The first task is to make sure you’re using the ellipsis properly. In his essay “Teeth Gnashing,” Dan Wakefield writes that the ellipsis is a favorite among writing students:
It is commonly and erroneously used, however, to indicate the author’s belief that something tremendously significant is going on, something that can’t be . . . expressed . . . in ordinary words. Something like this:
“He looked deeply into her eyes. . . . Then he turned away.”
Skip the ellipsis and find just the right action, gesture, description or bit of dialogue that conveys the complexity and emotion of the moment.
In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall McMurphy is committed to a psychiatric hospital in which patients are treated poorly. One day, McMurphy is sitting on a bench with a group of fellow patients, waiting in line for a chest X-ray to check for tuberculosis. As they talk, McMurphy learns the startling information that many of the patients are in the hospital voluntarily. McMurphy has a powerful moment of realization. Instead of leaving this moment unexplored with an ellipsis, Kesey focuses on McMurphy’s action and dialogue to reveal something about his character and his experience:
McMurphy turns round to the rest of the guys and opens his mouth to ask something else, and then closes it when he sees how they’re looking at him. He stands there a minute with the row of eyes aimed at him like a row of rivets; then he says, “Hell’s bells,” in a weak sort of way, and he puts his cap back on and pulls it down hard and goes back to his place on the bench. The two technicians come back from coffee and go back in that room across the hall; when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door.
While capturing the inexpressible isn’t the domain of the ellipsis, it can be used to create a pause or suggest that an action or bit of dialogue is incomplete or soon to continue. The fiction writer, however, has other techniques to accomplish these tasks. The ellipsis isn’t a one-size-fits-all bit of punctuation for a pause or trailing off. It should be used sparingly and only after you’ve assessed other options. You may find you can accomplish more with other approaches.
A simple pause or hesitation in dialogue may be more effective when filled with actions or details that deepen the reader’s understanding of the moment. For example, McMurphy has a conversation with another patient, Harding, who tells him about the aftermath of electroshock therapy:
“You forget things. It’s as if”—he presses his hands against his temples, shutting his eyes—“it’s as if the jolt sets off a wild carnival wheel of images, emotions, memories. These wheels, you’ve seen them; the barker takes your bet and pushes a button. Chang! With light and sound and numbers round and round in a whirlwind, and maybe you win with what you end up with and maybe you lose and have to play again. Pay the man for another spin, son pay the man. ”
Kesey includes narrative in the pause Harding takes: “he presses his hands against his temples, shutting his eyes.” This shows the effort, thought and emotion that exists within that pause and gives way to the flood of words that follow. This pause has action and tension, which an ellipsis would not provide.