This is something I’ve been noticing more and more lately, to the point its begun to irritate me in books I’m reading. It’s the use of phrases like “a long moment” to denote a pause in a conversation or an action. And yes, this is something I’ve used myself in past stories and novels, and something I’m going to have to take a long hard look at going forward. It’s come up quite a lot in the latest “Ring of Fire” book I’ve been listening to in the car, and it finally struck a chord with me this week as I drove home one night.
I get the purpose, really. People engaged in difficult conversation sometimes stop talking. They shut down, think about what they want to say next before they move the topic along. So adding She paused for a long moment, is a kind of short hand for that break. You not only get a description of the break, but you get words strung in the middle of the sentence that feels like a break in the conversation. It gives the reader a precise idea of what’s happening at that moment, exactly what they need.
The problem is that it’s short hand. Okay, let me rephrase this so I’m not going off the rails and sounding like I’m attacking folks, because I’m not (I did mention I’ve used this, too, did I not?). It feels, in my opinion, like a cheap way out of writing something more meaningful. Instead of describing actions, emotions, the underlying thoughts of the character, we’re using a cheap method to create the break we want. But it says nothing useful and lacks purpose; it’s a sawdust filling in place of a concrete foundation. Used sparringly, you might not notice it. Used a lot, and your story is going to be significantly weakened by such phrasing.
Rhythm of language, the expression of emotions, these are hard things to relay. It’s much easier with short cuts. And for certain types of books, those shortcuts are fine. When you’re pumping out a lot of popcorn novels, shortcuts are a necessary evil to producing content. There’s only so much time to find the right phrasing that fits the scene you’re laying down and works in the context of the characters on the page. It’s vastly easier to go with simple and generic. The Ring of Fire series does this a lot, and I mostly don’t mind. I really do enjoy these books and the interplay of modern sensibilities and technology with their 17th century counterparts.
But that’s not the kind of writing I want to do. I want to delve deeper into those still waters and drain them for real nuggets of character actions that reveal something true about the story. Instead of She paused for a long moment, her eyes staring into mine I want to find the reasons she pauses. Did she get up to get a drink, showing us that she relies on outside crutches when she’s upset? Did she think to herself about the day he introduced her to his father, and how she knew deep down that the man didn’t approve of her for his son? Did she reach into her purse and find the letter he had written her when they were seventeen, the one that said he’d be there for her always and love her, a letter she’d kept worn and oft mended with scotch tape for twenty years?
Shortcuts are great for writing fast. Get in, get through the pacing of the scene, get out. But on re-write, I’ll be looking for these types of crutches now and seeing if I can improve on the idea of what I’m trying to get across. I think I can do better as a writer, very much want to do better as a writer. This is one of those moments where, on your own, you recognize something for what it is and begin to address is so you can improve what you’re producing.
No more long moments, no more pausing. Ditch those soft, easy phrases and find the meaningful ones. Find the soul of the moment and give it a sweet ass shine that can’t be ignored and won’t irrate your readers the twentieth time you’ve said it.
Things to watch for as I edit my stories and novels:
- Paused for a moment/a long moment
- Eyes met mine (sometimes searching)
- Smiles (lots and lots of smiles, and sometimes lots of shrugs)
Again, nothing wrong with using them here and there. A shrug can say a lot actually, as can a smile. Eyes that meet and look away can, in the context of a discussion, say a lot about the characters. But overused, they become a crutch to what I think of as good writing. So let’s take a long moment and ponder this thought.