How can I break my habit of using ellipses?
Published: June 30, 2011
Q: I have an amateurish habit of using ellipses, the three dots all in a row that are supposed to indicate “hesitation, interruption, or unfinished thoughts.” Should there be spaces in between each dot? What about before and after?
A: An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is three spaced periods with a space before the first period and also usually after the last period. Here’s a line of dialogue from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that illustrates what ellipses should look like:
“Williams . . . I believe . . . you were supposed to have the windows of the Nurses’ Station polished by the time I arrived this morning.”
If an ellipsis comes at the end of a complete sentence, include the period that ends the sentence and the complete ellipsis, as in this sentence from Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
“Oh, there are numerous possibilities,” the doctor says, sitting up straight in his chair and really warming to it. “Why, I’ve got a million ideas. . . .”
Notice that there is no space between the last period in the ellipsis and the closing quotation mark. If the ellipsis comes at the end of a phrase that is not a complete sentence, then don’t include an end-of-sentence period, as in this line, also from Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
“Myself,” McMurphy drawls, “I’d be honored to work a skillo wheel. Had a little experience . . .”
So, that answers the question you asked, but the question you alluded to but didn’t ask—about how to break the habit of using so many ellipses—is an important one. I’ll cover that next.
Q: How do I break my habit of using so many ellipses?
A: The first task is to make sure you’re using the ellipsis properly. In his essay “Teeth Gnashing,” Dan Wakefield writes that the ellipsis is a favorite among writing students:
It is commonly and erroneously used, however, to indicate the author’s belief that something tremendously significant is going on, something that can’t be . . . expressed . . . in ordinary words. Something like this:
“He looked deeply into her eyes. . . . Then he turned away.”
Skip the ellipsis and find just the right action, gesture, description or bit of dialogue that conveys the complexity and emotion of the moment.
In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall McMurphy is committed to a psychiatric hospital in which patients are treated poorly. One day, McMurphy is sitting on a bench with a group of fellow patients, waiting in line for a chest X-ray to check for tuberculosis. As they talk, McMurphy learns the startling information that many of the patients are in the hospital voluntarily. McMurphy has a powerful moment of realization. Instead of leaving this moment unexplored with an ellipsis, Kesey focuses on McMurphy’s action and dialogue to reveal something about his character and his experience:
McMurphy turns round to the rest of the guys and opens his mouth to ask something else, and then closes it when he sees how they’re looking at him. He stands there a minute with the row of eyes aimed at him like a row of rivets; then he says, “Hell’s bells,” in a weak sort of way, and he puts his cap back on and pulls it down hard and goes back to his place on the bench. The two technicians come back from coffee and go back in that room across the hall; when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door.
While capturing the inexpressible isn’t the domain of the ellipsis, it can be used to create a pause or suggest that an action or bit of dialogue is incomplete or soon to continue. The fiction writer, however, has other techniques to accomplish these tasks. The ellipsis isn’t a one-size-fits-all bit of punctuation for a pause or trailing off. It should be used sparingly and only after you’ve assessed other options. You may find you can accomplish more with other approaches.
A simple pause or hesitation in dialogue may be more effective when filled with actions or details that deepen the reader’s understanding of the moment. For example, McMurphy has a conversation with another patient, Harding, who tells him about the aftermath of electroshock therapy:
“You forget things. It’s as if”—he presses his hands against his temples, shutting his eyes—“it’s as if the jolt sets off a wild carnival wheel of images, emotions, memories. These wheels, you’ve seen them; the barker takes your bet and pushes a button. Chang! With light and sound and numbers round and round in a whirlwind, and maybe you win with what you end up with and maybe you lose and have to play again. Pay the man for another spin, son pay the man. ”
Kesey includes narrative in the pause Harding takes: “he presses his hands against his temples, shutting his eyes.” This shows the effort, thought and emotion that exists within that pause and gives way to the flood of words that follow. This pause has action and tension, which an ellipsis would not provide.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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