Suddenly, a Pause
by James Thayer
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at
once,” Albert Einstein said. New writers often feel they have to
fiddle with time in their fiction. So they hurry time, and pause
it, and explain it, rather than let time reel out naturally. As a
result, the story ends up having a herky-jerky quality, as if the
action were seen under a strobe light.
Time unfolds in a story just like in life. There’s usually no need
to tinker with time.
A scene should be written moment-by-moment, “presented onstage in
the story ‘now,’” according to Jack Bickham. Writers want readers
to suspend disbelief, to accept the story as presented. Having the
action play out as if live in front of the reader,
moment-by-moment—without weird time manipulations—is a key to reader
enjoyment of the story.
How do writers mess with time? Plenty of ways.
A chief howler is the word suddenly.
Suddenly the deer leaped over the fence.
The sheriff suddenly pulled his pistol from the holster. She
suddenly opened the window.
All things are sudden, in that one instant they aren’t there, and
the next instant they are. One instant something isn’t happening,
and the next instant it is. There’s no need for
Here’s an experiment:
John suddenly opened the tool drawer. He suddenly lifted out the
hatchet. He suddenly walked to the door, where the car suddenly
backed out of the driveway. Suddenly holding the hatchet over his
head, he suddenly ran back into the house.
Each suddenly is meant to indicate
the action was initiated right now. But of course it is happening
right now, because it wasn’t happening before we read about it.
Here’s another version:
John opened the tool drawer. He lifted out the hatchet and walked
to the door, where the car backed out of the driveway. Holding the
hatchet over his head, he ran back into the house.
There isn’t a whit of difference between the first and second
versions, except that the suddenly
version reads like a twitchy movie from a hundred years ago.
And suddenly often is an awkward
redundancy. Suddenly the dog died.
Well, yes, because alive is alive and dead is dead, and there’s no
in between, so it’s sudden. Suddenly he
thought about the girl. As opposed to what? The thought
slowly leaking into his head? The apple
suddenly fell from the tree. As opposed to the apple
detaching from the stem, then hanging there mid-air an inch from the
stem, then two inches from the stem, then suddenly plummeting to
earth. The cannon fired suddenly.
Cannons that don’t fire suddenly aren’t worth much.
Suddenly is a redundant time
expediter. (How about a double redundancy:
very suddenly?) The author thinks
suddenly moves the action along, when the action is always
Sometimes writers pause the action, and the scene stops and starts,
stops and starts, stops and starts. Pause
is often the word used:
Danny paused, then reached for the bottle.
The cougar looked up at the tree, paused, then leaped onto the first
Most often, telling the reader that something has paused is
unnecessary because the reader infers pauses. Life is a series of
pauses, and there’s no need to document them in fiction. Here’s
The kitten ran after the ball of wool, then paused. It jumped down
from the couch, and paused. It swatted Ron’s shoelaces, then
paused. It arced its back and hissed when the dog came into the
room, then paused. The kitten leaped at the dog’s tail, batted it
again and again, then paused.
Other than being laughable, how is the first version different from
this second version?
The kitten ran after the ball of wool. It jumped down from the
couch and swatted Ron’s shoelaces. It arced its back and hissed
when the dog came into the room. The kitten leaped at the dog’s
tail, and batted it again and again.
A pause always exists between two actions. Sometimes it’s short,
sometimes longer. But the reader usually knows how fast the story
is progressing without prompts from the writer. The reader infers
pauses, and so the writer telling the reader to pause is redundant.
The story’s action becomes fitful in the reader’s mind.
The same is true with hesitated. Stan
hesitated for a moment, then pressed the accelerator. And
waited: Stan waited a moment, then pressed
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
is another word to watch out for:
Kristin wrapped the old man in a blanket
and helped him lift the soupspoon to his mouth. She buttered a
slice of bread for him. Later, she telephoned the police.
When the writer says something happened later, the story jumps
forward in time, from now to later. Minutes or hours have been
skipped, and so the reader shoots forward as if by magic.
Time lurching can happen with a lot of word constructions:
They held hands, and after a while he put his arm around her.
They held hands, and a couple minutes later he put his arm around
They held hands, and after he thought it over he put his arm around
They held hands for five minutes, then he put his arm around her.
They held hands and stared at the night sky for a while, and then he
put his arm around her.
They held hands, and after the moon had sunk below the horizon, he
put his arm around her.
They held hands, and when he was finally comfortable he put his arm
all of these sentences, minutes have been plucked out of the scene,
right out of the middle of a sentence. The reader is booted forward
in time. Such a thing cannot happen in our real lives, and when it
happens in fiction the credibility of the scene is lessened.
Another common time foolery occurs when the author chronically
points out that now is now in the story:
Allison placed the wrench on the floor, and now Dennis opened the
The bullies chased Eddie. He ran frantically, his arms pumping.
Now he turned down Front Street.
The sun came from behind a cloud, and now the rose opened its
When a reader reads a sentence, she presumes the action is happening
now, in front of her, when she is reading it. It isn’t
necessary—and is redundant—to point out that now is now.
Now on to then. The word
then is often superfluous:
She lifted the Petri dish from the counter, then reached for the
He caught the ball, then ran downfield.
The goldfish rose to the surface, then began feeding on the blood
Things don’t happen all at once in real life, as Einstein pointed
out. Nor do they happen all at the same time in fiction. Readers
know events occur sequentially. If we read that she lifted the
Petri dish, and read that she reached for the microscope, we assume
that one action followed the other. Saying
then becomes redundant. It indicates that time is moving
forward, when the reader well knows that moving ahead is how time
There are dozens more of these usages that interfere with the flow
of time in a story. Exceptions exist, of course. Sometimes
later is necessary to make the story clear. Most often,
though, these time references are redundant and give the story a
convulsive quality: stop, go, hurry, wait, freeze, unfreeze.
Readers know how time works. Trust them to pace your story.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing