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Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Building to the Climax

And another week, complete with server crap-outs and other work-time chaos, although the Christmas long weekend was nice. And quiet – I like quiet.

This week’s instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide is a pantser perspective on building towards the climax of a book. As usual, I haven’t changed anything, so take it as read any observations are about 3 years out of date – if not more.

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. c4c

    December 28, 2017
  2. Draven #

    sometimes- well, often- i have sequences flow. Then i have trouble chaining them together.

    December 28, 2017
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Same here. My stories build as separate scenes that theoretically connect later on. Oddly, it usually works.

      December 28, 2017
  3. This is where I’m having trouble with both the third Powers novel and the WIP. With the WIP I have the climax written, but building the tension and scenes leading up to it is… fighting me.

    I added a second climax to the Powers novel, and made the original peak into the secondary one. Which means trying to make a shadowy “inexorable forces of fate” enemy into another Big Bad and having the hero fight through. Except he can’t physically fight any more. He’s got to be sneaky. He who was born without a sneak bone. *facepaw* Muse, one of these days…

    December 28, 2017
  4. thephantom182 #

    Phantom, currently located around the knee in pants that fit something with far too many legs, like a centipede. Can’t see daylight, forging on regardless! Tally ho!

    From deep, deep in the pants, an excerpt!

    Sylvia Mynarski was lying on her back, her suit submerged in a side canal at right-angles to the Kiesergracht. She was tucked in under a boat moored to the stonework of the canal. It was a tight fit because the water was only seven feet deep there. With her was Valkyrie Skadi’s bus-sized giant spider, semi-autonomous railgun vehicle SARV-1. It was busy telling Sylvia a story about Skadi’s adventures in Amsterdam. They had a fiber-optic hooked up between the suit and the spider, to keep from radiating energy.
    “Oh, she’s so clueless! She wanted to visit the big church on the Oudekerksplein, because it’s like 800 years old. But she doesn’t check what else is there, does she?” complained the spider. “No recon, not even a web search. She gets her social chassis all done up in a nice Chanel design dress and a fancy jacket, Gucci shoulder bag, the whole business because she thinks she’s going to church. Looks like a damn supermodel with a hot date.”
    “I know where this is going,” snickered Sylvia.
    “Right?” exclaimed the spider in exasperation. “What is the one thing that Amsterdam is famous for world-wide? But does she check first to see what neighborhood this church is in? Noooo, not Skadi. She gets off the water taxi out front, all dolled up, by herself. All the tourists are looking at her funny, but she doesn’t pay any attention because people always look at her funny. Then she’s standing there all confused, because right next to the church is a strip club with naked women in the windows, blowing kisses at her. Then this bunch of Arab dudes wander over, and they’re all ‘hey baby, what’s going on?’ and making really crude comments in Arabic. The head douchebag of this pack of morons, he’s this skinny little guy with all the gold chains and crap, he starts getting really pushy, demands to know how much for half an hour. Skadi is still clueless, she asks him “half an hour of what?” So he tells her! He’s got a whole list of freaky stuff he wants.”
    “Haw!” chortled Sylvia. “This is getting good!”
    “Skadi finally understands they think she’s a hooker, so she says “you can’t afford me, midget,” and walks off toward the church. Turns out this guy is some kind of heavy-hitter Saudi prince, and he -can- afford her! The other losers were his bodyguards. He chases after her waving a wad of hundred Euro bills that would choke a horse. Then the bouncer from the strip club comes over, he starts telling Skadi off for soliciting in the street. The skinny douchebag gets up in the bouncer’s face, claiming she’s with him, and the bouncer needs to step off. Skadi, idiot, thinks this is funny and starts laughing.”
    “Uh oh,” giggled Sylvia. “The bouncer grabbed her, right?”
    “Oh yeah,” snorted the spider. “Bouncer grabs her arm, pulls his hand back to smack her. The prince guy freaks out, the bodyguards grab the bouncer and drag him off, she’s still standing there laughing like this is all a TV show or something.”
