What is an ellipsis?
An ellipsis is a series of periods used to indicate a gap in a quotation, a pause in the middle of a sentence, or a thought that trails off at the end of a sentence.
What is a dash?
A dash is used to indicate an interruption in dialogue, to introduce a list of items, or to signal an explanation the writer wants to emphasize.
Ellipses and dashes are not interchangeable, but the misuse of either and both is common. A dash is a highlighter. An ellipsis takes the place of missing words.
Let’s move into show, not tell, now. Some examples of how to use an ellipsis:
~ To indicate a gap in a quotation:
“Ask not what your country can do…for your country.”
~ To indicate a pause in the middle of sentence:
I asked my country for help…but it said no.
~ To show a thought trailing off:
Sidney walked up to the organizer on his two healthy legs and volunteered. After all his country had done for him….
^^^Notice in this last example, there are four dots (periods) instead of three. An ellipsis is written as three periods. At the end of a sentence, a fourth period is added to show the end of the sentence.
Now let’s consider the use of dashes:
~ To indicate an interruption in dialogue.
“Come on, Sidney, join the cause. Remember, ask not what your country—“
“Okay, okay! If I sign the petition, will you quit imitating my mother?”
~ To introduce a list of items:
I stared out at the crush of people in the street and flashed back to my trip to Oklahoma–the freshly plowed fields, the red barn catching the sun, the cows clustered by the creek–and felt like I was on a different planet.
~ To emphasize a thought:
“Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Used properly, ellipses and dashes add variety to sentence structure and the pacing of the narrative.
Like any other style choice, using dashes and ellipses too often can jumble up the writing and make it less effective.
Overusing ellipses can make a character sound like a hem-and-haw addict. It’s frustrating to converse with someone who never completes a thought. The same applies to reading a character who too often lets his mind wander.
Too many dashes is disruptive to the narrative flow and defeats the purpose if that purpose is to highlight a thought. By emphasizing too many thoughts, the emphasis gets diluted.
Are you a dash addict? Do your characters peter off their thoughts all the time, sometimes, or only once in a while? Do you understand the difference between 3 dots and 4 now?
Tomorrow’s topic: How To Write an Episodic Story