Ellipses . . . The Silent Killer

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 heartβ€”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 wrongβ€”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’tβ€””

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.

 


 

The late, great Charles M. Schulz is the only creator I give a full pass on ellipses.

A nice write-up on the proper use of ellipses and em dashes in dialogue.

 

The Weekend I Built a Dream Machine

Way back when we lived in our first apartment, my wife went away for the weekend. My best buddies were all busy, so I debated how to spend this sudden influx of me-time. Eat nothing but pizza? Marx Brothers marathon? Read all of Wikipedia?

I threw on a bootleg Muppet Babies DVD and built a Dream Machine.

Dream Machine animated

Thanks to David Cronenberg and Peter Weller, I’d become a bit obsessed with William S. Burroughs. This led me to a device designed by his friends Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville. Gysin thought the dreamachine would find its way into every home, as ubiquitous as a television set.

The hardest part about building my dreamachine was finding a cheap record player that played at 78 rpm (I have a decent turntable now, but I wouldn’t use it for a dreamachine–it might damage the motor). Most thrift store turntables only play 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, which will work but doesn’t look as cool. My mom was the one to find me an old school record player–“old school” as in 1970s public education–and the rest was just elbow grease.

Everything I used to build my machine:

Basic tools: craft blade, large flat piece of cardboard, electrical tape, large t-square , card stock, screwdriver

1. 78rpm turntable

2. 34″x32″ craft butcher paper

3. Thrift-store lamp

4. Light bulb cord and bulb

dream machine base

My wife supplied me with the black butcher paper. Following plans from the internet (check the links at the bottom), I created a grid with a t-square and used my card stock stencil patterns for the shapes. The most expensive part of the whole project was getting the thing laminated for stability. I met with some resistance on that step–the folks at the Kinko’s worried my paper might get torn up in the machine. If I built another one, I’d use a sturdier material that wouldn’t need lamination.

dream machine bulb

The lamp portion came from a thrift store, and I was able to connect it to the turntable through the tonearm hole (hence the need for a screwdriver to open up the turntable). The bulb hangs from a short light bulb cord, available at any hardware store. At one point the inside of the column was coated with sparkly wrapping paper, but it has long since come unstuck. Electrical tape holds the column together and keeps it on top of an old polka record.

You use the machine by leaning in quite close with your eyes closed. The spinning column causes the light to pulse at the right frequency, which you can adjust by the height you’re looking and the turntable speed adjustment. With your eyes closed, you see fractals and other shapes, much like when your rub your eyes. Worth the effort? I think so. It’s great for getting in the mood to write. And not only is it relaxing and meditative, it makes for a great conversation piece. It’s nice to combine it with headphones and some Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, or Portishead.

Dream Machine and me

My buddy Dustin Taylor took this photo during my author photo session.

(WARNING: Obviously, flashing lights can be dangerous for some people, such as those with epilepsy. Never turn this thing on before checking with everyone.)

Resources for building your own dreamachine:

http://www.noah.org/science/dreamachine/

http://ultraculture.org/blog/2013/11/27/build-dream-machine/

Also of interest:

FlicKer, a full documentary about the Machine available on Youtube and Amazon Prime.

Excerts from The Flicker, a 1965 film by Tony Conrad with a similar effect. This one is viewed with the eyes open.

At the time I built my machine, I couldn’t find the column to purchase at a reasonable price. It looks like now you can get them here (US) and here (UK). I’m unaffiliated with these stores, and have no idea about the quality.

My Most Frustrating Time Suck–Songs I Can’t Remember but Can’t Get Out of my Head

I’ll mark this problem-solving post “Oddly Specific.” The moral is, if you have something standing in the way of your work, don’t just bang your head against the wall. Find a solution!

It never fails. I sit down at my desk to crank out a scene, and I start hearing a song in my head. I listen to music while I write, so it’s usually not a problem–I fire up YouTube or the turntable and listen to whatever is on my mind.

But sometimes I don’t know what song is on an endless loop in my head.

If I can remember enough to google a lyric, it’s still not a problem. I can fire up YouTurn or the tubetable and get it out of my system.

The disaster arises when I have enough song in my head to drive me insane, but not enough to figure out which song is slowly killing me. You’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal, and maybe it isn’t–for normal people, I mean. But I have lost entire writing sessions to this madness, because the band in my head will not stop playing until I hear the song.

Just writing about this is giving me a headache, like my head is in a Three Stooges vice. Let me go grab an analgesic

Whew. Okay.

If this ever happens to you, hold off a little longer on seeking professional help, because here is the solution: Reddit’s r/tipofmytongue, a place where people help you remember what’s just on the tip of your tongue. When several “What was the name of that book?” forums failed me, the people there helped me remember the name of a children’s book my grandma used to read me. They’ve also saved me from a padded cell with a few songs.

Revolt of the Darumas, The

Finding this book was harder than decoding the Zodiac Killer’s unsolved cipher.

Sometimes it takes some time for those geniuses to figure it out, but the act of asking can be enough to get the music out of my head so I can work.

So next time you need help remembering a random factoid, make a Reddit account if you need to and remember to follow the rules for posting a request.

One more tip if you share my stuck song problem: keep a list that is easily accessible. Wasting precious working time only to realize it’s the second time you’re tried to remember the song is enough to drive a man to drink

I know I’ve plugged Reddit once before, but I promise I’m unaffiliated.

As for the much worse time suck I may have introduced you to, avoid Reddit on a day you’re trying to work–unless you have a song stuck in your head.

 

black-divider-no-background-md

Oh, you want to know some of the mystery songs I’ve had stuck in my head? Not all of these required a trip to TIPOFMYTONGUE.

That one song, it starts with organs and then the guitar comes in and goes DINEH DEH DINEH DEH. Not by The Postal Service!

That one song where a woman–at least I remember it being a woman–sings RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN…

That one (maybe?) creepy song where a man keeps yelling, “Who watches over you?”

That one song where the guy keeps repeating, “I could sleep. I could slee-eep. I could sleep. I could slee-eep.”

That one ’80s song that gets stuck in my head. I think it’s in heavy rotation at the supermarket?

That one ’90s song sung by the lady that looks a little like my aunt and played on VH1 all the time around 1995.