Have you decided whether to give the verb first or the name first in speech tags? And what about their position? Should they always go after a line of dialogue, or is there something to gain by placing them elsewhere? Here, I discuss these subjects, getting some input from thriller-writing royalty in the shape of the great Tess Gerritsen
Be Your Own Copy Editor #9
When you write speech tags in your novel, do you put a character’s name first, then give the verb, or do you give the verb first, then a name? Here’s an example of the name-first style to make it clear what I’m talking about:
‘What we’re gonna do is break into Paris Hilton’s mansion and kidnap Tinkerbell, her chihuahua,’ Jez said.
Here, the verb comes first:
‘No, man,’ said Reginald. ‘Bad plan. We should wait till the maid be walking that bling-encrusted rat out on the street, then go scoop it up.’
Maybe you haven’t actually considered the order in which you give the name and verb in your speech tags. I say that because a fair number of authors whose work I copy-edit haven’t thought the issue through and mix the two styles without realising they’re doing it. Sometimes they write ‘Character X said’, and sometimes ‘said Character X’. Yet the issue deserves attention, because each of the two approaches produces a different effect.
In their classic book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King describe the verb-first style as having ‘a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavour . . . After all, “said he” fell out of favour sometime during the Taft administration.’ They do have something of a point. (Note to fellow Brits: Taft was president of the United States from 1909 to 1913.) Writers of contemporary genre fiction usually opt to give the name first – ‘Jez said’ and so on – and advocates of this style include the late, great Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. This way of ordering speech tags has a tougher edge to it than the verb-first option, and it’s particularly suited to streetwise crime fiction. I would say it’s pretty much the convention in genre fiction in general, in fact. However, Browne and King are stretching their point when they talk about ‘said he’ and President Taft, since no writer I’ve ever come across who puts the verb first when using a name also puts the verb first when using a pronoun. Instead, when a pronoun is used it always goes first, as in the following passage.
Jez looked out the window of the diner and scanned fifty yards of sidewalk Paris Hilton’s chihuahua passed along each day. ‘There’s one big problem with your plan,’ he said. ‘And that big problem weighs two hundred forty pounds and got a concealed-carry permit.’
Which brings me to another way of ordering speech tags – one I’m calling the Tess Gerritsen approach. What the thriller writer Tess Gerritsen does is mix the noun-first and verb-first styles in a consistent and logical way. If she’s using a character’s name, 99 per cent of the time she gives the verb first, but if she’s using a pronoun, she puts the pronoun first. Let’s look at that approach in action.
Reginald stopped eating his chicken burger for a moment and frowned. ‘The chihuahua got a bodyguard?’ he said.
‘A Muay Thai instructor they call Stone Foot,’ said Jez, nodding.
I don’t detect a first-grade-reader flavour there.
When I noticed Tess Gerritsen does something different from most authors with her speech tags, I sent her an email asking her about her approach. Now, Tess Gerritsen writes at more or less the pace of a novel a year, she has sold over 25 million books, and her crime-fiction series has been adapted into a highly popular TV series called Rizzoli & Isles, which is going to run for a fifth season in 2014. What I’m building up to saying here is that though I sent Tess Gerritsen an email, I didn’t expect her to actually reply. Yet she very kindly did, saying she wasn’t aware she has a system for speech tags. She also talked about her approach to them in general.
‘My general philosophy is to use as few of them as possible, only for clarity, and make the dialogue itself do most of the work,’ she said. ‘But sometimes you just need to identify who is talking, and my favourite word is, simply, said at the end of the sentence. It’s unobtrusive and gets the job done. However, that gets really repetitive after a while (“he said”, “she said”, “he said”, “she said”). So, just to inject a change in rhythm, I’ll sometimes move the tag to the beginning of the sentence.’
Avoiding repetition and getting the rhythm right are clearly important considerations for Tess Gerritsen (I’ll talk about how she therefore varies the position of the tag in a moment). Since she restricts herself to using said as her speech-tag verb most of the time, by placing said before characters’ names but after pronouns, she has found a way to avoid hitting the reader with said after names and pronouns again and again. Instead of, say, writing a sequence like ‘Jez said,’ ‘Reginald said,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, she would write ‘said Jez, ‘said Reginald,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.
If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought through how to order verbs and nouns in speech tags at all, it’s a good idea to give the subject some consideration when you self-edit your manuscript and adopt a well-thought-out and consistent approach that suits your style and the kind of novel you’re writing. You might want to check on what approach authors who influence you take, too. Whatever style you decide to use, remember to align your thought tags – the tags you use with inner monologue, if you use them – so they follow the same pattern as the speech-tag one. For example, if you opt to give the name or pronoun first in all cases, you should write thought tags like the one in the passage that follows:
Jez took out his smartphone and looked at photos of Tinkerbell’s crib on Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. That mutt got a better home than I got, he thought.
