The use of the word ‘pause’ elicits a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard response from me. Why would such an innocent word spur such a visceral response? Because people never pause. A pause indicates to me that a character freezes in place. They don’t move, they don’t think, they just, well, pause. In my experience, this never happens. But, how do we show that the character is pausing without using the word? It’s really quite simple. They do something while the pause is taking place. Maybe they have a nervous habit like tapping a foot or clasping their hands.
Maybe the character has something they can’t control, like the annoying tic around an eye or finger. Maybe, they’re staring at something without seeing it. Maybe a thought runs through their mind, like how good the pizza was they’d just finished or how much they hate cilantro. The list of what a character could do during a pause is virtually endless. When we use the word pause, we’re discarding an opportunity to add color and depth to the character. The word hides detail that, IMHO, breathes life into a story. But, what about a character that doesn’t do anything? What if the character just freezes in place? What then? If this happens, why not say it? Why not say, ‘Mike froze in place.’ instead of using the word ‘paused?’ Even if the character is doing nothing, they’re doing something. Removing the ‘pause’ from writing allows the writer to show what the character does during the pause, even if it’s doing nothing.
Another writer told a shocking tale of a seventeen-year old who just found out that his girlfriend was pregnant for him, and that her father was holding a loaded gun to his head. In fact, this angry father eventually pulled the trigger and shot him in the leg. Wouldn’t the character have good cause to pause?
I considered this interesting scenarip for a while, before I gave a response.
First, I wrote, what was he (the character) doing as he paused? Was there a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw the test strip? Did his mouth go dry? Did his heart race? The character doesn’t have to speak to do something in the pause. Did a vision of Daddy with his militia buddies flash through his mind while her father inserted a magazine into his AR-15 and racked a round into the chamber? Any or all of these things could be could be going through the character’s head as he reflected. Maybe, he staggered back a step or two. Maybe he wrinkled his nose at the scent of burnt flesh before he checked his wound. Maybe he thought his shirt was ruined and this was the special shirt he’d bought at the Rolling Stones concert during their last performance in his state.
Of course, pauses can live and I have no problem with that. My complaint is with the use of the word. I want to see what’s behind the pause, not the word itself. One could make a case that using the word ‘pause’ is akin to using an adverb in that they both hide detail. It’s my admittedly prejudiced opinion that showing what the character does during the pause adds more depth and color to the character than the five letters contained in the word could ever do. Even standing there, gobsmacked and unable to think or move, is doing something.
William R. Bartlett, or Bill, as he likes to be called, has been writing the Word from Dad feature in KC Parent magazine for over ten years and has a novel, Nude, Light Housekeeping, and a nonfiction work, The Writer’s Thumbnail Guide to Firearms, in progress with plans to publish both this year. He has attended higher education but
learned more about writing from his years of participation in the Internet Writing Workshop, where he’s the admin for the Lovestory list, and from his voracious appetite for reading. He lives close to the center of the United States in the Kansas City area, along with his Fayre and Gracious Wyffe of twenty-three years, his two autistic sons, a dog, and a rather pompous cat.
Picture credit: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash