The Dash vs the Ellipsis

This could also be called… “Cutting Off vs Trailing Off.”

I’m certainly no grammar expert.  I get called out on my use of “its” vs “it’s” all the time.  Truth be told, I favor “its” sometimes simply because that extra space would put my dialogue on a new line, and nobody likes those dangling orphans making their script longer!

But I am amazed how often I see an incorrect use of a dash vs an ellipsis — taking me out of the script.  Not because I’m being anal but because they communicate two totally different ideas!   This seems like common knowledge to me.  But it comes up all the time when I’m coaching actors.  This confusion bothers me so much that I’ve decided to let the dash and the ellipsis duke it out!

In the blue corner…

THE DASH. ( – )

  • Specifically, there are en dashes (  ) and em dashes (  ), which have slightly different uses.
  • Not to be confused with hyphens which are used to join words and to separate syllables of a single word (thank you, JD)

And in the red corner…

THE ELLIPSIS ( … )

  • DEFINITION: “A series of marks that usually indicate an intentional omission of a word, sentence or whole section from the original text being quoted.”
  • Commonly used to indicate an unfinished thought or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence.

DING–!

So which one wins…?  Let’s find out!

Other than using dashes for slug-lining (i.e., INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT) there are two main areas we’re going to have to decide whether to use a dash or ellipsis.

Round 1: DIALOGUE:

Let’s say you want to communicate someone talking before getting cut off (small excerpt from Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

  • HARRY: “Listen, I just found out
  • HARMONY: “Get out of my life!!!”

On the flip side, let’s say you want to communicate a thought trailing off. (from The Simpsons)

  • KIRK: “But, will they just find Milhouse, or will they find him and kill him?”
  • CHIEF WIGGUM: “Well, they’ll, when they find him they’ll um
  • KIRK: “Um, excuse me, you didn’t answer me, you just trailed off.”
  • CHIEF WIGGUM: “Yeah yeah, I did kind of trail off there, didn’t I?”

What if a character pauses before answering…?  Or they’re simply waiting to continue…? Or let’s just say there’s a phone conversation where the audience can’t hear the person on the other line.

  • HIM (on phone): “Hey, honey, it’s me yeah, I was talking to that girl but yeah, but okay, please stop yelling.”

If you want to suggest a continuation of someone talking from scene to scene (like in narration)…  Or if you want to suggest the audience walking in on the middle of a conversation in progress (again, from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

  • Flashing lights.  Crime scene tape.  A REPORTER does a stand-up, breath pluming in the chill air:
  • REPORTER: “ sources close to Neal, who has not worked as an actor in two years, said he seemed despondent earlier tonight.”

Both can be used to express a change in thought but a dash suggests the flow doesn’t slow down.  Here’s another excerpt from Shane Black’s KKBB expressing an emphasis on an idea — almost as an afterthought.

  • NARRATOR (VO): “It’s hard to believe it was just last Christmas that me and Harmony changed the world.  We didn’t mean to; and it didn’t last long a thing like that can’t.”

What if there are two people talking.  One is going on and on but the second one interjects something without breaking the flow of the first person’s dialogue… (from KKBB)

  • LEATHER #1: “You wanna know who we are?  Real simple.  Me?  I’m the frying pan, see, and my buddy over here, he’s –“
  • LEATHER #2: “Mustard.  I’m Mustard.”
  • LEATHER #1: “– He’s the FIRE, fuck you, Mr Mustard.”

In this case the ellipses is also a fair substitute.  That same idea can be expressed like this.

  • LEATHER #1: “You wanna know who we are?  Real simple.  Me?  I’m the frying pan, see, and my buddy over here, he’s”
  • LEATHER #2: “…Mustard.  I’m Mustard…”
  • LEATHER #1: “He’s the FIRE, fuck you, Mr Mustard.”

And again, the dash can be substituted in this case as well.

Now let’s say there’s some action going on and you want to add urgency to the way someone cuts in to dialogue.   (NOTE: This can also indicate cutting the first word off a sentence to add urgency)

  • The cop trains his weapon on the suspect as he creeps behind.  The suspect turns and the cop shouts at him.
  • COPS: “On the ground!  Now!”

This brings me to…

Round 2: ACTION

To add urgency to action you can write the same piece like… this–!

  • The cop trains his weapon on the suspect as he creeps behind.  The suspect turns when
  • COPS: “–On the ground!  Now!”

Or you can do it in the middle of a line to emphasize a quick dramatic moment — in this case, a SOUND.

  • Her head snaps upward, alert — CRASH!

On the flip side, if you want to add a slow… dramatic… pause… or… beat.

  • They both look over the edge… three stories down.

Or to connect one visual idea to another…

  • CAMERA begins, slowly, to pull back
  • A PEN POINT.  It begins WRITING gracefully:

(NOTE: As far as capturing what a movie will feel like in script form, Shane Black is one of the best)

AND THE WINNER IS…

Dash — 6Ellipsis — 6

Yay!  They both win… or lose.  Either way- who cares– let’s just use them correctly.

~ JW

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