Let’s now look at the topic of the positioning of speech tags, which Tess Gerritsen talks about, saying she sometimes likes to put the tag before a line of dialogue to change the rhythm. Here are the three options, starting with tag first:
Reginald said, ‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money,’ Reginald said, ‘we gonna mail her a paw?’
‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’ Reginald said.
An advantage of the first style is it tells the reader who’s speaking straightaway. A disadvantage is that, since the speech tag comes before the line of dialogue, the tag isn’t as discreet as it could be, and it takes some of the limelight away from what the character says. The second style is interesting in that the speech tag acts as a brief interruption, creating a beat and thereby spotlighting what comes after it. The line of dialogue I’ve used in my examples has a punchy second clause, and by positioning the speech tag just before that clause, creating a pause, it’s given just a little bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have.
The advantage of the third style is that the line of dialogue is given in a fluid flourish and takes centre stage. The disadvantage is that the speech tag is there to tell the reader who’s speaking, and placing the tag after the line of dialogue delays the delivery of that important information. On the other hand, the reader usually has a good idea who’s speaking, often because what’s being said and the way it’s being said make that obvious, or because characters are conversing in a clear pattern – for example, Jez says something, then Reginald says something, and then Jez speaks, and so on. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes, when using the third style, there’s a risk the reader won’t be absolutely sure who’s speaking till after he or she has read the actual dialogue, which is not good. Also, if you use a particular verb because you want to indicate how a line is said (shouted, whispered, etc.), the third style isn’t particularly satisfactory, because the reader will read the line and only afterwards discover that he or she was supposed to imagine it shouted or whispered or whatever.
By far the most common style, of course, is the third, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which either of the first two styles is used exclusively. Some writers opt to use the third style most of the time and mix in a few examples of either the first (Tess Gerritsen, for example) or the second, or both (Elmore Leonard liked to do this) to change the rhythm. If you’re a writer who always uses style number three, you might want to consider using the other two styles as well for the same reason.
Look through your manuscript to see if you’ve adopted a consistent and logical approach to the order in which you use verbs and nouns in speech tags and thought tags. If you find you haven’t, think the matter through and decide on a style. You might want to read novels by your favourite authors for inspiration. The usual style in genre fiction is to give the name or pronoun first in all cases. The Tess Gerritsen approach is well worth considering, too.
If you always place your speech tags after lines of dialogue, think about using the other two positions illustrated in the examples above to vary the rhythm.
So, this blog has been a long time coming – was my last one really six months ago? Oh dear. I promise to try to up my blog rate from a pitiful twice a year to once a month.
How much thought have you given to the verbs you’re using to carry dialogue in your novel? Elmore Leonard believes said is the only verb you should use, yet there are accomplished writers out there ignoring his recommendation. Who’s right?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #8
It’s impossible to talk about choosing verbs to use for speaker attributions in the context of writing genre fiction without taking into consideration what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject. You may have read Leonard’s highly influential essay ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’, first published in the New York Times in 2001 and later published as a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In case you haven’t, though, and you’re also unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard and his novels, let me explain that he’s about as ‘show, don’t tell’ as it’s possible for a writer to be without completely disappearing in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Leonard’s characters receive his book royalties, not Leonard. Anyway, in the New YorkTimes essay, Leonard talks about how he makes himself invisible in his work. One of his invisibility cloaks is rule three: ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ He says, ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’
Most of the writers of the novels I edit more or less follow Leonard’s injunction. Said is definitely the verb du jour. Some writers who have a strong preference for said also use an occasional asked or replied, but that’s usually about it. However, there are authors out there doing good work with a bigger verb palette than Leonard recommends you use. Ian Rankin, whom I talked about two blogs ago, is one of them. A few percent of the way into Standing in Another Man’s Grave (I read the book on my Kindle), Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, we’ve racked up intoned, repeated, asked, replied and muttered, as well as said. Like Leonard, Rankin is both a great stylist and writes cracking dialogue. He’s also at the ‘show, don’t tell’ end of the storytelling spectrum, and no one’s going to get far accusing him of making schoolboy errors in terms of craft. So who’s right? Leonard or Rankin?
