Monday, March 3, 2008

Triple-Dot-Dare You!

Another opening, this time for a western historical romance.

“Betrothed…you can’t be serious!”

Calvin O’Donnell watched his daughter jump to her feet, knocking the chair to the floor.

“Now, Mairin, lass, calm down.” He had to be firm or else he’d never go through with it.

First Impressions

I would have known this was an historical even if the writer hadn't told me so in her email. I would have known it with the first word, betrothed. If this had been a contemporary, the word used would have been engaged. We sometimes say that a single word can change an entire story, and I think this first word is a good example of that principle.

My attention is caught right away despite some problems. We're entering a scene already in motion, a conflict already erupting, with nothing weighting down the pace. That's all good. So despite some of the weak spots, I would probably keep reading.

Breaking it Down

“Betrothed…you can’t be serious!”

Warning! Pet peeve alert! I'm fed up to the teeth with misused ellipses. An ellipsis -- a series of three dots -- is used to signal the point of ellipsis in an elliptical sentence. Does that sound like a circular definition? It's not. An ellipsis (the punctuation mark) is used to signal the point of ellipsis (the place where information is missing) from an elliptical sentence (a sentence with words left out).

There are two classes of elliptical sentences (sometimes also simply called an ellipsis, or, in the plural, ellipses). In the first class, the missing words are grammatically implied and are not required for meaning. Nor does the sentence require an ellipsis. One common form of elliptical sentences are imperative sentences:

"Stop in the name of the law!"

The ellipsis is the subject you. We don't need the triple-dot punctuation there because the meaning of the sentence is clear without it.

Another common form involves the use of the word as or than.

I haven't read as many mysteries as Alicia.

I haven't read as many mysteries as Alicia has read.

I like chocolate more than my sister.

I like chocolate more than my sister likes chocolate.

The second class of elliptical sentences requires punctuation with an ellipsis to signal the missing information. Most commonly, this is used in academic writing to indicate omitted words from a direct quotation:

"To be or ... to be."
"It was the best of times, ... worst of times."

In fiction writing, an ellipsis can also be used to signal a trailing off -- that is, when the end of a sentence goes missing because the speaker stops mid-thought without ever restarting. It signals distraction, mental wandering, and other points where the elliptical character disconnects from the narrative. It is not to be used in place of end marks, em dashes, or other punctuation. Nor should it be used to signal cadence in speech.

I don't know who started the rumor that an ellipses is a decorative objet to be liberally sprinkled through stories. They're every bit as distracting as multiple exclamation points, typos, and odd fonts. I trim probably 4 out of 5 ellipses marks from every manuscript I edit. I encourage you all to form the habit of reading elliptical sentences aloud, and substituting the word "wander" for every dot. You'll discover very quickly whether the cadence you're creating is the cadence you actually want.

So, now that we've endured the rant, let's look again at the culprit and fix that punctuation.

“Betrothed…you can’t be serious!”
which we should all read now as,
“Betrothed, wander, wander, wander, you can’t be serious!”

Now, of course, we already know why we shouldn't start with unattributed dialogue, but we'll avoid flogging that poor dead horse and just agree that Mairin is the speaker. Do we think that Mairin's mind is actually wandering away from the topic of betrothal? No. Of course not. She may be shocked, but she isn't losing track of things.

I think the writer meant to signal a pause after the word Betrothed, but of course, that would be accomplished by the use of a proper end mark. Because I read the tone as shocked and disbelieving, I think a question mark is the right choice.

“Betrothed? You can’t be serious!”

OMG, I feel so much better now. Whew. I can unclench my jaw and stop biting back all the things I want to shout about ellipses. Yes, believe me, the rant can get much worse.

Calvin O’Donnell watched

The word watched signals whose pov we're in: Calvin's. And he's not the speaker of the previous dialogue, so this is a bit jarring. Also, I want to point out that watched is passive (not passive voice, just passive as in non-dynamic) and contains no emotional component.

his daughter jump to her feet, knocking the chair to the floor.

The emotion is all on the daughter's side. It's well demonstrated -- notice that we're not being told she's shocked or distraught, but the emotion is expressed through actions. Nevertheless, the pov character isn't the one feeling, acting or responding.

“Now, Mairin, lass, calm down.”

This dialogue conveys quite a lot in few words. He calls her lass, which indicates to me that they're somewhere in Great Britain. Her name, which we get here now, too, reads Gaelic to me. So my guess is Ireland, though Scotland is also a strong possibility.

