A key ingredient in any good story is the spooled tension threading its way around the plot, dialogue, and narrative. The best of authors pull that line so tight you might find yourself feeling anxious whenever you put the book down or pick it up again. You want to ignore it, but a part of you is hopping from one leg to the other saying, "Oh gawd, I can see the train crash coming, but I can't look away." And, as the tension mounts, you find that, in spite of yourself, your eyes have now developed a tendency to skip ahead half a sentence or two with increasing frequency.
It's a predictable arch in many ways, although it's only after writing a couple of my own dingy little stories I'm starting to get it.
How does it work?
One. You have to understand there is a conflict somewhere. And that this conflict will yield a climax. By conflict I don't mean the celebrated battle between good and evil in its never-ending embodiment - though this does qualify, of course. A conflict could be the moral dilemma between betrayal and loyalty, the power of will versus impulsiveness, or, the car stuck in the middle of a railway crossing.
Two. The tone must be set early on. Early enough that even if the reader is not told, explicitly, he can understand it's there. In this New Yorker article by Joan Didion, she discusses Hemingway's mastery of tension and the way he employs it through the omission of certain words. How, by simply omitting 'the' from a sentence, he changes the paragraph's pacing and the reader understands the subtle foreshadowing of things to come. She says, it 'casts a chill' and indeed, that's exactly what you feel. And chills, when we are warm and comfortable, with a book in our hands, tell us a lot more than words can.
Three. The narrative must move in such a way as to reinforce the impossible-to-avoid-climax as we approach it. We are no longer omitting words to 'cast a chill' we are now alluding to the obvious and inevitable confrontation. Maybe we are spelling it out while omitting the key details a reader is sure to wonder about. It's not just technique, it's an art. It's the difference between good and great. And you want to be great, don't you?