Pausing of RNA polymerase II (Pol II) 20–60 bp downstream of transcription start sites is a major checkpoint during transcription in animal cells. Mechanisms that control pausing are largely unknown. We developed permanganate-ChIP-seq to evaluate the state of Pol II at promoters throughout the Drosophila genome, and a biochemical system that reconstitutes promoter-proximal pausing to define pausing mechanisms. Stable open complexes of Pol II are largely absent from the transcription start sites of most mRNA genes but are present at snRNA genes and the highly transcribed heat shock genes following their induction. The location of the pause is influenced by the timing between when NELF loads onto Pol II and how fast Pol II escapes the promoter region. Our biochemical analysis reveals that the sequence-specific transcription factor, GAF, orchestrates efficient pausing by recruiting NELF to promoters before transcription initiation and by assisting in loading NELF onto Pol II after initiation.