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I’m having issues ‘cause while I’m in the process of writing I think my style has enough length to it, but when I go back and read my work it feels extremely fast. A scene I expected to take me fifteen minutes to read is over as soon as it started. Especially with dialogue. I enjoy writing dialogue so much—- when I hear it in my head, there’s so many beautiful pauses, like the way an actor will let silence hang for dramatic effect—- but apparently I’m not translating that onto the page. Any tips on how to make scenes move slower (more specifically, dialogue) would be greatly appreciated. If anyone wants to see an example, just ask.

5

Read something you wrote a year or more ago.

It is entirely possible that the reason your recently written dialog is racing by so fast is that you are very familiar with its content. When your eyes touch the first few words of a sentence, you already know how the sentence will end, so you skip the tedious reading time and just dump the content from memory into your narrative.

By reading something older, something that you haven't thought about for a long time, you can avoid such lazy reading and actually proof/experience your words at their intended pace.

You might just find that your pacing is fine when you actually take the time to read your words.

  • 1
    Thank you for the speculation, maybe this is the case, since I seem to get more dissatisfied the more I re-read my work. – Grace Aug 19 at 20:33
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    @Grace: do not over think your work. there is a reason why a lot of great writers wrote their best work while drunk or enraged. you can't be inhibited when you write. you can't over analyze. you have to hone your craft and just let your words soar. – dolphin_of_france Aug 20 at 20:55
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You say that in your head there are pauses in the dialogue, but in the text they just aren't there. Well then, insert the pauses.

‘How terrifying!’ said Frodo. There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden.
‘How long have you known this?’ asked Frodo at length. ‘And how much did Bilbo know?’
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book I, chapter 2 - The Shadow of the Past

"There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden" provides a long pause. "asked Frodo at length" provides a shorter pause, a breath in the middle of the passage. When a description interrupts a dialogue, we perceive it as a pause in the dialogue - there's something while the dialogue holds. So when you imagine your character pausing, you break the line of dialogue with "he said", or with something longer, depending on the length of the required pause.

‘When did I first begin to guess?’ he mused, searching back in memory. ‘Let me see – it was in the year that the White Council drove the Dark Power from Mirkwood, just before the Battle of Five Armies, that Bilbo found his ring. (ibid)

"Let me see" and similar interjections are also a way of inserting a pause. Even "well" will do.

Punctuation is also your friend: you can use em-dashes are your particular friend, but there are also commas, semicolons and periods.

‘Known?’ said Gandalf. ‘I have known much that only the Wise know, Frodo. But if you mean “known about this ring”, well, I still do not know, one might say. There is a last test to make. But I no longer doubt my guess. (ibid)

Another tool you have is repetition. By stalling in place, as it where, by using the same word or different words to say the same thing, by elaborating on the same point, you slow down the transfer of information. Instead of running forwards, the conversation stays in place. Everything feels slow and measured, rather than rushed. This can also be used to make a point stronger - it stays in our mind if it is repeated.

Read dialogues that feel slow and measured (I didn't choose this dialogue at random), and notice how the effect is achieved. There are multiple tools at play, all mixed together. Once you can recognise them, try to apply them to your writing.

  • Thank you for your help. I have been using similar techniques, trying to fit in a description between sections of dialogue, or simply saying “I fell silent” or whatever. I will take your advice and try to read other’s work to get ideas. – Grace Aug 19 at 20:37
3

Grab a friend or family member and print out the scene so you each have it on paper. Ask the other person to read it out loud, acting it out to some degree. Was there a pause in your head that your reader just missed? Circle it on your copy.

Have your partner take one character while you take the other (add people or double up on characters if you need to). If beats are missing, you'll hear it.

Now, try the passages different ways. Play with it. How much time do you actually need for it to feel right, as if it were dialogue in a movie? Of course you don't want a scene that would take 15 minutes in a movie to take 15 minutes to read, but you want the reader to feel that that amount of time has gone by in the character's world.

Intersperse your dialogue with narrative. It helps break things up for the reader too. If there's a pause in the conversation, show the reader what your viewpoint character is looking at, or thinking. Or use the narrator to add descriptions of the setting. Make sure these things add to the story and aren't just filler.

These elements can be directly about the passage of time or they can just move the reader's focus for a bit, which has a similar effect. Use paragraph breaks when jumping from one element to another or when narrating that significant time has passed.

None of your scenes should be very long though. Fifteen minutes is forever both in a movie and in a book chapter. It's okay if the writing is sparse as long as you convey the passage of time.

