How do you indicate pauses or hesitation in narration and dialogue? (ex. hesitant speech, for emphasis, pauses for breath)
with examples from Stargate: SG-1, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Doctor Who.
The primary punctuation used for denoting any kind of pause in dialogue or narration are the ellipsis, em dash, and comma. We covered the correct punctuation for speech that trails (or cuts) off and how to punctuate stammering speech a few years ago, both of which cover some types of pauses and hesitation in speech and heavily feature these punctuation marks.
An introduction to all three punctuation marks is included in Grammar 101: Punctuation for Pauses, Omissions, and Parentheticals. For the sake of review, and because they’re less well-known, let’s quickly go over ellipses and em dashes.
Ellipses (. . .) are used to indicate an omission or a pause and is always printed as three dots. The Chicago Manual of Style and Modern Language Association (MLA) differ on how an ellipsis should be printed, Chicago style stating that there should be no spaces between the dots (...), whereas MLA has spaces before each dot (. . .). British style guides tend to side with MLA, though that doesn’t mean you have to use spaces before each dot. When writing or editing your own work, just make sure that you pick a style and stick to it.
An em dash (—) is used to indicate a break in thought or sentence structure; to introduce a phrase added for emphasis, definition, or explanation; or to separate two clauses. For Chicago and MLA styles, em dashes do not have spaces before or after them. They are wedged firmly between words, fitting snugly against the terminating and initiating letters. British usage (as shown in the Penguin Writer's Manual, Collins Complete Writing Guide, and the more academic MHRA guide), as well as many online publishers, use a space before and after the em dash.
As with the spacing for an ellipsis, it is more important that you pick a style and remain consistent.
Because momma raised me in an English program, I’ll be using MLA style in the examples that follow, but keep in mind that spacing—or not spacing—is not required.
Punctuating for Hesitation and Pauses in Dialogue
All punctuation shows the reader two things: (1) how thoughts are connected or grouped together and (2) how the author intends for the characters or narration to sound when spoken. Keeping that in mind will help you make decisions about the punctuation for what you are intending to convey.
For any pause, whether in dialogue or narration, you have to consider the length of the pause and how the pause is related to the thoughts in the sentence. Different punctuation allows for different lengths of pauses or separations of thoughts.
Brief Pause: Slight Nervousness, Agitation, or an Interjection
A comma allows for a brief pause or hesitation and shows that there is a close connection between the words, phrases, and thoughts. There are numerous rules for comma usage, which means commas already have a hefty load to play in writing, so I would advocate using a comma as a pause only in specific situations.
When a character is stammering, there is a brief pause between the repeated words or phrases, though it is all part of the same thought. A comma is the correct way to separate those repeated words or phrases.
Daniel Jackson is my favorite stammerer and provides many, many examples from Stargate: SG-1 canon.
Daniel: No, no. No, it's fine. I was just. . . . Are you hungry? I can, I can have them send something down. You're hungry, I'm hungry, I'll have them send something down. You want something?
(“Past and Present”)
Daniel: Oh, oh what, so what, we sleep together once, then what? We work together. And you know, even saying that part out loud sounds unbelievable. I mean, come on, I mean I can't even imagine what a, what a, what a relationship with you would be like.
Having a character stammer like this can show something about the character’s emotional state. The character could be nervous about a situation ("Vala, I don’t, don’t have a problem with nudity on principle, but could you, could you put your shirt on?") or be agitated or excited as he’s winding up an explanation ("Don’t you, don’t you see what this means? There, there are stargates on other, on other planets—not just Earth and Abydos.”). For more on why a character might stammer, check out the article how to punctuate stammering speech.
A pair of commas can also be used for an interjection in the middle of a sentence (which usually has a brief pause before and after). If the thoughts—the main sentence and the interjection—are closely related or if the words merely break into the sentence for a moment, a comma can be a more appropriate piece of punctuation than an em dash, which really sets apart thoughts.
Amy hid her smile behind her hand. “He was, ha ha, not going to take that lightly.”
“What? That I questioned his dodgy machine?” Rory shook the foam from his hands. “He didn’t mean it about leaving me behind, right?”
Longer Pause: More Strain or Distraction
An ellipsis allows for a longer pause and typically shows a thought that is trailing off as the speaker becomes distracted. This could be a distraction from another thought or from something the character hears, sees, or experiences. If the ellipsis is trailing off (i.e., there are two sentences), make sure you properly punctuate with a period as well as the ellipsis.
