Whenever you craft a story, whether it is fact or fiction, short or long, you inevitably leave things out. As you develop your skill as a writer, transitioning from amateur to apprentice, from apprentice to journeyman, from journeyman to master, you develop an eye (or an ear) for those things which express more by being included and those things which express more by being excluded. But it takes time and lots of practice to develop this skill and it’s not always translated across genres.
As a reader, I developed an early affection for a commonly used literary device:
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With those three little asterisks, the writer expresses the choice to leave something out. You may be making a jump between space or time. You may be leaping from one character’s point of view to another character’s point of view. You may be shifting out of chronology altogether, with flashbacks, flashes forward, or an otherwise disjointed telling. The three asterisks don’t tell you what was left out, but they assure you that something was.
As a child, I assumed the writer just skipped over the boring stuff. Considering the books I read as a child my assumption was probably right most of the time. As I grew older and read more complicated stories, I realized that sometimes the events those three dots skipped over were very interesting, but they were also intentionally hidden by the author.
Once I started studying the craft, I learned about the craft of creating scenes. I learned that scenes can be cut deep, meaning that the text starts well after the scene has been going in the background, so the reader only gets to see the bang, not the build-up. I can think of one particularly memorable example of this, but the details are decidedly vague. Part of that is because it’s been a while since I read the book (and I’m not even sure which book it’s in), but a greater part of it is that I never really figured out what happened. I didn’t get to finish the series, so I don’t even know how important it was, but I was always peeved that I was stumped.
This was intentional. Stories often contain puzzles. Part of the joy is figuring out the puzzle as your read along with the telling of the story. If the puzzle is too easy to solve or if the solution is too obvious, then the story is a disappointment. If the puzzle is too difficult to solve or if the solution doesn’t make sense by the end, then it’s a disappointment for an entirely different reason. Getting the right balance is an art form.
Now, as a writer, I find that I use those three little dots most often when I don’t want to write what happens in the space/time they cover. This has to do with the impatient streak inside of me that keeps saying, “Get to the story already!” Part of it has to do with my own mind being a bit vague on the details, because I just don’t care enough about what happens in the missing time or space to know exactly how it plays out.
Occasionally, I insert those three asterisks for an entirely different reason. Right now I am working on a novella (at least, I think it’s going to be a novella) that uses them frequently for a variety of reasons. The story is being written, in this draft, in third person omniscient. I can’t remember the last time I used this point of view, because it’s my second least favorite. (I don’t like stories that use the second person point of view, because it feels like I’m being told what to do and I don’t even have the choice to ignore them.) I didn’t realize I’d chosen this point of view until the second or third switch, because it came so naturally for this story. But every time I switch from a close-up on one person to another, I create the necessary distance with those three little dots.
I also jump ahead a lot, which is necessary in this story. I’m basically re-writing history, in a way; though, I can’t clarify that statement without giving away too much. Anyway, the point is that I have to re-write a part that comes before in order to get to the main part that interests me. So, the story starts with a little girl having The Sweetest Dream. The dream itself is not told, but her father (who just happens to be a king) chooses to act on the dream. This changes everything. Thus, the story; but the story that interests me more is what becomes possible years later because the king acted on the first dream.
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A simple literary device can make impossible leaps through space and time possible with six short taps—or three if you prefer to leave out the spaces. It braces the reader for a change that is not explained. It allows the writer (and the readers) to jump over the boring stuff and get to the story already. It’s the kind of thing that would have made some of the classics a lot more fun to read, if you ask me. But, like any literary device, it can be overdone. It can be done badly. It’s one of the things that makes this thing we do an art and a craft, as well as a business.