Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.


...time needed to resolve the story is the driving force...

As I’ve noted in my previous articles on this subject, in my suspense novels I want to push the action of the crisis/climax as close to the end of the book as possible. Too long of a resolution is going to drag out the book. And I’ll tell you, even a bang-up book, if it drags in the end, will leave the reader unsatisfied. You gotta leave ’em with a bang. And yet, by definition, a resolution is hardly the biggest bang of the story. Hence the challenge to write a satisfying one.

Recently I read a well-written suspense that disappointed me in the end. The crisis/climax took place a good four or so chapters before the end of the book. Those final chapters were all pure resolution in various parts of the main character’s life. No conflict, just tying up loose ends. It was boring.

Last month we left off with this: “To help find the right [concluding] scene, I ask myself two questions.” What are those questions?

1. How far into the future—that is, after the climax ends—do I need to go in order for the loose ends to be tied up?

2. What is the best scene in that time period that will (a) give readers a satisfying look at my character’s life after all the traumatic events, and (b) allow a natural insertion of necessary explanations regarding how everything during the main story really happened?

1. How far into the future? In Brink of Death (first in my Hidden Faces series) I only needed to move forward two days for the resolution to take place. In Violet Dawn, (first of Kanner Lake series) I had to move forward six months. Both of these novels push the action in the climax up to the last sentence. But in Brink of Death, all the fallout and sorting out from that climactic scene only takes a couple days. In Violet Dawn, the whole main story takes place in about fourteen hours. But the fallout of those events takes months to resolve. If I wrote a scene two days later, I’d leave way too many loose ends for the reader.

So, time needed to resolve the story is the driving force. I don’t have any “rule” about how little or how long the time should be. It’s simply whatever will satisfy the reader for that particular book. This doesn’t mean, for example, that the bad guy has to go through a trial, be convicted, sentenced, put on death row and executed. It’s enough for the reader to know the bad guy has been caught, is off the streets, and there’s no question he’ll be convicted. Now, if there is a question as to conviction, that would be one reason to place the resolution months or even a year or so later, after the trial.

Problem is, the further forward you have to place the resolution, the harder it is to write. Readers may not be content simply to see the character that much later, all perfectly fine and emotionally healed after the ordeal. They’ll feel cheated if they’re not given at least a taste of the struggle to get to that place of strength. So this kind of resolution is going to have to creatively weave in some of those struggles of the past months, and show that the character is continuing to struggle in some way.

Some continuing struggle at the end of the book is a good thing. Life isn’t perfect, and even in a happy ending there should be signs of challenges ahead.

2a. Give readers a satisfying look at my character’s life. Suspense may be known as a plot-driven genre, but I still say in the end it’s all about the characters. The character arc for the hero/heroine as well as other supporting characters is critical. This is why I ask myself the 2a question before the 2b—how to allow a natural insertion of all explanations. If I allowed 2b to lead me in creating the scene, I’d end up with a boring scene full of facts and tying-up-loose-ends narrative. When I structure the scene for the best picture of the character’s personal life, I’m far more likely to write an interesting, compelling scene. A shell of a scene for a mere “tell-all” will be boring, I assure you. But if the scene shows the character on the other side of the trauma, working on getting on with his/her life, there can be some natural personal conflict within it, and the reader will be able to see what the character has learned through the story events.

Problem is, in a personal-based resolution it’s doggone hard to weave in all those explanations in a natural way. It requires some real creativity. Next month we’ll look at 2b and some techniques for doing that.

Amber Morn