for reference. You may also change the ending or where in your writing the ending is located, to get that resolution and satisfaction Kate’s talking about here. I’ve been known to remove a quarter of a manuscript, and stick it in another file as the start of another book.

      February 2, 2012
      • Kate Paulk #


        I’ve usually got a “notes” section at the end of my manuscript file. It’s where all the miscellaneous world building stuff goes, and the notes about later bits that I don’t want to forget.

        Pretty much anything except “you didn’t write the book” can be fixed in editing. Whether you’re skilled enough to fix it right now is a different question (I have quite a few that I don’t have the skill to fix. Yet)

        February 2, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #


      That’s where you start asking yourself how things got to that point. And keep asking, until you get all the way back to something one of them did to kick the whole mess off. *That* is your beginning.

      February 2, 2012
      • Kate, I think I’ve found a better starting point.

        I’ll see if I can get it into writing. [Smile]

        February 2, 2012
        • 'nother Mike #

          Paul? Just wondering if you have to start writing with the beginning? That sounds silly, but I know that often I write things out of order, then go back and fix it later. And yet I talk to people who say they can’t start writing unless they start at the beginning.

          February 3, 2012
          • Well geberakkt, I’m somewhat a Pantser myself so it’s easier to start “thing” the story from the start.

            In this case, the story is about how my main character gets involved with a certain group.

            My earlier starts had my main character acting fairly insane and that made it *harder* for me to see why would the group want him involved with them.

            Even if I wrote some of the ending first, I would still have to figure out why this “secret organization” would want a “loony loose cannon” as a member.

            Easier (I think) to rework my main character. [Smile]

            February 3, 2012
            • Is there any way to edit posts? I really butchered “generally” in the first line. [Frown]

              February 3, 2012
  2. Endings can be tough. When I wrote ‘Withershins’, it was 350 pages long, far too long for a teen novel, so I had to split it in two. I was told by a children’s lit professor that if I was to split it up, I had to have a satisfactory ending for the first book. It was quite a struggle and I will admit, my ending is a bit abrupt. I hope that readers will forgive my digression, knowing the sequel will kind of step in and finish the story. Mind you, even the ending to the second book had my sister-in-law screaming at me to find out what happened next! I had to let her read the beginning of the third book before she was satisfied, so I could continue and write the story of my character’s daughter. I hope that I can write a satisfying ending to the third book because I want it to end there!

    February 2, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #


      Endings are difficult, and obviously if your name isn’t J.K. Rowling you don’t get to write 700 page epic teen books. Kids are also in many ways more discerning readers than adults. They’ll want to know why someone would do something that dumb, and they want their ending to make sense to them.

      It sounds like you managed a decent split with what you did – and if your sister in law is screaming at you to find out what happens next, you’ve definitely got a compelling story! Congratulations.

      February 2, 2012

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