The basic function of an ellipses [… ellipses are always three stops, never more or less] is to create a hesitation or have a character trail off; examples might be trailing off before finishing a well-worn phrase because everyone knows how it ends or because they don’t know what to say. The full stop, on the other hand is more definitive, ‘this statement finishes here’, this doesn’t mean that the statement has to be definitive, only that the character doesn’t hesitate or trail off. We may for instance have a definitive ‘I don’t know’ or a hesitant ‘I don’t know…’
A question I was asked via Twitter is if we can over use ellipses and we can, just as we can over use any literary technique because repetition creates emphasis. Too many ellipses on the page draws the eye and emphasises them so it’s worth considering other tactics when we want to create hesitation or a pause.
One tactic, I’ve mentioned before under other topics, is that we can use our descriptive prose to create a pause. We could have:
‘I don’t know… maybe.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘maybe.’
By putting something as simple as ‘he said’ in the middle where the ellipses might usually go we can create a brief pause, we could make this longer by putting slightly more description in:
‘I don’t know,’ he said, considering the table top. ‘Maybe.’
This creates a longer pause than an ellipses that can give the impression of the character thinking while showing the reader what they’re doing while they think. We can then imply whether they are comfortable or being forced into a decision.
One time when ellipses is incorrectly used, though I don’t like the word ‘incorrectly’, is when a character is interrupted by another character rather than they trail off and then the other character picks up. An interruption isn’t always the same as a character finishing another character’s sentence, some couples finish each other’s sentences without the potential aggression of an interruption, they simply know what the other person is going to say. For instance:
‘I don’t know…’
Is different from:
‘I don’t know –‘
The ellipses suggests that the sentence is finished, albeit hesitantly, while the hyphen suggests that the sentence was going to continue further but was stopped by the interruption. In this instance we probably wouldn’t use a dialogue tag after the hyphen or before the other person speaks because it would create a pause.
‘I don’t know –‘ he said.
He interrupted, ‘Maybe?’
This doesn’t quite look or sound right, by adding the dialogue tags we’ve slowed down the interruption and made it look less like an interruption. Ideally if we have one character interrupting another then we want it to read fast and sudden. We might argue that a full stop could give this impression except if we did it would be:
‘I don’t know.’
This suggests that the sentence was definitively finished before the other person spoke so they characters are speaking one after another. In this instance it suggests that the character is definitively saying ‘I don’t know’ rather than hesitating or potentially expressing a reason why they don’t know but are interrupted.
Grammar is important in dialogue, which doesn’t mean it has to be grammatical but we’ll look at that later. Our grammar choices suggest how our characters are speaking and by suggesting how they are speaking we can suggest how they are thinking in a moment. In short sometimes our characters don’t know. Other times they don’t know…
ADDITION (2/5/17): A space may be put before … ellipses … but this a style choice therefore not technically correct or incorrect.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.