Please welcome our fellow member, Paula Messina, back to the blog today...
The Pause that
by Paula Messina
On Christmas Eve last year, the priest
celebrating Mass never came up for air. During the responsive prayers, he spoke
immediately after the lector. He was consistently a beat or two ahead of the
He galloped through his sermon as if the steeple
were collapsing. I had no idea what his sermon was about. I stopped listening.
The priest failed to pause.
Pauses are part of pacing. They create mood,
emphasize a point, and clarify phrases and sentences. They reveal character.
Above all, pauses make room for the audience.
The placement of the text on the page creates
visual pauses. Contrast the abundance of pauses in poetry with the more
niggardly use in prose. Fooling around with that formatting creates a whole new
world. For example, here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the loss of
his dear Fanny, “The Cross of Snow.”
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face — the face of one
long dead —
Looks at me from the wall,
where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire
To its repose; nor can in books
The legend of a life more
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep
Displays a cross of snow upon
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through
all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since
the day she died.
Now read the same poem as prose:
In the long, sleepless watches of the night, a
gentle face — the face of one long dead — looks at me from the wall, where
round its head the night-lamp casts a halo of pale light. Here in this room she
died; and soul more white never through martyrdom of fire was led to its
repose; nor can in books be read the legend of a life more benedight. There is
a mountain in the distant West that, sun-defying, in its deep ravines displays
a cross of snow upon its side. Such is the cross I wear upon my breast these
eighteen years, through all the changing scenes and seasons, changeless since
the day she died.
Not the same, is it?
Punctuation creates pauses. Sentence length, paragraphs,
and white space do as well. You might not think of these as pauses, but they
are. White space, the placement of words on the page, is a pause.
shape character. One with a folksy manner might speak slowly with few words and
plenty of dead air. This might drive another character crazy a la the
interviewer in Bob and Ray’s classic sketch, “Slow Talkers of America.” A
maniacal character might spill his words out in one long rush and leave the
listener or the reader confused and irritated.
The flip side of a pause is no space. For
example, a character chased by a bear isn’t about to slow down for anything.
Gasping for air, he’s bent on breaking the sound barrier.
Once up that tree, he slows down and catches his
And so does the reader.
Pauses are important when reading aloud as well,
and for all the reasons stated, but they also are vital to the performer.
Breathing or pauses help with nerves as well as create pacing, emphasis, drama,
humor, suspense. Breathing aids projection. After all, without air it’s
impossible to speak.
Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest orator
of the twentieth century, knew the importance of pauses. In her article, “Pace,
Pause & Silence: Creating Emphasis & Suspense in Your Writing,” Lorelei
Lingard notes that “Winston Churchill is said to have annotated his speeches
with reminders to himself about rhythm and tempo—when to be silent, when to
appear to struggle for the right word, when to pause for audience response
(whether heckling or applause).
“Like other effective public speakers, Churchill
knew that what is not said impacts the audience as much as what is.
A pregnant pause whets appetites.”
Skills for Every Occasion, Peter L. Miller says, “Besides allowing you to
fill your lungs with air, pausing also allows the audience to absorb the spoken
words and create pictures in their own minds...and adds emphasis to your last
“But,” you object,
“pauses, too much white space, too many commas slow down the action for the
Gordon A. Long
agrees with you and says, “When readers come to a pause, unless the author
specifically tells them otherwise, nothing is going on.” I disagree.
Poorly placed pauses can slow down the action, but using them wisely enhances
the audience’s experience. The right pause at the right place allows the
reader’s imagination to take flight.
Lingard says, “Prose
need not always be a fast-flowing faucet, and readers need not be
continuously engulfed. Pacing,
pause and silence are important tools in your writing. Knowing the
conventions of punctuation and syntax allows you to bend them strategically in
order to both help your readers pay attention and enlist them into productive
engagement with your ideas.
Use pauses deliberately and judiciously. Your
writing will benefit and so will your readers.
A good illustration is the opening to Dicken’s A
Tale of Two Cities. It is essentially one long sentence.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of
times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the
epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of
despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all
going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the
period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest
authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the
superlative degree of comparison only.
punctuation changes the rhythm.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of
times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the
epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity....
You get the idea.
It’s a subtle difference, but the periods create a bigger break, a longer
pause. The original is driven, a quality that is diminished by changing the
commas to periods.
Of course, Dickens
and his Victorian cohorts were masters of expansive pauses, leaving the reader
lusting for more by serializing their works.
As was that famous
tease Scheherazade. In One Thousand and One Nights, she used
cliff-hangers to avert her overhanging execution. Her husband, King Shahryar,
cannot kill her because he is dying to know what happens next. And Scheherazade
ain’t telling until tomorrow night.
The most important
reason to use pauses is that they create space for the reader. The reason we
write is to communicate with our audience. That can only happen when we allow
the reader enough space to really take in our words. Churchill understood this.
That was why he spent such care crafting his speeches. Writing, no matter how
beautiful, is useless if it doesn’t connect with the reader.
The priest on
Christmas Eve failed to connect with the congregation because he left no space.
The Mass itself has many pauses. For example, after the sermon, the priest sits
for several moments in silence, giving both him and the congregation time to
digest what was said. On that particular Christmas Eve, the priest failed to
effectively employ pauses to connect with the congregation. It was an
You now know better.
Go forth and pause.
Paula Messina ©2023
When Paula Messina isn't writing, she explores
the United States' first public beach. She writes fiction and non-fiction and
is working on a novel set in Boston during World War II.