I'm working on a revision of my novel and noticed that I mark the passage of a very brief time, of a hesitation, using a small number of descriptions that become repetitive, e.g. variations of

for a heartbeat or two

he breathed in, held the air, and let it out

What strategies can I use to find fresh ways to convey a brief hesitation or pause in action or dialog?

3 Answers 3


A character who hesitates is probably thinking about something. Maybe deliberating about the wisdom or consequences of the action. Weighing risks. Deliberating.

If you're in the hesitating character's POV, write what the character is thinking and feeling that causes the hesitation.

If you're in another character's POV, write the POV character's reaction to observing the hesitation.

  • 1
    Good observation. I think I do fine when the POV character is acting. It's a good idea to show the POV character's reaction when a non-POV is speaking. The cost of doing that is to slow down the action (new paragraph for POV, new paragraph to get back to the speaker/actor).
    – Eric J.
    Dec 14, 2016 at 1:39
  • Yeah. So here's another technique. Zoom in on some tiny, observable, telltale sign of the hesitating character's internal conflict: Hand flexing, finger shaking, muscles bunching, lip quivering, eyes blinking, color rising in cheeks, sweat dripping, pulse pulsing, … Because it's a small detail, you can write it in a few words between the acting character's actions. Dec 14, 2016 at 2:39

If you have so many pauses that you feel the need to vary how you describe them, chances are that the reason it feels repetitive is that you are reaching for the same device too many times, not that you are always describing it the same way.

The reason could be that you have fallen into the trap of TV writing -- writing a scene as you imagine it would be acted on TV. But this never works. The screen is a synchronous medium. A scene happens in real time and there are usually several things going on at once -- one actor is reacting while another is speaking while other things are happening in the background. A pause is a dramatic device that an actor can use to good effect because it takes real time on screen. The viewer has to wait on the pause (though they may have other stuff to look at while it goes on).

A book, by contrast, is asynchronous. A scene unfolds at the pace that the reader reads, not the pace that the action occurs, and if there are multiple things going on simultaneously, the reader reads them one by one out of time sequence. A pause is generally not dramatic because it takes no more time than it takes to read the words. There may be times when it is appropriate to say that a character paused, but if you go to that well very often it is just going to sound repetitive and eventually silly, because it simply does not have the effect in a book that it has on the screen.

Book storytelling is not screen storytelling written down. It is a very different art form with very different strengths and weaknesses. Things like pause, which take up actual time, have a high impact in a synchronous media. They are weak in an asynchronous media. There are other ways to show hesitation on the page -- you can show it in non-committal or evasive speech for instance. You should use the tools that your chosen medium provides.

Don't expect that finding different ways to phrase things that are not working is suddenly going to make them work. The magic is not in the phrasing, but in the correct juxtaposition of story elements. The correct juxtaposition of story elements to achieve a specific effect is different between media. You have to use the right storytelling techniques for the media you are working in.

  • 1
    That's a wonderful way to think about it. I'll keep your advice in mind during this editing pass.
    – Eric J.
    Dec 14, 2016 at 4:12

1. Punctuation


I'm working on a revision of my novel.


I'm working. On a revision of my novel.

Other pauses: ; : , –

2. Layout / Whitespace


I'm working on a revision of my novel.


I'm working

                     on a revision of my novel.

You can only do this once in a book, unless you use experimental layout throughout. You also have to be careful not make this look like an editing error. I used something like this once when the protagonist first saw his love interest – the impact on him was such that even the narration stopped.

3. Description

Describe what happens while your character hesitates.


I'm working on a revision of my novel and noticed that I mark the passage ...


I'm working on a revision of my novel when my fingers stop typing, my eyes unfocus, my body relaxes, and my gaze slowly floats upward and out the window. Photons still hit my eyes and sound waves break on my eardrum, but these sensations don't register in my mind. I am still and empty, not thinking, with the world passing through me as if I had disappeared. Time passes. Then my gaze focusses outward again, I see the sun on the leaves outside, then look back down to my laptop. I notice that I mark the passage ...

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