I also like it that he avoids responding directly to the content of her dialogue. This creates some very subtle tension in the prose by leaving her exclamation sort of hanging out there. Yet at the same time, we get the idea that yes, he is very serious about betrothal. (Whose betrothal? Calvin's or Mairin's? This needs to be clarified.)

He had to be firm or else he’d never go through with it.

Well, now we're getting a hint of his internal state, though it's a mild hint. "It" must be the betrothal, right? I keep wanting to believe that we're talking about Mairin's betrothal here, but you know, signs point to it being Calvin's. We're in his point of view, for one thing, and Mairin's actions mark her as being rebellious, maybe a bit rash, much like a young teenager. So is Calvin breaking his own betrothal to his young daughter who still grieves for her lost mother?

I'd keep reading. This is taut, clean, dramatic writing. Maybe not the freshest thing I've ever seen, but it's strong enough to get me to read a few pages. If, as I fear, Mairin turns out to be one of those fiesty heroines, and Calvin is arranging her marriage, I might lose interest pretty quickly unless there's something unique in the premise. But for now, I want to read more.

once again forgetting to sign my name!


Susan said...

Oh my, then I'm in doodoo as well. I should have used em dashes??

Thanks for the explanation. That's very helpful.

Sue (

Dave Shaw said...

Hmm - is this Theresa? If it is, this is scary. If it's Alicia, I'm about as thick as I thought I was. (grin)

Seriously, thanks for the refresher on elliptical sentences. You made it MUCH clearer than my high school English teacher ever did. I'm also happy to see that I'm not misusing those darn dots too often... (wink)

Susan said...

As to the opening itself. Hmms, I have to say on first reading I took 'Betrothed' as an address. The opening is intriguing that I am asking questions, but I'm not quite grounded enough to know if they are the right ones. Difficult to do in 3 lines, I know and I doubt I've done it with my own, but this is just a touch confusing. I'm also not keen (personally) on someone watching. I'd rather be in on the action myself. I'm also not sure if she can jump to her feet 'and' knock the chair to the floor at the same time. I'm still thinking about that one.

And, no, I'm not sure either whose betrothal is in question.

My 2c worth as a reader.

Sue (

Edittorrent said...

Uhmmmm. Dave, are you saying that I'm scarier than Alicia? Or are you scared because you can tell us apart? LOL! I wouldn't mind being scarier than Alicia, you know. She is a tower of intimidation. (giggle) (She's about as intimidating as my pink socks. She's too nice and calm to be really intimidating!)


Edittorrent said...

I am VERY intimidating, Theresa! You're just used to me. :)

Personally, I'm way too fond of dashes. I always have to go through my pages and change at least a few -- to , and .

Edittorrent said...

Okay, okay, you're intimidating. I'm scary. What a pair we make!

Hey, did you see my little surprise for you, Alicia? We have an avatar! My oh my, but people are going to think we know how to use these confusers--I mean, computers.


Dave Shaw said...

Theresa, your personal scariness (and Alicia's personal intimidatingness, if that's a word ;) is unknown to me, but reaching the point where I can tell you two apart is a major milestone for this dumb Yankee. That's quite scary enough.

I like the avatar, but as a confuter professional I would never accuse anyone of understanding the durn things, least of all me (I only program them when they let me).

On topic, if the chair is tall, light, and not particularly stable, then knocking it over just by standing quickly is easy to do. I do it to our kitchen chairs at home from time to time, much to my wife's annoyance and my children's amusement. I can readily believe that part of the opening, particularly if the woman is wearing a 19th century dress. I just wish I knew who was betrothed here.

Patricia W. said...

I still think the betrothed party is Marin, that her father has to be firm or he might not go through with his promise to marry her off to whomever the lucky gent is. Because it's a historical, I thought maybe we were talking arranged marriages but it's now clear to me that it's really unclear.

Like Dave, I thought light, wooden chair, easily turned over by quick or sudden movement. Isn't it interesting how different folks get different things out of the same words, when I know the author tries so hard to make things plain?

Dave Shaw said...

Based on genre cliches, it probably is Mairin, but it would be such an interesting twist if it were Calvin, or even someone else entirely.

Genella deGrey said...

Ugh. I'm guilty, too.

I always took ellipses for a poignant pause in dialog, and used the double-dash when someone was interrupted.