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How do we handle pauses in a dialogue?

Let's say that character A speaks and then after a pause character A speaks again. How should we separate the two moments, should we write two lines of dialogues or should we cut the two lines of dialogues with a brief description?

For example:

"Was the computer software hacked?"

"No, it was a bug caused by legacy software. Any other question?"

"No? Ok, see you on Thursday."

"Bye"

Bolded parts represent lines spoken by the same person.

  • 14
    I upvoted the correct (accepted) answer, however I would also like to point out that a closing quote followed by an opening quote in a new paragraph is taken to mean that another speaker has begun speaking. To continue speech in a new paragraph without changing speakers, leave the closing quote off of the end of all but the last paragraph. – Dúthomhas Jul 8 at 6:36
  • Just let the other guy say "No I don't have any more questions.". – Tvde1 Jul 8 at 15:31
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    @Dúthomhas I used that knowledge to count the number of pages that John Galt had an uninterrupted monologue in Atlas Shrugged. It's a pretty funny exercise when you reach the 50 page mark and realize it's still going. – JMac Jul 8 at 18:54
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    See this related question over on English.SE, "Why does the multi-paragraph quotation rule exist?" Specifically, this answer – BruceWayne Jul 9 at 17:37
  • @Mazura On the other hand, I've read TV screenplays and Radio Scripts with more non-dialogue description in them than this example - Talking Heads (Warning: TVTropes) can be confusing and off-putting for readers, especially if there are no proper indications of which character says which sentence. Hopefully it's just an artefact of the extract given, and not indicative of the entire prose. – Chronocidal Jul 10 at 7:52
66

You indicate pauses with action, even mentioning the pause. (Or, as Cyn says in comment, with other exposition or thoughts).

Chad said, "Was the computer software hacked?"

Bryce shook his head. "No, it was a bug caused by legacy software. Any other question?"

Bryce waited for somebody to answer, but everyone averted their eyes, or looked at the wall clock.

"No? Okay, see you on Thursday."

Noise filled the room as students gathered their books and belongings, and began to wander into the hall. He waited for Alice to pass, his star pupil. She caught his eye.

She said, "Bye."

Bryce smiled and nodded to her.

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    There's really no other answer than this one. Though instead of action you can put in the character's thoughts, another character's thoughts, or description. But action is usually better. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 7 at 23:15
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    I assumed this was a business meeting rather than a class. – jpmc26 Jul 9 at 1:04
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    @jpmc26 Okay, you are just illustrating the problem, then! As a person that has spent much of their life in college (12 years a student, then professor, now research scientist) I thought it sounded like a class, with unresponsive students at the end of a lecture. To you it sounded like a business meeting. The scene is under-described, without context we cannot tell what is going on. The author has left too much to our imagination. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 9 at 10:19
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Amadeus's solution is a good one, but if you really want to keep these sentences within dialogue, without filling the gaps with anything else, you can also use ellipses to indicate pauses within speech. This is especially often used in phone conversations where the reader is only given one side of the conversation:

"Hello? ... No, it was a bug caused by legacy software. Any other question? ... No? OK, see you on Thursday. ... Bye."

This isn't exactly your situation, as the "..." doesn't represent a moment when someone else is talking but rather a moment when nobody is talking. But the solution can still work pretty well for you too:

"Was the computer software hacked?"

"No, it was a bug caused by legacy software. Any other question? ... No? OK, see you on Thursday."

"Bye."

  • Punctuation is awesome for expressing pauses of various length! I prefer an em dash in these situations, but whatever works is fine. – Logan Pickup Jul 10 at 3:37
3

Insert a dialogue tag in the middle. After that, the juxtaposition of phrase (or the continuing after a question without indication of hurry or rudeness) implies the pause.

"Was the computer software hacked?"

"No, it was a bug caused by legacy software. Any other question?" Kyle asked. "No? Ok, see you on Thursday."

"Bye"

You are delaying your tag longer than you normally would (the first or second 'breath'), but it is a fine tool if used sporadically.

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All of these answers are correct. I think this is a more technical way to look at it, which may give you some better direction:

All of dialogue has a rhythm, and people reading the dialogue will infer the rhythm from what is on the page. If this were music, the pauses would be demarcated by rests between notes, and they indicate a certain length. In language, the word choice and phrasing have their own rhythm. Longer syllables are slower; short indicative or imperative sentences without filler can be snappier, and they all take some amount of time. Think about the characters' speech as the music notes, and the pauses as the rests, and make the dialogue tags or descriptive actions between lines of dialogue take the same time to read as you want the pause to last.

Those pauses are sometimes called beats, as in this article (which is about writing interesting ones):

How to amp up the dialogue with emotional beats

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