The Elipses – When to Use Them and When Not to Use Them

You know what the ellipses is, the [ … ].

Do you know what it is used for?

Often in blogs (including here sometimes) it is used to indicate a trailing off of thought or a pause, in a way that a comma or semi-colon might be used. This is an informal usage of the ellipses and is fine for informal settings, like many blogs.

When you are writing a book – whether fiction or non fiction – such informal use of the ellipses is a bad mistake, and one that I see many authors make.

How do authors often use the ellipses?

Authors often use the ellipses to indicate a pause, an insecurity, or to indicate that the thought or prose has trailed off or a character has been interrupted.

Examples:

A Pause.

She was entrancing … beautiful … sultry … and everything he wanted in a woman.

An Insecurity

Amanda did not know what to think. She was … confused. Why was this happening now? She knew she did not deserve this … did she?

Trailing off or interrupted.

He was on his way to the store. He needed chips, beer, and some kind of dip. He entered the store when she appeared, drawing his attention from his shopping list …

Each of these are examples of ways that I see [ … ] used a lot in fiction writing, and every single one of them is wrong.

How should the ellipses be used?

The ellipses in formal writing (this includes fiction writing) should only be used to indicate omitted text.

Example:

Full text.

John went to the store today to buy fruits and vegetables when he was struck by a car.

With omission.

John went to the store today … when he was struck by a car.

What is important to note is that the meaning is not changed. If you are relaying information you were told about John going to the store and being struck by a car, it is not important to know that he was going to buy fruits and vegetables. When relaying it in print, we indicate the [ … ] to tell our reader that some information is missing, but it is not important to what we are talking about. You never omit key details with the [ … ] as this is dishonest writing.

But in the examples above, the author could have been omitting thoughts when using the [ … ].

This is true. This is also a very bad thing to do in writing. The [ … ] is not a time for you to be lazy as a writer. If you are struggling with what your character is thinking as he talks about his ideal woman or she wrestles with her insecurities, then step back and think. You are probably struggling with it because your character is struggling with it. Think about what that struggle looks like and feels like. The way it feels to you is probably the way it feels you your character. Give detail instead of [ … ]. Why? Because you are omitting important details and crippling your storytelling.

In the case of ending an interrupted or trailed off thought/scene – well. In the case of an interruption, simply use a [ – ]. You will notice that programs like Word like to elongate the [ – ], but if you are interrupting dialogue, this can become messy. What I do is this:

He said, “I am so angry – a”

WordPress does not do this, but if you were in Word, when you space after the [ – ] and type the “a” you see the [ – ] elongate. End the quotation after the “a” as normal. Then simply back space to remove the “a” and the extra space so that your statement looks like this:

He said, “I am so angry -” (with Word leaving the [ – ] all elongated and pretty.)

In the case of a thought or scene trailing off. Sometimes it is fine to simply end the sentence with a [ – ] and no period. Other times, it is best to actually show the character’s thoughts and attention shifting away from what he or she was doing and onto something else. It depends on context. Generally, if a sudden thought, action, or dialogue is to follow the trailing off, then a [ – ] is fine. If you are going to move on to new descriptions with no sudden action, then you should describe the shift in words.

Now you know why you are probably using the [ … ] wrong.

Stop doing it. Write what you mean to write, use proper punctuation, and happy writing everyone.

 

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