We all have our pet peeves. I know a woman that can’t stand the sound of someone rubbing a balloon. My dad has this thing about poor technique in the application of Elmer’s Glue. I’ve heard some great rants about inconsistent numbering in movie sequels.
I hate ellipses in dialogue.
My hatred for this punctuation borders on the irrational. If the third person narrator starts in with the ellipses, so help me, I will pull the eject lever.
Let me be clear: I don’t want to throw out the ellipsis altogether. It serves an important purpose in quoting sources, and the ellipses has a different effect when used in the word balloons of a comic book. My rant is directed only at the use of ellipses in a narrative.
Yes, there are even times an ellipsis is the perfect choice for character dialogue. But if you’re cramming the things into formal writing outside of a source quote, please, get help before it’s too late.
Here are three of my reasons you should leave out those hideous dot dot dots.
1. Ellipses make dialogue drag
Compare these two versions of a snippet of contrived speech:
“Abigail,” Ben said, “I love you. I’ve always loved you. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My heart—my heart has burned for you since the moment we met.”
“Abigail . . . ,” Ben said, “I love you . . . . I’ve always loved you. I . . . can’t sleep. I can’t . . . eat. My heart . . . my heart has burned for you . . . since the moment we met . . . .”
This is an exaggeration, but it demonstrates how ellipses suck the momentum out of dialogue. It also, to my surprise, made it sound like I cast Christopher Walken for the part of Ben.
If I don’t hear it in my mind as Christopher Walken or William Shatner, my mind translates it as drawing out the letters. “‘Abigailllllll,’ Ben said. ‘I love youuuuuuu.'”
Ellipses rob dialogue of momentum and urgency. They kill flow faster than mom’s spaghetti.
2. The Ellipsis is the wrong tool for the job.
Don’t get me wrong—I love dialogue that feels real. For better or worse, my favorite dialogue comes from folks like Joss Whedon and Brian Michael Bendis. I want my repartee witty, and I love false starts, stutters, and interruptions. In a perfect world, my dialogue would sound like the conversation you had with a friend that was so brilliant and funny, you curse yourself for not recording it.
But it’s incorrect to use ellipses for false starts, stutters, and being cut off. The proper punctuation in these instances is an em dash. Compare:
“Wait!” Abigail sceamed. “Ben, don’t . . .”
“Wait!” Abigail screamed. “Ben, don’t—”
In the second example, it looks like something interrupted Abigail. In the first, it sounds like Abigail had an attack of narcolepsy.
Ellipses don’t make conversations sound organic; they make your characters sound sleepy or bored. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to talk to someone who constantly trails off?
Use em dashes sparingly, or they will lose their effect, like exclamation points in old comic books. Unless you’re the Riddler, most sentences should end in a period.
If your character is inebriated, drugged, cripplingly shy, totally indecisive, or falling asleep, maybe an ellipsis is the right choice. Otherwise, think twice.
3. Ellipses are easy to screw up
I rarely see ellipses used correctly, and I have to look up the rules every time I use them. Which of the following is correct?
“I just don’t know . . . .”
“I just don’t know…”
I just don’t know? . . .”
Here’s a quick rundown on proper ellipsis usage. and Grammar Girl has a lengthy post on the same subject. But you’ll see disagreements everywhere about best practices. Just be consistent, and let the designer of your book deal with whatever your editor doesn’t cut for being boring or incorrect.
But if you’re doing your own book design like I am, you’ll have to decide what to do about ellipses. Despite my disdain, Monsters All the Way Down has three of them. Do I put a space in front of the ellipsis? Do I type a short space between the periods? If I use the glyph will the design police come for me in the night?
It is so much easier to just leave them out.
Of course, you can take all this advice or leave it. But your writing is important, so please be deliberate in your choices.