Of course, really there is no right or wrong. Leonard writes like Leonard, Rankin writes like Rankin, and their choice of language works for them and the type of characters and worlds they are trying to portray. Using said alone is entirely in keeping with the macho dynamics of Leonard’s novels, whose characters keep their cards close to their chests and are more likely to pull a gun than gasp or grumble. But if, say, you were writing a novel set in the world of haute couture and writing scenes in which make-up artists, fashion designers, hairstylists and models flap about and have hissy fits backstage during a runway show, you might not want to use said after said after said.
That’s not to say, however, there aren’t both good verb choices and choices of the not-so-great variety.
Let’s take a good look at Leonard’s position. He’s certainly right that said is the most transparent, most discreet verb available. It sits unobtrusively in a sentence containing direct speech, usually nestling after the most important bit, the dialogue itself. Part of the reason said has such a discreet presence in dialogue-giving sentences is it’s also the main verb we use in informal conversation when we report direct speech. When was the last time you had a coffee with someone and he or she relayed gossip by saying things like ‘Then I commented . . . Then she stated . . . Then he probed . . . Then I countered . . .’? Doesn’t happen, does it? Usually said is used. Said is so bedded in, in both fiction and speech, that it is hardly noticeable. It performs the function of linking speaker to spoken in as mechanical a way as is possible with a verb. So said is definitely a good choice if invisibility is what you’re after.
However, like people often do when they’re trying to make a point, Leonard skews the debate somewhat. He backs up his argument for only using said by rattling off a few highly undesirable verbs when he gives examples demonstrating the perils of veering from said, and he ignores verbs for which sounder arguments can be found.
First, let’s look at a couple of those bad verbs Leonard cites and pin down why they aren’t good. If you look up to gasp at Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), you will find it says it can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech – in other words, it’s acceptable in grammar terms to use to gasp to carry dialogue. Of course to gasp can also be used as an intransitive verb – one which doesn’t take an object – that means, quoting ODO, to ‘catch one’s breath with an open mouth’.
Before we continue, let me run through that grammar, since it underpins the discussion a little. When you write a line of dialogue and couple it with a speaker attribution, the dialogue is the grammatical object. Look at this:
‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever,’ Ian said.
In that sentence, Ian is the subject, said is the verb, and ‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever’ is the object. The verb to say is transitive; it needs an object. Someone has to say something. In this case, the something someone – Ian – says is the line bigging up Timothy Dalton. Now look at this:
‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,’ Rita gasped.
That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence in terms of grammar, since, as ODO says, to gasp can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech. You can say someone gasps a line of dialogue, in other words. However, though it may be acceptable grammatically, try catching your breath with an open mouth and speaking at the same time and you quickly realise it’s not actually possible to do both those things at once. (Even if it were, you’d need to use to gasp in conjunction with a verb like to say to reflect two actions are being performed simultaneously.) In which case, when an author writes that a character gasped a line of dialogue, what does he or she mean to say happened?
I have no idea, and I suspect the writer of a line like that hasn’t thought through what he or she is saying either. A sentence like the one above has no connection with the real world. It exists in a category of artificiality marked ‘literature’; it doesn’t represent an attempt to accurately evoke the world out there on the page.
But in my imagination I can see and hear a character gasping in horror or astonishment, then saying something, a sequence of actions to gasp can help convey in its guise as a no-object verb.
Rita gasped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
Other verbs writers sometimes try to use in the same way as to gasp include to chuckle, to sigh and to laugh (I say ‘try to’, since we copy editors are likely to cull them). None of these three verbs bear the fig leaf of respectability conferred by a listing in ODO as an object-taking verb used in conjunction with direct speech. All three are no-object verbs, which means they don’t have the grammar credentials to carry dialogue, though I have to say it seems somewhat arbitrary to me that we green-light gasped in grammar terms but not chuckled and sighed. So, chuckled, sighed and laughed should be rejected as dialogue carriers before you’ve even thought about whether it’s possible to chuckle, sigh or laugh a sentence, which of course it’s not, and so should other verbs of their kind. On the other hand, if you do think someone can, say, both laugh and speak simultaneously – and I advise you to try whatever combination of action and speech you wish to portray – you might want to add a present participle after the dialogue-carrying verb, like this:
‘I can’t believe you think Timothy Dalton was a better Bond than Sean Connery,’ Rita said, laughing.
Now let’s take a look at lied, another verb Leonard cites in his essay as a bad choice. First, let’s imagine our Timothy Dalton fan, Ian, later has a conversation with a woman he fancies who’s got a crush on Daniel Craig. Our imaginary author writes this:
‘I think Timothy Dalton was a crap Bond,’ Ian lied. ‘Daniel Craig represents the very pinnacle of 007-ness.’
