My main difficulty when I switched from writing plays to novels was my use of pauses. It took me a long time to figure out that the time sense of a person conversing in real life or watching a play is very different from the time sense of someone reading prose. And that has repercussions in novel writing and the use of punctuation.
What’s Happening in Life?
In plays, movies and the reality they are imitating, a pause happens because something else is going on. Someone is thinking, reacting, showing emotion, waiting for attention or performing some task. Often the pause is used to heighten the emotion while we wait for something important to happen (see ‘Earned Pauses’ at the end of this article).
What’s Happening in a Book?
When readers come to a pause, unless the author specifically tells them otherwise, nothing is going on. Remember that. No matter how meaningful and important the pause is to the author, for readers it just slows down the action in their imaginations. And when there are too many pauses, no matter how much is going on in the story, the action drags. This is perhaps part of the reason commas are out of style these days. They slow down the flow of action.
So beware of the pauses you put in your writing to make your meaning clear. Unless they are used carefully, they are action stoppers and emotion droppers. Below are the usual literary signals for a pause, starting with the shortest and growing longer (and thus more dangerous). Use them with caution.
The comma is the shortest, showing where a speaker would pause for meaning. So while we should follow standard rules most of the time because readers are familiar with them, when you get to a complex situation where you’re not sure which rule to apply, say the sentence out loud and see if you pause. If so, put in the comma. If not — or if you are pausing for a gesture or facial expression — then a comma is not the tool for the job.
A period stops for fractionally longer than a comma and indicates a change of idea. Because of that change, a series of short, choppy sentences often makes the action seem to go faster than one sentence with a lot of commas. So more, longer, period pauses make the story go faster than less, shorter, comma pauses. Go figure. (And notice how slowly you had to read that last sentence because of all the commas.)
Parentheses, M-dash, Semicolon and Colon
These are all practical signals to indicate pauses a speaker would put in to break a sentence into smaller bits, usually to indicate slight changes in idea. They seldom have anything to do with emotion, but they are still pauses that slow down the action and distract readers and break the flow of emotions they are feeling. If you are developing a rise in tension, stopping for a parenthetical side trip is probably a bad idea anyway.
The ellipsis is a longer pause, put in for two main reasons.
1. It shows that the speaker has actually stopped speaking, usually because something is happening or because something is supposed to be happening in the reader’s imagination. As long as there really is something happening, this works fine. People even go so far as “…well…” to show indecision. But “well” also indicates a pause, so that usage can be overdone very easily. Like once a chapter is too much.
2. Another reason for an ellipsis is that it shows specific words are missing. If that is so, it creates a pause while the reader supplies the words or idea left out. In this case, the reader is occupied with relating to the action of the story and does not notice an interruption.
3. The third reason is that words are left out, usually from a quote, because they are not important. When this happens in nonfiction, the ellipsis does not indicate a pause in the reader’s mind.
“He paused,” “Everyone froze,” “She paused a moment,” “There was silence in the room,”
These all indicate an even longer wait because there is a specifically stated pause of all action in the story. When you include it in the narration, you have the freedom to set it up and make sure readers know what causes it, how long it continues, what ends it and other details.
By the way, “she paused a moment,” is probably redundant; a moment is how long a pause usually is. In fact, go through your manuscript and check for every time you use “a moment.” You might be surprised.
Which leads us to the bonus gem you get for reading all the way to the bottom.
The Earned Pause
This is a technical term in acting, based on the path of an emotion. As we lead up to a climax point, the emotion rises. If there is a pause at the climax, and if we are in an emotional state where we deeply desire something to happen (or not to happen), our tension actually continues to rise after the speaking stops. For a while. The technique of the actor is to know when that emotion peaks and to make sure something else happens at or before that point, and definitely not after it.
So the rule is that the stronger the emotion leading up to a pause, the longer the pause can be and still add to the tension of the scene.
It stands to reason, then, that simplifying your sentence structure to use less punctuation will enhance the flow of your action, and the punctuation indicating longer pauses should be used the least.