Brandt Dodson

Brandt Dodson was born and raised in Indianapolis, where he graduated from Ben Davis High School and, later, Indiana Central University (now known as The University of Indianapolis). It was during a creative writing course in college that a professor said, "You're a good writer. With a little effort and work, you could be a very good writer." That comment, and the support offered by a good teacher, set Brandt on a course that would eventually lead to the Colton Parker Mystery Series. Brandt comes from a long line of police officers, spanning several generations, and was employed by the FBI before leaving to pursue his education. A former United States Naval Reserve officer, Brandt is a board Certified Podiatrist and past President of the Indiana Podiatric Medical Association. He is a recipient of the association's highest honor, "The Theodore H. Clark Award". He currently resides in southwestern Indiana with his wife and two sons and is at work on his next novel.

The Literary Boogeyman

I’m a literary boogeyman. I admit it. Proud of it, in fact.

Scaring the reader is tantamount to success for a suspense novelist. Without fear there is no adrenalin and without adrenalin there are no sweaty palms, no nervous tension, and no pounding hearts. It’s like riding the kiddie-coaster. A couple of times ’round the same old bend and it’s over. What’s the point in that?

Dean Koontz once said, “Novels of fear must do more than frighten.” And you know what? He was absolutely right. But by saying they must do “more than frighten,” he was also acknowledging the presence of fear as a major component in suspense novels. You would do well to listen to him. He is, after all, a recognized master of the form.

The use of fear is a primary technique in pulling the reader along. Like a hook in the mouth of a bass, you can use it to lead the readers where you want them to go. But there are degrees of fear. Pull too hard and you’ll lose your prey. Fear is the genie that can grant your literary wishes. But you mustn’t abuse him.

In my novel Daniel’s Den (Harvest House Publishers, 2009), I use subtlety to project the level of fear I need, ratcheting it up only as the climax of the story looms. I begin by hitting the reader where they live. Literally.

In the opening chapter of Daniel’s Den (no spoiler alert needed), we see Daniel and his black lab, Elvis, beginning their morning run. But no sooner are they out the door than they see an out-of-place black van idling curbside. How do they know it’s out of place? Because Daniel and Elvis run the same time every morning and know the rhythms of the neighborhood. The van doesn’t belong, but Daniel writes it off and continues with his run. In fact, I barely mention the van. It’s really no big deal and is mentioned only along with the other sights and sounds of that particular morning in that particular neighborhood. But Mr. Rogers doesn’t live in Bayou Bay. This neighborhood is different. When Daniel is halfway into his run, several blocks from home, he sees the van again. The same van.

This time, as they say, it ain’t coincidence.

Could I have had the bad guys come out of the vehicle, guns blazing? Sure. But action isn’t the same as fear. Fear is the dread of unwanted events. See? Like the ketchup commercial says, it’s the anticipation. It’ll get you every time. And that’s what I want. I want to get you—and keep you.

As we follow Daniel throughout the story, the van becomes an increasingly important part of his life. An important unwanted part, but an important part nonetheless. And with each appearance, with each revelation of the evil that lurks with in the walls of the van, the reader becomes just a bit more aware of the challenge that Daniel is facing.

Fear. It works.

In The Lost Sheep, I used fear like a shameless hussy standing on the street corner, flashing her fishnet stockings. I want the reader to fear for Colton. I want them to fear for Callie. And when the climax occurs and Colton confronts Malak, I want the reader to finish the book with a dry mouth and sweating palms.

Did I obtain my goal? I don’t know. Only you can decide that. But I sure tried. I certainly gave you enough information about Malak to let you know what Colton was facing even if he didn’t.

And that’s fear. The dread of unwanted events.

But how does fear work? After all, do you care if one gang of drug dealers wipes out another? Does watching two drivers in a fit of road rage move you as deeply as it would if you were involved? Probably not. Why?

Because—ready for this?—you . . . don’t . . . care. There. I said it. It’s out in the open now. You don’t care! And why should you? You don’t have any skin in the game. It isn’t you or yours who’s at risk.

Fear only works when you care about the stakes. Give the reader a character they can root for and they’ll care when something happens to her. In the first chapter of Daniel’s Den, I know the reader doesn’t know enough about Daniel to care for him as they should. But he’s a human being, and knowing that a van is lurking about, following him, is enough to keep them reading. But as they get to know Daniel better, and get to know the danger that the van is hiding, the stakes are raised—and so is the fear. Then, and only then, can I began to pull harder on the hook without fear of losing my prey. When the final climactic scene occurs, I can reel them in. They ain’t going anywhere.

Fear is an emotion common to all. Not everyone will find the love of their life and not every one experiences jealousy or fits of rage. But fear is universal and its power is unrelenting.

Think not?

I’m a literary boogeyman; I’m the monster that hid under your bed, in your closet, or in the cellar. I’m the shadow on your wall. The footsteps behind you in the empty garage. I’m the phone call that comes in the middle of the night . . . and doesn’t say a word.

Remember me now?

Pepper your fiction with fear. It will serve you well. But use it wisely, my friend. Too much of this good thing will relegate your fiction to the dustbin of parody. And nobody wants that. Not your readers. And certainly not you.

Daniel's Den