In this case, the lied is redundant; we know Ian is lying, because he told Rita earlier he thinks Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever. Here we have a bad case of show and tell. The dialogue shows the reader Ian is lying, then the verb reiterates he’s lying. The author is over-managing the story and not letting it unfold by itself, perhaps because he or she isn’t confident the reader is really following what’s going on. Lied could also be used to tell the reader for the first time a character is lying, in which case the author using it would be guilty of the lesser offence of telling alone.
A lot of the other verbs used by authors also tell the reader something the dialogue shows. Imagine Ian and two friends have just seen Skyfall, last year’s Bond film, and afterwards they’re sitting in a bar, discussing the movie.
‘That opening fight scene on the train was ridiculous,’ Ian said. ‘Totally unrealistic. Though I’m sure Tim Dalton could’ve pulled it off.’
‘It was a James Bond film, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary,’ Blake countered. ‘The whole point of Bond films is they’re not realistic.’
Sean shook his head slowly and stared into the distance. ‘I’m never going to pay to see a Bond film again,’ he avowed.
Both countered and avowed tell us things we already know from having read the dialogue. Let’s look at the sentence containing avowed. Since to avow means to declare frankly and openly, we get that Sean is declaring something openly and frankly because – yes – the opinion he’s giving can be characterised as both frank and the utterance of someone who’s being open. We’re back to show and tell.
But not all verbs other than said should necessarily be treated with suspicion. Here comes a line from Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Inspector Rebus is listening to music in the car and realises he’s misheard a song lyric. He’s on his own.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus muttered to himself.
By using the verb to mutter, Rankin tells the reader exactly how Rebus says the line – in a low voice with a note of irritation in it. I don’t know what a Leonard disciple would do here.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus said to himself.
Actually, in this case, a Leonard disciple might conclude the line of dialogue can be given without a speaker attribution, since Rebus is alone in the car and there can be no confusion over who’s speaking. But either way, the reader wouldn’t get that Rebus speaks in a low voice with a note of irritation in it – two qualities conveyed by the verb to mutter. In this case, said is too blunt an instrument; the author needs a more precise verb to tell readers how he or she wants them to imagine the line is spoken. Here are three more verbs that fall into the same category as muttered: whispered, shouted and intoned. These kinds of verbs give information about the volume at which a character says a line or the way he or she says it, or both.
Another verb you can make a good argument for using is asked. On the one hand, a question in direct speech is self-evidently a question – the question mark is one big giveaway – so adding an asked does come across as another case of show, then tell. On the other hand, I suspect some authors feel said isn’t appropriate for questions, because they think it only works with statements. I notice, for instance, that Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective novels, is a said purist in his novel The Drop until he has to attribute a question, in which case he rolls out an asked.
Asked is actually a fairly invisible verb. I suspect that if Leonard did go stir-crazy as a reaction to the claustrophobia of using said all the time and treated himself to a new verb, it would be asked. Again, asked is a verb that is bedded in because it’s used a lot in conversation as well as fiction. Also, asked doesn’t do anywhere near as much telling as verbs like avowed and countered, because it doesn’t give an interpretation or summary of what a character is asking. Similarly, replied, responded and answered also mechanically state the relationship between one unit of discourse and another, but no more. They don’t say anything about the content of the response they are tagged to. It’s more difficult to justify using these three verbs than it is to justify using asked, however, since they are only ever attached to statements, and said would work in their places.
Incidentally, said actually falls into the same category as verbs like asked and replied in that it, too, states the obvious. Just as the question mark at the end of a line of dialogue indicates someone’s asking a question, quotation marks enclosing dialogue tell the reader someone is saying something. So said, too, tells the reader something he or she is also being shown, but the verb is so bedded in that it’s almost transparent.
Another category of verbs authors sometimes use consists of ones that are more or less synonyms for said. I’m thinking here of verbs like commented and stated, and I say ‘more or less synonyms’ because when a writer uses commented, for example, I tend to hear the line of dialogue it’s attached to in a comment-giving type of way. But maybe that’s just me – I don’t know. We’re entering highly subjective territory here.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
So, I’ve established some categories we can use when classifying dialogue-carrying verbs and thinking about their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll summarise what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the verbs or verb in each category, starting with what I consider the good and working my way towards the bad and the ugly.
1. The workhorse, said. The advantage of said is that it’s almost invisible. A disadvantage is it’s something of a blunt instrument. You may also feel said pulls against the question mark at the end of a direct question and wish to use asked instead.
2. Verbs such as muttered, whispered, intoned and shouted. These serve a legitimate function in that they fine-tune the reader’s understanding of how a character says a line. They are more precise than said, but not as discreet and invisible.
