Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Pauses for thought

Gaps and pauses are odd things in fiction, when you think about it. On one level, they’re absolutely essential to timing and rhythm in writing, whether it’s the characters taking some downtime before the next big event, or literally the words ‘he paused for a moment before speaking again’ in the middle of a conversation. They break things up, slow them down, stretch them out.

And yet, if you think about it, there are no pauses. Not really. Oh, maybe there are divisions, with sentences and paragraphs and chapters, but those are gaps meant to be spanned. Writing, meanwhile, is continuous and flowing, because that is simply the way we read. When I write, ‘nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen for a good five minutes’ do you pause for five minutes to get the full effect? Of course you don’t. The pauses, like so much in fiction, don’t really exist. There’s probably a clue in the word fiction, now I think about it.

But what do they do? Mostly, I think they draw attention. A pause isn’t a real break in time, except in the sense of the second it takes to process the words before going on to the next sentence. Instead, it’s a symbol, or a flag, or a big flashing neon sign that we know means either something significant has just happened, or something significant will. Occasionally, it’s a way of showing a character’s need to think about things, or a way of showing embarrassment.

It is never just a pause though.

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