Pressing Play Instead of Pause

Today, I’d like to pull out one item in my veritable cornucopia of editorial pet peeves: THE PAUSE.

As in: “’I…I don’t know how to tell you this.” He paused. “But I guess I just have to say it.’”

Used to imply a temporary suspension of action or dialogue in a scene, the pause is often inserted in an effort to build tension or to create a rhythmic break so that important moments don’t zip by with too little traction. It’s a comfortable trope, employed so often that its use has become transparent to us as readers and as writers.

However, it’s always struck me as being of little value. It doesn’t, really, say much of anything.  It’s a neutral placeholder, and that’s about it. Were we to take it literally, the sense we’d have is of a person frozen in time, not speaking or moving or thinking (if it’s a viewpoint character) anything. Just, well, STOPPED.

So, why not make that pause do a little WORK in the scene? Use that enforced beat as an opportunity to give us a bit of visual detail, some sense of the emotion implied in that moment, some keen observation on the part of the person doing the observing?

Examples:

“’I…I don’t know how to tell you this.” He traced the rim of his wineglass, seemingly fascinated by its contents. “But I guess I just have to say it.’”

Or: 

“’I…I don’t know how to tell you this.” He looked away for a moment, and Lydia followed his gaze to the large picture window and the grey expanse of the ocean beyond it. “But I guess I just have to say it.’” 

Or: 

“’I…I don’t know how to tell you this.” He snapped his menu shut. “But I guess I just have to say it.’”

Or, of course, any of the much more artful versions you’ll create on your own!

The point is that a pause presents an opportunity for content, for meaning. It allows you to take that “nothing” and make it into SOMETHING. There are no throwaway moments in good writing. So, press play instead of pause, and add value to your scene and to your story. The reader’s experience will be richer for it. 

-- Lorin