3. Asked. This verbis pretty invisible, though perhaps not quite as discreet as said. Some writers might feel the fact asked states the obvious – that a character asks a question, something indicated by the question mark – is outweighed by the drawback of using said in its place, which they may maintain only works with statements.
4. Replied, responded and answered. Again, these state the obvious – in this case, that a character is answering a question – but, like asked, they are not that noticeable (I would say replied and answered are the least visible of the three, and responded is both the most visible and most formal). But said can be used in the place of these verbs and is less visible.
5. Synonyms or near synonyms for said, such as stated and commented. These are not as discreet as said, but writers who aren’t said purists might use them for the sake of variety, and perhaps they provoke readers into hearing a character say a line in a slightly different way from how they would were said used. (You tell me.)
6. Verbs like avowed and countered that summarise and interpret a line of dialogue. It’s very hard to justify the use of these. They usually tell the reader something he or she has just been shown, and they are therefore redundant. They are also intrusive.
7. Verbs like gasped, chuckled and laughed. These may be sanctioned as verbs you can use to carry dialogue (gasped, for example), or may not (laughed), but whatever the case, they’re to be avoided, since they don’t convey how people in the real world speak.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR VERBS
1. Does a particular verb help deliver a line to the reader in a way that reflects how people actually speak?
2. Does the verb tell the reader something he or she is shown by the line of dialogue it’s attached to?
3. How discreet is the verb?
4. How precise is the verb?
5. Does the verb pass the grammar test of being an object-taking verb?
6. Are the verbs you’re using a good match for the fictional world you’re trying to portray?
My next blog will carry on from here. I’ll assume you’ve made your decisions about which verbs you’re going to use to carry dialogue and turn my attention to speaker attributions as a whole (‘Rita said’, ‘Ian asked’, etc.). As always, I’ll focus on issues I commonly see in manuscripts.
Incidentally, Leonard’s New York Times article was one of a series called ‘Writers on Writing’ that the paper ran. It included contributions by Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, and the pieces are a real gold mine. You can find the articles here. Also, inspired by Leonard’s ten rules, the Guardian asked a number of well-known authors, among them Neil Gaiman, PD James and Jonathan Franzen, to share their own ten rules for writers, and you can find those here.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll copyedit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get the material back to you within 48 hours.
Dot dot dots are dot-dot-dotted around everywhere these days. While those of us who get passionate about punctuation have been discussing whether semicolons have a place in fiction, or decrying the overuse of exclamation marks in emails, behind our backs the three-dotted fiend has been evolving and spreading.
And some readers of this blog are not going to be happy with what dot dot dot has been getting up to. Those of you who consider themselves sticklers for proper punctuation may want to stop reading here. Sticklers might wish to peruse WordPress’s Freshly Pressed section instead, where there’s sure to be another blog about leveraging social media to increase book sales any . . . second . . . now. (Sorry to use ellipses in an unconventional way there, sticklers. I fully intended to wait till those of you who wanted to leave this page had been given a proper opportunity to do so before unleashing the dots. Bad me.)
Should any sticklers decide to stick around – and it goes without saying I’ll be delighted if you do – I recommend you have a Mozart CD or bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy at hand, because you might need something to calm you down in a moment or two.
I would now like to extend a warm welcome to all you readers who’ve made it as far as this paragraph and inform you we’re going on a journey of discovery today. Well, perhaps not a journey of discovery exactly but more a journey of acknowledging something that’s been going on for a long time yet doesn’t get discussed much. A journey of confirmation, if you will. Because our three-dotted friend the ellipsis (also known as ‘ellipsis points’ and ‘suspension points’ in the States) has been busy, busy, busy out there on the frontiers of written communication – particularly in emails, comics and the place we concern ourselves with here, genre fiction.
I would hazard a guess that, during the last 25 years or so, ellipses have been the most avant-garde punctuation marks out there. Not much competition, really, as far as I can see. When was the last time you saw a colon do anything new? ‘Look at me! I’m a colon! I’m introducing a list!’ (Yawns. Looks at watch. Thinks about what’s for dinner.) Ever see a semicolon getting into some daring punctuational mischief? (Don’t mention emoticons, please.)
Our three-dotted friend, on the other hand, has been innovating for England. If punctuation marks were people, Mr Ellipsis would prefer it if you referred to him by his first name, Eli, and be hanging out with jazz musicians and contemporary artists who make installations from seaweed and paint with blood. Dot dot dot even enjoyed a period of fame – or should that be three periods of fame? Or, became three famous periods? – when it was mentioned in the film Trainspotting, released in 1996. You don’t see commas being namechecked in tales about Edinburgh’s heroin-ravaged underbelly.