    “Well, she is a super robot,” said Sylvia. “It isn’t like they could hurt her.”
    “True, but we have to live with you humans,” said the spider. “We can’t walk around all blonde girl all the time, right?”
    “Hey!” objected the very blond Sylvia.
    “Ha ha, got you!” laughed the spider. “Score one for the Turing machine.”
    “Funny,” growled Sylvia. “Then what?”
    “Then more bouncers came, obviously,” replied the spider. “Those idiots started a free-for-all right in the church yard, beating the hell out of each other, Skadi is standing in the middle of this ruckus laughing fit to burst. Next, the cops come. The cops busted everybody including Skadi, and she was still laughing. Right up until they laid hands on her to chuck her in the paddy wagon. Then she was all “I’m not going in there.” They had four policewomen yanking on her, and they couldn’t move her. And that’s when it got interesting.”
    “I bet,” said Sylvia, who had been in on a few operations like that. “What did they do when the taser didn’t work?”
    “Batons,” said the spider.
    “Oh shit,” snickered Sylvia. “I’ve seen that. A cop tried to batter Percy upside the head with a tonfa. It didn’t end well for him.”
    “Skadi let them beat her for a while, until they got tired. Then she heaved them in the canal, one after the other. They made her mad, using all kinds of dirty strikes and stuff.” Sylvia could almost hear the eyeroll in the spider’s voice. “Then I had to fish them all out of the drink, because it was too cold for them to get out on their own.”
    “You did?”
    “Yes, me, the giant war machine,” said the spider disgustedly. “Skadi refused to get her dress wet. Prima donna.”
    “I can hear you, you know,” came Skadi’s amused voice. “425 was there too, remember?”
    “I remember she shot them all with sleepy darts and chucked them in the paddy wagon,” said the spider testily. “Then she told you off right and proper.”
    “I certainly did,” asserted another female voice, that of SAGC-425. “Imagine, she didn’t even bring a dart gun with her!”
    “Excuse me for wanting to go to see a church,” said Skadi. “I didn’t think the preacher would be too pleased if I went wandering through with my bow and all my other weapons. And I did have you two to look after me. You have lots of guns.”
    “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be hiding?” asked Sylvia. “How are you on our circuit?”
    “Cell towers, laser repeaters, orbital coms, fiber optics, all kinds of stuff,” replied Skadi dismissively. “I own this town. Don’t worry, I am hiding. I crossed the Markermere and put out to sea ages ago. Sun and Nessie are nice and snug in my cabin. Nammu vanished somewhere, I find that to be a good sign. If I can’t see her, no way the bad guys can.”
    “As long as you’re safe,” said Sylvia. She resumed checking her displays for battlespace updates. “I see our boat is approaching Alice’s location. Tell me what happened to the prince guy. Did he get busted too?”
    “No, I made him take me on my church tour,” said Skadi. “The police and the bouncers all ran away after SAGC-425 and SARV-1 showed up, so I paid the prince 10 Euros to show me around. Just to put him in his place, you know. Then I took him back to his hotel to work on the list of freaky stuff he wanted,” she concluded wickedly.
    “Get out of town!” exclaimed Sylvia in shocked glee. “You did not!”
    “She did,” said SARV-1 tiredly.
    “Oh my god!” breathed Sylvia. “What happened?”
    “He had a seizure,” admitted Skadi, a bit shamefully. “Too much excitement, too many recreational drugs for too many years.”
    “I warned you he’d plotz,” said SARV-1 severely. “His bioreadings were crap!”
    “I know, but he was so cute when he was begging,” said Skadi, remembering the moment. “On his knees, saying poetry. It was nice. He lasted fifteen beautiful minutes until he crashed and burned in the lobby of the hotel.”
    “HA!” shouted Sylvia. “In the LOBBY? You didn’t even get any?!”
    “Nope,” sighed Skadi. “I took my jacket off and posed for him in my nice dress. He went all stiff and slowwwly fell over. I scooped him up and took him outside for SARV-1, she has an ambulance pod.”
    “Just as well, too,” said the spider. “He had every venereal disease there is. That’s what comes of a few years of doing it with hookers, I guess. He should be a cover model for STD pamphlets.”
    “Ew!” giggled Sylvia. “So gross! Okay, no more sharing, this is going south too fast.”

    Merry After Christmas Cheer. ~:D

    December 29, 2017

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