Stephen King’s On Writing mentions that H.P. Lovecraft ‘was a genius when it came to tales of the macabre, but a terrible dialogue writer.’ King quotes a passage from ‘The Colour Out of Space’:
Nothin’… nothin’… the colour… it burns… cold an’ wet… but it burns… it lived in the well… I seen it… a kind o’ smoke… jest like the flowers last spring […] it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here… one o’ them professors said so…
King says, ‘And so on and so forth, in carefully constructed elliptical bursts of information,’ concluding Lovecraft wrote like this because he was a weird bigoted loner.
It’s not as painful a line as that Lovecraft, but I remembered a bit of my critique of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon’s prologue:
“Stop whoever is coming… or die.”
Ellipses in dialogue can be effective for showing a speaker trailing off or hesitant, or, as attempted here, giving the listener pause to register a threat. Pauses can be used to give the listener/reader time to embellish a vague hint for themselves. (‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if…’)
But the threat has to actually be threatening. I can’t imagine someone speaking this edgelord line. A pause doesn’t automatically add badass power.
I suspect this sort of forced drama is something a lot of beginner writers do. I remember using ellipses like that myself.
Possibly one reason why is the influence of film and TV. I can imagine a younger me writing a line like ‘Stop whoever is coming… or die,’ and picturing how it would work on camera. It’s still never a brilliant line (I mean, come on) but with a suitable soundtrack, camera work, good acting, scenery, it might end up forgivable.
So how can we add punch to dialogue without Lovecraftian Ellipses Out of Place?
A solid point for a lot of things in writing is Rachel Walton’s reminder to read out loud. If it’s unnatural to speak or makes you picture a 1960’s Batman villain, reconsider!
Pauses have their place, but use them consciously. Do they produce a natural rhythm that matches the tone and content of the dialogue, or would another tactic be more effective?
Perhaps Lovecraft’s dialogue above would’ve worked better as a manic ramble of run-on sentences. Perhaps the character would keep roaming off topic, or drift into a silent thousand-yard stare, and need to be re-prompted. There are many ways to use structure and interaction with other speakers. Consider this wild monologue.
And then there’s all the stuff around the dialogue. If you’re picturing a gesture that makes the ellipses work perfectly, other people won’t see that – lighting the cigarette, grabbing the lapel, gesturing to the henchman, etc – unless you prompt them to.