Let’s get eyes on an ellipsis (note that WordPress won’t allow me to generate an Alt-Ctrl-period dot dot dot, which is my ellipsis of choice, so I’m using what follows as a substitute).
. . .
Look at it. No other punctuation mark, aside from a dash, covers so much ground laterally. Okay, your question mark, a Victorian street lamp of a piece of punctuation, has got a lot more vertical action going on, as has an exclamation mark, but when it comes to the horizontal plane, an ellipsis really spans space. That’s important to note, because a key function an ellipsis can perform is that of adding a split second to the time it takes readers to reach the next word in a sentence. An ellipsis used in this way is ground the eye has to cover. In other words, it introduces a beat.
Let’s begin our field study of dot dot dots by looking at some well-established uses of them in fiction. (Sticklers won’t find any of what follows in the next part offensive. When we reach the threshold of the dangerous section, I’ll give a clear warning.) Right, I need someone I can rely on to speak in a nervous way. That would be the Snow King’s new cellmate, then. You’ll remember that John Dudley, he of the parish of Dunbad Prison, nicknamed the Snow King on account of his being a cocaine dealer, viciously murdered his cellmate a couple of blogs ago. It stands to reason that his new cellmate is going to be apprehensive about having to share a confined space with him.
Let’s have them meet for the first time.
The Snow King was sitting on the edge of his bed, reading Nuts. A short and stocky middle-aged man with a ginger beard walked into the cell carrying bedding and a copy of The Lord of the Rings.
‘I’m . . .’ he said. ‘What I . . . This is my cell. I mean, your cell . . . It’s our cell now, I suppose.’ He smiled, put down the bedding and the book and extended his right arm towards Dudley. ‘I’m Brian. I didn’t get your . . .’
The Snow King ignored him and turned the page of his magazine.
The first two ellipses indicate Brian trails off while speaking and doesn’t finish saying what he was going to say; the third also indicates he stops speaking, but in this case he stops after completing a thought.Note that the final ellipsis again indicates Brian stopped speaking before he finished what he was going to say – ‘I didn’t get your name’ in this instance – and not that Brian was interrupted by the Snow King. An em dash is used to show an interruption, not an ellipsis. Let’s rewrite the scene a little to show an em dash performing that function.
Brian said, ‘I didn’t get your—’
‘Hey, hobbit features.’ The Snow King slapped his magazine down on the bed, stood and grabbed Brian by the collar of his shirt. ‘Who gave you permission to talk?’
By the way, if you use an ellipsis to indicate a speaker trails off or pauses, try to avoid saying he does, too. Don’t do this:
‘I’m . . .’ Brian trailed off. ‘What I mean is . . .’ He stopped.
‘I mean, it’s your cell . . .’ Brian paused. ‘I suppose it’s our cell now.’
I see this type of thing a lot in manuscripts. You shouldn’t need to write ‘Brian trailed off’ or ‘He stopped’ or ‘Brian paused’, since the ellipses indicate those things happened. Have faith in the power of those dots, people.
Next on our list of conventional ways to use ellipses: phone conversations where the author reveals what only one of the two parties is saying. Here’s Brian talking to his wife on a payphone, which of course he had to queue for half an hour to use, since that’s always the way in prison-based fiction (prisoners in Brazil sidestep this problem by getting cats to smuggle mobile phones in to them – an obvious solution, really):
“I’ll be fine, really I will . . . My cellmate?” Brian cleared his throat and put a smile in his voice. “Yeah, nice guy, actually . . . No, I don’t know why he’s here, no, but I think we’re going to get along just fine. We’ll be playing Dungeons & Dragons together in no time.”
What a liar, eh? I see John Dudley as more of a Scrabble kind of guy. Who cuts off your little finger and wears it around his neck as a trophy if you beat him.
In this case, the ellipses signify Brian’s wife is talking. Note how each ellipsis is being used to suggest Brian isn’t talking and instead is listening to his wife for a longer period than the time it takes the reader to cross the no man’s land of the ellipsis and reach the next word. The writer wants you to imagine Brian’s wife – let’s call her Samantha – is speaking in chunks. If we stopped and thought about it, we’d guess Samantha’s first question is ‘What’s your cellmate like?’ and her second is ‘What’s your cellmate in prison for?’
