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