In one of our discussions during Writing with Jeeves and Wooster, we got on the subject of ellipsis, the intentional omission of words or information requiring the reader to fill in the blanks. The discussion was occasioned by an episode from Right Ho, Jeeves in which a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle is giving a speech to a room full of schoolboys. Having left all sense of social propriety behind, Gussie has won the hearts and minds of his juvenile auditors. We will pick up at a climactic moment in Gussie’s speech:

“I should like you boys, taking the time from me, to give three cheers for this beautiful world. Altogether now.”

Presently the dust settled down and the plaster stopped falling from the ceiling, and he went on.

This is an excellent example of elliptical storytelling. There is a cause-and-effect sequence here that we can summarize thus:

  1. Gussie encourages the boys to cheer.
  2. The boys cheer.
  3. They cheer so loudly, in fact, that the plaster falls from the ceiling.
  4. Eventually they stop cheering.
  5. The dust settles down and the plaster stops falling.
  6. Gussie resumes his remarks.

Wodehouse skips from Step 1 to Step 5, requiring the reader to do the mental/imaginative work of supplying Steps 2-4. So a sort-of-funny joke (The boys cheered so loudly that the plaster fell from the ceiling) becomes a significantly funnier joke. Doing that little extra mental work gives the reader a little extra pleasure.

I should back up a little and talk more generally about ellipsis, which can mean several different (but related) things at the sentence level and the story level. Your main association with the word ellipsis is probably the three-dot punctuation mark […] that signals the omission of words.
As a strictly grammatical concept, ellipsis means leaving out a word or phrase that your reader can figure out for himself, as in these sentences:

  • Linda chose the taco and I the burrito. [The ellipsis is the absence of the second ‘chose.’]
  • You curled the papers from your hair/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands (T.S. Eliot). [The ellipsis is the absence of ‘your’ before ‘feet’ and ‘soiled.’]

At the story level, ellipsis (or elliptical narrative) refers to the omission of events or actions that your reader has to fill in for himself. I began this letter with Wodehouse’s elliptical account of Gussie’s oratorical triumph. Apparently filmmakers (and especially film editors) talk about elliptical storytelling a lot. At the micro-level, ellipsis might refer to something like this: the camera shows a person sitting in a chair when the doorbell rings. The character get up from the chair, but then, instead of showing the person walking through the house to the door, the next shot shows him opening the door. The ellipsis has saved the viewer a few seconds’ tedium of watching a person walk through a house.

At the macro-level, elliptical narrative could be something like showing a couple getting married in one scene, and in the next scene showing them looking a little older, with several kids running around. We just skipped over several years of their life. That ellipsis might just be a matter of efficiency: Skipping from happy wedding to happy family, the ellipsis might communicate, “nothing much to see in those intervening years; moving on…” On the other hand, if we skip from happy wedding to a resentful husband and wife, two horrible kids, and the wife hiring a hit-man to murder her husband, the ellipsis communicates, “A lot has happened here…let’s figure out how things came to this pass.”

It’s actually pretty common to use ellipsis in everyday storytelling, as in, “Cindy told me she was getting married. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked who the lucky man might be.” Between the first sentence and the second, the speaker has skipped a few steps—something like, “I didn’t even know Cindy had a boyfriend; I was so astonished that my jaw fell open and dropped onto the floor.” This is more or less the same trick Wodehouse does with the falling plaster.

Elliptical narrative is common in jokes. To wit:

A woman calls her husband, who is driving home from work and says, “Be careful on your way home. The traffic report just said an idiot is driving the wrong way on the interstate.” The husband says, “Oh, it’s not just AN idiot. EVERYBODY on this interstate is driving the wrong way except for me!”

Think how much information you, the reader, have to figure out for yourself. But that work you have to do is about 90% of the fun. It’s like working out a puzzle. Look how much less funny the story is when it is un-ellipsified:

A woman calls her husband, who is driving home from work and says, “Be careful on your way home. The traffic report just said an idiot is driving the wrong way on the interstate.” The husband, as it turns out, is the idiot referred to in the traffic report. But he doesn’t know it. Every car on his side of the interstate is going the opposite direction, yet somehow he remains convinced that everybody else is doing it wrong and he alone is doing it right. It never occurs to him that perhaps he is being unwise. So the husband says, “Oh, it’s not just AN idiot. EVERYBODY on this interstate is driving the wrong way except for me!” And on top of all that, he’s talking on his cell phone while driving!

It doesn’t have quite the same pop, does it?

One of the great benefits of ellipsis is the fact that it gives your reader the opportunity to figure something out. We enjoy figuring things out. It makes us feel smart. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about clarity and tension with regard to left-branching sentences. Readers value clarity, which eases the brain, but they also value tension, which stretches the brain and requires something of the reader. In elliptical storytelling, you dial up the tension by dialing down the clarity—hopefully in a way that pleases and engages the reader.

But, of course, there is always the danger of creating too much tension; stretched too tight, the rubber band can break. Years ago, a writer in one of my online classes submitted a great little essay about the shared experience of women in the mammogram waiting room. Notice the ellipsis between the last sentence and the next-to-last sentence of this excerpt:

Our eyes flicker up, trying to see who wants to talk it out. If somebody looks promising, we find something to compliment about her. Tortoise shell eyeglass frames. A pair of beaded sandals. Nail polish. Everywhere I’ve been, this is what women do. It is our language. We compliment and see if kindness comes back to us. Just two words back means either someone is too scared or too high up, and you leave her alone

“Just two words back.” Either this is a case of being overly elliptical, or it’s a case of being brilliant. I had to stop, re-read, and do a little thinking before I understood the point: the two words are “thank you.” So if you give a woman a compliment, and all you get back is “thank you,” your interlocutor is either too scared or too high-falutin to engage you in conversation. I told this writer that she was being too elliptical, because she was forcing me to stop reading and start figuring, which stopped the flow of the reading experience.

I should mention, however, that the secret language of women is not my native tongue; this writer may be perfectly unconcerned that a male reader doesn’t get it. I can imagine a woman reading this, knowing immediately what the writer was getting at, and saying “Wow! This writer has really captured what it’s like to be a woman in the waiting room of the mammography center!”

My point is that this kind of ellipsis can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Ellipsis is a way of inviting a reader in. Hopefully, it communicates to the reader, I trust you. I think you’re smart. I don’t have to spell everything out for an astute reader like you.

But if your reader doesn’t get it, elliptical storytelling can have the opposite effect, leaving the reader on the outside rather than inviting the reader in.

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