Right. Now comes the moment the sticklers will have been dreading. We’re going to cross a border and move on from talking about ellipses in dialogue to talking about them in narration. If you do decide to bravely continue reading, sticklers, now is the time to squeeze a few drops of that Bach Rescue Remedy into a glass of water, or tee up that Mozart CD. But if you don’t have either of those two relaxation aids at hand, read on without fear, because I have made provision for just that circumstance.
ELLIPSES IN NARRATION
While researching this blog, I read through 20 genre fiction manuscripts and looked at the use of ellipses in each one. Nearly every author used ellipses in dialogue, but only about seven or eight used ellipses in narration, and only four of these writers used them in what could be described as a full-bloodied way. Which means one in five authors wrote sentences like the following.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . . then butcher him.
Here’s a photo of a nice tropical beach I’ve been keeping ready to help the sticklers in moments of punctuational crisis like this one.
Easy, now. Take deep breaths. In . . . out. (Sorry about the punctuation there.) Look at the picture. Keep looking at the picture.
In an interview I gave recently, I compared this kind of ellipsis to the moment in the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when a contestant has given his or her final answer, and Chris Tarrant, the quizmaster, draws out the tension by taking his time to reveal whether that answer is correct. Since then I’ve taken to calling this type of ellipsis a Tarrant (a Vieira in dollars and cents). If that’s a Tarrant, the following is an extended Tarrant.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
. . . then butcher him.
Focus on the nice picture of the nice beach, sticklers. Don’t look at the dots; look at the picture. Nice beach. Nice dot-less beach in dot-less paradise.
Those of you who can stomach those ellipses should look at the second one now. Though it helps lengthen the beat between week and then, lengthening that beat is not its main purpose. So what is that second ellipsis doing? Its function becomes clear when we try leaving it out.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
then butcher him.
Horrible. We really don’t like to see an indented new line start with a word the initial letter of which is lower case. But we’re conditioned to accept that a word can begin with a lower-case letter when it’s preceded by an ellipsis, so the second ellipsis smooths the connection between the two parts of the sentence. The ellipses plug both sentence parts together.
Let’s look at the original sentence again.
The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .
. . . then butcher him.
I often see Tarrants used to punch up passages containing less dramatic revelations, such as the reporting of a character’s transformation. Imagine the Snow King has been taking anger management classes – and let’s face it, the guy needs them – and is now spending his free time looking after cockatiels and budgies and making model ships out of matchsticks. If I were an ellipsis-happy author, I might write a few lines describing Dudley’s new hobbies, then add this:
The Snow King was becoming . . . mellow.
An example of someone who likes to use this kind of Tarrant is the highly successful British crime writer Mark Billingham – or at least he was partial to Tarrants in his novel Scaredy Cat, first published in 2002, which I read last year. Billingham is also a stand-up comedian, and of course beats are important tools in joke telling, where timing is everything, so perhaps Billingham’s use of beats in comedy has influenced the way he punctuates sentences in his crime fiction.
You will have noticed I haven’t made any value judgments about Tarrants. Well, we’re all grown-ups here. If authors want to use ellipses in the way I’ve shown above, then that’s their choice. For what it’s worth, though, Tarrants are not really my cup of tea. Tarrants, particularly extended Tarrants, come across to me as somewhat melodramatic devices, for which reason I place them in the same category as one-sentence paragraphs, stacked one-sentence paragraphs, and rampant italics. When I come across a Tarrant, I suddenly become very aware of the writer and how he or she is attempting to manipulate me. It’s not that I mind being manipulated, but I do mind seeing the levers being pulled.
But, hey, live and let live. Which I bet isn’t what the sticklers reading this are thinking. If you’re a stickler, right about now you’re probably wishing that imaginary stick you’ve been stickling with is a real one you can use to beat authors like Mark Billingham into punctuational conformity. (We all know sticklers are stick-carrying referees at Cornish wrestling matches, right?)
As with anything, ellipses can be used in good ways and in ways that are not so good. Should you wish to see a master of the ellipsis at work, I recommend you read some Ian Rankin novels. (Yes, sticklers, I’m really suggesting you might want to go out of your way to see more ellipses in narration. You need the photo again? Sure, here it is.)
Rankin is one of the best crime writers the UK has produced. He also likes the band Hawkwind, which makes me feel better than I otherwise would about my teenage infatuation with the space-rock combo. And the guy knows how to wield an ellipsis. Writing in The Guardian about Fleshmarket Close, the 2004 instalment of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said, ‘The reader is pulled in to the detective’s hunches by markers in the narrative – clues left by the author, we might say. We particularly know that we should feel for a deeper plot when there is an ellipsis, marked by three points.’
