Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

How Do I...? Ellipses

When I wrapped up my 4-part series on dark stories, I thought I’d spend a couple of months writing one-off posts before tackling another meaty project. Then inspiration struck hard with a story idea that is slow-mo exploding into a novel-length piece. Easily the longest thing I’ve ever planned for the blog. “Crystal Towers” was just the beginning, folks.

I used ellipses several times in that Friday Fiction. So let’s talk a bit more about how to use ellipses in your own writing.

I was wondering how you were going to segue into this. Smooth. Real smooth.

I’ve done far worse. Trust me.

Everyone knows what ellipses are, but when it comes to using them, there’s not a lot of definitive advice. The one rule that you’ll find consistently is that they’re used to indicate when and where you’re skipping over parts of a quoted text. (You can see an example of this in the block quote featured in last month’s post.) That’s very helpful for academic pieces. For creative writing, not so much. As a result, writers tend to make up their own rules or avoid ellipses entirely.

The one consensus around ellipses that I’ve noticed in fiction is that they’re used in dialogue to signal an incomplete thought. There are a number of story-specific situations that could justify using them, so I’ll focus on the most common scenarios here.

Stopping a Sentence Short

For any number of reasons, a character can choose to stop a sentence short and leave the thought incomplete. It could be as simple as the character starting the sentence, changing their mind, and starting over with a new sentence.

No use dwelling on it. Just… Tell me straight. Does this mean that we’re all screwed?

Other times, a character may abandon the sentence and thought entirely. Their silence can prompt other characters to continue the scene without them.

A: I’m saying, he’s…

B: He’s what?

C: Yes, what am I?

B: Oh! Hey, man. Didn’t see you there.

Interruptions

Characters getting interrupted is another common scenario you’ll run into. Characters can easily interrupt each other.

You must think me callous for…

Boss. I told you then, and I’ll keep telling you. Uzun died doing what she loved. She had no regrets.

Characters can also be interrupted by things happening around them.

“Don’t you ever worry that one day those kids will…?”

A baseball crashed through the window.

Note that the question above still gets a question mark after the ellipses. This makes it clear to the reader that the character talking was asking a question before the baseball interrupted them. Incomplete sentences and phrases that would usually end with an exclamation mark follow the same logic.

Finishing Each Other’s Sentences

Another situation you may run into is characters finishing each other’s sentences. Rhythmically, this is no different than an interruption, but it’s a semantically unique case. You’re spreading out a single thought between multiple characters. You can use ellipses to clue the reader into what is happening and prompt them to connect these incomplete phrases together. Mark the end and beginning of each character’s line with ellipses. Once you reach the end of the sentence, punctuate it like normal.

B: I’ll keep them confused. Cipher…

C: …stop anyone trying to escape, and you’ll…

A: …go for the jugular.

B: We’ll back you up if you need us.

C: Sounds like a plan.

What are some other ways you’ve seen ellipses used in fiction? Has this post inspired you to vary up your dialogue? What would you like to see me talk about on the next “How Do I?” Leave your comments down below.

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