4

I flipped open its latch and peered inside. A—gold tooth?

I flipped open its latch and peered inside. A ... gold tooth?


Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was—a whale!

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

What's the right symbol to use in the examples above?

2
  • It's difficult for me to judge the tone of the sentence examples you used, so I can't give a specific suggestion. There are many uses for elipses and dashes. Dashes are generally more abrupt and can signify a rapid change of topic. They are useful for emotionally-loaded dialogue interruption, because emotions act quickly on the brain. Elipses are slower and more thoughtful. They can be used to show a character stalling for time in order to represent things more to their advantage, which makes them useful for characters who are crisp, professional or controlled. – lea Dec 3 '14 at 7:54
  • I'm no grammarian, but it would make more sense to me if the pause is placed before the sentences in question rather than in the middle: I flipped open its latch and peered inside... A gold tooth? (same with the dash - whichever works batter.) – Joe Dec 9 '14 at 19:50
10

em dashes are usually used to denote an interruption or sudden change — whether in dialogue, thought or narrative — ellipses are for pauses, again in all respects.

'I just don't see why—
'I don't care what you think,' Johan barked, turning from me before I could protest.


'She was just...' His face turned pale as his memory returned to that night.
'Just what?' I asked, eager for more.



here are some resources:
Jodie Renner Editing
Novel Publicity
Writer's Relief

2
  • Thanks. I think em dashes are also used in a sudden change of idea? – Alexandro Chen Nov 28 '14 at 13:43
  • 2
    That's right @AlexandroChen, they represent any kind of interruption, including an interruption to a thought process or even narrative flow; exactly as you've shown in your examples. I've updated my answer accordingly. – CLockeWork Nov 28 '14 at 13:50
3

I might use an M-dash for the whale example, because it's startling. For the gold watch, that's more of a thoughtful pause, so it would take an ellipsis.

Also related on this site: Using dashes in writing dialogue and How not to overuse ellipsis?

1

Adding to the answers by Lauren Ipsum and CLockeWork.

I'll just look at the second example:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was — a whale!

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

It seems to me that the dash as a sign of a sudden change works well in the narrative, but not in direct speech:

"What happened?"

"I found something on the beach," John replied. "I saw something and at first I thought it was an elephant? But elephants don't frequent beaches. It was — a whale!"

To me, this sounds strange. John is talking as if he were writing a book!, which he is not. He is supposed to be speaking with someone. But this works fine:

"It was ... a whale!"

In direct speech, an ellipsis signifies a pause. A dash in direct speech can only signify an interruption, where the speech breaks off and does not continue.

Only in the narrator's narrative, which follows different stylistic principles, does a dash mean a sudden change. Here it cannot mean a break-off, because the narrative does not break off until the end of the book. Only if the narrative is written as if it was spoken, can a dash in the narrative means a break:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was— What? No. Stop interrupting me, and let me tell my tale. It was a whale!

And an ellipsis has no place in the narrative, in my opinion. What does this mean:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

Does it mean that the narrator pauses? He cannot, because he is not talking. There are no pauses in writing, or rather, they take a different form, e.g. as full stops, paragraph breaks, and so on. In poetry you might do:

It was. A whale.

or more commonly:

it was
a whale.

In prose you need to use different constructions:

It was, as we found, a whale.

Here, the subsidiary clause, serves as a suspenseful pause.


tl;dr

To sum this up:

(a) ellipsis:

  • dialogue: pause
  • narrative: — (do not use in fiction)

(b) dash:

  • dialogue: break-off
  • narrative: sudden change
4
  • Ellipsis in narrative parts of fiction works perfectly well, whether for pauses or trailing off. Their use is very common. google.co.uk/… – CLockeWork Dec 1 '14 at 9:18
  • @CLockeWork Please provide an example where it is correctly used and does not evoke spoken language. – user5645 Dec 1 '14 at 11:24
  • Finding specific examples is way too hard to Google and I'm not at home at the moment to go through my library, but take a look at points 2 and 3 here: nhwn.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/… – CLockeWork Dec 1 '14 at 11:40
  • Worth noting that while they can be used outside of dialogue they're the kind of thing that can be easily overused – CLockeWork Dec 1 '14 at 11:41
1

I'd use ellipses for pauses, dashes are usually used for interruption.

"I found this - "

"That doesn't matter, look what I found!"

As opposed to:

"She... She's dead."

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