Entering a dark place

A common horror situation is to go into the threat’s lair. The decision is made to enter, you follow a winding path, and eventually arrive. No monster yet, but the place is creepy. 

Here is a snippet from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As with the Coraline snippet, there’s no rushing to the reveal; as Harry goes down the path, a lot of short sentences are used to build the suspense, swapping between observation and reaction. 

But the language J.K. Rowling uses in this snippet is more elaborate—‘inject’, ‘straining’, ‘shaking’, ‘tingling’, ‘dreaded’, ‘crept’, ‘entwined’, and ‘glinting’. Nothing about this is ordinary from Harry’s point of view, so the language is vivid to reflect his fear.

“See you in a bit,” said Harry, trying to inject some confidence into his shaking voice.

And he set off alone past the giant snake skin.

Soon the distant noise of Ron straining to shift the rocks was gone. The tunnel turned and turned again. Every nerve in Harry's body was tingling unpleasantly. He wanted the tunnel to end, yet dreaded what he'd find when it did. And then, at last, as he crept around yet another bend, he saw a solid wall ahead on which two entwined serpents were carved, their eyes set with great, glinting emeralds.

Harry approached, his throat very dry. There was no need to pretend these stone snakes were real; their eyes looked strangely alive.

If you know the story, you know that Harry hasn’t quite reached the lair yet. 

Spoiler-free version: Harry’s been through rooms, puzzles and passageways before this point. Once he gets past the serpent wall, he then goes down a long chamber which arrives at the lair. Then there’s a new problem. Then a bigger problem. Then an even bigger one. At each stage there’s a point of no return, and the threats escalate until they reach their peak.

This is how suspense works. 

There is a real skill to keeping suspense going because, at each step, you have to keep your readers’ interest. If it goes on too long, or the tension doesn’t rise, or your readers get bored, you lose that feeling of dread that you were working for.

Here’s an example using the same style as the snippet, using the image as a starting point.

Dan strained to get the fallen tree off his leg. “It’ll be okay. I-I’ll get help,” said Zoe, trying to sound braver than she felt.

And she ran down the dark forest path.

The path weaved and turned. Zoe's mind was buzzing frantically. It split again and again. She hoped she wasn’t lost, that she’d find help soon. More splits. The path became smaller, darker. This was a mistake. Would she find help? Could she find Dan again, even if she did? Her blood drained, but she pressed on, hope evaporating. She finally was about to turn back when a turn in the path revealed an old, gnarled cottage nestled in the forest’s heart.

As Zoe approached, she could have sworn it moved. The cottage seemed to expand and contract, like it was breathing.

Time for you to have a try. 

Make a scene where your protagonist is alone, they’re scared, and the threat could come from anywhere. They commit to moving, but things are slowing them down, which intensifies the fear. Then they reach something that might be worse!

Write a small passage where your protagonist enters a dark place, using the picture as a starting point. Build suspense with short sentences and reactions. Use vivid language to convey the fear.