In some cases the distraction is more abrupt and will cause the speech to cease. That distraction could be one character speaking over another, sudden unconsciousness, or a sight that makes the character lose his breath. For cases in which speech is cut off, you should use an em dash.
You can read more about how to punctuate for these trailing-off cases in the article how to punctuate for speech that trails off.
distracted by a thought: “The ritual calls for a pint of virginal blood. Why is it always virginal blood? Like other blood isn’t the same as. . . . Uh, anyway, virginal blood. Any donors?”
distracted by speech: Willow craned her neck at the growing flock of gargoyles. “There sure are—”
“Willow! Behind you!”
distracted by a sight: ”I wasn’t going to say anything, but. . . . Buffy, there’s a zombie behind you.” Xander had never been more pleased that the dead were rising.
distracted by physical exertion: Buffy hacked into the giant snake demon as she spoke, breathing hard between phrases. “I’m just saying . . . the purple dress . . . wasn’t your color . . . but the shoes . . . were adorable!”
In the case of a character’s speech being strained by panting, I would advise using narration to break up the dialogue in a more natural way. Then you have both the punctuation and the narration offering “gasps” in the speech. Here’s how I would revise the example above.
“I’m just saying,” Buffy said as she hacked into the giant snake demon. “The purple dress . . . wasn’t your color.” She breathed hard before swinging the ax again. “But the shoes . . . were adorable!”
Emphasis and Dramatic . . . Pauses
Italicizing a word or phrase can be a handy way to help the reader understand the cadence of a character’s speech. This usually works when the word or phrase is part of the main sentence.
a word: Amy pounded on the outside of the locked TARDIS. “You can’t leave me behind!”
a phrase: “The one thing you should remember is that I’m the Doctor.”
But when you want a character to repeat a phrase, or you want to set off something with a short pause, the best tool for punctuating emphasis is an em dash. An em dash ties the thoughts and words together—literally—by connecting them with the dash.
emphasized phrase: Amy pounded on the outside of the locked TARDIS. “You can’t leave me behind—you can’t!”
repeated phrase: “The one thing you should remember—the one thing you should really, really remember—is that I’m the Doctor.”
a word set apart: Rory swung his gladius sword expertly, grinning at Amy’s dropped jaw. “I spent two thousand years as a soldier—Roman. I picked up a few things besides Latin.”
a check-list: “Got everything you need, Amy?”
“Let me check—sunblock, hat, mobile, hallucinogenic lipstick—all set!”
When you set a word or phrase apart using an em dash, the pause is fairly short, more like a quick draw of breath. If you’re looking for something more dramatic with a more pronounced pause, you can use an ellipsis.
“There’s one thing you should remember . . . I’m the Doctor.”
An ellipsis can also help show a character gathering his courage to confess something. We use an ellipsis because this type of pause would be more deliberate and controlled than a nervous stammer.
”There’s something I should have said . . . a long time ago, really.” Jack took a long pull from his beer, wishing he was in the middle of a firefight instead of Sam’s living room.
“Whatever it is . . . you can tell me.”
“Okay, okay.” Jack held up a hand, took a deep breath. “Despite the multiple opportunities I had to learn it . . . I never understood . . . the thing with the magnets and the time loops.”
Punctuating for Hesitation and Pauses in Narration
The punctuation for pauses and hesitations in narration are exactly the same as they are in dialogue; however, since narration is essentially thoughts, you’re less likely to have characters panting for breath while hacking away at a giant snake demon or stumbling through their narrative thoughts as they confess that they still don’t understand what a geomagnetic storm is. The pauses most likely seen in narration are pauses for emphasis and dramatic effect.
Two days—two days—without the Doctor and Amy was doing fine—just fine. So, she’d been stranded on a planet and most of the slimy green people poked her when they saw her and called her The Flame-Headed Ghost, but she could handle all that. She was Amy Pond! She’d dealt with more and she’d given worse! Even so, the Doctor would be back soon . . . wouldn’t he?
If you’re writing in first person or third person limited, you might want to convey pauses if your character is losing consciousness. Pauses like that would require an ellipsis as the pauses between thoughts grow more pronounced.
Whatever was in the needle was hitting Buffy fast. Some kind of . . . knock out . . . something. She had to keep moving . . . get to the door . . . get out . . . find Giles. But she didn’t make it that far.
The key to punctuation is to keep in mind how thoughts are connected in sentences and to replicate the cadence of speech. Remember: A comma is a very brief pause and is best for stammering, whereas an em dash and an ellipsis are for more deliberate pauses and therefore indicate longer pauses.