Sunday, November 27, 2011


Webster’s II New College Dictionary defines ‘Ellipsis’ as:
a) the omission of a word or phrase required for a complete syntactical construction but not necessarily for understanding.
b) a mark or series of marks [eg. …or ***] used in writing or printing for indicating an omission, esp. of letters or words.

In their book Self-Editing for Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King discuss a syndrome I have. Namely, feeling the need to describe every move a character makes. Every step she takes.

‘The phone rang. Geraldine walked across the room and picked it up. “Hello,” she said.’

Browne and King suggest editing this to: The phone rang. “Hello,” said Geraldine. Why? Because the reader knows we (used to) have to walk to a phone to answer it.

“When you fill in all the details and leave nothing to your readers’ imaginations, you’re patronizing them. It’s the influence of movies and television again—readers are used to jump-cuts from scene to scene rather than long traditional shots.”

I'm editing my WIP with this, and many other, craft caveats. So many swirling in my head. But step-by-step descriptions of mundane actions have become boring to read, and tedious to write. I'm happy to let ellipses do some of my work.


  1. Interesting post.

    I guess there's a fine line between detailed description to set the scene and allowing your readers to fill in some of the obvious blanks for him/herself.

    So many things to think about when writing...

  2. I've thought an ellipsis referred more to (b) in the Webster dictionary than (a). When to use ... and when to use the em dash still confuses me though. My editor tends to use the ... for a pause in someone's speech, and the em dash for broken off or interrupted speech (but not always, hence my confusion!)
    Regarding writing every movement, I agree you don't have to do it. But in the example you give, walking across the room might give the character time (e.g.) to wonder who's calling or, knowing who it is, to either dread or look forward to hearing them again. I think it all depends on the context.

  3. Hey Paula, it's not necessary to put the ellipsis in because the reader knows it's supposed to be there. So it's kind of using definition a) to replace definition b). Tee hee!

    Seriously, though, I think it's important to leave the reader free to use their imagination to some extent. That's what makes reading different from watching a movie or TV. You don't see everything, you can picture it as you like, and you can come to the conclusion you're supposed to reach without being dragged there. Kind of funny that we may have gotten to this point with the influence of TV and movies!

    Interesting points to ponder, Ana.

  4. To my mind, ellipsis is a *grammatical* (or syntax) omission from a sentence, not an omission of another piece of information which may be redundant
    e.g. "What if I miss the train?" contains an ellipsis, since the sentence is grammatically incorrect. The correct version would be 'What will happen if I miss the train?' The latter is grammatically correct, but the former is used (and understood) in ordinary speaking.
    This, to me, is completely different from omitting redundant information. I'll quote something I've just written in my WIP - 'She hit the key on her phone and listened to the ringtone.' I might have written 'She hit the key and put the phone to her ear, listening to the ring tone'. Both are grammatically correct, but obviously she wouldn't be able to listen to the ringtone without putting the phone to her ear. Omitting the words 'put the phone to her ear' is redundant, but isn't an ellipsis.
    Sorry to be pedantic about this, but, to me, there's a big difference between an ellipsis and redundant information. Both are important, but I'd maintain they're not the same thing!
    Okay, I'll shut up now!

  5. Just realised I left a confused sentence in my previous comment. I should have said
    "The words 'put the phone to her ear' are redundant, but they don't constitute an ellipsis."
    Sorry - am still trying to get my head around this topic - which is a very interesting linguistic one, actually!

  6. I was surprised by the book's use of the word ellipsis, then by the dictionary definition affirming their use of the word. We'll just have to expand our understanding.
    What I was really getting at is how I used to think I had to describe every step a character took to be realistic and proper. I didn't grasp how pedantic that type of writing was.
    Save the descriptions for the internal intensity when emotions are high. And for fight scenes.