The Everlasting Ellipsis – How to Use the Ellipsis in Novel Writing

Use Us Sparingly!

Use Us Sparingly!

I recently gave a presentation at a writers retreat about editing your finished novel before you send it off to the publisher. I haven’t ever done something like that before, but I really enjoyed it. I wrote up my first-ever power-point presentation, and practiced and practiced, editing the presentation to be sharper, clearer, eliminating unnecessary slides or inserting little cartoons periodically to keep my audience’s attention. It was so much fun, that I hope to do it again! It finally brought my two “selves” together – the teacher in me with the writer in me.

And as a side benefit – I can break up that one hour into at least a dozen blog posts – maybe more!

Which brings me to today’s topic:

The Use and Misuse of the Ellipsis in Novel Writing.

An Ellipsis, of course, are the three dots that we use to indicate a pause in a character’s dialog. Just a trivia note- a single ellipsis is three dots. Each dot is called “an ellipsis point”. If you want to make ellipsis plural – talking about more than one set of three dots, it is then called “ellipses.” (Notice that I put the period INSIDE the closing quotation mark. This is correct!)

It is acceptable to use an ellipsis to show a pause in the character’s dialog or thoughts. For example:

Karen thought and thought… and then thought some more.

However, I warn, use ellipses sparingly! Too many, and your character may come across as suffering from Alzheimer’s!

“I… I… well… I kind of… hoped… you know… that it would… work?”

When to Use an m-dash Instead of an Ellipsis

Some authors will incorrectly use the ellipsis to show someone stuttering, like if they were drowning and crying out for help. Remember, the ellipsis is to show a PAUSE. You would not pause when you are crying out for help. Instead of writing:

“Please… please, hurry… I can’t swim!”

You should use the m-dash instead – which would not indicate a pause:

“Please — please — hurry! I can’t swim!”

Use Words, Not Punctuation, to Tell Your Story

A large part of my presentation on punctuation was pointing out that we should use WORDS, not punctuation, to tell a story. So if your character is stuttering, describe that. If your character is hemming and hawing to avoid giving an answer… describe that. Using punctuation inappropriately is like cheating on a test.

Don’t fret about ellipses on your rough draft. Just get the story down! But before you submit it, type an ellipsis into your find/replace function, and see how many times you have used it in your story. Then scan – how many times did you use it correctly? How many times could you delete the ellipsis and replace it with description? How many times do you think is too many?

I felt that less than ten was probably fine. One hundred fifty times is overkill.

You will find the ellipsis used excessively and incorrectly in published books. So if you really, really disagree with me here, you could probably continue mis-unsing the ellipsis and still get published. But I firmly believe that if you replace many ellipses with description or dialog, you will have a stronger, more interesting novel.

One final note that I forgot to include in my presentation:



“You don’t say…!”

Right. How would you say “what…?” The ellipsis is to show a pause in thought. How do you say ‘what’ then pause, and then turn it into a question? It just can’t be done. Honest!

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