Friday, September 30, 2011

Formatting For ebooks and Print - Part 1: The Ellipsis

One of the biggest gripes readers have about self-published writers, aside from typos, which is gripe number one, is that their ebooks and print books look unprofessional. This post is the first of several I plan on writing about formatting books for distribution.

I have a background in typography, as a hobby. Years ago I studied typography as if it was my profession, even though it wasn’t. I bought a couple dozen good books on the subject and own about three thousand typefaces. (Could you guess I have a compulsive personality?) I had the best-looking business brochures.

Now that I’m (finally) ready to offer THE MIGHTY T as a print book, I’m hoping all those hours spent pouring over typography how-to books will come in handy.

Today I’d like to talk about the ellipsis, as it’s commonly used in today’s printed fiction. In case you don’t know, an ellipsis is used when a character doesn’t finish his or her sentence, either because they still thinking about what they’d like to say, can’t remember a word, or they drift off on purpose to allow the person or persons they’re speaking to finish the sentence for them.

For example, from THE MIGHTY T, Chapter 1:
“Shut up!” he shouted at them. “You’re gonna fuh . . . fuh . . . fuh . . . screw this up!”
In this example, Danny, the crazy sniper, is trying to say the F-word, but can’t.

Here’s another example:
“We were planning on taking the kids to Mulligans later,” Bensen said. “Drive them around the go-cart course and let ’em whack each other with golf clubs, but we can do that next Saturday . . .” He trailed off, letting Grant make the call.
Here Bensen “trails off” to allow Grant to make the decision as to whether they’ll return to the dam that night, or tomorrow. Grant picks tomorrow because it’s not urgent-urgent, and his friend already had an evening planned with his family.

I imagine that “trailing off” may not necessarily be verbal, but rather may be body language or a certain expression. Instead of explaining all that, you can add an ellipsis, followed by a few words of explanation if the reason for the ellipsis isn’t obvious to the reader.

I use the ellipsis quite a bit in dialogue because most people I hang around with don’t speak in full and correct sentences. We get distracted and don’t finish our thoughts; we open our mouths before we know what we’re going to say, necessitating a hasty retreat when we realize we might say something we’ll regret; we stutter; and we “trail off” as Bensen did. I think it adds realism to dialogue.

Typographically speaking, when printing an ellipsis you should use the ellipsis character, which is not just three periods in a row but rather the ASCII character produced by holding down the Alt key while typing 1 3 3 on the numeric keypad. (On the PC; Mac users will have to figure it out.) This produces this character:

Notice that it’s slightly different from typing three periods in a row:


The spacing is different. (In printed text, the ASCII ellipsis is wider than three periods typed in succession. It may not look the same on your computer monitor.)

After considerable study, most modern works of fiction are not typeset using the typographical ellipsis because it would look awkward on the printed page or ebook reader. Instead of the ellipsis character, typesetters now use this:

. . .

A space followed by a period, followed by a space, followed by a period, followed by a space, followed by a period—three spaces before three periods. After the last period you add another space if there are more words before the closing quotes, or any punctuation, even the closing quotes, other than a period. (See my examples if this isn’t clear.) Typographically, if the ellipsis ends the sentence you should add a final period. I just don’t see it being done, though, so I leave it off.

Why are modern novels set like this when it’s typographically incorrect? Because it improves the spacing on the printed or electronic page, especially on the printed page as all modern novels are set with justified text, not ragged-right.

“Justified” text means the last letter of the last word of each line in a paragraph lines up on the right, like how this paragraph is set. Page setting software has to add space between words to make the line stretch. Setting ellipses with a space before the ellipsis, and spaces in between each period, allows the software to stretch the ellipsis, making the line more visually appealing to the eye. 

I have several reading apps on my iPad;  most allow me to view the text with either ragged-right or justified paragraphs. Writing the ellipses as I suggest improves the appearance of ragged-right paragraphs, though perhaps not as much as with justified paragraphs.

I hope you’ve found this information helpful. Obviously, it’s better if you can afford to pay someone to format your manuscripts for you, but if you have to do it yourself, you might as well do it right.


  1. For ebooks, I'd use the regular ellipsis instead of three periods, or three periods with spaces in between. You risk the ereader placing a period or two on the next line otherwise.