“The tall, blonde man turned, leaned against the railing and stared up at Harold. He jabbed his companion with his elbow and laughed. Then he raised his right hand, pointed two fingers like he would a pistol, and pretended to shoot.”
Delicious foreshadowing, isn’t it? That’s a quote from W.D. Valgardson’s A Matter of Balance. The entire short story is bloated with suspense – it’s tense, constantly in a jumbled motion, and gives readers that jittery “monster in the closet is coming to get you” feeling...and that’s why it’s so darn good.
Suspense can come in trillions of unique or traditional forms that can each leave lasting affects, and usually are what the reader will remember afterwards.
Some of the best examples of suspense are those that are done subtly, with a few hints or clues given but nothing more. Everything else comes naturally. Paranoia can be extraordinarily helpful because it immediately sets the mood.
In The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, another short story with a different take of suspense, the protagonists have a designated fear that is unrealistic to us because it does not exist in our world – not yet, that is. An incredible amount of foreshadowing is used so that every reader gets that eerie sixth sense that something bad is going to happen. That foreshadowing then comes true.
Everything is set up to twist and become one with the sharp intakes (because gasps are so unmanly!). The foreshadowing leads us to think...it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, or is it? — and then it happens.
The second form of suspense in The Veldt prays on our own fear. It focuses on how the protagonists are uneasy about one thing — but it’s the mentioning of something much scarier to any reader that leaves an impact because it’s always a secret worry – that our children will love something else more than us – and adds to the already augmenting suspense because it’s praying on our own fears and worries on the side. Then the question arises: if that’s a side plot, then what could possibly be the main one?
The best way to set up suspense is to feel the suspense as you’re writing it. Whether a short story, which usually involve more in-depth emotions, or a chapter or two in a novel, the suspense has to be heartfelt to the point where you can taste it even as your hand dashes across the keyboard or the paper. You know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s each moment leading up to the climax — the anticipation of it all — that sweetens the finale that much more.