What I've noticed recently, is that there is some equivalent to the caesura in all art forms.
On Dancing with the Stars, one of the judges is fond of saying that a good dance needs "light and shade," by which he means aggressive or flashy moments should be punctuated by quiet ones in order to have the most impact. A dance that is all "pow" simply isn't as interesting.
In advertising and print design, we talk about "white space." The page needs to have a certain amount of white space in order to look like something meaningful, or it all bleeds together. A page of advertising that's full of exclamation points and neon lettering and bright photos might as well be a black and white list of dense text - when everything is loud nothing stands out. High end advertising often contains a large amount of white space, and may be a single large object on a white or other simple background, with little more than a short slogan and a logo.
as opposed to something busy like this, where the message gets lost
This one is interesting because it effectively blends the background details so that they appear monochromatic, and then it also echoes for emphasis and to play on the message. This kind of echo, or refrain, is used in music and poetry in a similar manner.
In visual art, we talk about "negative space," which is, simply, the space not used. It applies not only to painting and photography, but to three-dimensional and functional arts such as sculpture, architecture, furniture, and even jewelry.
Negative space is used to create optical illusions, where we focus on one image, and only when we shift our perception do we see another image as well. Perhaps in a similar manner, in a story what seemed like the background, or what seemed like the pauses between action, could suddenly pop to the forefront, while the the other story becomes backgrounded.
Which brings me to screenwriting and film. The caesura is used here as well.
Visually - framing, focus, and light are used to direct the eye. Where the eye is not directed is the negative space. Look at the use of negative space in these filmic images, and the way they dramatize the actor, make them seem bigger than life, or overwhelmed by their environment:
Pirates of the Caribbean
Sound of Music
Without the negative space surrounding them, these moments in the film would feel smaller, less important. The negative space sets them apart, sets the actors apart.
Here's a great image from Lord of the Rings, where the actor becomes part of the negative space, a shade lighter than the background, and the focus is on an object in the foreground.
These things might be implied in a script by describing the big sky behind the character, or the tight box enclosing them. The focus on an object could be highlighted by describing the character matching the background: grey, more than white, as the tower was a grey of a darker shade - and the red eye of the orb glowed before him (OK, that sucks, but you get the idea.)
But film is not static, and negative space can be manipulated to create meaning and moods in movies through movement - whether it's as simple as pulling back to increase the volume of negative space, or pulling in to tighten on an actor. Changing the color, texture, and location. Changing the focus, sharp on one actor or object, then switching focus to another.
What I'm most interested in right now, however, is the use of the caesura in screenwriting. Pauses in the story. Quiet moments. Or, as Mystery Man put it in a recent post, breathing room.
The most straightforward use is perhaps to modulate pacing. A few movies have come out recently that are non-stop go-go-go, and while Crank and others like it are fun, I wonder if they would have been improved by a little breathing space. The pace goes from 0 to 60 very quickly, and to maintain the feeling of speed, needs to keep getting faster. When you're driving at 70mph, it stops feeling fast after just a few minutes. To keep feeling the speed, you need to slow down a bit at regular intervals. It also gives the character a chance to believably rest and have the energy to go hard again.
Another use of slow moments is to build suspense and tension. The calm before the storm (in a natural disaster movie, this might be literal.) It's suspense, rather than surprise. Hitchcock said it best.
There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let us assume that there is a bomb under this table between us. […] suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off. The audience is surprised, but before this surprise they have only seen a very ordinary scene without any significance. Let us instead look at suspense scene. The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one […]. In the first scene we have given the audience 15 seconds of surprise […] but in the last scene we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense.
Those moments of suspense are when an audience becomes invested in the result, and those moments are the ones they remember. Surprise may get their heart rate up, but nothing's been invested, so without another surprise immediately after the moment passes and is soon forgotten.
Another use of the caesura, or dramatic pause, is to emphasize the importance of a moment. This can be a small one, and need not even be a full scene. A pause can simply underline whatever occurred right before, or let us know that what we see next is something to pay attention to.
If a character simply walks by our protagonist on the street, stops and looks in a window, and moves on, the audience is unlikely to even take note. That's just an extra, a passerby. If, however, the protagonist has just stopped to, say, check at their watch or look at the sky and are essentially doing nothing for a moment before that other person passes them, and as that other person stops and looks in the window, then the audience is likely to take note of them and wonder what their significance is. You can bring this character back, and many audience members will remember them.
It can also underline theme. A moment that is quiet will give the audience time to reflect, and think about what's happened and why. Small moments, with small reactions from the characters, are ones the audience can fill with their own meaning. If these come right after a significant thematic moment, then it will serve to underscore that idea. Say, the character looks at a photo - and then sits back on the couch for a minute, and gets up and starts straightening the room. Whatever was in that photo becomes more important than if they look at it, put it down, and move on. If they look at it, then rush out the door - the photo may be important to the plot, but with the quiet moment, it's likely to speak more to either theme or character.
Which brings me to the final use of quiet moments in a film: character development. Whether they highlight some element of the character's background or history, or show something about their nature, or give them time to process an emotion - this is a challenging way to use the filmic caesura, but may be the most rewarding for the writer. Well, if you like focusing on your characters, that is. Which I'd say most of us screenwriters do.
A man goes to a park, and walk around. Maybe he kicks the leaves, or stops at a particular bench, smells the flowers on a particular rosebush. You know he is remembering this place, or one very much like it.
Or - she folds laundry. Every shirt is military-precise. Items are separated, socks are paired, things are hung or put into drawers right away. Then imagine, against this quiet background, she comes across an unmatched sock - a man's sock - and sits down with it, on the bed, sighs, and fights back tears as she strokes the pillow on the opposite side of the bed. This is a much more dramatic and memorable way to tell us her husband is missing (dead? at war? run off?) than if we caught the news through dialogue. If it hadn't been a quiet scene, it would not have been pregnant with implied meaning. Such a small thing as a sock, and touching a pillow, would get lost in a busier, faster scene. The questions about exactly what happened can be answered later, with a close up of an object or a single line of dialogue that wouldn't have had meaning unless the audience was already looking for answers. (When she goes to the post office, someone stops and puts their hand on her arm and says, I'm sorry. She nods and thanks them.)
The caesura is an essential building block of the art of the screenplay, just as any other art, and I'm sure there are many other uses for it.