Love the ellipsis? So do we! But an ellipsis can be a touchy, persnickety little punctuation mark. Used in the wrong situation, ellipses can appear overdone, overly dramatic, silly, sloppy, unnecessary… You get the point.
As writers and authors, we may need to ask ourselves if it’s time we push back from the table and analyze our appetite for the ellipsis (or the “dot-dot-dot” as some folks call it). If we overdo it, our writing suffers, but if we learn to use it properly, we can harness the power of the ellipsis in our short stories, poetry, and novels…without being annoying!
So what’s the right way to use an ellipsis for dramatic effect in your writing?
The Right Way To Use An Ellipsis
Technically, an ellipsis is a punctuation mark that indicates an omission or a pause. According to The Chicago Manual of Style: “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” (In other words, if the ellipsis were a person, it would need some serious one-on-one time with a psychologist.)
If you’re wondering how the ellipsis differs from the em dash, CMOS suggests that the dash should be used for more abrupt and decisive pauses.
Style guides differ on the correct formation of the ellipsis. You can use spaces between the periods (. . .); spaces before and after the three periods ( … ), or spaces around AND between the periods ( . . . ). At Writer’s Relief, we use the pre-composed symbol in Word with no space before or after the symbol.
But let’s get back to proper usage…
The ellipsis is often used to indicate omitted text in quoted material, and this can be pretty handy. For example, if you need a couple of salient facts from a long, lackluster quote, you can leave out the boring stuff and replace it with an ellipsis.
In fiction, the most common usage of the ellipsis is to indicate a trailing off (technical term: aposiopesis) and to build tension. We all watched in horror as the asteroid drew closer and closer to Earth. If Captain Jack wasn’t able to set the charge in time…
Or, if you need to show hesitancy in a character’s dialogue: “Oh, Jack, I didn’t realize you were…interested in me that way.”
The ellipsis is also an effective way to show that a character is trying to speak while sobbing or stuttering out of fear. “But…I didn’t realize…Captain Jack wasn’t…ever…coming…back!”
(Of course, so many ellipses in one sentence might make your readers want to cry. So as a rule, always use as few as possible.)
Why The Ellipsis Sometimes Gets A Bad Rap
There are many examples of how the ellipsis can be used to a writer’s advantage. But is the ellipsis always the BEST choice or merely the easiest?
There are many techniques apart from ellipses that work just as well to show a pause or to show that the dialogue/action is incomplete. The trouble is, these techniques takes a bit more work, so relying too heavily on the poor little ellipsis can suggest that a writer is “lazy.”
To weed out your ellipses, you’ll need to invest time in toying with your sentences until you find alternative, more powerful choices. For example:
I just don’t know how…to say this… It’s just that…I’m in love…with someone else.
This sentence is soft. When the bad news breaks, it doesn’t land like a bomb; it sort of dribbles out. The emotional impact is weakened by too many ellipses, which suggest a tapering off of tension.
The sentence might be reasonably changed to:
I don’t know how to say this… It’s just that—I’m in love. With someone else.
Are You Abusing The Ellipsis In Email?
Some people use the ellipsis frequently in emails or to give their writing a more conversational style. When used to show a pause or a break in train of thought, the ellipsis is fantastic.
But if the ellipsis is used randomly—scattered around helter-skelter with smiley faces and multiple exclamation points—the message may come across as childish. Especially if the ellipsis is graced with lots and lots of extra dots…………
Don’t let this fun little symbol take the place of proper punctuation! When overused (or used improperly), the ellipsis loses its power, resulting in an insecure writing style. But if you can harness its power, the ellipsis can be a good friend! Think about it…
(If you’re in doubt about your ellipsis usage, the proofreaders at Writer’s Relief are experts on punctuation and style—and they will not tolerate ellipsis abuse. We offer individual proofreading services, so let us know if we can help!)
CHALLENGE: Let’s see your WORST use of the ellipsis in a sentence. Leave your worst ever ellipsis in our comments section. And have fun!
My worst ever use of ellipses…
We see so often how use of the ellipsis invites people to go on…and on…and on…(smiley face inserted here)
Ellipses are awesome…if you know how to use them. I’m currently proofreading a book I spent the past year writing, and, well…let’s just say the writing is ellipsis heavy…very heavy. However, I’m not just throwing ellipses in when they should be m-dashes, semicolons, or whatever else would do the job better…I’m using them with a purpose. You could say that the language of the book I’m writing should be revised so it actually looks like the poetry it’s intended to read like
with the appropraite
line breaks done
as I have here
…however, I like the relationship the ellipsis suggest for the words/sentence fragments (parts) on either side of it. Not all elipses suggest exactly the same relationship and sometimes it’s not so obvious and other times it’s a “well, of course that’s what he meant” moment. Anyway, instead of using line breaks like the above example
…the text, of the novel, is formatted…similar to that which I am writing here…in the comments box…and…is not broken as it would be, if it were traditional poetry.
Yes, the above example sounds terrible, but it has none of the poetry the novel does. (It’s 7:30 am…I’m not writing poetry as an example of how to use ellipses). What I love about the ellipsis, as I have used it in my novel, is the abstruse mystery they (nearly 10,000 in 709 pages) give each sentence I use them in. 10,000? Nearly…that’s a rough estimate based on an early draft elipsis/page average. And like I said, no, I’m not just throwing them at the page and letting them land where they may. I actually take the time to consider each and every one and how they effect the poetic rhythm of the senbtence…and very often a comma works better for the intended purpose. Sometimes a full stop does the job and others well…
My use of the ellipsis has developed over the course of a year of writing, almost, every sing day…after a childhood of writing poetry, during which I developed the infancy of the style I now use. I didn’t just sit down to write a novel with no idea how to use commas, semicolons, m-dashes, etc. and start using elipses thinking no one would notice. I started writing a novel that I wanted to read like prose, read like poetry, have a certain rhythm, and noticed that commas, semicolons and m-dashes worked very well, but didn’t cover everything I needed to do in order to get the rhythmic stops just right, that’s where the elipsis came in…
If you want to make the ellipsis a part of how you write (thus, using it often), then do it…but, before you do, understand that not using it correctly won’t always read as a mistake, but instead may read as poor writing by an amature hack. It’s the only punctuation mark that requires intimate experience with to be able to freely use it and still be taken seriously. I use the ellipsis to spell out the rhythym with which my novel is to be read (for poetic purposes) but I still know the technical aspect to the punctuation. I know how and when they should be used technically. If I’ve used it in violation of those rules then I will correct it, however, I’ve bent the rules so far that they’ve almost broken a few times…but I do know the rules.
Heavy elipsis use=hack writing…unless done well.
My sister and I, while traveling, laughed ourselves silly over an old Barbara Cartland novel. Her method of indicating innocence and hesitation was something like this, “Oh, Lucas…I can’t imagine anyone…as wonderful as you… loving little old me.” Her heart beat in her heaving breast like a captured bird…
Golly! I’m getting good at this schloch. Maybe I should write a satiric romance…