On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

Salutations, literos and literas. Welcome to another edition of your favorite show, Stuff Amanda Hates! If you ask the husband, this show is on all day every day at our house, so enjoy a little piece of our life today.

So, here’s something that’s likely a familiar device:

“Can you tell me what happened before the…the incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some…unpleasantness”

Ellipses here act as euphemism alerts, being perfectly substitutable with throat clearing. Not so bad, right? Especially awesome when portraying mafia bosses or uncomfortable co-workers.

Gangster Looking Threatening

“If you don’t pay up, see, your pet hamster, he may have a little…accident.”

This technique exists for a reason in writing. The intricacies of our everyday dialogue are easy to take for granted until you try to replicate them in speech. With an ellipsis, the author want to convey maybe an awkward “ahem” as the speaker looks for a word that will soften the blow that would come from a more representative description. Or perhaps the author wants to portray a pause as a character struggles to define something that defies being boiled down to language. It might even just be used to emphasize the word that comes after the ellipsis. In any case, the ellipsis is a tool that allows authors to paint an in-text picture of what real, spoken or internal dialogue looks like.

Or does it?

(Hint: NO. Though I suppose that’s a more of an answer than a hint.)

It took listening to an audiobook for me to realize this isn’t realistic at all. We’re listening to Hyperion, which is a fabulous book. It’s completely unjust of me to nit pick the one thing I haven’t liked about it, so please don’t be dissuaded. But Hyperion is chalk full of this use of ellipses, especially in the section we’re listening to now—Brawne Lamia’s story, if you’re familiar. It’s used in the first paragraph (“merely…beautiful”).  It’s used 30 times in the first 12 pages of the section. I stopped counting after 30.

The sheer amount of times it’s used here is made much more obvious by listening to real humans read the text and “act” through the ellipses. And it’s here that I realized that the ellipses aren’t doing anything to make dialogue reflect real conversation patterns at all. Take this:

“It’s like that. Memories that feel…hollow.”

Read that aloud, like you’re a voice actor. Give the amount of pause you would if you were reading a script. You can hear how it’s supposed to be said, right? You’ve probably watched T.V. shows or movies that act as your instructor. Think of Spock from Star Trek. Then, think about how you’d talk to your friends about a memory that felt empty. Even if you were struggling to come up with a word, would you just leave a long, empty pause in there as you thought of the word? You would say, “the memories feel kind of, I don’t know, empty” or something similar.

Now, I’m not at all saying authors should write in all manner of vocal pauses in an attempt to make their conversations as real as possible. You edit out the cruft of everyday speech. But I’ll tell you what you probably shouldn’t do either is write in a supposed-speech-mimic device that’s actually something only employed by actors, i.e., people who have fake conversations.

Listening to the voice actors in the audiobook speak to another with these prolonged pauses struck me as unnatural at best and melodramatic at worst. I can’t think of many instances where it wouldn’t be better to apply italics for emphasis or a phrase like “I don’t know” or “[character] paused to think” to indicate struggle. Check it out my earlier examples.

“Can you tell me what happened before the, er, incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some”—he raised his eyebrows—”unpleasantness.”

And it’s not even necessarily that this way is more natural. It’s just less obviously unnatural, and it’s way easier reading. It’s an opportunity to be more descriptive and ignore the temptation to be lazy with language. Meanwhile, ellipses to indicate pause also draw attention to themselves and interrupt the text. Don’t take readers out of the moment!

Now, I’m not completely against the ellipses as “ahem” or “insert deeply thoughtful pause here.” You might prefer it to the tactics above, and that’s fine. Also, there are cases that I think really call for it. Take this, out of the same section in Hyperion, when Brawne has been asked to call another character by his first name:

“Yeah, M…ah, Johnny, most of my work falls under that category”

I’d say that the ellipsis is right choice to portray this corrected speech in writing. But know that it in no way represents real speech patterns. If you feel like it does, pay attention to whether or not you’re hearing it being said in your inner actor’s voice. The pause doesn’t represent a part of real speech patterns. It represents overdramatization.

Like its friends the exclamation point, the cliche, and other potentially obnoxious devices, the ellipsis should be used very, very sparingly—if at all.

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One response to “On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

  1. Pingback: Hyperion: Overview | In Litero: An Evaluation of Literature

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