How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue? I’ve been there a thousand times in my own stories.
You want to show a natural pause in the middle of your dialogue, but maybe you don’t know how to do it. Maybe you are even asking yourself, how do I write a pause? How do I punctuate a pause?
There are 7 crazy effective ways.
7 Ways to Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue
- Filler Words
- Describing the Pause
- Character actions and gestures
- Internal Thoughts
- Shifting Focus (what the character is paying attention to)
Here is an image you can “steal” and save to your computer or phone for easy reference:
How to Write a Pause
Before we jump into the 7 answers to “How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue?”, it’s important to first point out that there are actually two categories and several different types of pauses.
Each of the 7 ways to fill pauses in dialogue work for every type, but you may want to give some thought to what’s the best strategy for your particular pause in your particular story.
The Two Major Categories of Pauses
There are two major categories of pauses. They are the “meta” types into which all of the other pause types fit. You’ll get it when you read the two categories.
- Short Pause
- Long Pause
As you can see, the two categories are based on pause length. Any type of pause can be short or long so experiment with what works best in your dialogue.
Types of Pauses
Each type of pause serves a purpose in your scene, sometimes multiple purposes. Pauses are overlooked opportunities to show (not tell) internal thoughts, emotions, relationship dynamics, goals, conflicts and characterization.
- Intentional Pause (for emphasis) – When characters have something important to say.
- Intentional Pause (for anticipation) – When characters want to build mystery and suspense.
- Hesitant Pause – When characters are anxious, afraid, shy, or unsure.
- Exhausted Pause – When characters are physically, emotionally, or mentally tired in any way.
- Nervous Tic Pause – When characters feel nervous or unintentionally reveal something to other characters or the reader.
- The Humor Pause – This is both anticipation and emphasis. Consider how comedians will often pause before the punchline.
1. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Punctuation]
How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue? The most common way writers fill pauses is with punctuation.
That brings up another question: how to punctuate a pause?
One popular method is to use ellipses, those three little dots (…) signifying a trailing off of a sentence or thought.
The Harbrace College Handbook says of the Ellipsis: ‘Ellipsis points mark an omission form a quoted passage or a reflective pause or hesitation.” (emphasis mine)
It’s the “reflective pause or hesitation” that we are most concerned with here in this article.
Here are a few examples from popular books so that you can see exactly how professionally published authors handle natural pauses in dialogue.
“Gwen raised her head and spoke haltingly, fighting back tears. ‘He told me Tuesday there was too much damage . . .’ She wiped her wet face with her fingers. ‘But he wants to send her to a specialist in Memphis.'” (John Grisham, A Time to Kill.)
“‘Anyone who is guilty of such practices . . .,’ he paused for effect, leaning forward and staring at the congregation, ‘ . . . anyone in town . . .,’ he turned and looked behind him, at the monks and nuns in the choir, ‘ . . . or even in the priory . . .’ He turned back. ‘I say, anyone guilty of such practices should be shunned.'”World Without End, by Ken Follett
Some readers hate ellipses, so use them sparingly. That probably goes for all punctuation for pauses. Mix it up.
If you are looking for other ways to punctuate your pauses, look no further than the comma and em dash (as in, “President Kayne introduced the plan—the first of its kind—at a swanky Hollywood soiree.”)
The Washington Post has a great guide to punctuation called, Grammar Geekery: How to use dashes, ellipses and commas to create … a dramatic pause
2. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Filler Words]
As the proud owner of a communications degree from a college you’ve never hear of, and having been both a Toastmaster (public speaking organization) and a national trainer for 13 years, I am well-versed in filler words.
What’s a filler word? Well, for starters, they can be words or short phrases.
You’ve no doubt heard them a million times. You’ve probably used a few. Most of us have our favorites.
Common filler words:
- I mean
- You know
- You get me?
- You feel me?
In real life, we use filler words out of habit and to fill natural pauses in conversation either because we don’t know what to say next or because we are uncomfortable in some way.
Basically (see what I did there?), filler words can make dialogue sound more natural.
However, a word of warning: overuse can distract and distance the reader from the story. A few fillers can go a long way.
Here is a short, seven-minute video about filler words. Give it a watch to deepen your understanding of this strategy.
Pay attention to the filler words other people use in daily conversation. This is a simply exercise that you can use to come up with creative new ways to add realism to your dialogue.
3. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Describing the Pause]
How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue? Sometimes as authors we overlook the obvious. We can simply state that our character paused.
I’ve seen this done many times in bestselling fiction, so it’s fair game for any writer. The key is to limit your use and to vary how you describe the pause.
Here are four simple ways to describe the pause that you can steal from bestsellers:
- She paused.
- He sighed.
- She breathed.
- He took a moment to collect himself.
4. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Using Character Gestures]
How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue? Another way to fill a natural pause in dialogue is to use character gestures. These gestures can include small, medium or large movements.
Characters can gesture with virtually any part of their bodies or their whole bodies.
Some characters repeat gestures as a form of characterization throughout a story. For example, in my novel, Wicker Hollow, the main character sneezes when he is nervous or scared.
In the next section, you’ll find a list of character gestures you can use to fill in pauses in dialogue.
When considering which gesture to use, keep in mind the personality of the character, the context of the scene and what gestures you have used in previous scenes.
Like all of the other methods of writing pauses in your stories, try not to overuse this one.
List of Character Gestures to Fill in a Pause
Here is a starter list of character gestures to fill pauses in fictional conversations:
- He combed his fingers through his hair.
- She squeezed his hand.
- He balled his hands into fists.
- She glanced over his shoulder.
- She bit her bottom lip.
- He glared at him.
- She scrunched her nose.
- He tightened his grip on the gun.
- He moved to the window.
- She eased out of bed.
- He looked down at his hands.
- He steepled his fingers.
- She fiddled with her necklace.
- His leg bounced under the table.
- She cracked her knuckles.
- She stuck out her tongue.
- He pressed his thumbs into his temples.
- She bowed her head.
- She lifted her chin.
- He leaned into the door.
- Her finger traced the salted rim of her glass.
- He handed her his pen.
- She sat down next to him at the piano.
- She took a step toward the door.
- He plucked a feather out of her hat.
- She tossed her hair.
- His jaw clenched.
- Sweat leaked down his cheek.
- She blinked twice.
- He furrowed his brow.
You can find a comprehensive list of gestures in this Reedsy.com article: Defining Your Characters: 150+ Character Mannerisms
The BEST gestures not only fill empty spaces but reveal layers of character while injecting tension into a scene.
Check out the video below for even more insight into gestures. Yes, it’s about gestures in acting. But don’t scroll over it without giving it a fair shot. Some of the best strategies about writing I’ve ever learned weren’t from writers.
Go ahead, watch the video. You might be surprised at how much you learn.
5. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Internal Thoughts]
How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue?
Internal thoughts can be an excellent way to fill pauses in dialogue. Like gestures, internal thoughts express and reveal character.
They also add variety to an otherwise dialogue or action-heavy scene.
You can easily slip short internal thoughts between spoken words in your dialogue. One tip is to only use internal thoughts that add new information instead of repeating what the character just said.
Here is an example:
“So you want to go out sometimes?” John asked
“Maybe,” I said. In your dreams.
Notice how, in that example, the internal thoughts contradicted her spoken words. Contrast and contradiction are powerful tools in dialogue and in fiction.
Here is another example:
“That’s exactly right.” I think.
One of the cool things about inner thoughts or internal dialogue is that you can use it for tension, humor, characterization, conflict and more.
6. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Feelings Response]
You can also show a character’s emotional response to fill a natural pause in dialogue.
In a way, this is a slight variation on a character gesture. When you show a character’s feeling response, you fill a pause and reveal a deeper meaning in the conversation or scene.
How do you show a feeling response?
Check out these examples:
- She cried.
- He laughed.
- She sobbed.
- He tasted acid at the back of his throat.
- Vengence pooled in his stomach.
- Hate throbbed behind his eyes.
To help you write your character’s feelings, here is a list of the 6 primary emotions described in a Psychology Today article:
Watch the video below for how to convey emotions in your stories without resorting to melodrama or clichés. This can be extremely useful so that your pause fillers help your fiction instead of h urting it.
7. How Do Writers Fill a Natural Pause in Dialogue? [Shifting Focus]
If you have tried the first six methods and you still wonder, “How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue?”, I have one final writing hack for you.
This secret of professional authors is to shift focus.
What does that mean?
As the author, you can shift focus describing the setting. You can comment on an animal nearby, the sunset, the clouds, other people in the vicinity, a kite, anything.
Many times the object of focus signifies a deeper meaning, adding subtext and symbolism to the scene.
Here’s an example:
“Do you really want to end this way, after all this time?”
The turtle heaved its dusty shell over the fallen tree branch, collapsing onto the other side.
“Yes,” she said.
If you think about it, all of the first six methods are all ways to shift focus, at least momentarily. All of these strategies are super versatile.
Conclusion & Next Steps
I hope you have found value in this article. I hope that you have found your answer to “How do writers fill a natural pause in dialogue?”
Now you have 7 crazy effective ways to write pauses in your story dialogue. Remember to mix up the methods so that you don’t overuse any one strategy.
The best way to learn this, any any, fiction-writing strategy is to read widely and intentionally.
For more writing tips, tricks and secrets, check out these articles: