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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Talking Shop: Avoiding Panic Quit • By Eric Dontigney

In a recent Ask Dr. Cyberpunk, Bruce dropped this nugget of wisdom:

“Hence my one piece of enduring advice to aspiring novelists: write the ending first. Then figure out what you need to write to set up that ending, and write it. In the process you may wind up throwing out your original ending as the characters hijack the story and demand that it head off in a different direction, but at least you will have some idea of where you intended to go.”

I happen to agree, in part, with this piece of advice. It’s especially useful for those non-linear writers. What about linear writers, though? If you’re a pantser who does write from beginning to end, like I often do, does this still apply? Can you still be a pantser if you know the ending? In short, I think it does apply and that you can still be a pantser if you know how it ends. 

I don’t think you absolutely need to physically write out the ending. I do think that you need a clear idea of how things will wrap up. Here are some basic questions you should be able to answer after the first 25-50 pages (generally the easiest part of the novel to write for most pantsers):

  1. Who will live?
  2. Who (if anyone) will die?
  3. What is the major conflict that will be resolved?
  4. How will the protagonist resolve it?
  5. How (if applicable) will you set up a sequel?

Without answers to those basic questions, you will likely start flailing about once your pass the halfway mark in your book. Why? Because that’s when you need to start resolving plot threads. You can’t resolve those threads if you don’t know (or at least have some general idea) where the story is heading. I don’t know it’s true, but strongly suspect that a lot of novels stop dead right around there because the writers never considered how they’d wrap things up. I call this as the panic quit. You don’t know what to do, so you just stop.

Neil Gaiman even talks about this in somewhat oblique terms, though I can’t find the specific reference. To paraphrase, he says something like:

“Around two-thirds of the way through writing a book, I become convinced that the book is terrible and no one will want to read it. I call my editor to tell her these things. Then, she says: ‘Oh, you’re at that part of the book.’”

That paraphrased snippet should tell you a couple of things. Even seasoned, professional novelists who adopt the pantser approach struggle with this problem. It’s not an insoluble problem. You can tell by the way Gaiman has written or co-written about a dozen novels, half a dozen short fiction collections, and 15-20 children’s books. 

Knowing the ending in advance is one way to resolve the problem.

The other way main you can resolve the problem is by reviewing what you wrote and noting the key plot points you’ve set up so far. Then ask yourself:

“Where does/can the story logically go from here?”

Before you start that process, your brain will likely tell you that the story can go anywhere. Your brain is lying to you. By the time you get to the halfway or two-thirds mark in your book, you’re going to discover during your review that you’ve probably only left yourself a handful of plausible endings. It’s been my experience that I’ve unconsciously laid out a whole set of hints and clues about where the story is going. Then, you just need to pick one of the available endings and write toward it.

Now, how can you still call yourself a pantser if you know the ending? I can hear it now:

“You know the ending? Isn’t that plotting you pantser-fraud?!”

It is plotting, sort of. But knowing the ending you plan for your book has the same relationship to plotting as a concept drawing has to the blueprints for a building. If you’re really plotting a novel, you figure out every step that gets you from point A to point Z in advance. If you’re just writing with an end in mind, you’re inventing all the steps along the way. That, to me, is pantser writing.

So, here are the key takeaways:

  1. Decide from the get-go or very early in the writing process how it will end
  2. If you didn’t do that and you’re halfway done or better, don’t panic quit because you don’t know the ending
  3. Review what you wrote and note the major plot points
  4. Ask yourself what plausible endings you can get from those plot points (there won’t be that many)
  5. Pick one of the plausible endings
  6. Write the rest of the book aiming at that ending

This can feel a little inorganic to the dyed-in-the-wool pantser. For my part, though, I find settling for something a little inorganic far preferable to the prospect of having 50,000-70,000 words of a novel sitting on my computer with no hope of ever finishing it.

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