Here’s a brief guide to using the ellipsis when self-editing fiction. Ellipses are a useful device for showing a character’s state of mind, or their intentions, and they can deliver a lighter touch than actually stating the stage directions. But, as with all techniques in writing, the key is to be in control of how you use your ellipses; it’s important to know when and when not to use them.
What is an ellipsis?
An ellipsis is simply three dots, which can be used in speech and thoughts. As illustrated here from a short passage from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, the ellipsis can show trepidation:
‘Mummy, I wanted to ask you something. How … how old were you when you had me?’
The ellipsis can show confusion, an incomplete thought, or, as in this next example, the gaps suggest the hesitation is coming from a desire to be deliberately vague and play games.
‘I was thirteen … no, wait … I was forty-nine. Whatever. Why do you care? What’s it to you, daughter of mine?’
And, they can also show a trailing off at the end of a thought or speech.
‘I was just wondering …’ I said.
In this exchange those three dots speak volumes about the things Eleanor doesn’t say. I read here that Eleanor would like to quiz Mummy further, but she lacks the confidence to do so, and, based on the earlier response from Mummy, she probably knows there’s not much point. I also sense other emotions being conveyed by the silence: disappointment in herself for not having the strength to push Mummy for the real answer, also despondency and resignation because she’ll probably never know the truth. It would take a lot of words to convey the same feelings, whereas the ellipsis leaves the reader to fill in the blanks and work things out for themselves. This delivers a much richer, more involving experience for readers than if Honeyman had explained that Eleanor trailed off and then named her emotions.
How to present ellipses in fiction
As you can see from the example above, an ellipsis should have a space either side of it when it appears in the middle of a sentence. When the ellipsis appears at the end of a sentence there should be a space between the last word and the first dot. Like this:
‘I don’t know … or perhaps, perhaps I do. It seems familiar, but then …’
Beware of overusing the ellipsis
Whilst ellipses are useful to show hesitation, it’s easy to use them too often. When this happens the text can end up feeling hesitant itself. This can create a sense that the author isn’t confident, the prose can feel breathless, and the risk is that the reader ends up distracted, or even frustrated, by the frequent pauses. Decisiveness gives readers confidence in the author; so a firmer choice of punctuation, such as the full stop, shows tightness and control.
So, that’s the ellipsis for fiction in a nutshell. It’s a really useful punctuation tool for depicting mood and motive, and the more judicious the use the bigger the impact.