3

Thinking about it.

This bit expands on Chris Sunami's suggestion, one way to extend the dialogue is to describe the thoughts and feelings of the POV character as the dialogue progresses, or as the scene progresses.

We are presumably following some character, or several characters, that are not wooden posts, and care about and think about what is being discussed. Along with the setting, along with adding the pauses, this is another element that can be discussed.

Many long silences exist because someone is thinking through what was said, or is experiencing emotions about what was said.

Usually when people pause in the middle of saying something, they aren't brain dead for three seconds -- They are struggling for the right words, or to not give offense, or deciding whether they should say anything or not. Even if they are not the POV character, the POV character can be guessing at which of these reasons apply, or assuming one and taking offense anyway:

Bill said, "I just think, Stan, if you do --"

Bill stopped and grimaced, struggling for a word.

Trying to think of way to not call me stupid.

Bill continued, "-- it could backfire."

'Cause it's stupid, right? Screw you Bill!

Stan spoke calmly. "I'm not stupid, Bill. I've thought this out."

"I don't think you have," Bill said.

TENSION: Conflict, argument, disagreement, intrigue, concealment, deception, the search for knowledge, a search for connection, negotiation and rejection.

A second thing that has not been mentioned is the need for disagreement in dialogue. Conflicting plans, disagreement over the facts, arguments about whose idea is better or why an idea isn't going to work.

Dialogue without tension is passive, flaccid, and gets skimmed, and in the worst cases is just an info dump. Dialogue should be some kind of struggle, whether it is in romantic pursuit or facing down a villain, telling a parent they are an alcoholic that needs help.

It doesn't have to be over-the-top fraught, but even friendlies can disagree or want different things; and dialogue that is planning a future course of action can be inherently tense; people are accepting roles and responsibilities they will have to meet. They should seldom agree lightly, and often should negotiate, demand concessions, or exact a price, or try to strike a bargain.

Tension engages a reader, puts them in the mind of what they would do or say in the same situation. It is also your opportunity, as an author, to come up with something clever for your character to say, instead of a knee-jerk response.

Tension for non-dialogue scenes and description.

You can add tension, and interest, even to the description of a landscape by having a character's thoughts contrast it with similar landscapes, situations, memories it evokes. A warrior standing on a new street will see it differently than a merchant; the warrior can see things in terms of tactical advantage if a battle were waged here, prioritizing the assets. The merchant is assessing where best to set up shop, and what shops are missing, or not doing well, or look profitable.

On the trail through the woods, the princess is looking for flowers and birds and thinking it is a nice day, her guard are looking for brigands in trees, behind bushes and rock formations and thinking it's a nice day for an ambush.

You can filter your prose through the eyes, thinking and emotions of a character in order to add tension. Tension helps keeps readers from being bored by endless description. A character can sense conflict with their environment.

  • I did focus on the characters' inner life in my answer. But in all fairness, my answer --as I mentioned --was heavily based on an earlier answer you made to one of my questions. :) – Chris Sunami Aug 21 at 2:12
  • @ChrisSunami Repaired. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 21 at 10:08
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    :) --that earlier answer was one of the most helpful I've received on this site – Chris Sunami Aug 21 at 12:54
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This has been an issue for me as well. As the writer, you bring a wealth of context to each word that isn't present for the reader, unless you put it on the page. If all you're writing is dialogue, you'll end up with a script, not a book --something that will be incomplete unless some actor puts in the work to bring it to life.

With that said, the answer isn't just to add pauses or actions. That's still just more stage directions. What you need is to put your reader in the setting, and in the mindframe, and in the attitudes, and in the histories of the characters. (Along those lines, here's a a similar question I asked a while back --I found the accepted answer, by @Amadeus, very helpful.)

"Would you like..." she began, as she fumbled in the pocket of her rough, homespun dress.

In those few seconds as I waited in anticipation of her next words, I mentally filled in my own answers. "A million dollars?" Of course I would. "My heart?" Well, we hardly knew each other well enough for that. "A piece of hard candy?" It seemed appropriate enough to the dress, but although she was attired like someone's farm-dwelling grandmother, she wasn't anywhere near old enough to start filling her pockets with candies.

Of course, it was none of these. Out of the old-timey pocket came a perfectly modern smartphone, and she finished the sentence as she called up her app. "Would you like to donate to my Kickstarter?"

I sighed and nodded as my heart sank. "What are your donation levels?"

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