Description can be very useful for creating pauses in stories and slowing them down. This doesn’t mean the story stops. What we mean is that the pace changes, for instance we may have a flurry of activity, a moment where the protagonist thinks everything is done, and then another flurry. Alternatively we may have a conversation where one character says something that causes a pause in the conversation, we can show this with description, such as a character fiddling with the cutlery or looking around.
However, while we can use it to create a pause we must also be aware that description can create unintended pauses too. My favourite example is when characters argue, we can create the speed of their argument with quick dialogue and sharp movements but if we then insert a long section of description in the middle then we negate that effect and the argument pauses.
This problem actually appears quite often where a writer will have a character speaking, a long description, and then the character speaks again, often in the space of one paragraph. I say ‘problem’ because the writer doesn’t always intend the pause this creates. Sometimes the cause is that the character says something and the writer feels the need to explain what they have said before they carry on. The problem with this is that either what they’re explaining doesn’t need explaining, or it can wait until the character has finished speaking, or, at the least, be explained in fewer words. Other problems this can create is that the reader forgets who’s speaking or assumes the conversation is over. If we want to put a deliberate pause in between these two sections of speech using the description then it can be easier to break it up with a line of speech, a new paragraph for the description and then a new paragraph for the speech. This creates an immediate distinction that makes it clear that the conversation isn’t over.
Using a description to create a pause also means we can vary the length of a pause from a short ‘they paused’ so a pause that gives the impression it went on for minutes. We might imagine a moment where two characters who haven’t met before are introduced and then left in a room alone together. They don’t know each other so they’re not immediately comfortable with talking to each other, they may both be quiet for several minutes until the awkwardness causes one of them to speak and fill the silence. What are they doing in this time? ‘They paused’ wouldn’t quite cover it because this creates a sense of a momentary pause and we want a much longer one. Perhaps our protagonist looks around, admiring the décor, avoiding eye contact, and wondering what they should say or when the person that introduced them will reappear. We may take a paragraph or a few paragraphs describing this and making the reader wonder when they will speak or what they will say, perhaps even making the reader feel the characters’ discomfort.
Sometimes thinking of description as pauses can also help us when we’re editing. This slows this scene down: Do we need it here? Can we use less words? Do we want to slow this down? Or this scene seems too fast: Do we need more description? What needs describing? Where does the scene need slowing down?