On the path to achieving my goal of becoming a better writer, I’ve tried just about every tip the writing books, blogs, and experts suggest, including reading (both within and outside my chosen genre), taking classes and workshops, and writing, writing, writing.
A couple of years ago, I added judging contests to that list. Evaluating entries is more beneficial than you may realize. It gives me insight into how other writers craft their stories and how they handle everything from the flow of dialog and narrative to the amount and intensity of sexual tension. It also gives me practice identifying common grammatical errors, which helps me hone my own skills in pinpointing the errors contaminating my own writing.
In a recent contest I judged an entry shot full of ellipsis dots. Those little speed bumps made the writing seem broken, the character speaking seem wimpy and less intelligent. More importantly, they pulled me out of the story time after time, which – as you all know – is not a good thing. My head swimming with ellipses, I began to question my understanding of how to use those three little dots correctly. So I turned to my writing and grammar manuals. Here’s what I found out:
Ellipsis dots in dialog signal the omission of a word or words, hesitation or halting speech, or uncertainty. And if the dots come at the end of the sentence, a period is needed. Here are examples from my book, In The Bad Boy’s Bed.
In the example below, I used ellipses to show how tightly Nick was trying to control his desire until he knew for sure she was on board. I wanted to show his breathlessness.
He held my hands to stop me. "Angel, I do want to. But you need to be sure that you do. Because if we keep going . . . if I touch you . . . there won't be any stopping."
In this next example, I used ellipses to show Angela’s mother’s uncertainty about broaching the subject of sex and birth control.
"I . . . You know I don't usually pry into your life . . ."
". . . but after tonight, I . . ."
"Mom, what is it you're trying so hard not to say?"
"Did you use . . . protection?"
OK, so maybe I overdid the ellipses on that last example, but can’t you just see the mom saying this?
The manuals say to use one space before the first dot, between the next two dots, and after the last dot. (In Europe, this may not be the case, so take this rule as being for those in the U.S.) If the uploading of this piece destroys the spacing as I’ve described, it should be: space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. That said, I don’t really like the look of all those spaces, so I’ve decided to invoke the rule stating that writers can break the rules once they know them and ignore the spacing standards…unless my editor says otherwise, of course.
Although the author of that before-mentioned entry correctly used the ellipses most of the time, her overuse of them contaminated the story for me. I didn’t mark her down for it, but I did mention it in the comments section. And, I took that lesson to my own work. If In The Bad Boy’s Bed wasn’t already out, I would have gone through it and eliminated many of the ellipses I used. In some instances, an easy fix would have been to create two, shorter sentences instead of stringing them together with ellipses. When I saw how much I had relied on them, I vowed to use them in future works as sparingly as I use serrano chiles in my food. Those little dots would flavor my story, not overwhelm it.
Another entry I judged used both dots AND dashes, primarily to signal a pause in the character’s internal dialog. Some paragraphs actually had three sets of ellipses and a dash or two. I won’t give examples of those here because I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone, but as I mentioned above, such frequent breaks in the flow of the prose pulled me out of the story to question why the breaks were there at all.
The manuals were still on my desk so I flipped to the page about dashes. And boy, did I learn something. There’s an ‘em’ dash, an ‘en’ dash, and a hyphen, as well as a double and triple ‘em’ dash. Since this post concerns fiction writing, I’ll concentrate only on the ‘em’ dash, refer to it simply as the dash, and ignore its siblings.
As with ellipses, too many dashes make your writing seem fragmented. When reaching for a dash, keep in mind that it can indicate an interrupted remark, a break in thought, or faltering speech. Following are examples from my book, In The Bad Boy’s Bed.
What am I doing with him? I thought, panic overtaking me. I had to end it before I hurt him.
He pulled me to him again, kissed away the words I'd planned to say, making them melt on his clever tongue. I went weak in the knees. Fortunately, he picked me up and carried me to his bed. Every stupid thought I'd had of leaving him had vanished as he loved me with his hands, his mouth, his body, and his sweet, sweet words.
I softened my tone. "I don't know what happened to form your low opinion of Nick—I hate to think it's just the size of his family's bank account—but he's not that person at all. Let me warn you, Mr. Wilson: if there's anyone you should be keeping an eye on, it's not Nick Donnelly."
I opened the door. "It's his accuser."
"Put your hands on me Nick. Touch me everywhere."
He groaned and sat up.
I sat up too, confused by his reaction. Embarrassed by his refusal.
"It's OK if you don't want to. I just thought—" I couldn't finish. My tongue was thick in my mouth, making it impossible to speak. "Sorry," I said and started to stand up.
Typically, you should follow a dash with a quotation mark, and not with a comma or period. However, you would follow the dash with a question mark or exclamation point if the material enclosed within the dashes contains a question mark or exclamation point:
“My baby – Oh dear! – my baby is dead!”
Dots and dashes can be powerful tools in our writing box, giving us the ability to show a character’s personality, mood, and emotion. But overuse of these tools can dull their edges, making them less effective when it counts and leaving our carefully crafted work over-spiced and unpalatable. Hmm. Tools and food. Guess I better go see what my manuals say about using mixed metaphors.
My life as a writer in the business world pays the bills but doesn't scratch my creative itch. What does scratch that itch is releasing the stories that grow in my heart.
After selling dozens of short romances to various magazines, I sold my first book – an erotic romance under the name Toni Zuma called Hot Summer Fling. My first YA ebook written as Sophia Ryan, In The Bad Boy's Bed, came out in June. Currently, I'm writing two spicy romances and another erotic romance and hope to get them to market soon.
Passion is a major theme in my work, no matter which name I use. When I'm not writing about passion, I'm indulging in it – yoga, hiking, laughing with friends over hot chile and cold beer, and watching the Sandia Mountains turn the color of ripe watermelon at sunset.
BOOK BLURB for In The Bad Boy’s Bed
Running from a date gone sour, prep-girl Angela Abbott finds bad boy Nick Donnelly at the river. Before the night is over, Nick unleashes the real Angela, calling her Angel, and fulfills the fantasies she’s long had about being with him.
Angela returns to her prep-school life, acting as if she and Nick are still strangers, acting as if nothing has changed in her. But everything changed at the river in Nick’s arms. While she struggles to maintain the Angela façade, she can't stop slipping away from her boring, planned life to be Nick's Angel.
This private prep school is Nick's last chance to escape the prison-bound track laid out for him just as clearly as the life that’s laid out for Angela. His goal to get out of school and out of town is threatened when he sets his heart on Angel.
When their secret life comes out, and Nick’s dark past is exposed, Angela dumps him, breaking both their hearts. When he disappears, she doesn't dare ask questions.
Then, at college, she sees him again and holds out hope they can get it right this time. Unfortunately, Nick’s got other ideas in mind.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*