This week: Pause and EffectEdited by: Jayne
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I'm back for another guest edition of the Drama newsletter. Normally you'll find me in the Contests & Activities and Mystery sections.
You pause...and then keep going. The end.
Hold that thought.
There’s more to the dramatic pause than simply stopping. Pauses vary depending on whether you’re speaking or writing. It depends on what you’re saying, who you’re saying it to, and the type of pause you’re going for. Across the entire genre spectrum, it depends on what you want to communicate to your audience.
For something that says nothing, it says a heck of a lot.
What’s the Point of The Pause?
A pause is simply a break in speaking or a moment of silence. It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to master, but used at the wrong moment, it’s a disaster.
Think back to your school days and class presentations. A prolonged pause in someone’s presentation made everyone uncomfortable, because we worried they’d lost their place or forgotten their script. It’s disconcerting and hard for the audience to get back into the groove. It’s the same thing with your readers.
Improperly handled pauses can break the flow and pull the reader out of the story or poem. However, this may not hold true if your character is pausing at the wrong moment because of an established quirk. It also works if you want your character to appear scatterbrained or as though they lost their train of thought.
In poetry, a pause at the wrong spot will set your reader off-kilter. Struggling to establish the rhythm means they’re not focusing on the message. Pausing in the wrong spot during a reading is the school presentation scenario all over again.
Doing these things purposefully is one thing. The problem is many writers do it accidentally.
Powerful, Plentiful Pauses
There’s no shortage of fancy titles for the plethora of pauses. In the discipline of linguistics, these differentiations get complicated. At a basic level, there’s the silent pause and the filled pause, the latter containing “um, ah, er” etc. A juncture pause marks a transition between sounds (re-seed has a pause where recede does not) and differs from a hesitation pause. Hesitation pauses can include the silent and filled pause, but also include false starts and repetition of words.
Think of the false start in this light: “I can’t believe...I can’t believe you did that.” Repetition is often part of children’s dialogue, such as “it was a really, really, really big dog!”. Other times, it’s a way to search for a word, often to comedic effect:
“Don’t you just love the color?”
“It is certainly very, very blue.”
Pauses can be planned (before complex words/thoughts) or timed (after something is said). This is important when performing poetry or providing script directions. It’s all about timing and rhythm.
Pausing in Prose
There are a few different ways you can pause your character’s thoughts and actions, and a few different tools you can use to pause prose depending on what you’re writing.
Before getting too attached to your favorite, remember this is Writerland. Like many things in the writer’s world, we debate proper use of the punctuation for pauses. People argue about what’s still in fashion and what’s fuddy-duddy. Old-school grammar and writing gurus butt heads with the younger ones. Things change.
Somewhere there’s probably a Writer’s Rumble,
but nobody’s allowed to talk about it.
That’s the only rule they agree on.
Ellipses are the adorable little dots that walk you to the second half of a thought. They’re a somewhat modern use of the punctuation. By modern, I mean not really modern at all, but there’s still those that cling to ellipses being used to only indicate omitted material.
Why not…both? Most fiction audiences understand the modern use, and irritated or not, most people know the dual use.
The Dreaded Dashes. Can you use all the dashes—hyphen, en dash, em dash—for a dramatic pause?
Em dashes are what you’re looking for. They place a break in a sentence, indicate extraneous information, create emphasis, and show a change in thought. In the right hands, they can do the job of the comma, colon, semicolon, and parentheses.
Em dashes are easy to overdo—especially in longer work. Spaces before and after the em dash are a style choice. And no, em dashes do not have to come in pairs.
Importantly—and especially in dialogue—they demonstrate a dropped or picked-up sentence. It’s often used when someone or something interrupts a character.
These three pieces of dialogue are all about the same thing, but you can see the subtle difference conveyed in each:
“We should go to the cafe and—”
“What’s wrong? Wait, is that—a spaceship?”
“Yes, it is—of course it is—but why is it here?”
You can use dashes here on WdC using WritingML.
Commas. Commas Everywhere.
There are plenty of good reasons to go with a comma. There’s just as many rules to go along with it. When it comes to pauses, commas are particularly strong in poetry.
For dialogue, it sets off extraneous information without the flair of the em dash. It’s low on the scale of intrusiveness, and certainly not an attention-seeker. The question is whether you want or need more punch.
Capitalize on Colons and Semicolons
Think of a colon like a mom’s reaction when you don’t clean your room. It demands your immediate attention to the issue at hand: Hey—listen up. They work in both prose and poetry.
Death is a curtain call:
We are reborn,
and rehearsals begin anew.
Semicolons are gorgeous and flexible punctuation. They’re great in poetry, where brevity counts as much as clarity, removing filler but keeping context intact. Providing a link between two distinct sentences without the explanation, it allows your reader just a whisper of a beat longer than a comma, but without the hard stop of a period. It’s great for line breaks, allowing your reader to immediately connect two lines. It’s also great for caesura.
Mother Earth claws the back of man; she has no pity.
The trick with the semicolon is limiting its use. It’s powerful, yes. It’s also annoying if you overdo it, and it’s pretentious if you do so on purpose.
Deleted Dots and Dashes.
With poetry, sometimes the lack of punctuation can do more than any punctuation will be able to. Be careful with this, though. A common critique of punctuationless poets is they can come across as lazy writers. Your style is up to you, but don’t string lines together for the sake of it. If punctuation will strengthen your piece, use it.
You put a comma in,
You take a comma out,
You put a comma in
and don’t know what your poem’s about.
You do up some revisions,
Now the whole thing’s upside-down,
That’s what writing’s all about.
The point of the pause is to convey something about your character or to punctuate for effect. A pause fills in for emotions, motivations, or thoughts. It can give the audience time to breathe and synthesize.
Don’t underestimate your pauses. There’s a reason they’re dramatic.
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