Inexperienced story tellers and speakers often rush through their narrative as if they were a rodent on crack–and overlook the power of pacing. A well placed pause can add suspense and conflict to a tale. For a great example of this let’s turn to the classic movie, Casablanca.
One of the most famous movie lines of all time is near the end of the film when Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is helping Victor Laslow, resistance leader and the husband of his ex-girlfiend, Ilsa, flee Casablanca via plane. While Rick is holding police prefect Captain Louis Renault at gunpoint, Nazi Major Strasser arrives at the airport and attempts to call the control tower to stop the escape. Rick shoots the Nazi Major to save Ilsa and Victor. Moments later Captain Renault’s gendarmes arrive and it looks like Rick is headed for jail and the getaway may be thwarted.
At this point Captain Renault announces “Major Strasser has been shot.” He pauses–for nearly five full seconds. From the look on Rick’s face you can tell he expects he’s about to be arrested. But then Renault tells his officers, “Round up the usual suspects.”
The story is told that when that scene was originally filmed the director didn’t insert the gap to build suspense. But one of the script writers stepped in and explained how the two lines were meant to be separated by a dramatic pause. The resulting scene led to “Round up the usual suspects” being named the 32nd most memorable line of all time by the American Film Institute.
Watch this clip of the scene to see the result–and imagine the two lines without the power of the pause.
Next time you’re telling a story, giving a speech, telling a joke, or writing a scene remember the lesson of Casablanca: there is power in the pause.