Look at that change in fortunes, people. A moment ago ellipses were basically described as cheap effects, but now they are being called ‘markers in the narrative’ and indicators that we should ‘feel for a deeper plot’ by a professor of English, no less. Context is everything, I guess. Here comes a hardworking ellipsis in a passage taken from Rankin’s Resurrection Men (2002). While Inspector Rebus is at a boring meeting, he loses interest in what’s being said and thinks about a case. I’m only going to quote a couple of lines either side of the ellipsis, by the way.
Five minutes into the lecture, Rebus let his eyes and mind drift out of focus. He was back on the Marber case . . .
Edward Marber had been an Edinburgh art and antiques dealer. Past tense, because Marber was now dead, bludgeoned outside his home by assailant or assailants unknown.
Nice. That’s an ellipsis doing good work right there, smoothing the transition from a direct scene to a nugget of backstory. As those of you who’ve tried switching gears like that in your own work will know, it can be a tricky thing to pull off.
So, it turns out there can be an art to this ellipsis business. I know the sticklers are going to hate me for saying this, but we need to embrace our three-dotted friends, not fight them as if they’re a punctuational plague. Battling against them is a waste of time anyway, since in this particular case, not only has the horse bolted, but it left the stables about 20 years ago and died of old age before presumably finding its way into Ikea meatballs, if we’re to believe the reports in the British media. What I’m trying to say, sticklers, is it’s too late. The ellipsis infestation is here . . . to stay. You need the photo again?
EDITORS’ HUDDLE: NAMING THE DOTS
Should we call what I’ve been calling an ellipsis ‘an ellipsis’? In the UK, it’s normal to do so. Things are a little different in the States, though, where our three-dotted friend is sometimes referred to as an ellipsis (see The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance), sometimes called ‘suspension points’, and at other times referred to as ‘ellipsis points’.
The Chicago Manual of Style makes a subtle distinction, saying dot dot dot should be called either ellipsis points or suspension points depending on its function (see rule 13.48). The manual rightly defines an ellipsis as an omission of text. Academic A quotes academic B in journal C and leaves out part of the quotation that isn’t relevant – that’s an ellipsis. Text has been elided; an elision has taken place. Words have been left out, to put it in plain English. When our three-dotted friend indicates an ellipsis, it should be called ‘ellipsis points’, not an ellipsis; an ellipsis is the thing ellipsis points signal.
Then the revered style manual appears to go a bit dot dot dotty.
When dot dot dot is used to indicate what CMOS calls ‘suspended or interrupted thought’, it should be called suspension points(13.48 again). But does CMOS really mean suspended or interrupted thought? Because though at first CMOS says suspension points should be used to indicate thought that’s suspended or interrupted, it switches to talking about using the dots to indicate ‘faltering or fragmented speech’ (my italics) in the rule, 13.39, where it expands on the pronouncement it makes in 13.48. Maybe CMOS meant to say both thought and speech.
In 13.39, CMOS appears to contradict what it says in 13.48 by stating that interruptions in thought are usually indicated by em dashes, not ellipses, a recommendation it indicates it talks about further in yet another rule, 6.84. But 6.84 talks about using em dashes for sudden breaks in thought, not interruptions.
And though CMOS goes to the effort of distinguishing between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48, it ignores the distinction in 13.39 when it says suspension points can be used to indicate an ellipsis.
This is all very, very strange.
The distinction CMOS makes between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48 is actually a good one. When dot dot dot is used in dialogue to indicate a speaker stops speaking for a moment, the author isn’t leaving anything out; instead, the writer indicates the speaker is taking his or her time to say whatever it is he or she has to say. Similarly, if someone doesn’t finish his or her sentence, and a writer uses dot dot dot to convey that, those dots don’t stand in for words that have been left out in the way that ellipsis points do.
The distinction may be logical and sensible, but personally I choose not to make it, since, as I said, we Brits call dot dot dot an ellipsis in all cases, and that works for us. Besides, if we started handing out names to dot dot dot for each function, we’d have to invent a lot of new names. Because our three-dotted friend does more than show text has been left out and indicate someone stopped talking.
It’s important that you find a copy editor who’s right for you and your novel and with whom you have good rapport. Not all copy editors are the same, and not all offer the same service, so it’s a good idea to shop around and find someone who meets your requirements and with whom you can develop a good relationship.
I’ve been copyediting since 1990, and I’m highly skilled and experienced. I only copyedit fiction, and I edit between 20 and 25 full-length manuscripts a year. I work with debut novelists, bestselling writers and everyone in between. As well as working with independent authors, I copyedit for publishers.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll edit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get them back to you within 48 hours.