All the Pauses

The human being is a cautious animal. In times of danger, we make sure the coast is clear before climbing down from our primeval tree. The hesitance in our actions stems also from being social creatures. Most people think before they speak, taking into account the mood or importance of the person speaking to them, among other considerations.

Given this basic instinct, it is not surprising that many writers fill their novels with pauses. Phrases like “for a moment,” “for a few minutes” (an extremely long time, by the way), or “he hesitated” occur frequently, and why should they not? A good novel is filled with unexpected events, and a lead character has to react to the surprise in a believable fashion. I have edited novels in which people hesitate multiple times within the same conversation.

For all of its realism, though, a novel can become weighted down by the repetition of this device. It falls in the same category of too often used words such as stare, turn, and yell. One of the tasks in writing is keeping vocabulary fresh, and the synonyms for “hesitate” are fairly limited. Many of them are colloquialisms that may not be appropriate for your characters. You won’t find much ground to plow there, in other words.

The best way to avoid overuse is to raise your purview above physical actions. Hesitation is a concrete manifestation of silence through time. So, how can you suspend time in a way that is not physical?

You can cover topics that take time to work through. A simple example is: “At first she wasn’t sure how to respond. Such an idea had never occurred to her.” There is the pause needed to couch what she says next. Once you enter the personal realm—note that these sentences describe a mental, not physical, state—you have opened the gate to entire acres of possibilities.

Let’s rephrase that example: “How dare he say something like that? To her, of all people.” Again, the sentences frame what she will say next. But notice that hesitation is no longer part of the equation at all. You don’t need it. If a character is confronted by a surprise, you tell the reader how she reacts to it. You’ve raised your game to another level entirely.

Exercise: Do a global search in your manuscript for the words “pause” and “hesitate.” Your goal is to eliminate two-thirds of them. When you find an instance, read the material just before and after it. What would that character most likely feel, given those circumstances? Then go one step further. Mull over the topic being raised. Could you relate the character’s feelings to what he experienced earlier in the novel about a similar topic?

“On the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the Dawn of Victory, sat down to wait, and waiting—died!”
—George W. Cecil

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.