Using the dramatic pause
Updated: Nov 27, 2018
About a hundred years ago (or so it seems) I earned a Master’s Degree in theater, specifically in directing. I have a tendency to write much like I used to direct. I was reminded of this last week when my friend and fellow thespian, John Rakestraw, told a story about watching a man and woman in a heated argument. As the argument escalated, the man screamed at the woman, calling her by a despicable name. John said he just watched, thinking, “Oh, oh!” But instead of retaliating, the woman paused, and then just began to laugh.
I suspect what made the moment memorable was not the woman’s response, but the pause that preceded it. Why? Because had the woman begun to laugh immediately, it would have broken the moment, and most likely, John would have dismissed it. Adding the dramatic pause heightened the suspense, making her laughter merely the period at the end of the sentence.
The dramatic pause has its origin in the theater, where it’s used to create emphasis, suspense, clarity, even comedy (referred to as the “pregnant” pause). I used dramatic pauses a lot when I directed -- through blocking, character expressions, movement, and dialogue. Picture Sherlock Holmes crossing the stage as he ruminates about a case. He’s just about to name the killer when he pauses, and then turns. Everyone holds their breath, leans in, or otherwise waits anxiously for what he’s about to say.
How can we create dramatic pauses like that when we write? It’s simple. We show our characters doing the same thing. In my recent eBook, “Mass Murder”, Detective Giorgio Salvatori is just about to go for ice cream with his family, when two officers approach him in the parking lot to report the murder of a young woman. Salvatori is off-duty and clearly not interested, but they persist until he agrees to go with them. But something is amiss.
Giorgio sighed, knowing he couldn’t avoid this one. “Let me tell Angie. We’ll take Rocky’s truck.” “There’s one more thing,” Maxwell said, glancing a second time at Samson. “The tip of her little finger was cut off. We can’t find it.”
The pause is accomplished through a combination of dialogue and action. Giorgio is about to leave when Officer Maxwell stops him. That’s the set up. Then, before Maxwell finishes his sentence, he glances at Officer Samson. That’s the pause. And it’s exactly how I would have done it on stage. There is a second “implied” pause created by the following punctuation (comma). Consider the difference if I had used a conjunction instead.
“The tip of her little finger was cut off, and we can’t find it.”
Without the period, we don’t pause. The two sentences run together and the fact the police can’t find the severed appendage loses importance. Did I use the period purposely before? You bet, because I wanted the reader to believe it was difficult for the officer to publicly talk about having to look for a severed finger.
Like everything else, dramatic pauses should be used sparingly. You don’t want readers to say, “Oh, God, here comes another one.” Use it when you want to call attention to something, or make something more important. For the right reasons, dramatic pauses can add depth and flavor and help your reader to visualize your story.
Here’s another example from my short story, “The Boathouse”. Angela has come to visit a grandfather she hasn’t seen for twenty-five years. She is drawn to the boathouse that night where she sees something unusual. She rushes back to the kitchen where her grandfather is cooking dinner to ask him about it and mentions the boat ramp.
“What’s the matter?” He raised the large knife above his head. “The boat ramp was torn down fifteen years ago. Don't go back to the boathouse.” With a loud whack, he chopped the head of lettuce in half with a single stroke. “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes.”
Here, the pause is created through the action of chopping the head of lettuce in half. Again, the dialogue helps create the tension because he’s clearly warning her to stay away. Then, he changes the subject. But had I tried to do it all through dialogue, much of the tension and foreshadowing of dark things to come would have been lost. Consider this:
“What’s the matter?” “The boat ramp was torn down fifteen years ago. Don't go back to the boathouse. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes.”
The action of whacking the lettuce in half creates a pause and adds palpable tension (because it is a knife after all). But it also sends a message to the reader that something is very wrong here.
Do you know where you are creating pauses in your stories and where you’re not? Make it a conscious choice and you’ll notice a positive difference.