“Matthews’s intricately plotted fifth Dinah Pelerin mystery…may expose her own dark secrets.”
That quote appears on the front cover of Where the Bones Are Buried. It was condensed from a Publishers Weekly review and contains what those of us in the writing biz call an ambiguous antecedent. Does that pesky “her” refer to Dinah or to Matthews? It certainly makes the reader wonder. Does a real-life authorial confession lurk beneath that lurid dust jacket?
Technically, those three little dots between “mystery” and “may” are an ellipsis, which Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, describes as the black hole of the punctuation universe. A black hole has to be one of the better places to hide a dark secret, right? Known in earlier times as “an eclipse,” the ellipsis indicates that words have been intentionally left out. The quote above has caused embarrassing conjecture. Curious readers ask if Dinah’s hidden offshore account in Panama is a thinly veiled admission that I have such an account? Am I the one on tenterhooks because I didn’t report my secret millions to the Internal Revenue Service? And what about all those awful things Dinah discovers about her mother? Is my mother like that?
Fitting a blurb onto a book’s cover in an artistic way is no doubt a challenge. I understand the need for economy. Even so, the person who butchered that Publishers Weekly quote had no understanding of the dangers of ill-considered omissions. Admittedly, Dinah has gotten up to some pretty serious hanky-panky over the past five books, but I…
Those last three dots are not an ellipsis. According to Mark Forsyth, (The Elements of Eloquence), they are an aposiopesis, which is Greek for becoming silent. The aposiopesis is used a lot when writing dialogue. The dots suggest that the speaker is overwhelmed by emotion – faltering, confused, insecure, distressed, or uncertain. The speaker simply can’t go on, or doesn’t need to go on, or wishes to imply something without spelling it out. An aposiopesis comes in especially handy in a whodunit. The victim staggers into the library with a knife plunged to the hilt in his back. He falls to the floor and gasps, “It was…It was…” before death renders him conveniently and permanently silent.
In the 19th Century, publishers encouraged authors to leave punctuation marks to the printers. Jane Austen made extensive use of dashes and dots in her handwritten manuscripts, but it’s not clear if their appearance in her printed novels was her choice or the printer’s. Among writers, the aposiopesis has proponents and detractors. Umberto Eco despised those “ghastly dots,” whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald relied on them to add suspense and James Joyce sprinkled them like tacks in the road to break up dialogue. P.G. Wodehouse, a master of rhetorical tricks, turned a two-letter conjunction and three little suspension points into a gem of wit. “‘So…’” said Mr. Carmyle, and allowed an impressive aposiopesis to take the place of the rest of the speech.”
Unlike the aposiopesis, which causes the reader to pause and contemplate the unspoken, the em-dash tends to jolt him forward. It occurs when speech or thought has been interrupted, or when the writer wishes to emphasize a particular word or phrase. I love the em-dash, although it’s been slammed as “over-casual and ill-disciplined.” Punctuation is a matter of personal preference and it brings out a surprising degree of passion in writers. Kurt Vonnegut abominated the semicolon; Gertrude Stein held both the comma and the question mark in utmost contempt; and George Bernard Shaw denounced the apostrophe as an “uncouth bacilli,” a pestiferous infection sneaked into the language by the French.
We all have our own notions about punctuation. But unless you’re e e cummings, you can’t just throw a batch of words onto the page willy-nilly with no organization whatever. There have to be some traffic signals. As Lynne Truss reminds us, “We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic, and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places.”
Which brings me back to the ellipsis in that blurb for Where the Bones Are Buried. I had one reader, intrigued by Dinah’s crazy Georgia relatives and somewhat overly impressed by the Southern Gothic song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” ask me – in what seemed all seriousness – if I based my fictional murderers on real-life family members.
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com