When I was a freshman in high school, the school drama club performed Christopher Sergel’s play Up the Down Staircase. In it, a young high-school teacher receives a love letter from one of his students. Not one to let a girl down gently, he asks her to stay after class, at which point he reads it back to her with his corrections:
Each time this monologue was delivered, the audience erupted into laughter. Sure, the guy playing Paul had great comedic timing, but that was only part of what made it hilarious. Mostly, the scene works because overuse of ellipses is as common in amateur (as well as adolescent) writing as said bookisms and comma splices. This isn’t to say you should never use ellipses in fiction. There are some instances in which you can confidently (and quite correctly) bust out those three little dots.
Use ellipses in dialogue to indicate a character is trailing off.
This is not to be confused with dashes, which are used to show interruption.
“But I thought…” She shook her head, sighing. “I don’t know what I thought.”
“You didn’t think; that’s the problem. If you used what’s between your ears half as much as you use what’s between your legs–”
“How dare you!”
Use ellipses to show part of a conversation is being omitted, e.g. one side of a phone conversation.
“Hello… Yes, this is she… Go die in a fire; I’m on the Do Not Call list.”
Ellipses may also be used within dialogue to indicate a pause.
“He would never do that…would he?”
This one is a bit dicier. From a grammatical standpoint, the above sentence is correct. However, it tells readers the character hesitates without showing them why or how—information which can greatly strengthen the scene.
“He would never do that.” She replays his answers in her head, hoping to reassure herself. The more she thinks about it, she realizes how vague he’s been when she’s asked him about his ATM withdrawals. Her heart beats faster; she feels her face heat up. “Would he?”
Using a beat in place of an ellipsis is a good way to make sure you’re showing readers a scene, rather than simply relaying what is being spoken. And what’s the first rule of writing fiction? Show; don’t tell.
This post was suggested by an EBS user with the enthusiastic support of EBS co-founder Detochkina, who despises the overuse of ellipses as intensely as she loves designer footwear. If there’s a topic you’d like to see covered, leave a comment or tweet @sleepyvalentina.