Have you ever wondered when it’s appropriate to use those three little dots in your prose? When used correctly, ellipses, as with most literary devices, can help with story progression and character development. But their efficacy will largely depend on how and where you place them in your story.
What do ellipses do?
Well, they have two primary functions:
1.) As a stylistic element, they allow the reader to infer meaning from the prose: whether formal speech patterns (pauses), the act of trailing off, or a switch in subject matter.
2.) They show that text has been omitted—mostly as a means of brevity.
In fiction, ellipses are most often found in speech or thought. Fictional dialogue is meant to feel real, but in reality, it would be impossible to mimic everyday speech without including a bunch of superfluous speech patterns: mis-starts, filler words, and repetitions. In normal speech, we ignore the “uhs” and “ums” of a speaker, but for readers, they’d be distracting. With this in mind, ellipses are one way an author can mimic certain pauses in spoken discourse without disorienting the reader.
Reasons to use ellipses:
(1) A character is trailing off in either thought or speech. This is usually indicative of some kind of cognitive shift. In the following example, Denna first thinks one thing, but then trails off when she realizes another thing (in this case, she realizes the truth).
“I’d have thought . . .” Denna looked over her shoulder at me. “Are you trying to trick me into singing for you?”– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
(2) To emphasize a character’s need to temporarily pause in speech. There are a number of reasons a character might pause: to search for a word, to question the validity of what he/she is saying, a certain emotional state (good or bad). Regardless, the pause allows them time to gather their thoughts just as we would in real life. For instance, in Prince of Fools, Jalan tries to buy time, so repetitive speech works in his favor and the ellipsis serves to show his desperation.
That was enough to let my bladder go. It wasn’t as if anyone would notice, soaked and reeking as I was. ‘C-come now, Maeres, you’re joking? I owe you money. Who’ll pay if I … if I don’t pay?’ He needed me. – Mark Lawrence
Same as in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The ellipsis shows that the MC is trying to mollify his father. In this case, he searches for a lie:
“I’ll apologize,” I told him. “I’ll say sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. She’s not a monster. She’s . . . she’s pretty.” – Neil Gaiman
Or the way Margaret Atwood’s character pauses to ponder the appropriateness of a word:
“Why don’t you ask him?” Toby would say. “Ask why he hasn’t . . .” Was proposed the right word? – The Year of the Flood
(3) To put certain elements in the background while foregrounding others in order to show something about the plot or character. What I mean is that something is going on in the background and needs to be separated in a “physical” way. For instance, when a character is supposed to be listening to someone speak, yet is instead thinking of something entirely unrelated to what the speaker is talking about, the ellipsis places the “less important” text in the background, thus insinuating the character’s boredom and lack of interest in the topic.
“. . . greater foe. Time to put aside thoughts of empty conquest and draw in . . .”
I looked up from my disgust to find Grandmother still droning on about war. It’s not that I care overmuch about honour. All that chivalry nonsense loads a man down and any sensible fellow will ditch it the moment he needs to run – but it’s the look of the thing, the form of it. – Prince of Fools, Mark Lawrence
Or, in reverse, sometimes the character’s speech is actually placed in contrast (in the background) to what he/she is actually thinking. This is effective character development. A character says one thing and thinks another.
Some of the customers could be demanding. They couldn’t understand why even the most advanced AnooYoo treatments wouldn’t make them twenty-one again. “Our laboratories are well on the way to age reversal,” Toby would tell them in soothing tones, “but they aren’t quite there yet. In a few years . . .”
If you really want to stay the same age you are now forever and ever, she’d be thinking, try jumping off the roof: death’s a sure-fire method for stopping time. — Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood
(4) Just as ellipses show a shift in thought patterns within a character, on a broader narrative level, they can show a shift between paragraphs or scenes. Ellipses, in this sense, serve as bridges between ideas, and they help ground the reader. As an example, if a character goes off on a tangent of (arguably) abstract thoughts, the ellipsis serves as a way of bringing the reader and character back to the story. For instance, when Kvothe speculates what may happen if he were to be living a storybook life, the ellipsis signifies the return of his imaginings to reality. (NB! Ellipses in brackets [ ] are my own, not a part of the passage. See number 2 of primary function of ellipses to understand why!)
I knew the shape of stories. When a young couple comes to a river there is a definite shape to what will happen next. […] She would slip and turn her ankle, or cut her foot on a sharp stone, and I’d be forced to rush over. And then . . .
But this was not a story of two young lovers meeting by the river. […] – Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
In conclusion . . .
When used well, ellipses serve the story. But as with any literary device, an overuse will only distract your reader. Find a balance, but don’t be afraid to experiment. As you can see from the examples, sometimes ellipses can add a spice to your story that shows something you wouldn’t be able to say any other way.